Accessorizing the World

A conversation with Accessories Council President and CEO Karen Giberson

Glen Martin
Frequent Astound Insights contributor whose other credits include Forbes, Wired, Outside, and Men's Journal

Clothing is essential to life, and it sometimes seems accessories run a close second. Annual retail accessories revenues top $50 billion in the United States alone. The demand for high-end handbags, footwear, jewelry—in short, everything consumers need to define their personal style and project their point of view—is incandescent.
But it takes a special kind of person to ride the accessories wave. There is no other commerce sector that is so protean, so subject to abrupt shifts in consumer tastes and demands. To thrive in the trade, you need more than insight; you need foresight—the ability to predict future trends. Karen Giberson, the president and CEO of the Accessories Council, has that rare gift.

Founded in 1994, the council is the planet’s largest nonprofit accessories trade organization, representing 325 leading accessory designers, manufacturers, retailers, and media outlets. Astound Commerce recently caught up with Giberson at the 67th Annual PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Florida, and pitched some questions about the glories and challenges of the accessories realm.

Astound: Can you share some insights about the Accessories Council and its mission?

Giberson: We were founded in 1994, when fashion was focusing on the great minimalist designers and you just didn’t see much in the way of accessories in the important runway shows. So the industry rallied to turn that around. The goal now is the same as it was at the beginning: help our members grow their businesses. Our tactics shift to reflect the times, but our mission never changes. It’s a lot of work, but it’s great fun, especially because the people involved in this sector are tremendously creative and dynamic.

Astound: The council sponsors an impressive number of events. How do you determine what to support?

Giberson: We are ambitious about our programs. We sponsor roughly 60 events per year, covering everything from education to licensing, statistics, and product personalization. And we also have different categories within those broader areas. For example, we have three mentoring programs—one for helping startups maximize their funding, a peer-to-peer program for companies that have launched, and a student-level competition to develop future talent. We also attend 12 trade shows a year, including this PGA show. So our events are basically determined by both our members’ needs and our evaluation of growth opportunities.

Accessories Council President and CEO Karen Giberson

Astound: What retail trends do you see developing for accessories in 2020?

Giberson: It’s no secret that retail changes at warp speed. Long-established stores are closing, but we’re also seeing new opportunities. The critical phrase for 2020 will be “finding balance.” That means pursuing every option, from D2C sales to forging relationships with good retail partners. And you need to look for nontraditional opportunities. Once again, this PGA show is a case in point. Our booth is full of golf-themed jewelry. We don’t require a lot of space, our merchandise is high value, and the response has been spectacular. It’s the same thing with sourcing. The tariffs on China have hit some of our members hard. So that demonstrates we were perhaps too reliant on one country for sourcing. We need to develop a variety of sourcing options so that we’re more resilient as an industry. Finally, accessories are and will remain about impulse—they’re about someone shopping online or browsing in a store, seeing a scarf, and saying, “I want that.” Successful retailers will provide situations that maximize those opportunities.

Astound: Personalization in retail is hot. How important is it to accessories?

Giberson: Maybe a hundred percent? [Laughs] Well, it means a lot no matter how you evaluate it. Personalization in retail started with accessories—think monogrammed handbags, for example. Now it’s so far beyond that, encompassing colors, patterns, and design options. People want to differentiate themselves through their accessories, and retailers have to enable that.

Astound: Your members represent many of the world’s top brands. What do they expect from their ecommerce partners?

Giberson: First and foremost, satisfying customer demand for exceptional service. Consumers have come to expect instant communication and quick deliveries, no matter where and what they buy. And if they aren’t accommodated, social media can be punitive. So to thrive, we all have to strive to make the shopping experience as seamless as possible.

Astound: What is the one accessory you can’t leave home without?

Giberson: It’s a wonderful little Bandolier pouch into which I can put everything I need, including my credit cards and reading glasses. I also have a wallet from Hammitt that I love. And it’s very rare for me to leave the house without jewelry and a scarf. I guess that’s more than one, isn’t? What can I say? We’re accessories people! Some people accessorize around their clothes. With me, it’s the other way around—I dress around my accessories!


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