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How the Pandemic Pause Pushed Liberty Fairs to Shake Up Its Strategy

Liberty made its debut in Miami alongside its sister resort show Cabana over the weekend, re-introducing the apparel industry to in-person events. The three-day event at the Miami Beach Convention Center also showed glimmers of a bolder, independent Liberty to come.

As Liberty’s first post-Covid in-person event, Edwina Kulego, Liberty Fairs vice president, said pre-Covid expectations were chucked out the window in the name of safety. “We really just wanted to adhere to the guidelines,” she said. “We wanted it, first and foremost, to be safe.”

Wider aisles and separate entrances for Liberty and Cabana helped minimize crowds. Hand sanitizer was available and event staff wore masks. Though there were no mandates to show proof of vaccination, signs reminded non-vaccinated attendees to practice social distancing and to wear masks. The majority of exhibitors and attendees, however, went mask-less and resumed regular trade show formalities like handshakes, hugs and the exchange of business cards—not to mention enjoyed a coconut bar, custom bracelets and free waxes by European Wax Center at Cabana.

“Everyone’s excited to be outside and happy to see each other. After a while, these trade shows become very family centric, and just being able to see friends after a year and a half has been so exciting,” said Sharifa Murdock, co-owner and co-founder of Liberty Fairs.

Attendees also came to do business. One exhibitor told Murdock that he wrote more orders during the first day in Miami than he did during the last two Las Vegas events.

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While the effects the pandemic had on the supply chain were visible—brands presented a variety of current season, Fall/Winter 2021-2022 and some Spring/Summer ’22 goods—Kulego said the show reflected the current state of the apparel industry. “There is no traditional fashion calendar. Brands are bringing what they have and they’re bringing what they can produce. A lot of factories are still challenged by the pandemic and shut down,” she said.

Indeed, the show floor was a mixed bag. Paige and Seven for All Mankind showed immediates for fall and holiday. Scotch & Soda brought its retro beach-themed Spring/Summer ’22 collection.

“What’s so wonderful and what’s going really well is that the industry is supporting us again. The buyers are here, they are writing orders, and we’re seeing that on the show floor,” Kulego said. “The brands came, they brought their products and they’re ready for business and so just seeing that connection being made again in person, just gives us hope for the future because it’s been quite daunting.”

Shake it up

Once the organizers came to terms with the fact that they would not be able to execute the show in its regular home in New York City due to Covid-related restrictions, Kulego said they landed on Miami as the new location for its East Coast show.

Besides Florida having more relaxed Covid guidelines compared to other parts of the U.S., which gave all parties involved enough time to plan ahead, and the state positioned as an attractive destination to herald the return of socializing, establishing a deeper footprint in the Miami sand was a natural next step for Liberty Fairs as a company.

Through Cabana, which has always done a show in the city that aligns with Miami Swim Week, Kulego said the company already had a “strong foothold” in the Miami market. Plus, some of Liberty’s regular vendors were already planning to host their own events in Miami this summer. It opened a window of opportunity, she added, to bring men’s and women’s ready-to-wear together and emphasize that Liberty is no longer a men’s-only show.

“Many of our retailers who shop both men’s and women’s have always asked, why [don’t] Cabana and Liberty come together since we’re the same company,” Kulego said. “We wanted to consolidate and give the buyers an easier shopping experience.”

It’s a strategy that is likely to stick.

Prior to the pandemic, Liberty aligned its dates with men’s-centric events like New York Men’s Day in February and July, and Project Las Vegas in February and August. While venues occasionally changed—Liberty experimented with a Downtown Las Vegas spot in 2018—buyers grew into the habit of splitting their time between the events. It was a convenient way to guarantee an audience, but buyers’ time was stretched thin, making it all the more challenging for events to offer a full show experience.

The pandemic pause, however, forced the company to slow down and reconsider its calendar, locations and what it means to be a trade show. Giving feedback, collaborating and trying to “figure out how help brands and retailers was the best thing we could have done,” Murdock said.

Liberty entered into a partnership with wholesale platform Joor to launch its first digital show in June 2020, which it will continue to run in tandem with physical shows. While some people favor an in-person experience, the online platform, Murdock said, allows brands to sell beyond the trade show calendar and helps retailers fill in gaps.

And like many of the urbanites who fled New York City for greener pasture during the pandemic, Kulego said Liberty is “not married to New York.”

“We’re being open and we’re going to go where the industry tells us where it’s necessary. Dallas is doing great. Chicago is a great market for men’s,” she said, adding that international markets are also on the table.

Nor is Liberty returning to Las Vegas this summer. The next event, in collaboration with LA Mens Market, will take place Aug. 4-5 at the newly restored Capitol Milling building in Downtown Los Angeles.

“I think for years in the fashion industry we’ve been set to do certain things a certain way…We’ve been going to Vegas because that’s our history and everyone’s been doing it, but after a while, it’s like do we need to continue to do this?” Murdock said.

The L.A. show, she added, will bring a different vibe. “We’re just trying to change things because, as we see, the industry was shaken up during the pandemic and we wanted to come back in a new, fresh and different way, not just doing the same,” she said.