Trade Shows in the Time of COVID

Posted by Paul Brindley
on September 28, 2021
Jumbo screen at new LVCC West Hall

Jumbo screen at new LVCC West Hall

This is my first fashion blog since 2019. Why? The pandemic isn’t completely to blame though it’s been difficult to think of anything else of such note to write about in the industry since the shutters went up last March. Relying on the brevity and immediacy of Instagram to share my trade show and industry trawlings since then has reduced the motivation and necessity of investing the time and effort required to produce any long form reporting. But the itch is back. So here we go.

The west coast contemporary fashion trade show circuit spun back to life in June for the Los Angeles Market Week, the same place is wound down after the March 2020 edition just managed to sneak in prior to the March 19 statewide COVID shutdown. Understandably, it was a sedate few days given the reticence of some buyers to return to fray with the pandemic still front and center and the fact that the popular booth showcases by Brand Assembly and Designers & Agents were missing but it was encouraging to see the wheels turning again.

Unfortunately for west coast retailers, the Swim and Active Collective canceled their July show in Huntington Beach due to pandemic concerns of vendors and buyers. However, apart from the Kingpins denim show in New York in October canceling their in-person iteration in favor of a virtual showcase, the Swim and Active Collective shows are the only in-person trade shows to no go ahead because of the pandemic in the second half of this year so far.

Attentions turned to the July swim shows in Miami before August delivered a full slate of South California and Las Vegas shows:

  • OC Apparel Show – August 4-6 at the Embassy Suites, Irvine
  • Liberty West and LA Men’s Market – August 4-5 at the California Market Center
  • MAGIC/Project – August 9-11 at the Las Vegas Convention Center, both new and old.
  • Agenda – August 11-12 at Bally’s Las Vegas
  • CALA Men’s Trend Show –  August 15-17 at the Newport Beach Marriott
  • CALA Newport Beach  – August 19-20 at the Newport Beach Marriott
  • Curve Los Angeles – August 23-24 at the Westdrift Manhattan Beach
  • SoCal Fashion Exhibitors  – August 29-30 at the Embassy Suites, Irvine

    The silky Mantl men’s skin range at OC Apparel Show

OC Apparel Show is a new hotel room based showcase that is building a solid following of brands and buyers. August was the second go-around and, given the timing being just prior to the Vegas shows, it held its own in activity from the launch show in May of this year. If the October version shows growth, It will vindicate the efforts and enthusiasm of Jim Iwasaki, the showrunner and industry veteran, in bringing physical touch back to the buying process after the dislocation of the pandemic and more broadly and sustainably to provide the retailers of Orange County a regular and local wholesale resource.

Check out the brand mix here.

Leaving a large hole in the subsequent Vegas show round, Liberty Fairs decided to partner with LA Men’s Market as Liberty West for a joint show the week prior to Vegas on the tenth floor space of the revamped and revamping California Market Center.

Wood Wood at LA Men’s Market

Why? Rivet reported the following:

The partnership began virtually. To make up for the lack of physical events in the last year, Liberty Fairs teamed with wholesale platform Joor to launch its first virtual marketplace, where it worked closely with the L.A. Men’s Market.

“After collaborating with L.A. Men’s Market, it was evident that we needed to join forces and service our fashion community in a meaningful way,” said Edwina Kulego, vice president of Liberty Fairs.

While this marks Liberty’s first time in L.A., Kulego says the locale has always been on its radar. “The city is an undeniable hub of fashion and creativity,” she said. “We have an incredible community of brands and retailers based in L.A., and we are excited to bring Liberty Fairs to a new destination. Our main priority is to execute a safe show that continues to foster commerce, connections and community.”

Moving forward, she added that Liberty will offer a mix of online and offline options to cater to the fashion industry.

Though typically held twice a year in New York City and Las Vegas, Liberty Fairs is experimenting with new locations and collaborators.

The show had the usual high quality mix of contemporary and better contemporary dual gender apparel and accessories brands that both showcases are known for. The show producers must have been delighted with the energy and activity.

MAGIC/Project was a very different affair from anything seen in my previous twenty-one years of attending. The shows were housed at the expanded Las Vegas Convention Center complex. The existing halls are connected to the new West Hall located across Paradise Road by The Las Vegas Convention Center Loop, the underground tunnel developed by Elon Musk’s The Boring Company to shuttle convention attendees throughout the 200-acre campus in all-electric Tesla vehicles.

Masks required at Project

The shows were much smaller and more lightly attended than usual, which was expected but still incongruous to the long time participant. Due to skyrocketing Delta variant infections, masks were required and policed which was comforting. Trish Concannon, Buyer Relations Specialist with the show producer, Informa Markets Fashion was very pleased with buyer turnout and vendor satisfaction despite the dampening effect of the variant surge.

Ben De Luca at Peter Grimm booth

Ben De Luca at Peter Grimm booth

Good friend and headwear impresario, Ben De Luca who is now with hat maker, Peter Grimm, was very happy with the activity at Project in the Central Hall.

As was Brian Stark of leading men’s showroom, Brand Equity. Brian is doing great business, has maintained his retailer base despite the pandemic and continues to operate showrooms in NY and LA in a time when showrooms are closing and more and more agents are working from home.

Over at the West Hall, Shannon Kane of LK Showroom was working the Another Love booth and was very pleased with sales. LK Showroom is another agency reporting strong selling and retention of retailer base despite the pandemic.

OFFPRICE was in the South Hall where picked up some crystal mala necklaces and bracelets for my good friend Nancy’s metaphysical and spiritual gift store in Long Beach CA, Z Fabrique.

The massive FN Platform shoe show did not happen. I think it now runs on a different schedule.

BN3TH Underwear at CALA Men’s Trend Show

The inaugural CALA Men’s Trend Show at the Newport Beach Marriott was a big success. Ken Haruta who ran the menswear West Coast Trend Show at the Embassy Suites at LAX for years partnered with the CALA show producers allowing him to broaden out of the hotel suite format into a booth showcase that took up multiple ballroom and meeting rooms. Ken told me that his vendors had been requesting an expansion and reformatting of the show. The opportunity to collaborate with CALA made synergistic and economic sense.

The show offers buyers the chance to shop traditional men’s, contemporary and better contemporary brands. The show is moving for it’s next edition in January, as Ken told Apparel News:

“This has been a great environment for our show,” Haruta said. “We are moving to a property called The Hangar. Our dates are set for the last week of January. It’s going to be a 50,000-square-foot lease for us. It’s going to be 25,000 square feet for men and 25,000 square feet for women.”

Some of my favorite brands were in attendance including Robert Graham and BN3TH Underwear. Michael Loughlin, US Key Account Manager with BN3TH walked me through the expanded offerings emphasizing their commitment to sustainability and their goal of going carbon neutral. Having followed and worn BN3TH since their launch as MyPakage, it is heartening to see this quality brand survive and thrive.

Love Apparel at So Cal Exhibitors

The brand new CALA Newport Beach women’s and So Cal Fashion Exhibitors shows and the second Curve Los Angeles swimwear show were all limited in exhibitors and lightly attended by buyers. This may be due as much with their infancy as the continued pandemic. I think CALA and Curve have legs and will establish over time. So Cal Fashion Exhibitors, which at time of writing still does not have a website, might struggle to survive due to the similarity of its customer, location and timing with CALA.

Industry vet Ginger Vasquez of Ginger Showroom was happy with activity at CALA. She has been very busy in general since the reopening of retail last year and lost very few customers to the pandemic with a few older store owners opting out during the 2020 shutdown. As for her fellow agents, she sees lots of vacancies in the wholesale buildings in downtown LA as many independents have decided to work from home rather than carry the costs of a standing showroom.

For years now, I have advocated the eventual demise of the trade show circuit due to the ever increasing ability to effectively reach and interact with end users by way of online platforms and imaging technology including AR and VR. In short, despite the tactile nature of the apparel buying process, I believed that we would tech our way out of the need for physical trade shows and all the cost, effort, waste and carbon footprint involved. 

I may have been a bit previous. The response to online trade shows during the height of the pandemic was lukewarm at best. It has been obvious since the return of in-person events that buyers not only need to touch the goods they want to buy but that the social and interactive aspect of the process is ingrained and enjoyed. In-person apparel trade shows are here to stay.

Paul Brindley
Founder & Principal Adviser