Sharifa Murdock is a bona fide New Yorker. Growing up in Brooklyn, the daughter of hardworking Trinidadian immigrants, she attended Lincoln High School (other notable alumni include actors Lou Gossett, Jr., and Harvey Keitel, photographer Irving Penn, singer Neil Diamond, and New York’s U.S. Representative Elizabeth Holtzman). Like many youngsters, Sharifa wanted to be a dancer, but — growing up in New York and particularly in Brooklyn — “fashion was a thing. I always wanted new clothes. I’d go to my Dad and say, ‘I just need ten things this week.’ Just ten! And I was serious! He’d look at me with a crazy face and explain that I had to work to get money. I was into magazines and liked seeing how people dressed and wanted to emulate the beauty that I saw. So, I always knew I was going to be in the fashion industry in some way.” To earn the money she needed for those ten items a week, Sharifa got a sales job at the illustrious store Atrium in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood at the age of 16.
“Back then, Atrium was the hot store. There was nothing else like it, so I was very proud to work there. I still am! Every time somebody mentions the store, they have nothing but great things to say.” When it came time to think about college, her father encouraged her to go to school away from the city, so she headed to Johnson and Wales in Rhode Island. Best known for its culinary school, J&W also has a well-known fashion merchandising program (“People were always asking me if I could cook,” Sharifa recalls). Attending a big university with large classes, however, exacerbated a problem that had been a minor annoyance in high school: Sharifa has dyslexia. To get the education she needed, she moved back home and transferred to the smaller Wood Tobe-Coburn in midtown Manhattan. After finishing her four-year degree, she was proud to graduate with a 4.0 GPA and land a position at Louis Vuitton.
Before long, however, Atrium’s Sam Ben-Avraham came calling. “We always had a joke that, if you’ve worked at Atrium once, you’ve worked there twice,” says Sharifa. “I’ve been working with Sam since I was 16 years old, and that’s a testament to the kind of person he is. He’s had a major impact on my career, and not just me: He’s blessed so many people. As a female working in this industry, he’s provided me with opportunities and taken me to different levels in my career. He’s both my mentor and my business partner.”
Sharifa rejoined Atrium as a manager, but shortly Sam announced that he was starting a trade show. “I didn’t even know what a trade show was,” says Sharifa. “I was 23 years old, and Sam says, ‘Trust me. You’re gonna call these people and tell them I want them to do my show.’ I said, ‘They’re not going to listen to me!’ But he said, ‘Yes. They will. Just let them know it’s me.’”
As Atrium’s buyer, Sam recognized that something was missing from the market. Sharifa partnered with him to start Project in 2003 with 67 brands. Together they grew the show to include more than 1,000 exhibitors.
“Even after Sam left in 2010, I stayed on because I felt a responsibility and a connection to the brands. We’d grown the show so much by the time it was sold (to Advanstar Communications). I had a connection to all those people, so I wanted to stay on and help those people grow. After a while, though, it just became a different show. So that’s how Sam and I ended up starting Liberty together, and how I became his business partner!”
WAITING ON THE WORLD TO CHANGE
With those years of experience learning the needs of both brands and retailers, Sharifa offers a unique perspective on the menswear market.
“I’m an advocate for menswear because I grew up in that space,” says Sharifa, “and I love it. I love it! What concerns me is that multi-brand retailers used to have very specific identities: Every store had its own feeling. Everyone sold different things. I say this in a positive way, but over the course of time, retailers got nervous. They all started doing the same thing. Everything got mixed up and many stores lost their identities. It’s unfortunate, because I looked at these stores as operating at a higher tier, and I thought each one had its own identity and vision. That’s missed now. Of course, I understand how the industry changes and that we just came off the pandemic. But there were really great stores out there with really strong identities, and now some of them have even closed! A lot of the multi-brand stores are surviving, but are they thriving? I want to see things change. And within the trade show world, as well.”
Sharifa, Sam, and the team at Liberty Fairs (which they started in 2013) are taking a pause on trade shows. Although halted by the pandemic, they have decided to wait until they can return with something more to offer.
“We wanted to come back with something great, that people can appreciate. I didn’t want to come back from the pandemic doing the same thing. We talk about it all the time: how does it
come back? Does it come back? Is it worth it? What are we doing right? What are they doing wrong? We don’t want to come back with something and make the same mess we made before. And if we’re not going to do it right, we’re not going to do it at all.”
BEING THE CHANGE
Sharifa is now the Chief Impact Officer at Kith. The store was originally opened by Ronnie Fieg and Sam in 2010, as a special build-out inside Atrium. Originally maintaining a focus on sneakers and footwear — particularly with limited-edition collaborations — the store has grown to include streetwear — including its own apparel collection — and has become, in many ways, the heir apparent to Atrium, which closed in 2016. Kith now has 12 locations across the United States and internationally, including shops in Bergdorf-Goodman, Selfridges, and a Kith Kids location on Bleecker Street in Manhattan. The position was created for Sharifa to, as Ronnie put it in a statement on Instagram, “… (to use) the brand as a platform to create change….”
Together the duo created The Kinnect Foundation, whose mission is to uplift high school students by providing access to higher education and creating pathways into the fashion industry. The Foundation is dedicated to transforming futures and unlocking the potential of imaginative students.
Not long before she joined KITH in this role, Sharifa also co-founded the ENVSN Festival with her friend and radio personality Laura Stylez. This multi-dimensional community is committed to the professional- and self-development of the Gen Z and Millennial generations. The platform is dedicated to cultivating the talent, dreams, and sustainability of youth culture in an inclusive environment that promotes collaboration, discovery, and conversation.
As Sharifa puts it, “ENVSN, in a way, is my homage to New York. I want to provide the same opportunity to others that Sam gave me. I was going to a lot of festivals in 2016 and 2017, but I felt like there was information missing for Gen Z, especially young brown girls and boys in New York. I felt like we were saying, ‘buy this, or buy that,’ but we’re not giving them all the information that they need. I want to encourage young people to work hard, and to look for the jobs that they desire, not just to take jobs because they think they’re going to make a lot of money. It’s about empowering young people to do what is best for them and to help them make connections.
“As a young girl who grew up in Brooklyn who has been given opportunity…without that opportunity, I don’t know where I would have been. How do I get the opportunity? Where does it come from? It may be the simplest thing. An introduction. Hearing somebody speak who inspires you.”
At this writing, Sharifa is also on the verge of yet another chapter of her life, the one titled “Motherhood.” One look at her Instagram feed and it’s apparent that she’s handling this particular project with the same level of style, grace, organization, and, of course, love, for which she’s known and respected throughout the industry. Don’t we all wish we could be there when baby looks up at mommy and says, “but I only need ten things!”?
The MR Awards is the largest and most prestigious event on the better menswear calendar, attended by the industry’s leading retailers, brands, and menswear insiders. In addition to new honorees, more than 50 Lifetime Achievement and Hall of Fame members are invited to return each year. The awards will be held at the Edison Ballroom on Sunday, July 17th, 2022, during New York menswear market week.