In Conversation with Fashion Business Uncovered – Angelina Mazza

Fashion Business Uncovered (FBU) will hold their seventh annual conference, which aims to educate students on the opportunities available in the fashion industry. Attendees learn about the professional roles and realities behind the glamour, and connect with their passionate peers. As a student-run conference, FBU also encourages students to attend a networking cocktail with the panelists, and to include their CV in a booklet provided to all speakers. 

While the conference has explored issues and trends related to business, branding, and marketing in previous editions, FBU has since evolved. This year, co-executive directors Rachael Atkinson and Laura Cohendet have chosen to spotlight the topic of sustainability in the fashion industry with the theme “Behind the Seams.” To find out more about why sustainable practices are crucial to the future of fashion, contributor Angelina Mazza spoke to Rachael and Laura about how FBU is making a difference, and why students should care.  

Angelina Mazza: What does the theme “Behind the Seams” mean to you?

Rachael Atkinson: Laura and I have seen how terrible the fashion industry can be for the planet. We went into this year asking ourselves what we could do about it, and how we could create a theme from that. People think a lot about what they wear because it represents who they are in many ways. But most people don’t consider what they’re saying to the world when they put their outfit on in the morning –– there’s a lot more to it. 

Laura Cohendet: What’s “Behind the Seams” is the question of ethical production, and then there are also the people wearing the clothing, so the people who are “Behind the Seams” [in a literal sense]. FBU took a value chain approach this year, and we’re exploring how our day-to-day interactions with clothes can be more meaningful and ethical in general.

RA: That value chain starts at the very beginning of product conception, and works all the way down to the end user, when we purchase something and wear it. And with sustainability, the value chain continues: What do you do when you don’t want to wear something anymore? Does it get thrown out? Does it get recycled?

AM: How does FBU engage with those questions?

RA: FBU holds four panels framed by keynotes, and each panel is a step in the chain, beginning with the artist.  Fashion has historically been a powerful tool for marginalized communities; it’s a huge part of identity and culture. So, we’re talking to artists and asking them how they harness that power to allow those communities to speak for themselves, and to identify with one another. We want to know about the intent behind a piece. Who are the artists designing for? We then address the production challenges in the industry, with a focus on sustainability. There are problems with water use, dyes, and beyond that, there are human rights and transparency issues.

On our third panel, we go further into retail and the consumer. We look at rental, consignment and thrifting –– it’s an exciting part of the industry that a lot of new ideas are coming from. And finally, we go all the way down the chain to the individual. I think a lot of people [of our generation] really want jobs that are meaningful. They want to make an impact, but they get into these huge firms –– at least, that’s the narrative in [the Faculty of Management] –– and then they don’t have a lot of say. So, how do they speak up? How do we pitch this as the right thing to do while considering profits? Our last panel of the day is really about making the business case for it, after having made the ethical case all day.

AM: How do you select your speakers? 

RA: It starts with the overarching theme. We then figure out what the most important things to talk about are in that context, and we establish our panels and our subtopics. We consider where the industry is heading, what the biggest names are doing, and what’s going on right here in Montreal. Then, we have to think about how the speakers complement one another. If we put on a panel of three or four people, we want to make sure we’re getting a diverse perspective. We want people who can still answer the same question, even if it’s in different ways. We’ve had some returning speakers, which I always think is flattering –– to have people reach out to say: “I’d like to come back to FBU, I always plan this into my year!” 

There’s also a trade-off that comes with sustainability –– there’s being as profitable as possible, and there’s being as sustainable as possible. So, when we choose our speakers, the question we face is: do we get the big brand names, or do we talk about what really matters? 

LC: The big brands aren’t always the best brands. Everyone will know Zara or Forever 21, but our audience might not recognize the names of smaller companies that are doing sustainable things. We try to build that awareness, but in past editions of FBU, it was about getting all the big names to attend. That’s been tricky. 

RA: You want be at the far end of the spectrum asking the big questions, and calling out brands, but there’s a fine balance. You need to appeal to your audience because if we put on a conference that has these great big ideas, but no one shows up, then what impact do we have? You have to draw people in. So, we’re really asking ourselves how we can work with these big brands, and how we can convince them that [sustainable practices] are something worth working on. 

The 2019 FBU Team. Atkinson (left) and Laura Cohendet (right) pictured in front. 

AM: How are you implementing sustainability into your practice and the event’s promotion? 

LC: We’ve received the Gold Sustainable Event certification from McGill’s Office of Sustainability, which means that the conference is accessible, and that it won’t be generating plastic waste. We’re also providing vegetarian food on reusable plates, and our goodie bags this year are reusable totes. In previous years, FBU had a water bottle budget, so that’s been completely cut –– the venue we’ve partnered with hasn’t used plastic water bottles in over a decade.  

RA: We try to be as sustainable as we can at every point, so we don’t have printed flyers; we’ve tried to push social media and word of mouth. We also table, so we’re in the [Bronfman] building almost every day. My friends know they can find me there, it’s where we go hang out! I think there’s a lot of power in speaking to people face-to-face. You can read our informational poster and get one thing, but then you talk to us, and there’s so much more behind it. There’s a huge benefit to that.

We’ve also made a call to our attendees and our team not to buy something new for this event. The best thing you can do is to look in your closet –– I guarantee we all have something in there that we can wear. If not, call up your best friend! I’m sure she’d be happy to share something with you. The next thing you can do is buy your outfit second-hand, and wear something that might have been thrown out otherwise. And another great alternative is renting clothes. 

AM: Those are some great ideas. What are you planning on wearing to the conference?

LC: I looked in my closet, and chose my trusty black turtleneck ––

RA: We love a good turtleneck. The black turtleneck is an iconic piece.

LC: I also went to the consignment store Ruse, which curates a collection of unique fashionable items –– they do the thrifting work for you.  And I found a checkered dress to wear over my black turtleneck, which I’m going to have mended. That’s actually another idea for the list. 

RA: Okay, I’m going to say something shocking: we are less than a week away, and I still have no idea what I’m wearing. It’s been hectic! But I’ll be digging deep into my closet, and maybe heading to my favourite thrift stores. That’s a problem for Monday.

AM: You have designer Izzy Camilleri coming in to talk about accessible clothing. That’s incredible! How do you think her work connects to “Behind the Seams”?

RA: Izzy Camilleri is the coolest person! We had to have her. She’s designed for some huge names: David Bowie has worn her clothes, Meryl Streep wears one of her jackets in The Devil Wears Prada. And she created the brand IZ Adaptive, where she applies her talent in this really important way. When we talk about clothing being accessible, I think people often think about plus-sized clothing and size ranges, which is so important. But something that doesn’t get spoken about enough is people with disabilities and limited mobility. If you’re in a wheelchair, getting dressed and finding clothes can be a challenge. Izzy works with people who have these challenges, and creates things that make them feel empowered and excited to get dressed in the morning. Her line is size inclusive, and she has gender neutral pieces.  She’s doing some really important things, I definitely look up to her. And sustainability isn’t just about the environment, it’s a very intersectional issue. So, even if we say “this is about sustainability,” [that word] needs to encompass a lot of different ideas and [accessibility] is one of them.

AM: Most of your speakers this year are women. Was this a significant factor when you were planning the conference? 

RA: When we think of fashion, we often think of women. Our audience is largely women, but that being said, women in the fashion industry still aren’t equal. We think of the big names in fashion, and we think of Yves Saint Laurent. They’re men for the most part! So, there was a conscious effort from FBU [to have a majority of women on our panels]. It was important for us to have diversity. We want our attendees to see themselves in the people they look up to. Representation is so important, and it is key to say to our largely female audience: “look what you can do!”

LC: FBU also has an all-women team this year. Rachael and I have a platform as co-executive directors, and it’s important for us to use it to uplift the women on our team by making sure their ideas are reflected in the conference.

AM: On that note, how has the fact that business remains a male-dominated field affected your academic experience?

LC: It’s something that slowly creeps up on you. Like, “Oh, I’m the only girl in this group project!” 

RA: I was initially going to go into engineering, but I visited McGill and I was one [of the only women] at the engineering presentation. I’m a very feminine person –– I have those interests that are often cast as contrite and less relevant, and in the end I kind of didn’t do it out of fear. And I’m glad I ended up where I am, but it sucks that it was a determining factor. That being said, I don’t feel like I’ve been severely held back. I am a privileged white woman, and I come from a middle-class family. I’ve been afforded many luxuries and privileges in my life. A lot of women at this point in their life haven’t had that, like people of colour and people with disabilities. So, it’s important to recognize your own privilege and to think about those people, and to try and highlight them. 

Atkinson (right) and Cohendet pictured above.

AM: Where do you see room for improvement in Fashion Business Uncovered?

RA: We’ve discussed maybe implementing a Director of Sustainability. Having someone on the team that’s really going to take charge of that component, so we can keep the sustainability narrative moving forward.

LC: I’d also see FBU collaborating more with other universities because the conference still feels siloed within McGill’s Business Faculty. We’d love to connect with LaSalle College to work with the fashion school students. I think the dream for me would be to have one big fashion conference that brings together McGill, Concordia, HEC, UQAM and LaSalle College, so it wouldn’t only be the McGill community benefiting from FBU anymore.

AM: Do you consider highlighting racial diversity a key objective for the future of FBU?

RA: Absolutely. That was something I tried to do a bit of last year in the panels I worked on. And we looked at that again this year, and there are a lot of white women for sure. But there is some diversity –– we really wanted to do that. We’ve got Iman Nakhala coming in, and she wears a hijab, and she talks about how that is a challenge for her because she’s had people say that she’s “too cultural” to be in fashion, whatever that means! She’s been vocal about the challenges she has faced, so we really wanted to talk about that this year, and hear that perspective. I am a woman, but I’m a privileged woman. And we have this platform, which we want to lend [to marginalized voices]. I think it’s on us to find those [voices]. It’s important to highlight stories that are different from our own. We want to empower marginalized women, and I think going forward that’s definitely something that can be improved [at FBU] and spoken about even more.

AM: What else can we do to further spotlight sustainability in the fashion industry?

RA: You can lobby the government to do the work. Voting is so important! Write letters to politicians, to clothing companies. Post things to social media with hashtags when you’re upset! 

LC: There are also tools that consumers can use, like this app I downloaded called “Good On You,” which recommends ethical fashion brands. 

AM: What do you hope attendees will take away from the conference next week?

RA: I think there’s an overarching idea whenever we talk about sustainability: it’s a lot of doom and gloom, it’s urgent and it’s scary. And yes, it is all of those things. But I think an essential narrative to have is that there are things we can do, and there are people who are doing important work. So, it’s about awareness and urgency, but also inspiration and optimism, and just a bit of hope. And the knowledge that you can go out there, and really change things. I think that’s an idea that we’re trying to get across. 

Fashion Business Uncovered will be held at Gallery Gora on November 29th. Doors open at 10:00, and the event ends at 6pm. The conference will be followed by a networking cocktail. Tickets can be purchased on Eventbrite, or in McGill’s Bronfman Building (for students). For more information, please visit: https://www.fashionbusinessuncovered.ca/