FashionistaCon 2018 offers wisdom from a refreshing lineup of insiders

Wednesday, June 20, 2018 - 5:58pm

FashionistaCon

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Tess Garcia

On the morning of Friday, June 15, I arrived to the 17th floor of the Public Hotel at 9:05, a few minutes later than I had planned. FashionistaCon 2018 was scheduled to run from nine to five, the length of the standard American workday (though, ironically, nowhere near the norm in the fashion world), but I should have known that like all events in this industry, 9 a.m. means 9:45.

But I’m not mad. When left with almost an hour of free time at the top floor of a hotel in New York City, complete with free breakfast and an outdoor terrace overlooking lower Manhattan, one cannot complain. 

Hosted by digital fashion authority Fashionista, the event in question was geared toward readers searching for a look into the industry with this year’s official theme “How to Make it in Fashion.” After reaching the event space, each attendee was given a name tag lanyard because network or die. In addition to a general itinerary packed with industry insiders, brief one-on-one mentoring sessions were available throughout the day.

At 9:45, the event commenced with an opening keynote. Laura Brown, editor-in-chief of InStyle, took the stage alongside Tyler McCall, Fashionista’s deputy editor, who played talk show host for the following 45 minutes. The pair’s chemistry was tangible, and it carried their conversation forward naturally. Brown told guests her story of going from small town Australia to the top of New York’s fashion industry, complete with anecdotes about the solitude of attending Paris Fashion Week alone and spending 11 years at Harper’s Bazaar, which she noted “was such an education on not settling.” She doesn’t want anyone to feel worse after reading her magazine, she explained, which may sound simple enough, but is complex in practice when your field exists as a microcosm of aspirational “influencers.” Brown is a self-proclaimed optimist who is tired of Instagram culture, and in her own words, is “just too basic to be mean.”

Post keynote, the agenda launched into thematic panel discussions. The first, titled Navigating the Path to a Racially Inclusive Fashion Industry, featured designer Azède Jean-Pierre, Harlem’s Fashion Row founder Brandice Daniel, casting director Gilleon Smith and Julee Wilson, fashion and beauty editor for Essence. Prompted with questions from Dhani Mau, West Coast editor for Fashionista, the group deliberated the increasing desire for diversity in fashion today, along with their hopes for the future. Though their banter was framed in a generally positive way, no one was interested in sugarcoating the unfortunate facts about race’s role in fashion, like Black editors often required to gear their content toward white readers, while the inverse is rarely the case.

“If you’re a beauty editor and you don’t know what edges are,” remarked Wilson to roars of approval, “what are you doing?”

The second panel, Adventures in Copyright, spoke to the struggle of creating original work in an oversaturated industry. Despite its name oozing with satire, the discussion delivered a comprehensive glimpse into the field of fashion law, thanks to host Maura Bennigan, senior editor at Fashionista, and to the expertise offered by fashion designer Lisa Marie Fernandez, Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler of copycat watchdog Diet Prada and Susan Scafidi, founder and director of the Fashion Law Institute. Each brought a different dimension of knowledge to the table. Fernandez has watched others rip off her designs from the early days of her eponymous brand and has become an expert in shutting them down legally. Liu and Schuyler, on the other hand, use social media to delineate between inspiration and blatant imitation, while Scafidi is a veteran in deciphering the fashion law’s fine print. It should also be noted: Fernandez admitted that she exclusively plays trap music in her studio, a confession that felt at least as important as the discourse surrounding design patents.

After an hour-long lunch break spent chatting over kale salads and pizza, class was back in session with another keynote speaker, celebrity stylist and newly minted author Micaela Erlanger, in conversation with Maria Bobila, Fashionista’s associate editor. Erlanger emphasized the importance of relationships in forging her career in styling, a profession that was little known before the rise of Instagram. When asked how she incorporates her own style into looks for clients like Amal Clooney and Meryl Streep, she simply stated that her tastes and her job do not coincide. To move forward in this industry, Erlanger explained, the needs of the client must always come first. I won’t lie; I was impressed.

Panel three, How to Make Your Fashion Brand More Sustainable, moderated by Fashionista assistant editor Whitney Babcock, featured four of sustainable fashion’s modern pioneers: Aurora James, designer and founder of Brother Vellies (remember Solange’s netted crystal purse at the Met Gala?), Cara Smyth, founder of the Fair Fashion Center, designer Mara Hoffman and Fashionkind founder Nina Farran. James, who sources and manufactures her products in Africa, lamented the industry’s confusing of sustainability with philanthropy. In her mind, sustainability is not charity; it’s about providing jobs to communities for self-sufficiency with minimal environmental impact. Farran echoed those sentiments, adding that people are intimidated by the transition to sustainable manufacturing because they think it has to be all or nothing, when in reality sustainability is a transitional process that takes place through small steps. Hoffman agreed that it can be scary to market products as “green” because of the subjectivity of the term. She also acknowledged the obstacles created by the costly nature of sustainable manufacturing, which took up the original price point of her eponymous brand. Smyth urged up-and-coming designers to be transparent about their manufacturing processes because consumers are too smart for BS. She recommended marketing the move toward sustainability as “progress, not perfection” because that’s what consumers respond to.

In the last panel of the day, How to get a Niche Beauty Brand off the Ground, Fashionista beauty editor Stephanie Saltzman tapped into the minds of a diverse selection of beauty entrepreneurs. Charlotte Cho, founder of K beauty brand Solo Glam, Cindy Diprima of all-natural CAP Beauty, Wander Beauty founder Divya Gugnani and Troy Surratt, makeup artist turned creator of Surratt Beauty each had different perspectives of wisdom to share with attendees. Gugnani and Surratt kept the ball rolling with practical advice for launching a brand, the highlights of which included asking for help often, creating products you’d want to buy and treating investment opportunities like “marriage without a divorce.” Diprima discussed her motivations behind CAP, explaining that its creation derived, in large part, from a desire to challenge the anti-aging paradigm that so often plagues modern beauty brands. Cho encompassed her colleagues’ messages with a simple statement: “The most important thing about building a brand is intention.”

FashionistaCon’s final keynote featured Robin Givhan, head fashion critic at The Washington Post (and UM alum), interviewed by Alyssa Vingan, Klein editor-in-chief of Fashionista. Givhan had no real desire to work in fashion when she began her career in journalism. Rather, she explained to a crowd ravenous for her wisdom, she had just wanted to write and was willing to take on any beat her editors at the Detroit Free Press assigned. That beat eventually became fashion, which led her to her tenure at the Post. She added that “context is everything” in reporting and that her role as a fashion critic in 2018 is “to be a truth-teller.” When asked about her thoughts on the appointment of Off-White’s Virgil Abloh to creative director at Louis Vuitton, Givhan offered a refreshingly frank perspective.

“We call people designers who are not,” she said. “[Abloh] is talented…but stepping into the role at Vuitton is a huge endeavor.”

As the conference drew to a close, Givhan left attendees with profound food for thought, musing: “We get the fashion that we deserve.” 

I left FashionistaCon with an armful of gift bags and a heart bursting with joy. That day was a reminder of my favorite thing about New York: Its high concentration of ambitious people who want to hear your story and are excited to tell you theirs.