Check out the Fashion Culture Design UnConference, in which fashion luminaries will attempt to examine all facets of the industry. They'll tackle beauty, different uses of Instagram, fame, the ethics of fast fashion, and the values of wearable tech.



How Do You Solve Fashion's Most Deeply Ingrained Problems?

Fashion is currently in flux. It seems like every day there’s a new article about a designer that doesn’t want to stick to the standard fashion calendar, a new way of marketing online, some authority quoted as saying “the old way has to change.” And most of those changes are good things! Questions of representations of race, gender, and size are dominating the conversation, and fashion, slowly but surely, is becoming a friendlier, more progressive industry.

But there are numerous practical problems to be dealt with. Experts across the field all hold different opinions on how to improve fashion week, how to best utilize Instagram, how to be sustainable, how to create wearable tech that’s actually interesting. There are so many causes for debate, and numerous conversations to be had. And that’s where the Fashion Culture Design UnConference comes in. As the name would imply, think of it as something a little different from your standard panel discussion. We promise that, as opposed to a normal convention, no matter what, this event will not be boring.

Founded by the former dean of the Fashion School at Parsons, Simon Collins, the UnConference is a one-day event (taking place on June 9th at Parsons in New York City) comprised of ten different panel discussions, handling topics that take on everything from the importance of fame, to the current state of the beauty industry, to the morals of fast fashion, and the need for some sensory deprivation. Collins decries stale corporate pitches; cheesy words like “disruption” and “gamechanger” are to be totally banned.

“When you’re in a room and [three] really smart people are onstage, and that assembled brainpower gives rise to a new concept, a new idea, a new way of looking at something, then that’s really special.”

All of the panelists are leading figures in the fashion industry, including supermodel Ashley Graham, New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman, Cosmopolitan Editor-in-Chief Joanna Coles, The Fashion Law lawyer/reporter Julie Zerbo, Paper Magazine’s legendary editorial director Mickey Boardman, and IMG Models President Ivan Bart.

“I want to be in a place where new ideas are created,” Collins told us. “When you’re in a room and [three] really smart people are onstage, and that assembled brainpower gives rise to a new concept, a new idea, a new way of looking at something, then that’s really special. And I’ve manufactured a situation in which we could have ten of those in a day.”

It is really special. And we’d like you to be part of it. Milk is offering free UnConference passes to the first five readers who want them; stay tuned for our ticket giveaway tomorrow! Read on for Collins’ take on why it’s sure to start some essential discussions.

Former dean of the Fashion School at Parsons Simon Collins, who wants to shake things up with his UnConference, an atypical panel event. Photo by Silja Magg.

This is specifically an “unconference,” different than any other panel event. Can you highlight what makes it unique?

What tends to happen at conferences is that you get a CEO and they’re there to announce their new product. So they read something that’s been carefully scripted by their PR, and you learn nothing that you couldn’t learn from online anyway. And the CEO can’t tell you the secrets of why their company’s successful, because that would be betraying their own shareholders! I started out on the premise that we would have lively and energetic debates onstage. Not product pitches. [Our moderators] are all primed to ask very searching questions, and to help the panelists say something original. And we’re putting everybody just to the side of their own expertise, so that they don’t feel like they’re betraying confidences by having an opinion. They might not be able to talk about their own businesses, but they can talk about somebody else’s.

This is about doing good, about making things better. It’s not about slagging things off and being rude. People will walk away from this conference with a list of ways they can do whatever it is that they do, better. And I can say that with authority, because whenever I give speeches, that’s the outcome. I say to people at the end, that’s the summary, take a picture with your phone and go away and do it.

Panel topics: Do companies have to stand for something beyond profits? Is there a responsible way to produce and consume fast fashion? Is fame the most important asset of the modern age? Does a good Instagram post have more value than a double page spread in a glossy monthly? What does beauty look like now?

I wanted to ask about the banned phrases. The concept is so funny.

I’ve been to lots of talks and conferences and speeches, and I remember at one recently, the person giving a speech kept talking about “leaning in.” We all know “lean in” from Sheryl Sandberg’s book, and it’s a fantastic book and a fantastic concept. But if you use the term in your own twisted way, you don’t really have a point there. You’re just appropriating someone else’s jargon to sound like you’re cool.

I remember a few years ago someone was giving a presentation to me, and they kept using “mash-up.” And for me, I start to tune out when someone overuses a cliché. I thought, for a bit of fun, that I would challenge the speakers, so I thought I would make sure that they don’t use these hacky clichés. I tossed around amongst my friends and thought, what do we hate? Words like gamechanger, and pivot. I’m not saying that no one should ever use these words, but if you are reduced to clichés, then you don’t really have anything to say.

How did you go about selecting your panelists?

I’m very good friends with Vanessa Friedman and Joanna Coles, and when I told both of them what I was doing, they both said blindly, yes, I’ll do it. It made me feel good, and it also set the bar very high for me. And they both have their own conferences, so for me it was like a double compliment. So starting with people like that, it was clear that I had to either get the smartest people that we’d heard of, or get the smartest people nobody had heard of, or ideally a combination of the two. And delivering the message is really important to me, so there was no point in getting a really, really smart person without anything to say.

‘New York Times’ fashion critic Vanessa Friedman and ‘Cosmpolitan’ EIC Joanna Coles, two highly qualified UnConference panelists.

I love the topics. How do you solve a problem like Fashion Week?

I think that fashion has become it’s own Frankenstein’s Monster. [Magazines] need to have clothing four months before publication. If you have a store and you want to place an order for a hundred dresses, well, the fabric has to be woven, and then the designer has to make the dresses, and then they’ve got to ship them to the store, and that takes about three months if you’re a regular designer. So there are certain facts about the industry that are not going to change, no matter what anybody wants to say about it.

“The most naïve perspective is that one fashion week will work for everybody, because it won’t. It can’t!”

Then you’ve got the fact that some brands want to maintain what they see as “their aura” by previewing their collection three months or six months before it goes into stores. That works for them, that’s what they want, that’s what they like, and they don’t want to do it in any other way. Then you’ve got other brands that own all of their own retail. So, someone like Burberry, they don’t have to worry about anyone else’s orders because they own it all themselves. They can show whatever they want, whenever they want. So all of these different brands have crammed into this pre-ordained framework, and it just doesn’t work for everybody. It’s a reality, that they are gonna have to do whatever works for their own business.

The most naïve perspective is that one fashion week will work for everybody, because it won’t. It can’t! I believe there are 72 Fashion Weeks now in the world. There’s practically always a fashion week somewhere. But I think that the way people are thinking about it has not been true or relevant for quite some time already. There are groups of people getting together who think they can solve it. And well, you can solve it for one person, but that just makes it difficult for another.

How do you think that Instagram has affected the fashion industry? 

What’s worth more, a good Instagram, or a double-page spread in the September issue? And it depends who you are! There are some brands that should probably not even have an Instagram feed, because it’s so far from their customer base that it’s just idiotic to waste time doing it. And some of them put an Instagrammer in charge of their marketing department, which is like triple idiotic. And then you’ve got brands that save up all their pennies to buy a double-page spread in a magazine that none of their customers read, which is also idiotic.

This is like 101 for advertising, and yet you see it contradicted over and over again, because people seem to think that if this Instagrammer’s got a lot of people that like them, then that solves your advertising problem. And they don’t realize that [you can buy] a lot of followers, that it’s really about how much interaction you have with them. If you’ve got a million followers and a hundred thousand of them interact with you, and they all happen to be in a part of the world or a part of the demographic that has no relation to your brand, that’s not the right person for you! There are just certain naïve suppositions that I want to challenge.

Some brands don’t use Instagram wisely, ignoring their target customer base. Others take to the app with great success, such as makeup artist Pat McGrath, who has used it to basically serve up campaigns for her new line.

All of these topics are complicated. Which should bode well for the Un-Conference!

There should be an answer for the individual for any of these questions. The question shouldn’t be “is this right or wrong” but rather, “is this wrong for me.”

Speaking of Parsons, do you have advice for how fashion students should deal with this rapidly changing landscape?

What I always say to them is be constantly curious. You definitely don’t know the answer. I don’t know the answer, so they certainly don’t. Be curious and challenge everything, because no one knows what they’re doing, really.

Click here for a chance to attend Fashion Culture Design UnConference for free in New York City. Five passes are available on a first come, first served basis. 

Tickets are available for purchase here.

Original images by Kathryn Chadason. Simon Collins headshot courtesy of Fashion Culture Design.

Stay tuned to Milk for more on the UnConference. We love a catchy name.

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