Bof VOICES 2017: Fashion's leaders gather to discuss an evolving industry
Jan 5, 2018
Some travel to Soho Farmhouse in search of quiet contemplation, others come to find inspiration. In December 2017, an eclectic band of fashion and retail industry leaders, economists, journalists, scientists, and activists discovered both, descending on the venue outside London for three full days to attend VOICES, the Business of Fashion’s annual gathering for big thinkers. Here, away from the city in serene Oxfordshire, amidst cabins, barns and theatres, they debated the issues and ideas shaping our industry, and the power of the collective to incite change, in and outside it. Emma Elwick-Bates, the Fashion News Editor of Vogue US, was invited as a guest of QICGRE, the principal partner of the conference, and reports here on the events of the weekend.

“I want you to leave surprised. To have met people you would never expect to,” said BoF founder Imran Amed in his welcome speech on the event’s inaugural evening. Among the diverse guest list and speaker schedule, model and founder of the Naked Heart Foundation Natalia Vodianova, fashion designer Dries Van Noten, editor of CR Fashion book Carine Roitfeld, circular economy advocate Ellen MacArthur, Colette founder Sarah Andelman, CEO of Berluti and chairman of Loro Piana Antoine Arnault, Glossier founder Emily Weiss, retail futurist Doug Stephens, trend forecaster Li Edelkoort and Second Home founder Rohan Silva among many more, were preparing to discuss, share ideas and listen to each other's opinion on wide ranging subjects impacting their industries and lives. 

Together, they raised topics that ranged from the global refugee crisis to the gender revolution - each new discussion point a pertinent reminder of the fashion industry’s potential to pair its unique entrepreneurship and creative thinking to solve problems that impact us all.

Acknowledging the 65 million people around the world who have been forcibly displaced from their homes, private investor turned philanthropist and founder of The Elpída Home for Refugees, Amed Khan, took to the stage with Chin-Chin Yap, producer of the documentary Human Flow, on day one and called for industry leaders to engage with geopolitical issues such as this to influence and improve the situation. Citing the broad economical and environmental impact of the fashion industry, Khan reinforced our collective responsibility, “International humanitarianism is an insular system that has failed us,” he said. The message was loud and clear- a crisis of this scale and proportion requires an all-in, cross-sector response.

Debate on a global scale continued as Dr. Shazhan Amed, a paediatric endocrinologist working at BC Children's Hospital in Vancouver, discussed the gender revolution, encouraging attendees to reimagine gender as a continuum. She explained, “Traditional binaries associated with gender are no longer valid.” Gender identity is not, according to Amed, “a simple social psychosocial construct of nurture, but rather it’s the complex interplay of environmental, biological, hormonal and even cultural factors.”

Transgender model Laith Ashley, Belgian model and intersex activist Hanne Gaby Odiele and Phillip Picardi, also weighed in, with Picardi outlining the role of the media to support the gender revolution on behalf of new Condé Nast digital publication Them, a dedicated platform for the queer community. “Most queer media services gay men, and we have trans and non-binary staff members who are producing this content, which makes it a radically different approach from a lot of other media organisations."

Turning to the business of fashion, specifically sustainable supply chains, the morning ended with designer Dries Van Noten taking to the stage. The elegant disrupter has quietly built a business model that works successfully on both a global and a personal level, “I like to choose my own way forward. I am an independent. I’m not trying to fight against systems and rules, it’s just that we work in an organic way." The designer shared that the factory he operates in India sustains its local community and supports skilled craftsmanship, and is the reason why there will always be an embroidered element to any Dries Van Noten collection. 

As VOICES continued to illuminate the very brave and personal stories of its many speakers, professional yachtswoman and world record holder Dame Ellen MacArthur shared her first-hand observations of waste in our oceans. Her views on necessity and consumption after sailing solo around the world empowered her argument for a more circular economy.

The subject of disability and its relationship to fashion too came to the fore, as activist Sinéad Burke communicated her mission to embrace ‘all types of normalcy’ in designing for a significant proportion of the world’s population that is so often overlooked.

As conversations stretched into the evening, the new intimate format of VOICES Salons allowed guests to address poignant industry questions in smaller groups. VOICES speaker, model and founder of kodewithklossy, Karlie Kloss officiated the discussion on ‘What fashion can do to empower girls.’ As she argued, women and men have different manners in which they approach problems and both should be represented equally. Kloss has used her personal platform to build kodewithklossy, teaching girls how to code.

As the focus on day two shifted to building communities, a concept that has never before been so crucial to growing a brand and enabling its authenticity, Neil Blumenthal of eyewear industry disrupter Warby Parker and his wife Rachel Blumenthal of kidswear subscription-model company Rockets of Awesome, took to the stage, sharing their expertise in creating emotional experiences both online and offline, for businesses that successfully bridge technology, fashion and social enterprise. 

"Together, they raised topics that ranged from the global refugee crisis to the gender revolution - each new discussion point a pertinent reminder of the fashion industry's potential to pair its unique entrepreneurship and creative thinking to solve problems that impact us all."

"Live your best life," announced Amed as the final session commenced, focussing on wellness and perspective. Work-life balance seemed suddenly tangible after the illuminating addresses from beauty mogul of Soap&Glory and serial entrepreneur Marcia Kilgore: "I've given up trying to look good on Skype, and use that time to make sure I can jog to work." Having seen many of the attendees in the spin studio in the morning, Akin Akman, master instructor for SoulCycle (founder Melanie Whelan was also a speaker), assured us that ritual was indeed the key to physical success, and training your own life. "Precision and pattern gives the elite a mental edge," encouraged the man whose classes sell out in minutes.

"One more thing…" said Amed punctuating his address on the final evening of VOICES. "I've always wanted to say that," he smiled, as he invited everyone to join him in honouring Natalia Vodianova, model, founder of philanthropic platform Elbi and of the Naked Heart Foundation, with the Global VOICES Award.

A Russian-themed black-tie gala, imagined by legendary creative producer Alexandre de Betak, arguably the Fellini of fashion spectacles, saw table tops laden with festive hand-painted Babushkas. "This room has the most flattering light possible," said BoF's Tim Blanks, of the tented room festooned with fairy lights. Vodianova swept in wearing scarlet velvet gown by Russian designer Ulyana Sergeenko. "Thank you Natalia, for all the work you do. It's wonderful to have a supermodel in our midst who thinks so deeply about fashion, philanthropy and technology," announced Amed. At the dinner, Lucy Yeomans, the editor of Porter magazine, gave a personal address to her friend, recalling their tour of Russian playgrounds with Vodianova's charity, memories that drew tears and laughter. Proving that at VOICES anything can happen, the Russian theme continued with a surprise performance from ballet's bad boy, virtuoso principal dancer Sergei Polunin. "You must all take your Matryoshka dolls home!" announced Vodianova before leading the charge onto the glittering mirror-balled dance floor.

At VOICES 2017 rules were broken and formalities swept aside. Attendees were encouraged to step back and look at the whole picture - from politics and geopolitics, to issues of social enterprise, technology and innovation. While 2017's event may have come to a close, the conversations raised on and off the conference stage are representative of an industry with conscience and ambition- leaders who remain committed to looking from the outside in, and inside out - big thinkers with even bigger endeavours.