OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — You can count on Natalia Vodianova to make an entrance. On Friday, the model and philanthropist lit up Soho Farmhouse’s festive Barnwell Barn, transformed in her honour for the night into a rustic wonderland decorated with hand-painted matryoshka, Byzantine-style screens and paintings, Victorian upholstered chairs and colourful floral throws and silks that evoked the theme of the evening: Russia, the supermodel and philanthropist’s home country.
The evening’s festivities marked the end of VOICES 2017, BoF’s annual gathering hosted in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate, a thought-provoking series of days for the industry leaders, economists and activists who gathered to reflect and connect on their final night. As a traditional Russian folk troupe performed by the fire, Vodianova and advocate and academic Sinéad Burke admired each other’s dresses, Trey Laird and Tommy Hilfiger’s Avery Baker caught up, Joe Gebbia and Isabelle Boemeke broke out into a quick dance and Gen Z strategist and investor Patrick Finnegan exchanged ideas with Imaginary Ventures’ Nick Brown.
While there was plenty to ponder from the days’ panels — from the retail revolution to the advent of radical new technologies — a spirit of sharing stood out as the gathering’s overarching theme. Across the industry, a tide is turning from competition to collaboration.
“It feels even strange to even use the word competition,” said Pierre-Yves Roussel, chairman and chief executive of the LVMH Fashion Group. “Everyone has their own brand, their own business, their own thing. But I think it’s about discussing things that are relevant for all of us. All those topics that were on the agenda — there were a lot of different things that were directly related to fashion and sometimes were not…. We all bring it into our own lives and into our own responsibilities and then it creates connections. It’s an industry where we have to collaborate with a lot of different people by the nature of what we do. There is a creative side, there is the business side: on both sides, we need to work with a lot of different people.
“If I don’t know who my partner is, if I don’t know this industry, how on earth can we design and build buildings?” said Stuart Miller, global director of investment management at QIC. “That sounds really obtuse and tangential for the business of fashion but it’s really relevant. Everyone here is supporting each other, whether you are a competitor or a peer, in your own search for relevance. Because everyone is searching for relevance.”
“Competition in and of itself is not a bad thing,” said Karis Durmer, chief executive of Altuzarra. “I don’t think that it’s a choice between one or the other. I think you have to find the moments where collaboration organically makes sense. The issue of modeling or environmental issues, new textile developments and alternatives — those are places were everybody absolutely can get [together]. Where there are places where collaboration feels organic, you should go for it.”
“The era of secrecy around ideas, thoughts and even IP in the creative fields — it’s just over,” said Glossier founder Emily Weiss. “At this point, you win by winning. If you’re making people happy in authentic ways, then the tides all rise together.”
Ari Bloom, chief executive of Avametric, a San Francisco-based fashion and retail technology firm, said collaboration over competition was one of the key ideas that came out of the salon dinner he attended on Thursday night. “We need to share more information, we need to have standards, we need to be co-operating,” he said. “Nobody wanted to say the ‘A’ word [last night], but it was because of Amazon.”
“It’s going to take all of us working together: consultants, clients, third-party vendors, everybody,” said Lara Marrero, strategy director in Gensler's retail practice area. “If we hit it, it will be extraordinary.”
This year’s VOICES gathering was a catalyst for the connections necessary to drive that collaboration. “The intention was to both connect fashion with the wider world but also to make people who work in the fashion industry realise that fashion is a platform to make change happen,” said Imran Amed, founder and chief executive of the Business of Fashion. “That was a theme that ran throughout the conference, starting with the discussion that we had about the global refugee crisis which threaded through to Halima Aden’s personal story as a refugee which threaded through to the work that Joe Gebbia has done at Airbnb to address the refugee crisis, right down to the app that our Global VOICES Award winner Natalia Vodianova has done with her new initiative to use technology as a way to address this global crisis.”
“VOICES is definitely the most important and special thing that BoF does. It's the closest we get to achieving the mission that we set out for this company, which is to open, inform and connect the global fashion community, and to connect that community with the wider world,” said Amed. “If you look around this room and you see the connections and the conversations and the emotions that people are sharing together, that’s not something you can do through a screen. That’s something that you have to do through an event that brings people together. I feel like we are taking one step closer to achieving our mission.”
Post-cocktails, guests filed into the festive gala tent under a canopy of thousands of sparkly lights, enjoying a dinner of borsch with smoked duck and chicken kiev prepared by Chef Vladimir Shulyak. Each seat was dotted with its own ornate kokoshnik headdress, which made more than one appearance throughout the night on Instagram. Porter editor-in-chief Lucy Yeomans presented Vodianova with her award, recounting her already legendary career in fashion and her even more impactful work through the Naked Heart Foundation, through which she has transformed the lives of scores of Russian children.
“It has been so inspiring for me to watch Natalia evolve both as a woman and as a philanthropist over the past eight years,” said Yeomans. “That girlish passion, intelligence, energy and sheer heart have transformed into a statesman-like strength and acceptance of her unique power in the fashion industry to affect change in the world beyond, and a true sense of purpose. Her statue in the fashion industry has moved from model and muse to heavyweight power player.”
“I’m surprised by how much this evening means to me,” an emotional Vodianova said when accepting her award. “I’m one of those people who questions every day: Am I who I think I am? Am I fit for what I think I can do? And it’s a lot and most of the time, I doubt myself. But then I push those doubts away and I do what I can, I do the best I can do — today and every day. And I’m so grateful to this industry. I’m so grateful to every single person who helped me on this journey.”
And with that, world-renowned Ukrainian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin took the stage to ring in the evening in style. A second VOICES was in the books, but the night of dancing was far from over.