OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — It was 3am after the BoF VOICES gala dinner, the tables still decorated with the bright colours and textiles of a Peruvian flower market — an homage to honoree Mario Testino. But the guests had long ago decamped to the after-party inside the adjacent barn at Soho Farmhouse. Except, that is, for musician and entrepreneur will.i.am and the winners of BoF and Topshop's Future VOICES challenge. The multi-hyphenate entertainer had resisted pleas to join the other guests, instead choosing to converse long into the night with these aspiring industry professionals about the future of technology and how it will impact fashion.
“People kept pulling him away to party and he was like ‘No, I want to talk tech,’” said Oana Simon, an Australian living in Glasgow, Scotland, who works in marketing. The group was still buzzing about the singular experience the next day. “This is what he’s really into, what he really cared about and he wouldn't end the conversation — not that we wanted to — until he really got his point across,” said Grant Lacy, an American college student from Los Angeles.
It’s really relieving to see how these heads of the fashion industry are so willing to embrace the future.
The late-night chat was just one of many inspiring conversations that took place at VOICES, BoF's new annual gathering for big thinkers in the fashion industry and beyond. The 10 winners of Future VOICES, chosen from over 500 applications from more than 100 countries, each came with their own passion points, from gender equality to fashion psychology, and were paired up accordingly with a mentor from within the industry.
“[To be here], with these people who are shaping the industry I want to work in, it’s 100 percent surreal,” Lacy said before the gala dinner. “It gets better by the hour.”
“It’s really relieving to see how these heads of the fashion industry are so willing to embrace the future,” said Nate Palmer, an American studying fashion psychology in Atlanta. “We’re in a time right now where so many corporate heads are still kind of stuck in their ways and closed-minded to new ideas, but just being here and having the crazy opportunity to talk to Marco Bizzarri, the president and chief executive officer of Gucci, and him being so open-minded to the future and welcoming change — it’s a relief to know that people care about the future and want to reach back and help young guys like me who are trying to come up in the industry.”
Simon, whose focus area is gender imbalance in executive roles, was paired with Natalie Massenet, chairman of the British Fashion Council, as a mentor. “She was amazing, throwing all the info out there,” Simon said. Over lunch, Massenet told Simon to make the most of her youth, never lose her drive and never hesitate to take an indirect route to her goals.
Simon left VOICES with a clear vision for change in the industry. “We have an incredible platform that’s on everybody’s doorstep and everyone’s phones and social media, whether you like it or not. So let’s start using this platform and doing good and making some change.”
She certainly wasn’t the only one to share that sentiment. Marc Close, an Australian living in Thailand and working in fashion technology, hopes the industry will become less insular in the future. “I’m wondering, if we are truly representing the next generation, how the industry will change and become less cliquey, more democratic,” he said. “The fact that we represent so many different aspects of the industry is signifying what the future holds, from technology to psychology.”
To conclude VOICES, the winners took to the stage to share their takeaways from the experience. “We talked so much about disruption, we can either wait until it slaps us in the face or we can start innovate, to create profit without using so many resources,” said Sara Arnold, a Singaporean living in London.
Thank you all for letting us learn from you, letting us be here and treating us as peers.
Yarden Horwitz, a Canadian living in New York, said: “There’s a lot you can do and learn from data, I think, and with the help of my mentor, Daniela [Cecilio Neves, chief executive officer and founder of ASAP54], we really talked this through to try to understand what is the real issue with data in the fashion industry.
“I think the big opportunity for 2017 is turning that data … Talking about consumer behaviour and emotions and diving into what everyone is saying online, or doing online, and really trying to understand what that all means and how can we leverage it for our businesses.”
Sekayi Fundafunda, a fashion blogger from Zambia, took advantage of her moment on stage to send a message to the industry. “According to McKinsey, Africa will have one of the youngest and most urbanised populations on the planet by 2034. And so this means that brands that are looking to expand have to look to Africa for inspiration and even if you're thinking about the bottom line, you should be looking at Africa,” she said. “I love how June [Sarpong] said yesterday that Africa is the new normal.”
When it came to the final winner's moment on the stage, Lacy summed up the feelings of all who had spoken before him. “My biggest takeaway from this weekend is how fashion is on the cusp of changing and it’s ready to accept that change — I think we’re the embodiment of that and I think VOICES is also the embodiment of that,” he said. “Thank you all for letting us learn from you, letting us be here and treating us as peers.”