Diversity Is Vancouver Fashion Week’s Greatest Strength — & Its Greatest Struggle
With a lineup of designers from 16 countries, Vancouver’s runways offer a truly multicultural take on style. But those cultures can clash — hard.
The words “decent piece of shit” are sprawled across a 24-foot LED monitor that serves as the backdrop to a classic long white runway. Aside from the expletive, it’s a typical setting for a fashion show: lights dimmed, models ready to walk, theme music creeping in to set the mood. Taiwanese designer Pin-Yu Chen is about to debut a collection dedicated to her cheating ex-boyfriend. She thought he was a nice guy, Chen tells me through a translator, but it turned out he was dating 12 (!!!) other women at the same time he was seeing her.
Hours before her debut at Vancouver Fashion Week, Chen is dressed in all black, like she’s ready for a wake. On the night of the show, she’ll change into a blood-red pantsuit, the same colour as the substance oozing out of the image of her ex-boyfriend’s face that's painted onto the back of a long, wooly trench. (Yes, Chen’s former beau is “really angry” about the public shaming.) It’s a high-concept, bold collection that Chen wanted to debut in Vancouver so she didn’t have to relinquish creative control.
“There’s no limitation in terms of what the designers can express. From choosing the background music to designing the background image to how the models will walk,” says Chen, a popular designer in Taiwan. “Back home, it’s a lot more conservative and there are a lot of restrictions. Here, I’m allowed to choose the models I want, and that’s something I’m not allowed to do in Taiwan.”
Chen is one of 33 international designers who recently presented their fall/winter 2019 collections at Vancouver Fashion Week (VFW), which may come as a surprise since Vancouver is known more for hikes and “fresh pow pow” bros than catwalks and couture. But VFW has been a showcase for emerging global and local talent for 18 years. It’s a full seven-day event with up to 12 consecutive shows every night, which means more designers show at VFW than at fashion weeks in Toronto, L.A., and Mexico City. Like Chen, other international designers say they were attracted to Vancouver for the Canadian exposure, the freedom to express their ideas, and the multiculturalism that comes with the participation of so many designers from all over the world. Sure, you’ll find haute couture in London or Paris, A-List celebrities in New York, and more polished shows in Toronto, but what you get in Vancouver, they say, is eccentricity, ingenuity, and a truly global perspective on fashion.
The relevance of fashion weeks around the world has come into question lately due to instances of offensive designs and a lack of representation on the runway as well as waning interest from those outside the fashion elite. Racial inclusivity is up slightly across the major fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan, and Paris, but body, gender, and non-binary representation is still lacking. In contrast to the seemingly never-ending criticism and calls for reform of other fashion weeks, Vancouver Fashion Week says it offers up the antithesis: diversity as its greatest strength. VFW’s press materials proudly proclaim that it casts “models of different sizes, ethnicities, and abilities” and that it's dedicated to a “multicultural approach.” With 16 countries represented on the fall/winter runway, the VFW world is multicultural, yes, but those cultures can clash — hard.
While Vancouver Fashion Week attracts international designers from diverse backgrounds, some of those creators hail from countries where conversations about representation are rare or long overdue and the word “woke” has yet to be exhausted. European runways severely lag behind North American ones in plus-size representation. And, according to Japan Today, in Japan and Korea, “super-thin is still in.” Even if conversations about racial diversity on runways are starting in non-Western markets, as Business of Fashion puts it, “This has not resulted in a significant rise in the number of models of colour walking the runways,” especially outside of North America. In other words, designers showing at VFW can be more focused on personal tastes rooted in their cultural norms than on challenging antiquated beauty standards, and that can translate into conflict between the designers, models, and VFW itself. The control VFW gives to its designers is sometimes in stark contrast to its progressive ideals. For example, when I ask Pin-Yu Chen about her choice of models for her boyfriend revenge show, her translator says bluntly, “She prefers slim guys and girls.”
All Vancouver Fashion Week shows take place at the Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Vancouver, in the heart of the city’s Chinatown and accessible via an alleyway that off-duty models turn into their personal runway with photographers snapping street-style shots in front of an Instagram-worthy white brick wall. Every night of VFW, socialites, influencers, buyers, and Vancouver’s fashion insiders swarm the Cultural Centre’s David Lam Hall to watch a slate of designers. The impresario behind it all is VFW founder and producer Jamal Abdourahman, a fast-talking, flashy 46-year-old former nightclub promoter with duelling aesthetics: He’s either rocking a sharp suit or dressed like Pharrell in a towering hat and brown leather duster. He’s the guy wining and dining editors. (VFW footed the bill for multiple members of the media to attend the week, myself included.) Abdourahman has a hand in every aspect of the week and the event is an execution of his vision. He’s the driving force behind VFW’s diversity mission, and his love of fashion and unearthing emerging global designers has fuelled its success. Abdourahman says he’s committed to inclusion because he wants VFW to reflect the multicultural city that greeted him with open arms when he immigrated from Djibouti, East Africa in the ’90s.
One of the designers Abdourahman hand selected for Vancouver Fashion Week is Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene. The South African, New York-based creator of Mabu49 showed her collection on Day 4 to a packed crowd. “What’s great about this week is that they’ve called in people from all over the world,” she says. “I’ve met designers from Sydney and Atlanta and there’s myself from South Africa. I think that’s great that there’s all this diversity.” Mabu49’s dramatic pieces were inspired by Kunene’s Zulu roots, with models decked out in stark whites and some in leather fringe headgear. Kunene hoped every model walking in her show would be Black, in a nod to her African heritage, but because of the models available to her in Vancouver, Kunene had to settle for women of mixed backgrounds. “I did get a model from Ethiopia and one from Sierra Leone, so I was happy about that,” she says.
Organizers at VFW say they select models through agencies and open casting calls (they offer training to first-time runway walkers). “It totally depends on the designers' requests,” says Faye Cottrill, the PR and media coordinator of VFW. “We provide the designers with a group of diverse models to choose from for their show.” Indigenous sister duo Aunalee Boyd-Good and Sophia Seward-Good of Ay Lelum-The House of Good Design debuted their collection on Day 5 with models in a beautiful array of sizes and ethnicities. They say the week was accommodating of their vision. “We made very specific requests,” Boyd-Good laughs. Her sister adds, “That means ethnicity, background, and size. We’re not looking for one look and [Vancouver] Fashion Week is able to provide that for us, and I think for everyone.”
There’s evidence of the Good sisters’ faith in VFW in the refreshing assortment of models who donned twists on traditional garments from various cultures in shows. There were extravagant two-piece saris from Vancouver-based Sunny’s Bridal and modest designs by the mother/daughter team behind the Su Moda Collection, which featured headscarves and conservative yet eye-catching robes inspired by Dubai, Kuwait, and New Delhi. And there were presentations that challenged the high-fashion status quo, like my personal favourite: a gender norm-bending show from Profanity by Lillzkillz that had women models in snow boots and the men in heels.
Vancouver Fashion Week does showcase stunning work from international designers who are shattering the fashion industry’s unrealistic ideals, but there are tensions between the organizers and the designers who aren’t as forward-thinking. Abdourahman says the international aspect of VFW is why there may be problems with diversity and inclusion. He recalls a story of an Australian designer who asked for all their models to have blonde hair and blue eyes. Abdourahman says he told the designer, “That’s not how the world is.” After coaxing, the designer relented on letting a Black model wear one of their dresses, and Abdourahman says that model was — to the designer’s delight — the one featured “in every paper.”
Other designers haven’t been as compliant. Ghanaian model Vigilant Sutherlin, who is based in California, was rejected during a fitting (many fittings for VFW’s international designers happen the day of their shows) by a designer who told her that she wanted “someone smaller.” (Sutherin is a size 2.) Sutherin says another designer refused to use a fellow Black model in her show because the model wore her hair in an afro. Sutherlin declined to disclose which designers handed out these rejections but says both were from Russia.
This season, Vancouver Fashion Week experienced its biggest controversy to date when a casting call posted on Instagram by a Japanese designer requested “petite models” with a 20- to 22-inch waistline. It sounds ridiculous that in 2019 casting calls are specifying sizes at all, but even by thin-model standards, those requirements seem obscene. The organization issued a lengthy apology. Two models threatened to boycott. VFW called the casting call a “mistake” and promised to “encourage body positivity.”
The very thing that attracts designers — the chance to show their collections alongside talent from around the world without restriction — is the reason something like the casting-call issue happened, says Abdourahman. As Abdourahman puts it, he has to talk to VFW designers from Asian countries “all the time” about making sure they consider body diversity when casting their shows. There is a body positive movement underway in Japan, but the pressure from the fashion industry to be skinny is still potent. According to government health data from 2017, 22 percent of Japanese women in their 20s are categorized as underweight.
VFW organizers responded to the controversy by doubling down on their mission for inclusion. “Many of our designers, almost half this year, are from outside of Canada, and are accustomed to designing clothing for a different market. One of these designers put out a casting call that was not in line with our sizing guidelines or representative of our values, and thus was taken down,” Cottrill tells Refinery29 via e-mail. “We worked with the designer and will work with all international designers in the future to ensure that moving forward all participants in Vancouver Fashion Week will operate under the same values of diversity and inclusivity.”
Still, the majority of shows at VFW disproportionately featured models below a size 6. That wasn't the case at New York-based brand Lisa Aviva’s show. The designer, Lisa A. Bleviss, makes luxury clothing for women above a size 10 (Ashley Graham chose one of her pieces to feature in InStyle magazine). Bleviss praises VFW for including her work, but says she hopes the week would continue to show a diverse range of sizes in other shows as well.
“As someone who has been plus-sized most of my life, I have struggled to find a way to express myself through my clothing, so it’s really important for a collection like mine to have a platform,” she said on the runway after her show. “I hope they keep it up for the rest of the week.”
Vigilant Sutherlin, the model who was passed over for “someone smaller,” walked in multiple shows at Vancouver Fashion Week and was the recipient of whistles and cheers when she strutted down the Emelia's Swimwear runway in a yellow bikini. She capped off her walk with a playful spin. Sutherlin says working in fashion is all about finding the good amidst the bad. Despite the rejection she experienced, she says one of the positive things about VFW was that she did see different sizes represented.
“When you go to New York fashion weeks or other fashion weeks, when they say plus-size models, they want a size 6,” Sutherlin says. “But at Vancouver, there were actually plus-size models. And they actually had clothes that fit those models.”