“I Don’t Know How People Can Defend It”: Past Participants Shed Light on “Underbelly” of Vancouver Fashion Week

Ahead of the event's fall/winter 2019 showcase, dozens of ex-volunteers shared experiences in which they worked long hours, faced unsafe conditions and were unpaid. But VFW maintains that it's serving the local fashion community.

March 8, 2019

By Lucy Lau / Photo: Vancouver Fashion Week

Kelsey Barnwell was 19 years old when she walked Vancouver Fashion Week for the first time. An up-and-coming model who was eager to build her portfolio and runway experience, she had volunteered to participate in VFW’s spring/summer showcase in 2014 at the suggestion of the Vancouver-based talent agency she was signed to at the time. But after three seasons with the locally produced event, she says she would never model for it again.

“What I saw happening behind the scenes just wasn’t good,” Barnwell tells VanMag.

For three seasons between 2014 and 2015, Barnwell walked the entirety of VFW’s seven-day event. She says that, during this time, she and other young models worked 10- to 12-hour days, were not properly fed and were subject to unsafe working conditions that involved male photographers having access to backstage areas where models—many of whom were girls under 18—were changing. As volunteers, they were not compensated for their labour.

“I could see that I wasn’t being treated properly,” explains Barnwell, “but I was almost blinded by the fact that I wanted to see my friends—I met a lot them while modelling at the show and some would travel into town to work. So I went back for another season. And we all thought we might end up getting something good out of it.”

Barnwell’s experience is consistent with a number of online posts and testimonials that paint VFW as a disorganized operation that relies on the unpaid work of models and other staff. On a blog entitled Vancouver Fashion Weak, which was founded in 2011 as a way to prevent VFW from “exploiting students and recent graduates for their well-meaning free labour,” anonymous users claiming to have volunteered in media coordinator, executive assistant, street-style photographer and other positions describe the show as “unprofessional” and “mismanaged.”

Barnwell’s experience is consistent with a number of online posts and testimonials that paint VFW as a disorganized operation that relies on the unpaid work of models and other staff.

In 2015, these complaints culminated in pickets at VFW’s fall/winter edition, where a group of fashion-industry creatives—many of whom claimed to be former VFW participants—sought to draw attention to what they described as unjust labour practices enforced at VFW.

Other past VFW volunteers that VanMag spoke with recounted experiences as unpaid makeup artists, marketing coordinators, backstage helpers and others that were unfulfilling, short lived and at worst uncomfortable. Many of them said they received little guidance, were tasked with duties like manual labour that were outside their assigned roles, and worked long hours without breaks leading up to or during the event. The majority of them said they would caution prospective volunteers from taking part in the show, though some emphasized the skills and valuable networking opportunities obtained through VFW.

However, former volunteers like Barnwell assert that organizers should be paying their talent, especially given that VFW, a for-profit event, has expanded significantly since being founded in 2001 to include Vancouver Kids Fashion Week and the Global Fashion Collective, an initiative that gives local and international designers the chance to present at fashion weeks in New York and Tokyo.

“You should be getting the experience, the connections—all of that—as well as getting paid,” says Barnwell. “They should not be mutually exclusive.”

“You have to tear it down first”

Skye Simcoe, a Vancouver-based designer who showed at VFW for four seasons between 2012 and 2014 and asked to be identified by a pseudonym to protect her privacy, says the experience for designers at VFW isn’t much better. Like Barnwell, she recalls issues with backstage security and says that, on more than one occasion, she offered to purchase food for models to supplement the inadequate catering that was provided. “The things I saw were just so worrying,” she notes. “And when I brought them to the organizers’ attention, they were brushed off.”

On the business side, Simcoe claims that, upon paying a mandatory designer fee to participate in the show, she was presented with a VFW package that promised the possibility of international media exposure and the opportunity to meet multiple buyers, retail employees who often attend fashion weeks to scout trends and products before attending showroom appointments where they may place orders for garments. Simcoe says that she received neither of those things. In addition, she says that, in the four seasons that she participated in VFW, the designer fee increased steadily from $1,000 to $8,500, though it was unclear what she was paying for.

She says she worries about young emerging designers—especially those who travel to Vancouver specifically for VFW—who pay considerable fees to participate and may be disappointed by the event’s production value and the lack of opportunities offered compared to what is initially advertised. “I will say, it is a good platform for schools—for the student designers,” she says. “But I don’t know how people can defend Vancouver Fashion Week once they’ve seen the underbelly.”

She sees potential in VFW as a stage for the local fashion industry, but believes that it must be rebuilt from the ground up to effectively serve the community. “Vancouver Fashion Week can be a wonderful show,” she adds, “but unfortunately I think… you have to tear it down first and do it right.”

VFW is volunteer-driven, but supports local designers

Sarah Murray, who has served as community relations manager at VFW since 2014, says the negative VFW experiences outlined above and online are “growing pains” that are a symptom of the event’s development. She acknowledges that VFW is powered by volunteers, but asserts that they have the option to work shifts so they’re not present throughout a 12-hour day.

“Without volunteers, it’d be so hard to do anything. The show wouldn’t go on,” Murray tells VanMag. “And we try to get people that want that experience: fashion students, design students. Vancouver Fashion Week is actually quite beneficial depending on what your goals are.”

VFW founder Jamal Abdourahman did not respond to a request for comment, though VFW representatives issued the following statement: “Volunteer positions are entirely optional, and those who want to participate are free to commit to as much or as little as they wish. We schedule our volunteers from 3 hour shifts up to 8 hour shifts per day, with regular breaks in accordance with the B.C. Employment Standards Act. Since many of our volunteers are students and/or recent graduates looking for work experience, we allow our volunteers the option of continuing to participate in the event once their scheduled hours are complete.”

Murray, whose role at VFW involves inviting buyers to the event, says that buyers are present at the runway shows but that VFW is ultimately a “marketing opportunity, not a sales opportunity.” She says that, for an additional fee, participating designers may display their garments at an on-site showroom that is accessible to buyers.

Murray, whose role at VFW involves inviting buyers to the event, says that buyers are present at the runway shows but that VFW is ultimately a “marketing opportunity, not a sales opportunity.”

“You may have some luck getting a few sales, but that’s not really the purpose [of VFW],” she says. “And that’s true not just in Vancouver. If you’re a buyer and you’re shopping, you’re going to the showrooms to shop.”

She says that, since its launch in 2001, VFW has aimed to champion local designers and has achieved in doing so thanks to initiatives like the Nancy Mak Scholarship, a $5,000 award financed by Abdourahman that recognizes up-and-coming B.C.–based designers who have “a strong creative vision, a solid business plan, and a desire to expand either their design knowledge or brand’s reach.”

VFW also says it puts a “large portion of its earnings back into the local fashion community” and claims to be “the only event of its kind that sponsors such a large quantity of Canadian designers to present their designs at the show.” Its upcoming fall/winter 2019 edition, taking place from March 18 to 24 at the Chinese Cultural Centre, will feature collections by B.C. designers such as Grandi, Ay Lelum and Soojinu, as well as LaSalle College Vancouver and the Atira Women’s Resource Society, a Vancouver-based nonprofit that finds employment in the arts and design industries for marginalized women.

Jessica Lee, a Vancouver-based designer who participated in VFW for two seasons between 2017 and 2018, describes her experiences at the show as “great.” She says that her brands, Studio Lorem Ipsum and the now defunct A.Season, enjoyed increased exposure following her presentations at VFW. “Seeking media attention is definitely one of the most challenging areas of this industry and I would recommend Vancouver Fashion Week to any local up-and-coming designers to help grow their brands’ awareness,” she says. “I believe this can be an initial stepping stone in entering the bigger fashion world.”

Volunteers should be wary of for-profit groups, says employment lawyer

Richard Johnson, partner at Kent Employment Law, says that, by law, there is no definition of volunteer, though volunteers in B.C. are protected under the Employment Standards Act and Workers Compensation Act. Under this legislation, volunteers are considered “workers” and therefore, in most cases, should be paid. “By and large, unpaid internships and volunteers are not allowed under the Employment Standards Act unless there’s a specific exception,” he says.

Johnson says such exceptions may be made in cases involving practicum students and charitable groups that are not deriving a profit from a volunteer’s work. (None of the volunteers that VanMag spoke with were credit-seeking students during their time with VFW.) He cautions for-profit organizations from employing volunteers. “If an organization is making a profit on the backs of the people working, generally, it’s going to have to pay for those services,” he states.

He says that volunteers should also be compensated if they are performing the same tasks that a paid employee is doing, and if an organization is employing volunteers on a consistent, ongoing basis. To avoid being abused as a volunteer, Johnson advises individuals to do their due diligence: conduct an online search of the organization that’s hiring to ensure it’s reputable, document your relationship with the company from the outset and don’t be afraid to inquire about your hours and duties.

If an organization is making a profit on the backs of the people working, generally, it’s going to have to pay for those services.

He says that volunteers in B.C. have a right to file a complaint with the Employment Standards Branch within six months of the problem taking place. “[The Branch] will respond to concerns about an organization that employs volunteers who don’t look like volunteers,” he says. “They’re going to look at that pretty quickly. And they’re going to make some hard and fast findings about the nature of the work and whether or not these people should be paid.”

Robin Kay, founder of Toronto Fashion Week and president of the Fashion Design Council of Canada, considers fashion weeks to be a “marketing and branding exercise” for designers. She says that rapid shifts in the retail and fashion-design landscapes since 2012 have changed how buyers work, so much so that the onus is now on designers to market themselves, build buzz and amass social-media followings accordingly. “Retail is not healthy; buyers are reluctant to buy,” she tells VanMag.

Kay, who sold TFW to the New York City–based IMG in 2012 after operating it for more than a decade, believes that fashion-week organizers have a responsibility to ensure they are not taking advantage of the content—i.e., clothing and runway shows—that its talent produces in order to secure sponsorships and other financial aid. She says that fashion weeks should be a partnership between the producer and designer or a “two-way runway” through which both parties are helping and benefiting from one another. Expectations should also be adjusted in an era where digital platforms and e-commerce rule the roost.

“Anyone who dares to produce a fashion week in this day and age should be very upfront with how it works,” she says. “Communicate as professional business people to young designers: ‘This is what I’m asking you to bring to the table. This is a collaborative effort.’”

“I want to see better for the community”

For past VFW participants like Barnwell, enough is enough. In an effort to shed light on “what goes on behind the scenes” at VFW, the 24-year-old is planning a protest at the upcoming fall/winter 2019 showcase. She says she wants attendees to be aware of the unpaid labour that makes up the event, and is looking for others to join her in the cause.

“I want to see better for the community,” she says. “I want to see better for the models, the makeup artists and other volunteers.”

While Barnwell understands that VFW is a “big show,” she says that the fair compensation of employees should be a priority for organizers. “The words growing pains—how long does it take to grow?” she says. “They’ve had 20 years. It’s time for there to be a difference; it’s time for them to get their act together.”

Simcoe, meanwhile, believes that VFW must be overhauled so that its reputation doesn’t continue to cause contention in the local fashion scene, where designers, models and others may feel reluctant to support the show due to the negative experiences that have been shared. “It needs to be revamped,” she says, “so it connects the community instead of creating this huge divide.”

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