Earlier this week I attended my first Copenhagen Fashion Summit, and despite the event being mostly very positive, I experienced a particularly dehumanizing episode that speaks of a wider divide in fashion. That there are those of us in the industry more motivated by adding real value, and those more motivated to be part of it to elevate themselves. The latter dynamic seems to be particularly prevalent in the sustainability circles, where many seek to be associated with the ethical credential for its halo effect. This divide was evident in everyone from the speakers and panellists down to the organizers.
As the Summit’s agenda professes to want to change the fashion industry, focusing on innovation, respect, and looking at the human angle in addition to the environment, I am sharing this in hopes of illustrating the champagne-socialist pitfalls that can pervade the sustainability brigade.
There was a distinct air of smugness that pervaded the communications arm of this organization. There was a “Welcome” Dinner that was “for all participants” but that had apparently been “sold out for one month”. When I enquired about it with a senior member of the communications team, she was extremely short and irritated that I was asking her about this, and immediately told me to speak to someone else. Of course, I was repeatedly told “it is impossible to squeeze in any more people” and there was no attempt to accommodate. But as it goes, once I did attend, there were more than four completely empty tables set. As of course, there was also a separate VIP dinner happening.
Then on the final evening of the Summit, there was an invitation-only Celebration Dinner at the Hotel D’Angleterre for “selected VIP guests and premium ticket holders”. All of the new friends I’d made at the summit, all of a comparable relevance and hierarchy, some who had been invited and some who were filling in for others, had urged me to come. I hadn't received an invitation, but had a VIP/Press access pass, so thought would be good to double-check. In any case, following the back-and-forth aspect of the Welcome Dinner experience, I thought I could come to the hotel for a drink at the lobby bar, ensure that I was not on the list, but in any case, say a final goodbye to these new friends in the lobby before we all head our separate ways, and perhaps also be able to say a quick hello to former Vanity Fair Editor-in-Chief Graydon Carter, who was attending. As he is a fellow Torontonian with a prolific journalistic career, I had always wanted to meet him.
Upon arrival at the hotel, I checked in with the organizers, who after confirming I was not on the list, asked me what I did. As uncomfortable as it is having to pitch one’s self, I summarized the publications I write for, my venture and the people I work with. The PR informed me that she would like to try and fit me in if I didn't mind waiting a bit. They reiterated that is was such a special event because the Crown Princess is attending. Twenty minutes later, the PR came and told me that they did not have room. I said fine, thanks for letting me know, planned for an oyster feast at Krog’s Fish Restaurant, then proceeded to enjoy my pre-dinner drink in the lobby bar. Then ten minutes later, Katja Vonsild, the group’s project assistant, came to confirm that “it would be a no”, perhaps, in case I had misunderstood. She looked at me like she expected me to leave the hotel altogether. I confirmed that it was absolutely fine, but I was going to stay for a drink, as the bar was a separate entity.
Anyhow, Graydon waltzed in and I had my chat. Fulfilled, I went back to the bar and befriended a chief-level executive and BOF 500 member who was also being kept out of the dinner. We were soon joined by a few other Celebration Dinner rejects who ended up staying for drinks.
About an hour later, Ms Vonsild came to the bar and informed us that there were empty seats and that some of us could enter, but not all of us, so don't take it personally “if it’s a no”, and could we please all tell her what we do again. For the second time that night, I gave my summary, and Ms Vonsild, unsure, said she would bring in her superior. Maria Jaepelt Petersen, Communication Manager & Executive Assistant, arrived and asked me “who I was”. For the third time, I was asked to state my credentials. Ms Petersen then kneeled to my level as if I were a naughty toddler, and in an impossibly condescending tone, proceeded to tell me in slow-mo that this is a “Vee Aaai Pee” event and that it was in-vit-at-ion only, and that the Crown Princess was there. They then let in two others not on the list, but "it would be a no” for myself and the chief-level BOF 500 member.
Why they needed to mention the Princess ad nauseam, as if we were a potential threat, is another question altogether. (As someone from the New World with a basic understanding of genetics, I find the concept of monarchy comical at best.)
I didn't want to do the don’t-you-know-who-I-am-spiel. There is something about having to defend your worth that feels icky. Hence, I didn't bother to mention that on the very day, I had been invited to speak at a panel in London, or had been contacted for comment by a major magazine. Having routinely attended the most sought-after shows at Paris Fashion Week (see, self-aggrandizing is gross), I found it baffling to encounter this level of snootiness at a sustainability summit that claims to care about improving the human side of the industry. In Paris, at arguably the most exclusive industry events, it's usually a clean ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is based on actual capacity issues. But Ms Petersen, who according to LinkedIn, has spent the entirety of her career in the Copenhagen fashion body, had seemed like she had been patiently waiting a really long time to relish this once-a-year opportunity to throw her fashion mean-girl weight around.
A divide was also palpable in the speakers. The ones everyone loved were those that kept it real. Those such as Maiyet’s Paul Van Zyl (“There are t-shirts being sold for $10 and I just don’t think you can ethically do that.” Ahem, H&M.); Levi’s Paul Dillinger (“Why don’t more brands make products that are sustainable? Cause it’s hard.”); and show-me-the-money Mostafiz Uddin (“You want transparency? Someone has to pay for transparency.”) The derivative PR-spun speeches came from those corporates who said a lot of things about “initiatives” that sounded nice, but didn’t really mean anything.
It was not easy to write this, but much like accurate observation is key in psychology, we can't change the industry unless we take an honest look at it. I had circulated an earlier version of this article to the contacts I had my made at the Summit for feedback, and received a surprising number of Summit me-too stories. Many felt that no one really cared about their ideas unless they had a big name or were attached to someone who had a big name. There was someone who could only speak if their big-name investor also came. There was a super-VIP who remembers being treated badly at Copenhagen when they were not-so-VIP. But while they are so focused on courting VIPs to put the city on the fashion map, the organizers ought to realize that some of those who already have a big name or are attached to a big corporation sometimes cruise by, paying lip-service about lofty-sounding ideas that often don't make economical sense. Many of us non-VIPs, we are the ones pushing hard for change.
There was some amazing work that went into this event, and I truly felt fortunate to be able to attend and meet some incredible people. I wrote about the positives on other outlets. Some members of the CFS team, such as Celestine Schwabe and Johan Arno Kryger, were exceptionally lovely, genuine and interested.
It seems that Copenhagen Fashion Summit has one forward-thinking foot in innovation, and one firmly planted in maintaining the classist closed-doors feel of the industry required to foster their own feelings of specialness. Much like we need to balance the aim for profits with sustainability, let's balance all the ethical elitism with some humanity.