Dueling Vancouver Fashion Weeks Vie for Victory

It’s no surprise that a city recently rated third least-fashionable in the world is dealing with a bit of an image problem. But with a jumble of runway events striving for the same attention and respect, this season, behind-the-scenes drama is one element that die-hard Vancouver fashionistas are eager to see fall out of style.

Founded in 2004 under the guidance of Debra Walker and Vladimir Markovich, the now-defunct British Columbia Fashion Week navigated seven mostly successful seasons until the duo, exhausted by long hours and dwindling sponsorship dollars, opted to step down. Control of the event was shifted to BCFW’s longtime volunteer coordinator Chéz Noël. A gifted stage manager and veteran of the New York fashion scene, Noël’s inexperience with financial administration resulted in an embarrassingly public scandal — on October 2 of 2009, credit card fraud allegations shut down BC Fashion Week mid-runway show, under the supervision of RCMP officers. BCFW was forced to scrap plans for future events, and although Noël vociferously denied wrongdoing and the money was returned, the brand — and Vancouver’s reputation — has yet to recover. “It was a shame what happened to BCFW,” says fashion writer Rebecca Tay. “It really put a damper on the fashion industry in a city where [it’s already] not always taken seriously.”

Compounding the problem is a competing event that has had its own bad optics to contend with. Founded in 2001, Vancouver Fashion Week might now be the most established event in local fashion, but it’s still far from being the most respected. Overseen by Jamal Abdourahman, a controversial, polarizing figure who wisely trademarked the Vancouver Fashion Week name before anyone else could, VFW and its leader find themselves in the midst of an internet backlash from disgruntled (and largely anonymous) interns in the form of a blog titled Vancouver Fashion Weak.

“[The] individuals at the helm have proven to be one of the largest failures to the [BC and Vancouver Fashion] Weeks,” says Victoria Potter, a fashion blogger at DemiCouture.ca who is unflinching in her criticism. “These people have let ego, laziness, and underqualified employees take over their events,” she opines, and goes on to cite “blind local media support” as another obstacle in the journey back to credibility.

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Perhaps chief among the practical problems is the way Vancouver Fashion Week presents itself as a recognized “global platform for designers, buyers, media representatives, and sponsors,” but its early November dates position it too late in the season for the aforementioned all-important fashion buyers. Add to this the fact that the self-described “global platform” is frequently derided as having “high school” production values, including the fact that last year, aspiring models were “hired” via Craigslist. “I was paid $700 [in total] to model in their first year,” says one London-based catwalker familiar with the Vancouver scene, “and I think that was the last year they paid anyone.” Without a marquee sponsor like LG or Mercedes Benz, it’s hardly surprising that money is tight, but it’s clearly impractical to expect even the most dedicated interns to broker the kind of lucrative partnerships needed to boost the credibility and funding of an event so dependent on sophistication, urbanity, and glamour.

But are these just growing pains or something endemic to the entire ultra-casual Pacific Northwest scene? A few hours south, in the Portland region, home to Project Runway winners Leanne Marshall, Seth Aaron Henderson, and Gretchen Jones, designers are still struggling with a lackluster infrastructure that has caused many lesser-known professionals to abandon either the region or, in some cases, shelve their design dreams completely.

Of course, Vancouver isn’t without its own reality show personalities: Project Runway Canada alumni Evan Biddell (Season 1 winner), Carlie Wong, Genevieve Graham, and Kim Cathers have all managed to keep their homegrown labels alive despite the global economic downturn. However, none of these “name” designers will be showing at VFW this year.

Enter a new player on the scene: Vancouver Eco Fashion Week. EFW’s programming reflects a trend toward sustainability in materials and production, and organizer Myriam Laroche has done a fine job bringing some relatively big local names to the catwalk, including the aforementioned Project Runway Canada finalist Kim “kdon” Cathers, Jason Matlo, and perennial Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue favorite Anna Kosturova, whose cotton crochet bikinis and silk cover-ups just opened EFW’s sophomore season.

Some worry the “eco” pigeonhole could hamper the event’s growth by minimizing the importance of high-end design at the expense of pushing what may prove to be a temporary interest in all things green, but Laroche is determined to broaden the appeal beyond what ornery buyers could dismiss as merely a fad. In what seems like a pre-emptive response to those perceptions of EFW as a runway strewn with granola, Kosturova’s parade of sequin- and shell-adorned luxury swimwear could be just the shot of glam an otherwise moribund local scene really needs to get back on those stilettos.

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