Welcome to uOttaKnow, a forward thinking, expert-driven podcast produced by the University of Ottawa.
Hello, I’m Gwen Madiba, host of uOttaKnow and proud two-time graduate of the Faculty of Social Sciences. I am also the president of the Equal Chance Foundation.
uOttaKnow puts you in touch with uOttawa researchers and alumni at the cutting edge of their fields for thought-provoking discussions on today’s trending topics.
The second season of uOttaKnow will cover a variety of subjects, with a special focus on wellness. In today’s episode, we’ll look at the future of fashion and explore its impact on wellness for individuals and for society.
Our guest, Chantal Durivage, is a leader in Canada’s fashion landscape. We’re going to discuss a range of subjects, including fashion as a way to express identity, the eco-friendly clothing movement, and the importance of highlighting body diversity.
And now I’d like to introduce Chantal. She has a bachelor’s degree in art history from the University of Ottawa, and after entering the professional world, she successfully managed more than 40 artists before moving into event production as founder and EVP of Creative Development for Groupe Sensation Mode (GSM).
Over more than 20 years, she’s helped Groupe Sensation Mode develop an international reputation by producing prestigious major fashion events, such as the Fashion & Design Festival (which, in non-pandemic times, attracts over half a million visitors each year) and Montreal Fashion Week. She has helped GSM create partnerships and produce events in fashion capitals like New York, Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo, making a major contribution to the exposure and recognition of Canadian designers globally.
Chantal, thanks for being with us from Montreal today!
I’ve really been looking forward to speaking with you today. I previously worked in the fashion industry as a designer, a model, and an entrepreneur – fashion is a subject I’m very passionate about. I even participated in one of your Fashion Weeks. I had a little booth when I had my fashion house, House of Dare, a long time ago. So, thank you for that. You’ve really devoted your career to the Canadian fashion industry, and you’ve also had a real impact on the international scene. To begin, tell us what fashion means to you personally.
Actually, let me touch on something you just said. I’m very happy to find out that we’ve already collaborated on a fashion adventure. I’m really interested to know more about your career, but I guess I’m the one who’s supposed to answer questions. Well, since I graduated from the University of Ottawa in History and Theory of Art, you might wonder how I ended up in fashion. Certainly my journey in History and Theory of Art taught me a lot about the visual universe. I’ve always been very passionate about the visual world.
I also have to say that for my clothing, there’s even a family dimension. My mother was incredibly elegant. And I have to say that we’d usually dig through her wardrobe together. But first of all, what is fashion? For me, it’s really a way of expressing yourself to the world, of getting dressed every day, and depending on your mood or what you’ve done during the day, you make decisions. You choose between t-shirts, jeans. The choice can also be very elaborate, depending on what you want to say or how you want to feel. So, one of goals in creating our Montreal company, Fashion & Design Festival, was to democratize that world, to have a conversation with the public, with people, with consumers. To find out: what do they like, what do they want to see? What do they want to experience? What do they aspire to? What do they want to communicate? And that dialogue is very complex. For over 20 years now, we’ve been engaged in that conversation with the public, and it has evolved so much. So to me, fashion is a way of expressing identity.
And this way of expressing identity illustrates the beauty of fashion, the best it can offer. I also want to focus on another aspect of the industry. The fashion industry, like entertainment, has long been criticized for unrealistic beauty standards imposed on women, particularly the pervasive ideal of youth, whiteness and thinness. In fact, when I was 12 and I was auditioning in an agency, I was told when I arrived “We have enough Black kids. We won’t take you.” But fortunately, for some time now, we’ve been seeing this change. The issue of body diversity is really starting to be taken seriously. What changes have you seen since you’ve been working in the industry?
It’s sad to hear the story you experienced, because that must have been extremely difficult. How can a child understand? It’s not a little thing. Clearly there’s still a lot of work to be done. But in 1999–2000, the trend was extreme thinness, bordering on heroin chic.
It was a very dreary image and thinness was everywhere.
But in 2006, if I remember correctly, we had a number of conversations in our organization. In fact, we joined a group in order to ask ourselves questions, particularly about body diversity, and to see what we could do in Quebec, in Montreal, in Canada, to change the direction a bit. We helped draft a charter on body diversity so we could open people’s minds on the issue. On the other side, we also see a customer who could become a mother, and it worries me a lot. It’s for our young people. The messages that are sent out, that are transmitted by these images. So, we tried to get in touch with people in Montreal who treat eating disorders. We talked with them a lot to see what we could do, because the goal was not to say that we won’t have thin models, for instance, in a casting, or to say “You: you’re too thin.” That doesn’t help young people, so we asked ourselves how we could contribute. We received support from the Douglas Institute, which gave us all kinds of recommendations, particularly on how to inform these young women who had eating disorders, how to talk to them about their options, and how we could help and support them. And it was an approach that became recognized around the world. It was based in Montreal. We were the first to take the step toward a charter signed by all the stakeholders in the industry.
After that, we started seeing changes that needed to happen. Ultimately, the image makers create images that consumers consume. So, it’s a cycle.
What I mean is, we vote with our wallets. So we buy images, and we consume ideas and we encourage the system to think in a certain way, like the positions we’ve seen people take this year. Whether it’s Black Lives Matter, or the #metoo hashtag. These are all social initiatives that are important to take. Because there’s the fashion industry, but there’s also the entertainment industry. As you said earlier, we need to shift, we need to change things.
For us, in our sphere, it’s in our initiatives. Diversity has always been one of our primary concerns, whether its about bodies or culture. And I have to be honest. We want an opening for inclusivity, and fashion makes that possible. On the contrary, there’s a lack of limits there, because everyone gets dressed every day. So everyone has to express themselves in their own way, whatever their culture. Everyone has stories to tell. That’s the beauty of it and that’s what we want to continue to actively promote in everything we do. Because we want to use that as a way to bring about change.
What we’re talking about right now is directly related to wellness. Clearly, the fashion and marketing industries affect each of us individually, but I’d like to talk about their influence on the well-being of society in general. Whether it’s buy-local movements, the “vote with your wallet” slogan, or eco-friendliness, how do you see the role of fashion in the health of our society?
That’s a great question. From my point of view, fashion can play a vital role because already, this industry is one of the biggest polluters. So it has to take a stand and propose firm, concrete and innovative actions. Fashion can play a part in our well-being from the moment it supports us in our daily lives and gives us values that are a lot more contemporary and eco-friendly.
In this respect, there are major changes that need to be made that don’t seem easy. And here again, we vote with our wallets. So the consumer really has to make choices, important choices.
Buying local means making it possible for our children to go to school, since the money stays in the economy and encourages local businesses, allowing people to work and pay wages. Obviously, that means we stimulate their creativity, but by the same token, they also pay taxes. And these taxes mean we can go to school, receive health care.
Currently, four out of five purchases are made on online platforms that go outside of Canada. Four out of five: that’s a lot of money. When we’re no longer coming home to educate ourselves, to receive care, then does fashion have a major role as an industry? Yes, but the consumer is a part of the cycle. The consumer makes decisions about their purchases. I know it can be annoying to have to wait for an order. But really, can’t you wait five days to encourage a young designer? To ensure that their employees keep their jobs? And that the money stays in the local economy? Also, young designers are environmentally friendly. They do everything in their workshops. They use their creativity, which is a part of their culture and our Canadian culture. It’s a great choice for the consumer, and I sincerely hope that our young people are educated to see the difference that these choices can make in our daily lives.
Yes, it’s incredible how much fashion touches every facet of our lives, isn’t it?
Well, we have a spotlight question for you today from a fellow alumna who graduated from the Faculty of Arts, Isabelle Gauvreau. Isabelle Gauvreau is a visual artist who explores womanhood in all its aspects. It’s always been important for her to represent women in her art in a realistic and personal way, rather than idealistic. She believes that this role belongs to women. It’s the creative and relational aspect with her clients that fuels her and inspires her to work in this field. She opened her Ottawa boutique in 2014 to showcase Canadian and European designers she believes in. As a buyer, Isabelle is conscious of women’s needs for responsible garment manufacturing as well as presenting clothes that aren’t trendy but rather timeless and practical, while also being beautiful.
Question from Isabelle Gauvreau
Fashion is so much a field that’s mainly aimed at women. Have we finally reached a time that speaks to the reality of women in fashion while promoting the creative work of designers?
Isabelle, what a great question. It’s a fantastic question. I think we have a similar background, so I think we’ll certainly have the opportunity. I hope we can meet and discuss it.
I think that given the shared responsibilities that we are moving towards, that we have to move toward, I firmly believe that women are responsible for the creative canvas. Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I think that the world of women will increasingly be taken into consideration.
The world of women is complex. Women can simultaneously be mothers and work from home. Today, there are all kinds of unique and different profiles in terms of bodies and culture. We’re recording this on International Women’s Day. And I deeply hope that women will really be at the heart of creation. And if they’re at the heart of a designers’ creation, it will be a tribute to the field of design. What a nice poetic question!
Thank you, Chantal, for answering Isabelle’s question. We encourage our listeners in the Ottawa region to visit Isabelle’s boutique at 457 Sussex Drive.
I’d like to end our conversation by looking toward the future. Chantal, what do you think the future of fashion is going to look like with retail moving online, digital becoming increasingly essential, and trends coming from influencers on social media?
Yes, well, I think we’re still in the midst of a lot of change. There will be many challenges, especially for mid-sized retail companies. They’re going to have to learn to reinvent themselves, to talk about eco-responsibility. We’ve been very focused on fast and disposable fashion. Consumers will no longer accept those conditions. Spending five dollars on a shirt that comes from the other side of the planet doesn’t resonate with young people today. It’s hard to understand how a t-shirt could cost five dollars if it’s crossed the world in a container and been sewn and dyed. Someone also had to grow the cotton. These are all things young people are thinking about today. Fashion still has a massive shift to make in that respect.
As for online shopping, I think people will still keep part of their desire to see, touch, explore, collections in the store, but maybe less and less. Current consumer behaviour will continue, maybe partly online or in hybrid form, meaning that half our purchases will be online and the other half in retail stores. I think we’re also going to see a change at the level of the art. There are a lot of research proposals. I think that in 20 years we will enter a world of in-store and online experiences. We haven’t finished changing. I hope that people will consume less but better, and I think that’s what will eventually happen. So, a focus on creating locally, buying locally, everything.
When we go and shop, we’ll think about the product’s origin and how long it will last. Technological clothing, in my opinion, could be an important part of our daily lives, possibly with a whole range of innovations in smart textiles. So, that’s my prediction for the future.
Chantal, you know an incredible amount about the fashion world and I’m sure some of our listeners want to learn more. Could you let our listeners know where they can find you online?
I would invite them to follow the Fashion & Design Festival, it’s a great resource. Whether it’s on social media or on .com on the web, there’s a wealth of information. There are people who write every week on different subjects. And I also invite them to like my personal page, “Chantal Durivage.” I’d be happy to welcome them and give them some information about my career.
Thank you, Chantal, for this conversation about all things fashion!
uOttaKnow is produced by the University of Ottawa’s Alumni Relations team. This episode was recorded at Pop Up Podcasting in Ottawa, Ontario. We pay respect to the Algonquin people, who are the traditional guardians of this land. We acknowledge their longstanding relationship with this territory, which remains unceded. For a transcript of this episode in English and French, or to find out more about uOttaKnow, please refer to the description of this episode.