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Three women entrepreneurs on fashion’s female empowerment

By Jackie Mallon

Mar 12, 2020

News of women who are marginalized or abused within the male-dominated global fashion supply chain is unfortunately all too common but women who are actively empowering other women to thrive within the industry can be an overlooked story. At Fashinnovation’s recent NYC event the stage was occupied by a panel of seasoned and experienced female entrepreneurs, in diverse leadership roles, who explained how they are driving change, and disrupting expectation to rebuild the system from the inside out. Here, three of them discuss their individual methods of achieving the same goal.

The CEO

Sandra Campos, CEO of Diane von Furstenberg, consumes at least 2 hours of business news every morning on platforms such as LinkedIn or Jing Daily, reading everything from the latest consumer products to what’s happening at Tesla to share prices, because she believes it all impacts fashion and staying current is critical.

The founder

Ariane Goldman, founder of Hatch, began her business of helping women navigate the often uneasy experience of pregnancy, while feeling both excited and lonely expecting her first daughter. As well as providing chic maternity clothing and safe beauty products, her brand aims to create a community to help women deal with postpartum, miscarriage, fertility, lactation, sleep deprivation, by hosting consultants and an events series centered on “real women with stories to tell.” Investment in women for Goldman meant opening brick and mortar “to house this conversation and allow us go through this moment together and to support each other.”

The model activist

Coco Rocha, model and activist, co-owner of Nomad modeling agency, creator of the Coco Rocha Model Camp, boasts over 17 million followers, and has only ever found social media to be an empowerment tool. Models were not supposed to speak or even be heard from when she was starting out, but she discovered MySpace and found her voice. “The industry actually told me if I continued to do it it would ruin my career. The idea of a model was that she should be untouchable, unrecognizable really, that we represented a fantasy world. So for people to know I ate cereal every night in my pajamas watching HGTV was insane for the industry to understand.”

Despite social media’s darker side, Rocha believes it is a valuable resource for females starting out in the industry, whether models or businesswomen. She recalls an article in the early days of her career alleging that she was too fat for the runway, and says, “They didn’t realize they picked the wrong model.” She proceeded to let the world know what she thought of the journalist’s opinion. “You don’t realize the tool you have unless you are threatened with losing your voice. It can change your business.”

Rocha’s Model Camp trains models in several countries about the artistic side of the job, the editorial work, posing, runway presence, but also focuses on educating these sometimes very young women on their rights, contract negotiation, accounting, the importance of solid decision making. When she was becoming successful there was no such safe place and as the young girls were usually replacing the older models, the thinking went *why would they help someone like her?* “But I realized I will be replaced one day,” she says, “so why not help the future generation, let them have an awesome time while conquering this industry.” Almost 600 women have passed through the camp so far creating a community of women who work all over the world.

Fashion industry mentors aid female empowerment

Reaching out is something these women encourage and they have learnt that mentors come in all forms, emerging mysteriously when needed at various stages of their careers. Not surprisingly Campos cites her current boss who launched her business 45 years ago and despite its dramatic ups and downs over the decades, it still remains one of the top American fashion houses. While running her namesake company von Furstenberg has concurrently held powerful positions including being president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and has featured in Forbes list of the most powerful women in the world. Says Campos, “Diane von Furstenberg is a legend, not an old school thinker, but someone who is very energizing, an innovative thinker.”

Mothers are Goldman’s mentors, the women who went before her into pregnancy, who offered advice or simply companionship, while supermodels Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, and Iman are Rocha’s. She describes her disbelief when, as a young model, she reached out to Cindy Crawford and Iman on Twitter, having never met them, to see if they would respond to a few questions, and they agreed. Rocha sent 50 questions of which Iman answered 48 and Cindy 49––“she said one was a repeat.”

The power of saying no is a major factor in the trajectory of these women’s careers, as well as an inherent self-awareness. “A frustrating thing for my clients was that I had an opinion on how I wanted to be portrayed instead of just how they wanted to portray me,” says Rocha. “As a business woman you need to know who your client is but also who are you? Have that conversation with yourself.” For founders what your brand stands for is essentially what you stand for, but in the early days it can be tempting when faced with dollar signs to lose focus on what differentiates your business from all the others. Opportunities for women to come together is motivating and Goldman’s success demonstrates that strengthening voices within a community creates unity which empowers women beyond that community.

What do they wish they had known starting out? Campos advises women to be open, be curious, as some experiences might make no sense at the time but will inform you ten years later. Goldman thinks that while wisdom is wonderful, knowledge can be daunting. It can be more beneficial not to know too much, but to hold tight to one’s instincts. Says Rocha, “I’m going to annoy this industry by being the whistle blower, the Chatty McChatter, so I would tell my younger self to just embrace that.”

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Photos Fashinnovation