Miroir: What inspired VALT?
Kat Ferneyhough: There are several alternative fashion events occurring around the globe, and upon deciding to move to the west coast, we found it surprising that a city as creative and unique as Vancouver didn’t already have one. After years of operating as an event coordinator for art exhibitions, mini music festivals, and fashion shows myself, plus Kat Kozak’s experience documenting and managing events as well, it seemed only natural to develop one here together.
Kat Kozak: Ultimately, Kat Ferneyhough shared her vision for the initial concept of VALT with me, and I was honoured to be asked to be a part of it, both as a friend and fellow creative.
Miroir: What were your biggest obstacles along the way?
Kat Ferneyhough: I would say our biggest difficulties were getting integrated into a community that is fairly tight-knit to begin with, and convincing artists and designers that we are here to support them rather than take advantage of them. It appears many have had poor experiences in this city, which has now left many artists jaded and extremely cautious when putting themselves and their work out there.
Kat Kozak: Also, trying to balance our creative lives with our personal lives. We have both experienced many personal challenges over the last 5 years, but fortunately we have had each other, as well as very supportive friends and family to encourage and lend support along the way when possible.
Miroir: What was one of your biggest challenges that helped you to gain new insights?
Kat Ferneyhough: Delegation of effort. We encountered many people who offered to help us out, but it was a select few who really dedicated their time and energy. That said, we’ve had some truly incredible volunteers, and we’re so happy to have brought several of them back year after year because they are so reliable and dedicated to our mission. Our two biggest supports through the process have been our husbands – we both had to move across the country, whisking them away from their lives as well as starting over ourselves. They poured in countless hours to help us with our dream of getting this event off of the ground. It was extraordinarily difficult for me to keep going during both years 4 and 5, as the toll of stress from the 3 previous years started the inevitable separation between myself and Andrew, but we both worked through it, and he has continued to be one of the strongest pillars of our event, even if we are no longer together.
Kat Kozak: The biggest challenge for me was during Year 1 – #VALT2012, after moving to a brand new city and then finding out my mother’s health had taken a turn for the worse. I had to return home to Ontario immediately following the event and discovered she had been given a few months to live. I returned home just in time to spend the last 5 weeks of her life with her. It quickly became a pretty depressing time in my life, as I was stuck between 2 provinces, trying my best to stay positive, especially as we just accomplished something amazing here in Vancouver, but I was suddenly picking up the pieces of my personal life as well. Ultimately, it was VALT and the friends we quickly made in a new city that kept me going during a very dark time.
Miroir: How did you come to know there were so many designers in the Vancouver area making wearable art?
Kat Ferneyhough: There is no other city, or province, actually, that has as many post secondary programs in fashion design and textiles. Via education alone there are more designers graduating here than any other part of Canada, while at the same time there are many self-trained designers popping out of the woodwork daily. I feel like the culture of the West Coast really draws the creativity out of people…or draws creative people to it, maybe both.
Kat Kozak: Kat Ferneyhough is the fashion expert, so I simply follow her lead in these areas. It is fantastic that we both have our own specialties that worked so well together on this varied project.
Miroir: When you first decided to give this creative community a venue to show their talent, did you have any idea you would get so much support?
Kat Ferneyhough: I wouldn’t say I expected support, but I was pretty hopeful and enthusiastic – we’re very happy with some of the incredible connections we’ve made thanks to running this event.
Kat Kozak: We made a lot of fast friends, as we were the new in town and therefore had to put ourselves out there and fast. As KF mentioned previously, we also had the challenge of getting to know the Vancouver culture; however, we now feel much more comfortable and confident with the community and scene here.
Miroir: Having watched VALT develop over the last five years, it is my observation that VALT has had an impact on the fashion community in Vancouver in general, in regard to other fashion runway shows in this city, you seem to have inspired some radical changes… have you experienced this to be true, or noticed “in general” a more open minded outlook with issues such as gender equality, acceptance of models of all sizes, or alternative looks?
Kat Ferneyhough: I really can’t say whether it was our influence or just the world at large becoming a more accepting place for diversity – to be honest I would prefer it be the latter. Regardless though, if anyone is inspired by our desire to be an inclusive event, that is a great achievement to me.
Kat Kozak: I have definitely noticed changes at other fashion events being much more open to various model types, which was not apparent when we first arrived 5 years ago. We both feel it is very important to attend a variety of events in this city and to support as much arts and culture as we can squeeze into our already busy schedules; however, it has been awesome to see this city become more inclusive of cultural alternatives.
Miroir: When choosing designers for VALT what are your criteria?
Kat Ferneyhough: Essentially it comes down to a combination of craftsmanship and new ideas. Those new ideas may be in the style of the garments themselves, or who they are intended for, or what materials they are produced out of. We also make sure to work with only small-scale designers, those who are either crafting their work entirely by their own hands, or having very small production runs of their work made.
Kat Kozak: VALT also features different themes every year, which helps guide us when selecting which designers to feature. One extra bonus to this has been challenging our past designers to explore new ideas and themes that they may normally have never experimented with before, leading them to achieve some fantastic results!
Miroir: What governs your choice of models for your runway shows? Please give us a bit of an overview of your casting process.
Kat Ferneyhough: Our model selection process really comes down to what our selected designers request, so it can be quite a complex process, as we have designers looking for a broad spectrum of very different types, and some requiring VERY specific aesthetics. We select models based on their fulfillment of designer’s needs, as well as a rating system juried by our model panel based on three categories – style, attitude, and walk. By style, that means both what they choose to wear to the casting, and their own aesthetic (when we judge this, it’s not based on personal preference/attraction, but based on whether that person comes off as uniquely themselves). For attitude, this is how they treat other potential models at the casting, how they treat our staff, and how they interact with the jury – we want our backstage to be a happy, warm, and inclusive space regardless of how stressful an event it can be. Lastly, we have to judge their runway walk, just to make sure they can manage to get down our 40+ ft. runway!
Kat Kozak: I also take an image of every model that attends the casting for reference purposes and to ensure they are not camera shy, as all VALT models better be ready to be photographed by numerous photographers if they are selected to participate.
Miroir: Lets address the topic of collaboration, VALT is a non profit event and I know that any income you make with ticket sales and drinks do not even come close to covering your overhead. This event would not be possible without the volunteers who help you put the show together with the spirit of collaboration for this creative event. I do know however that there are those who do not understand the huge amount of work that goes into making this happen, can you speak a little about these misconceptions.
Kat Ferneyhough: Funding has absolutely been our biggest struggle. Fundamentally, the concept of being “alternative” doesn’t appeal to large corporate sponsors, and being a fashion inclusive event doesn’t appeal to arts foundations/councils. Our event is funded exclusively by ticket sales, designer contributions, and in many cases our own personal income – but because there are other events in the city with massive amounts of funding, there seems to be an expectation that we have it too, and we’ve met with a great deal of backlash from some who seem to think we aren’t doing this with the artists’ well being at heart. Believe me, if we weren’t passionate about providing opportunities to artists to engage with the public and each other, we never would have made it past the first year!
It can be disheartening when the very people you are looking to celebrate feel as though you are taking advantage of them, the “exposure doesn’t pay the bills” issue has definitely been a struggle for us all. But our team receives no income at all from the event, in fact, we have put several thousands of our own money into the event to make it happen each year, not to mention 5 years of our lives, year-round. We rely on volunteers to make the event happen, but we do ALL of the preliminary organizing and coordination ourselves, which is a massive amount of work.
Kat Kozak: Firstly, thank you for taking the time to address this issue, as ultimately our dream for this event would be to ensure every participant is compensated for their time. Every year, we have managed to increase the amount of honorariums to visual artists (since #VALT2013), musicians (since #VALT2014), and performers (since #VALT2015), and we are so thankful for our in-kind sponsors who have seen the positive impact we are having on the Vancouver arts community. I actually received an email this year from a photographer I had contacted about in-kind sponsorship accusing us of “abusing the good faith of creatives and exploiting their efforts.” Obviously this was a very disheartening accusation to hear from a total stranger; however, I still went out of my way to invite them to attend on complimentary media passes, as it was very clear they had never attended the event and likely hold some resentment from other past experiences. We can not make everyone happy, but we always try our best to listen to all feedback and improve each year!
Miroir: Relating to my last question, what personal sacrifices do you make to put VALT together?
Kat Ferneyhough: The strain of running an event of this scale with such a small core team, without financial backing, for 5 years, has been quite intense. We’ve lost countless hours of sleep, relationships have been strained, and personal projects and needs have been left to the wayside. My health declined quite a bit and my self-care went to an all-time low the further we pushed on. My marriage dissolved, largely due to my lack of presence. I lost not one but two part-time jobs due to VALT being my focus, and my art gallery suffered a lack of proper care. To be honest, I still have a long road of recovery ahead of me after this past half decade. I still believe in the cause, and I would do it again – but I would probably do a lot of it differently.
Kat Kozak: Moving myself and my husband across the country was a huge leap of faith, but fortunately we were both on board. When I first moved to Vancouver, I was offered a wonderful job by an award winning news publication; however, after a few weeks, VALT was blowing up fast, and I turned down this paid position in favour of building the VALT dream. After my mother passed away, I was also not on my A-game when it came to interviewing for new paid opportunities, and Vancouver is a very challenging city to find a job in when you are new here, so I coasted on my small inheritance for a little while; however, this expensive city also makes life much more challenging without a reliable income. My husband was also having difficulties finding work within his field, so we sent him back to school and a year later he was in a great position. I took on a serving job while he was in school to simply to make extra cash as needed to pay our rent, and still have the flexibility to attend all the cross-promotional events, fashion weeks, meetings, casting, fittings, etc. that are required to build this community and run this large scale event. The biggest personal sacrifice for me by far was not having a full-time job while living in Canada’s most expensive city, until I recently accepted a 50+ hour work week position this summer. Now my biggest sacrifice is finding the time to work, sleep and still focus on VALT, but we have to ensure we have money in our back pockets to ensure VALT continues to be supported by those who see the value in it.
Miroir: Each year you have come up with creative themes for each night of the show, first can you list what they have been? I think you have some stories relating to how these themes have inspired your designers to create collections they normally would not have, which lead to some unusual opportunities for them?
Kat Ferneyhough: Previous themes have been:
#VALT2012: Decadence, Defiance & Delight
#VALT2013: Utopia, Dystopia, & Techtopia
#VALT2014: eVolution, reVolution & reVelation
#VALT2015: Terrestria, Celestia & Aquatica
#VALT2016: Vision, Volume & Voice
Themes are a great element to the event, giving designers a vague but interesting jump-off point to begin designing a collection and performers an interesting concept to tackle. Mitmunk participated as part of Techtopia in Year 3, with a subject line very different from their previous works, and subsequently became involved in merchandising for the new Transformers brand. Performer Dezi Desire was selected to be part of our Aquatica theme, and in turn developed one of the most interesting costumed burlesque performances we’ve ever seen. There are countless stories of how the participants came up with new ideas based on our themes, which I think is a fantastic reference to the collaborative quality of our event.
Kat Kozak: We love how the themes can be interpreted very differently by various participants, and we also encourage all attendees to dress to theme and become a part of the immersive art experience. Every year, we are blown away by the new ideas we never even envisioned ourselves.
Miroir: If a patron of the arts were to read this and want to sponsor a VALT show in another country, would you consider doing it?
Kat Ferneyhough: I would absolutely take it under consideration, but it really comes down to having an excellent core team and a knowledge of the local culture, so it would certainly be a reinvention that would take quite a bit of time and effort.
Kat Kozak: Actually, we have already been contacted by an event in another country interested in working with us; however, as KF mentioned, it would ultimately depend on numerous factors before we could 100% move forward on any new idea.
Miroir: I know you have been working on getting funding through grants, but have thus far been unsuccessful, do you care to explain why? Also if someone were to have an interest in helping you with fund raising, or would like to donate to VALT how should they contact you?
Kat Ferneyhough: Sadly the state of arts granting is a very closed circle – most events receiving grants have done so for years, and there aren’t countless new ones being released. Also there’s a lot to be said about the language one must use to apply for them – apparently the word “fashion” connotes utilitarian merchandise, so we had to make sure we referred to it as wearable art. We’ve learned a lot about the process over the last 5 years, and hopefully this knowledge will help us get a shoe into that circle in the future.
Kat Kozak: To contact us, please email info@VALT.ca; however, we are particular about who we choose to work with, as our creative visions must ultimately align with each other.
Miroir: When we did our video interview we spoke of gender equality, can you speak of how VALT has dealt with this very important concern.
Kat Ferneyhough: The fashion community has luckily been quite welcoming to LGB groups… and it’s just starting to be inclusive of those who identify as Trans, but many of these concepts are still very binary in concept – we are entering a time where genderfluidity and identifying as genderqueer are becoming more, and more commonplace, and many industries aren’t prepared to treat these people with respect due to a lack of understanding. At VALT, no application form asks for gender of the applicant, just what pronoun they would prefer to have used in reference to them. Our model casting forms are the same for everyone, and do not ask gender, but what sort of garments they would be comfortable modelling. We want VALT to be a kind and welcoming space for everyone.
Kat Kozak: Agreed.
Miroir: How do you respond to the idea that west coast people don’t have style?
Kat Ferneyhough: The West Coast has LOADS of style! Just not in the mainstream – which is honestly fairly normal of most North American locales. Comfortable and lazy is the North American go-to, but I’ve had the most exceptional people-watching experiences out here, and there are many with truly unique aesthetics.
Kat Kozak: Agreed.
Miroir: We spoke about the fact that bringing together the arts community has always been one of the goals of VALT, what insights have you had now that you have five years behind you, how have the artists, musicians and designers interacted?
Kat Ferneyhough: We have seen designers who met at VALT collaborate on projects together, models we have cast for designers become muses and regular brand ambassadors for said designers, musicians get sponsored by VALT designers, and photographers call upon models and designers they’ve met at VALT for editorial shoots… bringing creatives together is always a great thing, in my books.
Kat Kozak: We have ultimately wanted to leave behind a VALT legacy, and it is these post VALT collaborations that keep this dream alive.
Miroir: Vancouver has become a very expensive city, the cost of housing and living here has pushed many artists out of affordable studios, galleries have closed, many small boutiques no longer can afford rent. What do you have to say about the survival of our community of creative people, how can we continue to produce and thrive in such a challenging environment?
Kat Ferneyhough: To keep fighting. If traditional methods of art discourse (ie, art galleries and boutiques) become unsustainable, then we need new methods of bringing our work and our ideas to the public. This has often taken shape as an online web presence but I feel that festivals and events like VALT, that promote direct and personal contact between the artist and the viewer, are one of the only real ways to keep these conversations about art going.
Kat Kozak: Keep making art and finding creative ways to share it. VALT as it has been for the last 5 years worked in some ways, but definitely not in others, hence why we are taking a hiatus in 2017 to reflect and rebuild VALT moving forward.
Miroir: What do you hope your legacy will be?
Kat Ferneyhough: My hope is that the arts community of Vancouver (and BC on a whole), will continue to push forward with boundary-breaking works, to build more connections with one another, to collaborate, and to continue to surprise, shock, question, and celebrate the world around them. I hope that the connections made at VALT transcend the event itself, and I hope that VALT will live on past our personal efforts.
Kat Kozak: Simply put, positive inspiration to all past, current and future creatives we collaborate with.
Miroir: I just want to say in closing that I have huge respect for the work you have done and I know that you don’t always get the gratitude you deserve, so I want to say I appreciate you both taking time to share your experiences with Miroir Magazine.
Kat Ferneyhough: Thank you, Nina, and Miroir Magazine, for such thoughtful questions and being there to support VALT since it’s inaugural year.
Kat Kozak: It is so amazing to think how far VALT has come, and it is still always a pleasure to hear positive feedback from our participants and fans, so thank you kindly again for you time and creative contributions.