Julie Anne Quay was taught by the best. After being hired by Esprit straight out of university and working for Australian Vogue, the Australian entrepreneur landed a job in New York for none other than Steven Meisel. In an era without social media, she experienced how great results only came from teamwork. She might not always remember whose designs they were shooting, but she will be able to give you an exact list of the people she was working with that day.
Her immense drive and compassion eventually landed her the role of executive editor of V Magazine. For most people, that’s the climax of a great fashion success story. (You already guessed it, Julie Anne Quay, often referred to by her colleagues as JAQ, isn’t “most people.”) In 2012, midst the drastic increase of social media, JAQ launched her answer to the disconnect between the fashion industry and the youth: VFILES.
The first time I came in contact with VFILES was in the summer of 2015. I had just moved to New York for an internship and was roaming through SoHo during my lunch break. At the end of Mercer Street, an expensive location filled with luxury boutiques, one store was blasting out Lil Yachty. It looked like a private party inside, but the door was wide open so I just walked in, mainly seeking rescue from the brutal New York heat. I was greeted with free McDonald’s french fries, handed to me by a group of probably the best-dressed teenagers I ever laid my eyes on. People were vogue-ing and eating fries in between clothing racks filled with Hood By Air and Discount Universe. Needless to say, I didn’t go back to work that afternoon.
Over two years later, I’m Skyping with JAQ, who is sitting in her bright lofty office space at 12 Mercer in SoHo, but quickly decides to relocate to the bathroom to find some privacy.
Oh, do you sit with everyone else? Don’t you have your own office?
Oh no, all open space. If I start talking, I’ll start to get worked up and then they’ll all hear and be like “shut up!!” Okay, so what was the question?
“I love brands. one thing you can say about VFILES, is that it is a strong brand.”
I want to know where you got started, so before V Mag, before working for Steven, where did you see yourself going? Did you ever have a clear plan of what you wanted to do?
One of the prime reasons I started VFILES was because I always loved collecting. It was just this weird thing, when I was little I used to collect tearsheets ‒ do you know what they are? When I was young, there was no digital basically. I loved magazines, I loved fashion imagery, I loved shopping, so I just used to collect everything. I grew up in Australia where an Italian Vogue was like thirty Dollars! So I would have to save up to buy it, collect and organise them. I still have them, mostly bound and some in boxes.
Something else that really shaped me, my dad used to go to the mall every Friday. And I used to walk the entire mall, every floor, from the basement, the whole loop: not just to exercise, but to see. I started to learn “Oh, they dropped this, they dropped that, they changed this rack,” so basically from 12 upwards, I was doing my own market research! And I was able to work out really quickly what trends I had seen in the magazines, and I wanted to look like that.
So everything about how I started was about discovery. During my studies, I got a job at Esprit. Esprit at that time was huge, I was doing sales and I could sell anything, literally. You will find that most people who are successful in the fashion business are all incredible salespeople. Like “Oh my god, that looks so good on you!” or “No, no don’t do that, trust me, try this one,” and “How much money have you got? Okay, we could do this and this.” I loved it, I loved the connection. When I graduated from university, they hired me straight away as their advertising marketing manager when I was only twenty. So all of a sudden, I was in the fashion industry. And I learned everything there is to know about marketing, packaging, selling and especially about branding. I love brands, and I think one thing you can say about VFILES, is that it is a strong brand. That’s because we put a lot of effort and thought into what a brand stands for. A brand has to stand for something, and our mission at VFILES is to connect and empower global youth. That is it, 100%, and we will never part from that.
“You will find that most people who are successful in the fashion business are all incredible sales people.”
So when did the idea come to you, launching VFILES, in 2011? You were working in an industry that you loved, but what did you think was missing from the fashion industry?
I’ve been very lucky. When I came to America (I moved to New York City in 1993) my first job was with Steven Meisel. I’ve been very blessed to work with, seriously, the best people in the world. The people at the highest levels of the fashion industry, they don’t have a clear path. They didn’t know where they were going, but they went there. For me, when I worked with Steven, and I said this before in interviews, it was all about the team. I will, to this day, take bullets for the people that were on that team. Steven Meisel, Pat McGrath, the models, Linda, Christy, Naomi, Raul Martinez, if you think about all these people, that level, that team of people at this time was just incredible. I was a studio manager, so when people lost their passports, that was me. When Steven was like “Hey Julie Anne, can we shoot on a race track tomorrow?” at 10 PM, I was just like “Sure!” Never say no, I would find that race track, we would go there and shoot. It was an incredible time.
Throughout my career, I could see that fashion got fractured. There were the bloggers, people were starting to see behind the curtain of the fashion industry. I was at V Magazine for a period of time and I remember in 2011, something was changing for me. I wanted to be part of the engine, where everything was happening, as opposed to being at the front of the line waving the white flag. When you’re in the engine, you can see the shifts. And I did. I saw that there was nothing in the fashion business anymore that created an opportunity for the youth.
You would have the people blogging, and honestly, the first fashion bloggers were successful because they mastered the technology first. If Vogue had managed the blogging platform blogspot.com, there would be no Manrepeller, or all those other bloggers who came up, because they would have gone straight to that digital platform.
I just saw all this great talent, that was at fashion school, that was in the line to get into the V Magazine party, in the line to get into the show, in the line to see, you know, Kanye West. All of these people were in the line, and they actually looked better, dressed better, obviously had more fashion experience and fashion sense than anyone who was in the room! So I was like, you know what, I want to create something for them. I want to share all of the experiences that I’ve had with them. I want to create that same feeling of camaraderie and collaboration and empowerment that I saw when I first came to New York City. And so we created VFILES. VFILES, I always say, is for the kids in the line.
My favourite story about Steven Meisel is that he used to cut school to see Twiggy at a shoot. He is a kid in the line! He is a kid in the line that will change the world, push fashion forward, push culture forward, bring us with him. And I just wanted to create opportunities for these kids.
“I hate it when people are talking about ‘the rise of streetwear.’ This is not the rise of streetwear, this is fashion.”
So I started VFILES. How do you do that? You have to start with a fashion conversation. We needed to have fashion things to talk about, so we started to digitise V Magazine, and we put it all on VFILES and we tagged it. But we didn’t tag it #cool or #groovy, we tagged it with every single person that worked on it. Because that’s what’s important. The team is what’s important. I created this digital world that people could participate in and have chats with.
When we launched VFILES in September of 2012, people started to digest the content straight away. Before launching, I did interviews with a couple of traditional professionals, and they were all like, “There is no way that you can have a democratic social fashion community, there is no way you can let people upload whatever they want, you’re gonna have to curate it. You’re gonna have to edit it.” And I was just like, “What are you talking about! Have you looked around? Do you understand what you’re talking about?”
The thing is, and I get so worked up about it, traditional “fashion people” try to lock the kids out. All the time. Like, “Internet fashion? No way. That’s so dead. They can’t even make that. When you look at it closely…” blah blah blah. My other beef is, I hate it when people are talking about “the rise of streetwear.” It’s not the rise of streetwear, this is fashion. And please wake up and pay attention! This is fashion, this is the voice of the youth. They speak through the music they listen to, the clothes they wear and the people they hang out with.
Now I can’t remember if I answered the question, but that was why I started VFILES. Some people think it’s just this vision, but it’s very important. We say that VFILES lives in one world, and that’s the internet, but we also still value human connection. Which is why we have our physical space at 12 Mercer. The reason why we have our events, why I started VFILES runway, was that people said there was no way that internet fashion could be real.
“Traditional ‘fashion people’ try to lock the kids out. All the time.”
How do you take all of this from the internet to the “real” world? All of your events, parties, fashion shows, are packed with people.
Think about people that just live on the internet. So Facebook just lives on the internet, at the moment at least. So if you went to a Facebook party, who would be there? Well, for me, it would be my relatives, people I went to school with, that would be my Facebook party. If I went to an Instagram party, who would be there? Everyone would obviously be super well dressed, posers showing off their best selves, maybe I don’t really want to go. A VFILES party? I know exactly who’s going to be there. It’s gonna be young, it’s gonna be fun. Some might be really edgy, some might be…. anything really. But the energy, people just want to come together. It could be New York, Paris, London, wherever. And to me, that is so special.
Kids come up to me and ask me to look at their collections, whether that’s in direct messages or in person, and it’s just so special because that’s what I want VFILES to be. It’s one thing to go to fashion school, but then it’s like, what’s next? At fashion school, they don’t really teach you anything that you need to know.
“At fashion school, they don’t really teach you anything that you need to know.”
Is that the idea behind VFILES runway? To help out these young creatives?
We started VFILES runway for the same reason. I got a lot of, “No way. Have you seen this VFILES thing? These kids just play.” So guess who was on the first VFILES runway? Gypsy Sport. And four years later, CFDA gives them the young designer prize.
And how does it work?
VFILES is a social media platform. Upload your work to our website, tag it, #vfilesrunway, we pull it all together, and we look at it. We usually look at it with a group of mentors, including everyone from Naomi Campbell to Dapper Dan to Virgil Abloh. Not your usual mentors. They are no department store buyers, there is no magazine editor there because when it comes down to it, does some magazine editor know what’s going to sell? We want the designers that we choose to be successful businesses. Empowering youth means creating a way for them to make money, and have a life with the career that they want and not the careers they have to have because no one supports them. So we choose 3-4 designers, we bring them to New York City, and we do a fashion show. The first one went amazing, and it just grew from there, we’re about to do VFILES runway 10! And we’re thinking about taking it to Korea right now. VFILES runway is a global thing, our winners have been virtually from every country.
What happens after the show? A lot of young designers are so hyped up so fast, but the industry always wants the next big thing and tends to move on very quickly. How do you prevent them turning into one hit wonders?
We used to put the designers in our showroom to wholesale straight after the show, but a lot of them simply weren’t ready. It’s one thing to get your designs onto a runway, and then to wholesale it, but then to actually deliver is a different situation. So what we do now is, we support them by ordering their merchandise for our store, by creating press support around them and literally being mentors. Down the line, I would love to incubate even further. But for now, the best way to help them is to buy and sell their merchandise for them and to grow alongside with them. We see so many of our designers do amazing things, and we will always support them any way we can. We really understand what a young designer is. You know, a CFDA will say “this young designer…” but that said designer already has a million Dollars in sales! That’s not what a young designer is for us. Some of the young talents come in before our runways and bring their mums to help them sew! We mentor with constant support, constant phone calls, constant images sent to buyers, there’s a whole business behind it. Some are ready for it, and honestly, some are not.
“When it comes down to it, does some magazine editor know what’s going to sell?”
So it’s about long-lasting, personal relationships.
This is like family. We care. Like you mentioned earlier, we can’t be one hit wonders. This is your career. We want to create a business for you. Fashion literally eats its young. Like “Oh my god, that looks so good. So I’m gonna take all of your ideas, call it streetwear for my luxury brand, and I am gonna try and gain some hype from you.” That’s not right.
So the industry still has a long way to go. What would you like to change immediately?
Let’s look at sports. I am an athlete, so I always compare everything to sports. In sports, it’s always about the draft. It’s who’s next. How can I be attractive as a team to the next round of players? Why isn’t fashion like that? Why isn’t fashion always looking at the next round and working out how they can incubate them, support them, how they can bring them into their team and go on from there. Instead, fashion is like, “Shit, look at this young designer, they are doing great things. I want to own their identity” or “They are shitty, that’s a joke and I’m just going to ignore them.” I’d like to see that change.
That’s what we’re trying to with VFILES, but we are so small right now, we are little. Imagine if LVMH was a little bit more friendly! It’s just different. The world is different now. At VFILES we can all have dinner, and it doesn’t matter if the person to your right is some famous supermodel, and to your left is a Central Saint Martins student. We can all have a conversation about fashion, about the future, about the culture. And everyone’s voice matters.
“Fashion literally eats its young.”
And where are you headed with all of this?
I want us to be able to make an impact, to really disrupt the creative industry. I want to see the kids on our platform be super successful. There are 21.000 young designers on VFILES. Twenty-One Thousand! I want them to have careers from their passion. I want to see the kids, the young kids, the artists from VFILES loud be able to release records. Some of them will be superstars, and some of them won’t. But you have to try. I just want to see this community grow.
I want to see the traditional businesses realise that these kids matter, and to really pay attention. My goal is to shepherd them forward and create pathways for them to really grow and connect them with each other and connect them with the bigger business world. I want to change the world, I want to change the way the world looks at young creatives. This isn’t about, “She’s an influencer and she’s got like 10 million followers.” You can buy followers and we all know that. When you listen to music and you really like a song, it doesn’t matter how many views it has, because to you it’s a great song. I want VFILES to be able to tell these stories, I want people the hear the voice of the youth. If I can just create the channels, for that voice to come out and be heard, then we are successful.
Words Brenda WS
Illustration Natassa Stamouli