Thursday, January 27, 2011

New Fashion Designer Musts!

We are fortunate in Vancouver to have six schools constantly adding to our pool of fashion design talent.  I would conservatively guess that over 200 graduates hit the streets every year.  The statistic given me once was that only 5% of those will actually go on to be designers of their own line.  A large percentage of those that stay in fashion for the long haul work in the industry for other designers or fashion houses.  The rest move on to different careers. 

I have no idea if the 5% is an accurate figure or not, but it's probably a pretty good indication of reality.  I would have put it at an even lower figure.  It takes a combination of so many strengths to stay the difficult course of having your own line.  Talent, vision, confidence, a finger on the pulse of where fashion is heading, strong business sense and MONEY are just the tip of the iceberg.  I know designers who were carrying enormous debt loads after those first few years because of the long lag between first purchasing fabric and the time at least a year later when you start seeing money come in from retail sources.  Nerves of steel are a necessity.

Everyone tries to start the same way - by cutting corners - but the reality is some corners can't be cut if you want to effectively attract quality stockists.  Here is my opinion on what I see as necessities when you are starting out.  If you don't have the money to do it right, it might be worth waiting a year until you can launch properly.  Always remember, it never hurts to negotiate.  The fashion industry is well aware of the difficulties facing new designers and many have a bit of flexibility in their fees for those first shoots.  You will be expected to follow that up by paying proper rates in the future, but there is a wide variance out there. Trust is all important, so when you find the right people, I would suggest sticking with them.

1.  Website - I cannot stress enough how important a proper website is.  When I hear a lead on a new designer, the first thing I look for is a website to see what they're doing. If you don't even have a website, I assume you are not established enough to be featured.  In 3-1/2 years there has only been one exception I know of.  The website can be very simple, but it needs to look professional, have some concise background information, a clear idea of the garments you produce must be shown (how many times have I looked images on a site and had no idea what the line was about), at least a short bio and my number one pet peeve - I WANT TO KNOW WHERE YOU ARE!  In this global world, figuring out where a business is located is like a cat-and-mouse game on most websites.  If I can't figure it out, I leave.

2.  Photography - The photography on your site is your calling card.  You wouldn't go out with a bad haircut, so take that same mentality when presenting your collection.  Paying for a proper photo shoot with hair, make-up and stylist needs to be a priority.  You don't have to hire the most expensive in town, but you do need someone experienced in this area with samples on their website to prove it.  Ask for some names from other designers with great look books, check out local publications (in Vancouver there is Vancouver Fashion eZine, TLC, String Magazine, The Fashion Guard and more that have a wide variety of photographers who submit).  Pick two or three that have a style that works with your aesthetic and then check out their website.  Look for consistency and quality in the work presented.  What you need first is a quote to shoot your lookbook and I would ask for a package deal - one price that covers it all.  The price will partially depend on the number of garments they need to shoot and the cost of the model used.  Eventually you will need to pay for a few editorial photos that can be used by media or included in press releases, but in the beginning, what money you have available should be focused on a having a great look book.

3.  Professional Quality Look book - Every designer needs a great look book to show to potential stockists.  Unless this was a part of your student training AND you have a talent for it, there is no shortcut for having a professional create this for you.  If you hoping to sell in local boutiques, you can take your collection in, but it's always nice to have something for the buyer to look at afterwards.  A professional looking product translates into sales.  Printing is another huge expense, but I think this can be bypassed at the start by having electronic versions available.  They can be emailed to buyers you already met as a follow-up, they can be sent to stockists in other areas and you can burn a few CD's as to hand out.  As your business grows you will need to have printed versions, but in the beginning the focus should be on excellent photography and a well-designed look book.  Electronic pdf flip books have opened the doors wide open on this market, offering a really appealing email version of your look book that looks just like a printed product.

4.  Model - SIGH!  There are a few talented and beautiful freelance models working the area, but please do not ask your best friend to step in. You never know - you might luck out.  But you are putting out who you are as a designer and you need the very best images possible to represent you. If you want to use a freelance model, you have to do your research carefully.  A safer choice is to use an agency but that does not mean you have to book their top, most experienced model.   Agencies always have new talent in development.  There are also several that specialize in fuller figured models and alternative models if that's your cup of tea.  The right photographer can be a huge help in this area as long as they fully understand the look you are going for. 

5. Sourcing Agent - A new professional I was not aware of until recently was the sourcing agent.  This person works on an hourly rate to save you money by helping you access the level of quality required and hooking you up with the best sources and manufacturers at the lowest prices.  They will also negotiate contracts and oversee shipments to make sure they are timely. Most are also available for market research, organizing collection launches and travelling on your behalf.   We are fortunate to have a very experienced one locally - Geneviève Duthé of Gesource.  Although the main focus of her business is to work side-by-side with designers and fashion houses, she offers a two-hour consultation for those just out of design school to help them understand the steps needed to launch their first collection. No sources are given here, this is an overview of how to get from start to finish - the launch of your first collection.

6.  Other - I would like to end with two other things I think are important to be successful.  First, make sure you have a solid knowledge on business basics such as:  how to write your business plan, how to apply for business loans, basic accounting and how to structure/run a business.  Even if your school touched on these things, there are several great courses available to suppliment what you learned in class. Most designers end up spending 90% of their time on business and 10% on designing, so you can never know too much in this area. Last but not least, a few internships working in the industry under established designers can be a real eye opener as to what is needed, provide business acumen and put you in contact with resources - all things that could make the difference between your future success or failure.

I am privileged to be a part of the Vancouver scene and have the opportunity get to know some of this new talent.  Hopefully we will see a few of them rise to the top and achieve international success.  If you would like to keep an eye on fashion artists that are entering the industry in your area, just check out the graduation fashion shows at any of your city's local fashion design schools.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Brethren Cheese Quick Bread

It always suprises me to remember I'm not in my 20's anymore. I love the story my 85-year-old mother-in-law tells of seeing an old woman at a department store and then being startled to realize it was actually her reflection in a mirror.  When did that happen? Time has flown by at a shocking rate and it's tales like the one below that bring a sense of history.  But for me, to share the recipe is to share it's story.  I think it tastes better if it has a pedigree.

When I was in my 20's I acquired a thick, small paper back titled, "The Spice Islands Cookbook".   The recipes were to promote the use of Spice Island herbs.  Some were great; some were good; some were over seasoned.  It was one of my very first cookbooks and taught me many important things - how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon, how many tablespoons are in a cup and some great substitutions for items you might not have in your cupboard.  As I was single, being able to downsize recipes and using ingredients I had on hand were useful tools.  There were also a few key recipes I loved and pulled out on special occasions.

This cookbook made the trek with me to Canada when I got married and was a great resource over the years.  Then our downstairs toilet caused a flood and we had to throw out several things.  A box containing my Spice Islands Cookbook and a few year's worth of Bon Appetit Magazines was the most upsetting.  I can't begin to tell you the number of recipes I lost, but there were three recipes from Spice Islands in particular I would come to deeply miss: Brethren's Cheese Bread, Pumpkin Cheesecake and Old-Fashioned Gingerbread (more of a cake).  I could find other recipes when searching the internet sometimes, but they were never quite the same.  When I tried to replace it, the cookbook shown did not match the one I had, so I could never confirm if it was exactly the same.

My mind was wandering one day when low and behold I remembered, the cheese bread was actually called Brethren's Cheese Bread.  A quick internet search led me to several places with the original recipe and it now appears on my table at least a couple times a month. I find it amusing that most sites claim ownership.  I know where I first saw it!  The only difference between them I can find is that some suggest 1-1/2 tsp of dry dill weed and some suggest 1-1/2 T.  Both ways taste great, so it's a personal choice.  It can tend to stick on the bottom.  I would suggest generously greasing the loaf pan.  If you still have problems, trying greasing and then dusting with flour just like you do when baking a cake.  Be sure the cheeses is a well-age SHARP cheddar to give it the right flavour.  Last but not least - it's really important to grate the onion. It becomes a mush that blends smoothly into the batter.  A background hint instead of a added texture to bite into.

2 c. sifted flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 c. butter
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 c. grated SHARP natural cheddar
1 tbsp. grated onion
1-1/2 tsp. dillweed
3/4 c. milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease 9 x 5 x 3 inch pan. (Okay - this didn't work for me as it really tended to stick on the bottom.  I would generously grease and if you still have problems, grease and dust.) Sift flour with baking powder, salt and sugar into large bowl (Me sift? Never! But do if you like.) Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in cheese, onion and dried dillweed; mix well. Combine milk and beaten egg; pour into flour mixture all at once. Stir quickly with fork just to moisten flour mixture. Turn into prepared pan. Bake 40 to 45 minutes, or until toothpick test shows done. Let cool in pan 10 minutes.

There really is nothing like warm bread fresh from the oven to make a meal special and quick breads like this fill the bill just as well as the more labour-intensive yeast breads.  I think this recipe is one you can easily adapt by varying the types of cheese (nothing too mild) and herbs used to create some tasty variations.  Best of all, they are QUICK, so fit easily into today's busy lifestyle.  I will be writing on other quickbreads in the near future, so be sure to check back.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Tangled Web of e-Publishing

For the last month I have been searching and asking questions about the new world of e-publishing.  What I have found is an intricate web of leads, but no one all-inclusive source.  This is such new territory, I had to spend 20 minutes trying to describe what I needed in the way of an intern to the publishing department at a local university before the light went on.  The response - it's such a new field they didn't know if they had a student ready. I am always surprised at the lack of interest shown by other magazine editors when it comes to this exciting opportunity. I love holding a print copy in my hands, too.  BUT this is a new market that cannot be ignored.  Any magazine not bothering to have a look at how it will affect their publication will surely be left behind.

At a New Year's Eve party this year, one of the women admitted to being an iPad enthusiast.  She never bought any print magazines now, just downloaded e-versions to her iPad where they were always at her fingertips.  I think reading magazines on tablet computers is the wave of the future - reducing the number of trees cut down to create paper, saving on printing and mailing costs and helping publishers reach an international audience.  One of the magazines I think that has dealt with the new opportunity the best is Schon Magazine.  They offer a free on-line version, a download-able PDF and downloads for iPhone and iPad (although I couldn't seem to make these links work so don't have the cost).

Finding the expertise and information necessary to publish and sell an e-mag is not easy.  File size is normally extremely large for any decent sized fashion magazine and I am still looking for expertise in this area.  It's not just about looking at the photographs, The digital version must be of a resolution high enough to produce clear, read-able text when the viewer zooms in.  The publication must be made available in several different formats.  E-book readers such as Kobo only handle text, so publications with colour photography (fashion magazines and art books in particular) are more limited in the devices they can be downloaded to.  E-mags also offer many benefits that the print edition doesn't.  If you have the know-how, you can embed links to the websites listed in articles and ads, place commercial videos in ads, encrypt to help limit unauthorized copying and more. There are several new companies that have sprung up to deal with this industry, but they are pricey.  One I liked in particular charges $350 per page as a starting costs and it goes up from there.  Each additional format (such as for iPad) is an additional charge.

Once you have your e-mag created, the next elusive step is how to get listed in an electronic market such as Amazon, the iTunes stores, Barnes and Noble, etc.  Most openly list the information on how to publish a book using their services, but it is extremely hard locate any information on the steps to get an e-mag listed in their catalogue. I have looked at a few low-cost markets that you can start at, but the numbers reached through a mainstream source would definitely be a lot higher.

Hopefully I will find an answer all my questions and can move ahead with e-publication of the Vancouver Fashion eZine print collectibles issues. The goal for the magazine is to provide access to our international readers in particular.  Weighing in at one kilogram, that first issue in particular, was just too heavy for regular mail.  Wish me luck!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Enigma of Black Swan

Sunday was my birthday and I decided to see the movie Black Swan as part of my "ME" day.  I don't think I can remember any movie recently that has created more controversy among my social network.  I have heard everything from, "It's amazing, you have to see it!" to "It's really cliche!"  I fall soundly on the side of amazing. 

One of the reasons for the diverse reactions could possibly be that this movie has many layers.  I was a costume designer for five years and expected to see a movie on the darker side of ballet. That seems to be the number one focus for many, with ballet mums taking their daughters to educate them on the industry.  Surprisingly, that's not what I came away with.  The plot IS wrapped around the obsession that can be found amongst gifted ballet dancers, but it could easily be based on any "out-of-the-ordinary" athlete or artist.  Truly talented people often have a very narrow focus on what they want to achieve that can take over their
life. Experiences in the outside word are limited and they live with very little exposure to how the "normal" world functions.  Attracting the attention you need to succeed in any field is difficult and other competitors are knocking at the same doors.  Add to the mix a person who is obsessive by nature; a parent who is trying to live out their dreams through their child; a teacher, coach and/or mentor who is trying to build their reputation; and you have Black Swan.

While I don't think anyone could have been harder on this dancer than she was herself, Black Swan also portrayed the additional pressures that rained down from both her mother and her choreographer.  If you have ever had a kid play sports, dance, sing or act, you're familiar with the parent.  I remember one mother who's son was cut from the rep hockey team that tried to turn the house team into something it was not meant to be.  When I called her on it, she told me my son shouldn't play hockey as we weren't serious enough.  DOH! That's why we were in house.  Another time I had a parent of a serious ballet dancer look at my daughter who was 5'8" and extremely skinny at the time, eye her up and down, and declare loudly, "My god she's big!"  An interesting term for a girl who looked like a pencil drawing and unnecessary as my daughter was only dancing recreationally.  The teachers I worked with related untold stories in private of dealing with pushy parents determined to make their kids a success.  I can only imagine how this affected their son/daughter. Parents that can provide balance and total acceptance are the greatest gift any talented child can have and fortunately I think they make-up the larger percentage.

Teachers, coaches and mentors - another story, but with the same theme.  In Black Swan they focused on the way the choreographer inappropriately used sexual references and advances to try to get the dancer to break out of her perfect dancing and bring emotion into the mix.  I absolutely do not condone this.  At the same time, those wanting to reach the top in their fields are looking for someone to push them beyond where they are now - driving them relentlessly is often assumed to be a needed part of the mix.  Those responsible for their training are to be slave masters, hand holders, psychologists and more than anything get results.  Their reward - status, money and new opportunities.  Do some cross the line?  You can be sure of it.  Worse than anything, I think it is often expected it of them.  Everyone wants to be the best and some are willing to pay any price to get to the top.  I can only say bravo to the teacher/coach/mentor who finds a way to balance it all in a healthy way and produce a top level artist/athlete with their feet firmly on the ground.  At some point, these talented individuals all have to move into the real world and they need to have the skills to do this.

The other part of this movie that I personally enjoyed was the way I was drawn in to her growing insanity.  It was a visceral experience. The camera that followed her would be hand-held at times, giving the film a choppy feel that added to the emotion of the moment, letting you feel her tension and distress. The sound of her breathing was placed strategically in the background noise during tension filled moments.  You felt you were inside her head listening - in, out, in, out. Her struggle to achieve became a physical sensation for the audience.  The special effects where she began to hallucinate she was turning into the Black Swan were blended in perfectly at the right time.  They all built to the moment when she took her bow to thunderous applause, believing she had large wings extended behind her.  To me this was the emotional climax of the movie.  Everything after was simply the closing paragraph. 

To those that want to see this movie, do not wait for it to come out on DVD.  You really need the big screen and the great sound system to be drawn into her increasing delusions.  It honestly can not have the same effect at home on TV.  Also, remember that some people truly did not like it.  You will bring who you are to the movie and how you experience it will be personal.  For myself, I thought it was brilliantly done and I hope at least a few parents, coaches and mentors will see themselves and keep an eye out for that exceptional, but obsessive artist/athlete in their care.  We want them to achieve great heights, but not at the cost of their sanity.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Fur, Feathers, Animal Parts and Fashion

 I had the pleasure yesterday of hearing Fashion Historian Ivan Sayers lecture on the history of fur, feathers and animal parts while models showcased vintage garments and accessories from the early 1900's through the 1980's.  SMOC - Society for the Museum of Original Costume - who sponsored this event wisely put out a disclaimer to make sure people knew the lecture was not in support of the fur trade, but covering its history.  Sayers commented right at the start, "Fur looks best where it was originally, on the animal." He went on to note that with the current high quality of moden synthetic substitutes, we no longer need to slaughter animals for their skins.  I agree, but bet it will be a hard sell with many.  Be warned, there are a few gruesome details in this article.

Up until the animal rights movement began to have an effect, fur, feather and animal parts were strongly associated with luxury and status.  The more rare the item, the more fragile the garment, the more desirable it was to society's elite.  No one really believed a species would be wiped out - despite evidence to the contrary - or gave any thought to the suffering of the animals involved.  It was all about decorating the body and the more exotic the better.  Canada was first exploited for it's fur - in fact it was considered by many to be it's only asset. The anti-fur campaign which peaked in the 1980's and 1990's, as well as several high-profile stars such as designer Stella McCartney, have forced the industry to look at alternatives.  The market now is full of high-quality faux fur for those who want luxury without the cost of animal suffering. 
Camel Hair Coat
The lecture began with a discussion of an animal product - Baleen.  Often referred to as whalebone, it is a structure in the whale's mouth used to sieve small animals from mouthfuls of sea water and was most commonly used as corset stays.  Although referred to as bone, it is actually protein Keratin - the same as hair, nails, claws, scales and horns.  Because it is both strong and flexible, it was used to make collar stiffeners, buggy whips, parasol ribs and occasionally cable-backed bows.  Synthetics materials are now used in most instances, although steel stays are one replacement for whalebone in corsetry. Other related items include exotic cat's claws (used to create jewellery and watch fobs), ivory (used in hair combs, fans, buttons and jewelery), bird quills (banded together to make stays), armadillo shells (whole shell used to create a purse with head intact) and horse hair (woven into fabric and used to make early crinolines).
Reptile skins - snake, lizard, crocodile, alligator and more - entered the fashion world as early as 1892 and are still popular today.  It is an interesting trend in that a large percentage of the population is fearful of reptiles - snakes in particular. Generally we see these skins used to make acessories such as purses, belts, boots and shoes, but Sayers even had an example of hat.  An internet search provided some interesting results.  There was one site that had instructions on how to make your own real snakeskin accessory. has shoes available in lizard or crocodile (with ostrich trim).  Another sold three piece synthetic snakeskin suits in black, brown, purple and wine. Whether real or synthetic, reptile patterned accessories are still a strong seller in the fashion world.

Feathers are the most exotic to me - just pure fantasy.  They bring to mind glamorous old Hollywood events, Las Vegas stage extravaganzas and the Ziegfeld Follies.  Between 1880 and 1920, 50 million pounds of feathers (excluding ostrich) were traded on the London Feather Market.  How many feathers would you have to put on a scale to equal that enormous number?  Feathers from many species such as marabou, peacock, bird of paradise, ostrich and egret were widely popular as accents on hats in particular, but could also be found decorating garments and other accessories (handbags, fans, etc.). They were even used to create coats and stoles that resembled fox fur.  Some species, such as the egrets, were hunted almost to extinction. 

Fur was definitely the largest focus of this lecture/fashion show.  I think most of us have been made aware of the practises involved in the collection of furs - both free range and in fur farms - so I am not going to cover it here.  A web search will easily come up with many articles if you need more information.  Again, for many of the elite, this was a must-have sign of wealth.  The rarer the fur, the more fragile and likely to fall apart, the more expensive and desirable.  Fox, mink, muskrat, ermine, camel, seal, Persian lamb, beaver, cow/calf and exotic cat skins (just to name a few) were used to create coats, jackets, hats and muffs.  Some sold for the same price as a house. 

For those of more common means, the fashion industry offered fabric garments with just a bit of fur trim.  I also saw two examples of monkey fur.  It's close resemblance to human hair gives it an edgier, more exotic look (think Morticia).  There was also an example of a very rare spotted panther fur coat. Then there were two I found totally disgusting.  First was a garment from the late 1920's made from the skin of nestling Auks - that's right, baby birds.  The second was a coat made from Broadtail. This is the most fragile of the lamb pelts, created from unborn or stillborn lamb fetuses.

Monkey Fur
With the resurgence of interest in fur and reptile, I thinks it's a good time to take a look at the history of the industry and ask ourselves,  "With all the great synthetic choices we have available today, why do we need to continue to harvest these skins, putting many species at risk of extinction and causing untold suffering?"  For those who just have to own the real thing, a great choice would be to buy vintage.  You can wear it as is or have it re-worked into an updated style of your choice.  In the end, however, it needs to be a personal choice.

For more information on upcoming fashion history lectures produced by SMOC click HERE!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

"Is It Live Or Is It Memorex?"

Not familiar with this line?  It comes from an old commercial for Memorex cassette tape.  A musical note is heard that shatters a glass and the viewer is asked whether it was a live singer or a voice recorded on their product.  The ad was so effective, it became a campaign with many versions. Several are still available for viewing on You Tube if you want to check them out. 

This commercial came to mind as I was driving home from an interview yesterday.  A little over a year ago I had an urgent request from Raine Magazine for a last minute article.  From the list of possibilities they selected Gina Hole, owner of THEY Representation and Sugar Studios.  I was only given five days to pull it together and was distressed learn she was on holiday.  Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, we were able to connect via her cell phone.  You should have seen me trying to scribble facts and quotes in a notebook while using my shoulder to hold the phone to my ear with a cassette recorder perched at the mouthpiece.  Thank goodness I took notes as the tape was a mess. I am now scheduled to write an article on her for an upcoming issue of Vancouver Fashion eZine and this time had the privilege of interviewing her in face-to-face.  Feeling that energy, focus and passion in person adds depth to the experience.  That's not to say it didn't come across in the phone interview, but it's more physical when a person is sitting across from you. As I'm not struggling to take notes, it's easier to be drawn in, let my mind really absorb what is being shared and have questions bubble up to the surface that wouldn't have come to mind in a less personal setting.

It is probably becoming clear now that, although I do love writing, it isn't my number one passion.  What turns my clock the most is interviewing people - especially artists - and the most fulfilling way for me to do this is face-to-face.  Until last year, I had never agreed to an interview unless the individual could make time to sit down with me.  Once I have that first interview in person, I am more than willing to do phone/email updates for future articles if I have to, but live is always my preference.  Sometimes this requires serious pressure on my side and once or twice I almost lost an interview.

An example would be Rafael and Lisa Marie Mazzucco.  They were in town for a Lancome launch during the Olympics.  I had the pleasure of meeting them at an event, gave them a copy of the first Vancouver Fashion eZine print collectible and let them know I would love to interview them the next time they were  in town.  They loved the magazine and were all for interviewing right away, but Lancome had a serious schedule for them to follow.  I kept saying no until it was the right set-up for all of us.  What followed was nothing less than incredible.  You couldn't find two more warm, wonderful and open people - both talented artists in their own right.  I am glad I held out for the kind of interview that would let me write the article they deserved (  It was hands down one of my top ten interviews. The side benefit - Lancome was also very happy with the final result.  There is a synergy when you sit with artists face-to-face that does not happen through email or phone, and if you can find an intimate setting without a lot of bustle and background noise, that connection will be even stronger.  If the interview's not great interview, it's very hard to write a great article.

In our incredibly busy and global connected times, it is important to adapt and interviewing is no exception.  This year I have completed two long distance interviews via Skype.  It's a bit more stilted as you can't insert a question without interrupting the audio feed; but you do interact with the artist live and have more ability to approach the unexpected.  There were also three phone interviews with my tape recorder pressed ineffectively at the mouth piece. As phone and Skype interviews will probably continue to increase, I am looking into a recording device to attach to my phone that will leave me free to listen without having to scribble notes.  I also hope to find a digital recorder that will hook up to my computer, giving me a clearer recording of the interview than my cassette player perched atop the speaker.  Email interviews - what can I say?  As it was the only option a couple of times, I did conduct two. I was fortunate in those instances that those being interviewed were very comfortable writing out their thoughts.  This is the least effective way to interview. I avoid it at all costs, but am sure it will continue to be a necessary evil at times.

Although this article is about interviewing, it's also a comment on life in general.  So many today seem to keep in touch with friends mostly through text, twitter and Facebook.  Those social medias have really assisted me personally in making new business contacts, meeting new friends and keeping up with others whose schedule is busy as mine.  But, and this is a big BUT, it's no substitute for sitting down a couple times a year over lunch, coffee or a glass of wine and really being present with each other.  So make a date this week to see someone you haven't connected with in a while and enjoy.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Disaster of Disaster Relief

Photograph by Jorge Silva
First of all, I want to be clear that I am not suggesting you quit giving money to disaster relief.  What this article is about is being knowledgeable and pushing for change in the focus of where the money goes.  To start with, I would strongly suggest you read a column in the Vancouver Sun today written by Craig Kielburger, Marc Kielburger And Drew Davidson, "Haiti's plight: One year after the earthquake" -  It's an eye-opener and the inspiration behind today's column.

Over the last ten years in particular, I increasing hear about disaster funds that do not reach the people they were meant for or were a band-aid at best. In 2006 the Cato Institute commented, "Effective disaster relief efforts have to overcome the problems of bureaucracy, coordination, and adverse incentives."  Another quote, this time from the UN Foundations, is slightly suspect in that it is meant to bring them work, but the thought behind it is valid.  "When disasters strike, people need food, shelter, blankets, and medicine. But without an effective communications network, supplies are left undelivered, and relief workers are unable to do their jobs."  Before well-meaning funds arrive, a network must be in place to deal with three areas in particular:  effective communications, coordination of relief workers and a supply system that assures the shipment gets to where it is needed. 

Everyone has hopefully become more aware that disaster money given directly to governments in many third world countries is at crap shoot at best.  It has, at times, disappeared into the universe, not made it to the neediest people or had large parts consumed by local charges to distribute needed goods.  Some established charities that work over time to improve life for those in impoverished areas, like the Obakki Foundation (, actually make trips to assess needs, collect the money and supplies, fill the container and have their own delivery network to make sure it gets to the right place as well as supervise the process. But when it comes to Government funds and charities set up quickly in response to a disaster, there is no knowing if the money will get where it needs to go OR if it will have a positive effect long term.

The Vancouver Sun article takes a hard look at the effects of long-term relief efforts and the problems that arise.   When a disaster first hits the news, everyone is happy to commit funds, but that doesn't mean they will actually arrive.   In Haiti alone, only $732 million of the $5.3 billion pledged has been received (less than 14%).  Another point they bring up is that the goal when first responding to a disaster is not the right focus for long-term relief efforts.  Initially you have to deal with urgent demands for emergency food, water, shelter and medical help; but you don't want to create a group of people living in a permanent tent city with no hope for the future that live from hand-out to hand-out.  After those first relief efforts, an effective assessment needs to be made on what will benefit these people in the long term.  How can we best get them back on their feet and self-supporting.

Haiti after the earthquake
Compassion does not need to be left behind.  Those of us living in privilege should work to improve the life of those who do not have the same opportunities. Just realize it's important to first research the best charity or charities to support.  Whether you choose to focus your efforts locally or internationally, try to make sure that administrative fees or agencies hired to collect your dollars are not taking a large cut and that the organization is effective in the way donations are used and distributed.  Once you find the right match, you can give knowing your efforts will make a real difference.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Post Holiday Body War

December was a time of rejuvenation for me.  I pulled back from business and writing responsibilities to spend some time nurturing my soul.  The last two years of trying to build Vancouver Fashion eZine has been stressful, so it was the absolute best Christmas present I could have given myself.  I headed back into the kitchen to try out new recipes I found interesting, had small get-togethers with friends that of course involved good food and drink, baked with my daughter - a must with the passing of my mother who used to do this annual ritual with her - and more.  Add in some well-timed naps to help deal with my sleep deficit (I struggle with insomnia) and you can image the outcome.  A calmer person ready to face the new year with a body in a serious state of disrepair.  That first step on the scales in January was not a happy one.

 The negative effects of serious dieting are well documented, so I try to avoid extremes when it comes to food.  Whatever you choose to do has to fit in with your life as it is or you will fail.  It's all about balance and portion control. Mark Haub, professor of Human Nutrition at Kansas State University, recently published the results of his ten-week experiment in dieting.  During this time he reduced his normal caloric intake from 2600 a day to 1800 a day, but 2/3 of his caloric intake came from twinkies and other junk food. This was supplemented daily with a multi-vitamin, a protein shake and a few vegetables such as a can of green beans or a couple celery sticks.  The outcome - he lost 27 pounds. The results really bring home the fact that calories are part of the equation. If you want to read up more on this, check out the CNN article at

Metabolism also plays a huge role.  I know unfortunate people that I swear could live on 600 calories and still struggle.  There are others that eat and drink anything they want that seem to stay thin (although there are long term health consequences they will face.)  Each of us has to deal with the body we have and the key to increasing your metabolism involves exercise.  Regular cardio and building muscle mass are your best friends.  I'm not a great exerciser when it comes to staying the course. I actually like hitting the gym, but lose interest after a month or two (boredom sets in.)  The only time I consistently worked out was when I used to dance with a partner and perform.  Dancing was almost and addiction for me. When I got married and had kids I had to walk away from the partnership and I haven't found a solo class that fills the same need.

While I find sitting at the computer for hours everyday writing really pleasurable from a creative standpoint, I need to start taking some regular physical breaks where I get up and move around.  The neck, back and hand/wrist used to operate the mouse are protesting.  In the past, I tried to schedule the gym as a break with limited success, especially if I was mid-article.  Walks around the neighborhood quickly palled, I mean how many times can you walk the same route and stay sane?  This time I am going to try and add in some of those home work-outs.  The after Christmas sales allowed me to pick up three providing a variety of work-outs in varying lengths with a few small accessories for about what I paid for a three month gym pass at the local community centre.  I don't expect to do these every day, what I am looking for is variety.  I will still drop into the gym when I feel like it, take advantage of the dikes in Richmond to do power walks and hopefully find a dance class that appeals to me.  The DVD workouts are to give me breaks from the computer on heavy writing days in particular.

Will this help me exercise consistently?  I have no idea.  But trying something new is always a thrill and it didn't cost me much either way.  Whether this works or not, I will be reviewing and rating the systems I tried at the end of three months.  The first DVD will get a test run today after I post this blog. While I will also be addressing portion control (no crazy diets for me), the main focus will be on getting my body back in shape.  Hopefully mixing it up this way will keep me on track to daily exercise which research shows is a key to health and longevity.

One final note.  For many, having support in the way of a friend to exercise with or a personal trainer is key to staying focused.  If you don't have a friend willing and really limited time, a great option is a trainer on the go.  They come to your house with a small amount of equipment and push you through a work-out.  An idea of pricing for this option is found at Fitness on the Go -

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Burlesque versus Burlesque

Before I start this article, I thought it would be a great idea to include a quote I read recently on a blog about this movie as well as links to burlesque videos (click on the artist's name) - two current and two historical.

"What is known as burlesque now is more of a neo-burlesque movement of performers who mostly perform stripteases, humorous skits, cabaret, and even novelty acts that would include fire-breathers or contortionists. As it is now, it is a show of unusual entertainment that is not meant to be your average type of show. It takes influence from the vaudeville scene, despite the way that vaudeville performers often looked down upon burlesque performers...The movie seems to make the burlesque scene seem as though it's a glittery jazz and strip show when it's not very... well, 'burlesque' at all."

Dita Von Teese (I didn't know she could dance on pointe! How very sexy.)

 Lola Frost (top local Vancouver talent - very contemporary)

Blaze Starr

Now that you're in the right mind-set, I first want to say I really enjoyed watching this movie.  I love singing, I love dancing and I was a stage costumer for five years, so what is there not to love for me.  At the same time, all through the movie I was thinking - great Hollywood movie, nothing to do with Burlesque. I'm no expert, but I think it really turned Burlesque into a Vegas dance revue.  Any one who loves the big Vegas show and/or Cher and Christina will love the movie.  Anyone looking for true Burlesque will be very disappointed.  

The story is of a small town girl (Christina), self-taught it is implied - a la Flash Dance (don't know this reference - click on the link).  She makes it to LA to try and get work as a singer/dancer only to end up as a cocktail waitress in a burlesque club (again, using the term in the movie's context).  Through sheer determination she manages to make it into the chorus.  When she ends up stepping in for the drunk star of the show who cuts the sound track with pre-recorded vocals in spite, she starts belting her own amazing version of the number and the band steps in on cue. Of course, the back-up girls quickly figure out how to improvise and the number is a great success.  I know it's a predictable plot, but it was fun anyway.  The owner (Cher) recognizes her star ability and builds a new show around her.  Funniest line in the movie for me is when the drunk star out of jealousy refers to Christine as someone with "mutant lungs."

Totally Hollywood story, totally cheesy, but the the audience eats it up anyway.  All of us who dreamed of being a professional dancer love this plot - especially if we didn't start young and have great training.  Add in a bunch of well choreographed, costumed and performed dance numbers and a love triangle including an evil businessman to round out the plot and we'll be there.  Not all movies are about being great classics.  Some are about just having fun and coming home feeling good.  The only real surprise for me is, given the great dance numbers in the show, I find the quality and variety of the promo pictures VERY poor, so my apologies.

So if you are ready to check reality at the door and just enjoy a musical, I would give it a go.  If that's not your cuppa, or you hate Christina and Cher, don't bother as you'll be totally bored.  I would still check the local burlesque performances available.  As an art form, it is ever evolving and each performer brings something unique to the genre. I personally love the wide variety of female forms found and the way they celebrate their sexuality in defiance of what the fashion industry keeps trying to dictate.

In Vancouver, BC, if you are very new and want a great overview, I would suggest starting with the Vancouver International Burlesque Festival held every year in May.  Information can be found on their website.   Reviews of local performers you might want to check out can be found on Yelp.

P.S. Victoria was was nice enough to comment on this column letting me know about weekly shows in Vancouver - Kitty Nights at the Biltmore - that have only a $5 cover. For links to see some show photos check out the comment below.