IN CONVERSATION WITH CAROLINE ISSA
When Canadian Caroline Issa entered the fashion industry, she changed the game.The Ivy League graduate went from a stealth business consultant to the global face of street style, shattering the preconceived notion that beauty and brains had to be mutually exclusive. Today she’s the face of multiple blockbuster labels and directs editorial for two major publications. In doing so, she’s single-handedly changing the way readers consume fashion glossies. Issa has struck a balance between digital and print using her sharp business acumen to preserve an entire industry.
By Priya Kumar
While the Canadian fashion industry is in its infancy on a global scale, it hasn’t stopped some of the best and brightest from paving their own way.Caroline Issa is a member of this enterprising cohort of fashion sages. Hailing from Montreal, the Wharton-educated business consultant is in the process of flipping the publishing industry for the digital era. Born to a Japanese mother and half-Lebanese,half-Iranian father, Issa was first bitten by the fashion bug at the age of 17 when she modelled for the summer in Milan: “I was a terrible model,” she once admitted to the press. After graduating from the world’s most prestigious business school and spending years across the US working as a business consultant, she returned to her roots in the fashion industry.
Today Issa is an editor, CEO, fashion consultant and the darling of street style. She was recently the face of J. Crew, in addition to launching a collection with Nordstrom this year. Although her first full collection,it’s certainly not her first crack at designing. In 2012 she designed a capsule collection for British high-street shoe
label L.K. Bennett to much acclaim. Sound like she’s spreading herself thin? Issa’s also created the app Fashion Scan that allows readers to physically scan their glossies to reveal extra content on their mobile.
Recently I had the opportunity to catch-up with the fashion business marvel herself in our mutual home base of London, England. It quickly became apparent why she’s been named a part of the esteemed Business of Fashion 500, a list marking the who’s who of the fashion industry.
Why did you initially leave Montreal to pursue international fashion?
Well, I actually left Montreal to go to Wharton, which is part of [the University of Pennsylvania] to study business,so it was such an amazing school and opportunity. So I went, did business and then moved to San Francisco. I actually left Montreal having nothing to do with fashion.
In your own words, how would you describe your career at this point?
I think it is multi-faceted. I’m so lucky, it’s been such an amazing, non-linear career, I would say. Started off in publishing, then went into luxury fashion and retail consulting, now I do a bit of styling, and I’m about to do a really fun new project, and I did a fun shoe design collaboration with L.K. Bennett a few years back. So it’s really been a non-traditional but multi-faceted career, which I love, and it’s the best kind of career for me.
Your background is a rare mix finance and fashion. Tell me about that?
I get to do business and fashion. Kind of the art of commerce, and I love the balance of owning my own business and the challenges and the amazing things that happen because of that, while at the same time getting to be really creative, so it’s nice to have that mix, for sure.
It’s interesting that the fashion fraternity is embracing both the creative and business minded. Besides being able todesign and recognize style,you need to be educated to meet the demands of a CEO?
You know, I think a CEO role is definitely one of the more challenging.It’s understanding – especially in our
industry where you have to balance the business with incredible creativity, and it takes a lot of strength and character and also understanding how the industry works, because there are so many different facets, from sales to marketing to PR to creation to production to HR. How do you structure a business today in fashion so that it’s faced for the Internet? There are so many interesting facets about it.You have to have a very open mind and be prepared to learn a lot very quickly,I think.
You’ve pioneered a digital revolution of sorts for fashion publications. How did you end up taking that on?
I think working at a place like Tank [my fashion consultancy], we’ve been so lucky because we’re independent, we’re small and nimble, and it means that you can experiment. Three years ago we launched the Fashion Scan app technology, which is visual recognition technology that integrates print magazines with digital, really seamlessly using your mobile device. That for me has been such an exciting, new thing, and it’s a little scary being the first one. Every page is scan-able, every page connects to digital media on your mobile, whether it’s an iPad an iPhone, an Android device; this is the future of publishing, and I’m completely convinced that mobile will save print. And that’s what I’m passionate about, talking about nowadays when it comes to publishing,and I think when you’re in an innovative small nimble company, you can experiment, and we’ve been lucky to have a fantastic team, who can help us create what we’ve envisioned. And who knows what the future holds, but I feel like we’re definitely lucky, to be at the forefront of it.
Where do you foresee the industry going, in terms of print? Will print be sticking around for some time?
Absolutely. Like I said, I think mobile’sgoing to save print. And I think mobile devices, especially using technology like Fashion Scanner where you add value to print and paper, there’s an additional level of storytelling that you can use with the mobile and how it connects to print. It means that there’s so much more to engage within a print magazine. We’re finding it;we have three years worth of data now and a few issues under our belt where we’ve used the technology. I can track when people are watching or reading the pages, and a month and a half later people are still engaging with the print magazine.And that’s amazing, because you think you buy it, you read it, you throw it out.
Not the case?
No. And it means that all of a sudden, I can say with data and analysis, literally a month and a half later people are still opening it up.
It’s remarkable that you can track that kind of data through an app?
It’s analytics. It’s because through technology nowadays you can do that. And for me that means the internet and mobile are going to make print so much more valuable if you use it and leverage it in the right way. I’m more excited about print than ever. Magazines like Tank [the publication produced by my consultancy] are also doing really well because they want strong points of view and that is what people are looking for—really curated information
You’ve tied up with Monique Pean on her latest jewellery collection.Tell me a bit about it?
I’m a huge Monique fan and I met her through a mutual friend about five years ago. I just fell in love with the way she approached her business, how much she does with philanthropy, the sustainability of all her materials.The fact that I lived for the last five years with my woolly mammoth ring, and the fact that it’s woolly mammoth tusk is incredible, and this is a dinosaur bone.
You’re quite worldly having grown up in Canada, worked in the States and now London. Where do you consider yourself most at home?
Probably in London. But then when I’m back at home with my family in Canada, it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing. Home is where the heart is, I guess. It’s London and Montreal, I would say.