The Digital Speakers Series of the Hellenic Initiative (THI) on March 18 presented ‘A Conversation on Fashion & Publishing in a Post-COVID World.’ Stellene Volandes, Editor in Chief of Town & Country Magazine and Editorial Director of ELLE Décor, and Dimitra Kolotoura, Co-founder and President of the unique Greek fashion purveyor Zeus+Dione offered insights on changes that will impact everyone, and advice to young people interested in their two dynamic fields.
Curated by THI’s New Leaders, May Zanni, founder and president of Women Act, a leading Greek feminist organization, was the moderator. She began by asking, “what have you faced to reach your leadership positions” and Volandes set the tone, saying, “first, I like to think of it as challenges, not obstacles.”
She continued, “the challenges of this last year have been greater than throughout my career” – but her first step in publishing was quite daunting. “I did not know anyone,” she said, but her ultimate triumphs were a tribute to “the power of a network and the power of relationships. I started doing internships. Thursday and Friday at New York Magazine. I was also an intern at Elle Décor and now I am there again.”
It was noted that THI funds Greece largest paid internship program, putting almost 2000 young people into permanent positions with a 92% success rate.
Volandes added that “when I couldn’t get exactly into publishing I asked myself ‘well, what will help me in this sphere that I want to be in,’” so she secured other valuable internships and built up her knowledge of how the industry worked and how to enter and succeed in it – “but the challenge of not knowing anyone was overcome by really, really hard work.”
Volandes also shaped her social life to reflect her goals. “On weekends, if they talked about a museum exhibition – I went. A play – I went to go see it. Working is what you do in the office, but it’s also working to build your knowledge and expand your horizons and you have to continuously do that.”
Basing her work on relationships and connections was sorely challenged during the pandemic. “Creativity comes from collaboration, and not having that, “that magic is hard to recreate virtually.” However, through Zoom, her publications never missed a beat.
Kolotoura agreed about relationships and hard work, adding that it’s important for women to hear from each other about their experiences and formulas. There is also boldness.
“I remember discussing with my partner Mareva Grabowski” – who is married to Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis – “about a new fashion brand. That was insane in 2011, with people leaving Greece in the midst of the financial crisis. We said we will go back to Greece and create a fashion brand because that’s our passion, but our romantic passion was actually to do something for our country, and to bring together buried cultural elements and heritage” into a lifestyle brand, putting talented craftspersons to work.
“Only hard work made this crazy dream come true. By nature, I’m an optimist. Whatever happens I say ‘that’s fine. We can deal with this’ … that includes redirecting and backtracking before finding new paths. Life is full of small battles” – including health battles which she herself had to confront – “and you need to dream big, and go after your dreams. You will find a way,” Kolotoura said.
It’s a simple but proven formula: hard work and optimism. Successful people know negativity and wishful thinking doesn’t get one anywhere.
They emphasized that adaptability and tech savviness are vital in all times, but especially during the pandemic. Retail and fashion has been much affected, but Kolotoura said, “our online services have been phenomenal – we need to become as familiarized as we can with technology. Nothing replaces a human connection, but at this time it is the only thing that works.”
When Zanni asked their predictions for a post-COVID world, Volandes said of their industries and for women in general, “this is an incredible opportunity for us as women to support each other.”
She also noted that personal and professional flexibility emerged as a need and possibility for people thanks to the pandemic – while the ‘running around’ stopped, the work still got done. The past year taught them that respecting people’s need for flexibility “will make us better employees, better leaders, better people. The need for flexibility and support are the two challenges that are also the greatest lesson.”
Kolotoura agreed, and added that technology could really be a savior. Women could and should have the choice to work from home, better combining their roles as parents and professionals. “Women should take this opportunity and even demand that,” she said.
Volandes added the pandemic taught what technology can do – but also what it can never replace, vital lessons for the future.
THI’s Executive Director Peter Poulos then joined to moderate the Q&A. “We’ve been bombarded with questions” from around the world, he said. Asked if print will transition to entirely online, Volandes said, “absolutely not! Not all content is the same” people shop differently online and in stores in retail” There’s an element of discovery that looking at a magazine and browsing in a shop allows you. People are looking experiences, not just products.”
Kolotoura noted that her company made a great leap, hiring half-Greek, half-Austrian designer Marios Schwab. “He made an amazing collection for the 200th Anniversary of the Greek Revolution. We were puzzled about how to market the brand, but the media ate up the news that a Greek brand that is looking ahead to a bright future and hired a great director.” They were also very savvy in the use of social media, which caused sales to boom.
Another participant asked for advice for young people who want to enter their industries. Volandes explained, “everything you do, can lead to something ese” so there are no dead ends in careers or wrong turns in life and careers.
Asked about the evolution of perceptions about women and their opportunities, Zannis said “there was shift when we had the first woman president in Greece … things have improved, but there is a lot more to be done.”
Ending on philosophical notes, Volandes said about the pandemic, “I miss the dance of life. Appreciating that rather than complaining about it has been my biggest COVID lesson,” and Kolotoura’s exclamation point was: “never take anything for granted. Nothing.”
After thanking them all Poulos asked, “why does all of this matter to THI? Because we want to support leaders in their field and I can’t think of better examples of people doing that than the three of you.”