<p>Kaavya Jha on authenticity in the worlds of high fashion and high finance</p>
“Are you ready to go backstage?”
I nod and maintain a nonchalant facial expression in the hopes of being noticed by street style photographers as we stride across the plaza. They snap a few photos, but I couldn’t find them on the sleek websites of ELLE or Marie Claire. Backstage is a thin room engulfed by vanity lights and startlingly bright pink Priceline Pharmacy cut-outs. Models scroll through Instagram as make-up artists splash their cheekbones with rose. My chaperone turns to me amidst the surprisingly relaxed preparations. “OK, you have 15 minutes to talk to whoever and do interviews.”
My stomach feels queasy—what should I ask? I am reviewing the collection, focused only on texture and colour and silhouettes. But this sinking feeling is all too familiar. I am transported to forty-eight hours earlier: no longer at the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival, but rather attempting to network at FMAA corporate cocktails, alone in a grand room filled with hundreds of students in identical black suits.
High-fashion and high-finance, perhaps unintentionally, both enforce exclusivity through dress codes. At the Fashion Festival everyone—or at least everyone that mattered—wore variations of an identical outfit. I felt legitimised arriving in structured (tick!), colour-blocked (tick!) culottes (double tick!); yet chastised myself for wearing mules instead of leather pointed-toe heels, the owners of which did find themselves on “27 Best Street Style Looks Of VAMFF”. Fashion might take pride in enabling people to showcase their individuality, but only rewarded those existing within a strict framework.
Often, students are expected to immediately be able to define themselves and their future. I dislike certain networking events because interactions seem to consist of: “This is what I can offer you and what you can offer me.” Sometimes, I just want to turn to the recruiter and plead, “Give me time. I don’t know who I am or what I want. I’m still trying to figure it out.”
But with competitive job markets, students cannot afford to miss such events if they want a graduate offer. So, I scrambled to find a pair of shoes that fit the FMAA dress code. Arriving in closed-toe heels borrowed from a successful commerce friend, two sizes too big and stuffed with tissue paper, I attempted to follow the world’s most cliche´d advice: “Be yourself”. Yet individuals are too complex to showcase entirely during an initial interaction; instead we can only present the traits that will serve us best. The “me” at corporate cocktails was different from the “me” who went to the fashion show—is either less legitimate?
I arrived at Crown Palladium unsure of where I was going, both literally and figuratively. Amongst shoppers ambling amongst designer boutiques, I spotted a group of self-assured young people in suits. Slightly intimidated, I asked if they were attending corporate cocktails. They were, and we exchanged friendly conversation heading to the event. I, “being myself”, told them I was a second-year at Unimelb, and that all my friends decided not to come, and that I was very scared. They laughed (must have thought I was joking…) and again when I asked what uni they went to, informing me that they were the investment bankers representing Morgan Stanley. Yikes.
Conversely, those with influence may still be expected to conform to their perceived identity. At the fashion show, I am seated in VIP two rows behind Georgia Love from The Bachelorette and join in on what I think is a fan photo opportunity. It so happens the guy snapping the pic is her friend, even taking it on Georgia’s own phone. She waves, noticing me and we share a cute bonding moment. But did Georgia, with her girl-next-door TV persona, feel the need to maintain a bubbly demeanour in a public environment in the face of an invasion of privacy?
Between sips of champagne at corporate cocktails, I skirted the edges of large huddles of finance students eager to talk to recruiters. The Morgan Stanley reps spotted me and indicated I could disregard the hovering students and join them. I knew people on the inside. It seemed safe to be the “authentic” version of myself and talk freely. We are all drawn to the familiar within the unfamiliar, to people with whom we relate even when trying to break out of comfort-zones. Genuine connections are made on common interest, not dutifully repeated questions from a Sponsor Interaction Guide.
“I was on Neighbours a few years back,” the man beside me at the runway offers spontaneously. I see his media lanyard and am overcome with solidarity. The show starts and as he watches he sways forward and back when absorbed, snaps his fingers in glee when enthralled, and checks Grindr when bored. Afterwards, he encourages me to get in contact if I’d ever like to write for his business. I add his name to my iPhone notes. Networking!