Innovator Spotlight Series: in conversation with Devin Gilmartin, The Canvas
Updated: Apr 16
Sustainability is an issue that permeates the fashion industry today and as a result, there’s a growing number of sustainable fashion brands, technologies and new business models that aim to change it for the better. But who are the innovators in the space? Fueled will be speaking to founders that are leading the sustainable fashion movement in a series of interviews called the Innovator Spotlight. Read on and get inspired.
Devin Gilmartin is the co-founder of The Canvas, a platform that converts unused spaces into hubs focused on sustainable development. Through their platform, they empower rising ethical businesses from around the world and provide them with access to global markets, services and technologies.
What is sustainability to you?
I think there is “sustainability”, the word, our current definition of it and what we need. Sustainability the word is to sustain, to continue, to go on in the context of human meaning to be able to keep living. What it means to us right now is ever-changing, which is both an opportunity and somewhat of a perilous threat in the sense that we're all talking about the same word, we're making the same noise to represent a concept, but what we’re trying to convey is much more complex. In the present moment, sustainability is confusing. What we need from sustainability is context and a unified approach so that we understand what it is we're talking about, what it is we need to do and how we're going to do it.
What is the problem in the market that you're solving ?
We were speaking briefly offline about the intersection of industries that are quite isolated from one another and that seem unrelated. In our case, we merged two industries that have unique problems: real estate and fashion. When real estate and fashion intersect usually, it's at a very high corporate level between executives so there's no entrepreneurial mindset.
There are tens of thousands of small fashion brands from around the world right now looking to grow their audience, take their product offline and meet new customers. However, they are struggling to do so given the price of physical retail. On the other side, in the real estate space, you have outrageous rent prices in major cities around the world with vacancies everywhere and landlords can't connect the dots between the opportunity and their current outcome. You have two parties that aren't literally speaking to each other and you have two opportunities that aren't merging. So this is a blank space and what the Canvas has aimed to converge.
How did you validate your product in the market?
We started as a very small brand in 2016, my co-founder Tegan and I were working on a T-shirt uniform for a school in the Bahamas. (Tegan grew up on the Island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas and I was a student there, at the Island School.) The school is very focused on sustainability but we thought it had a number of areas that could be improved.
The t-shirts and the uniforms given out to the students weren't exactly sustainable so we sought to make a better product. Through that journey, we decided to explore the option to make a larger collection and see if we could build a brand on top of it. And this turned out to be our first step towards real estate! We went to pop-ups and installations around the world, met other brands and started noticing this issue for a growing brand not having a physical retail store. At the same time we were seeing the abundance of vacancies in cities like New York, a problem that has only been magnified by Covid.
We then decided to reach out to Hunter College on the Upper East Side of New York City that had a 4,000 square foot abandoned bookstore. At that time, they had moved all of their book products online and we asked them to give us the space in exchange for a month-to-month revenue share. After six/ eight months of activity there, we decided to reach out to other landlords and offer the same deal and that's how we ended up at 132 Bedford Avenue, which is where we have been since then. That's where the concept took off and we have since opened in other locations.
Could you tell us about your mission and how it ties into the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals?
To the point about sustainability and context made above, what we found is that there needs to be a common language, common resources and a common theme around sustainability. The Sustainable Development Goals are the closest thing the world has to being on the same page. It's 17 of the world's biggest problems identified with data, and countries have agreed to them largely. To us, this represents a framework for not only solving the problem but discussing it interpersonally between companies and governments. It is a way to use something that we can all relate to in regards to something as complex as sustainability.
We've also found that a lot of fashion retailers like to ‘play God’ with their decision-making on what sustainability is and is not. You can say that leather is bad for the environment or you could say this brand on this island is making their product from leather and is stimulating the local economy, providing jobs, feeding people and creating beautiful products. That also counts as sustainability and just because it doesn't line up with our Western idea, it shouldn’t be discarded as unsustainable.
Currently, there is no global approach to sustainability but that’s exactly what we need. Climate change isn't solved when the United States, France or London as a city figure out a solution that will make their air quality better. It is going to be a global effort and we found that a lot of the attitude is often contrary to this global approach. Going back to the leather example above, we've had people come into the store and get very upset at us for using leather that were not even willing to hear the whole story. This is of course disappointing but we're not going to back down from what we believe in to accommodate a rather near-sighted vision of sustainability.
What has Covid-19 meant for The Canvas and how have you been powering through?
This has been a very challenging year but there’s also been a lot of rethinking about how we can create more value for our community. In March 2020, when we realised we were closing our stores, the entire team did an amazing job moving the entire store to e-commerce. The online store has been really a big focus for us so that people can still reach our brands, connect with them and support them.
We realised digital and physical need to come hand in hand. It can't just be physical or digital, there needs to be connection between the two. We have been figuring out ways to make that connection happen. When you're in our store, there are QR code touch points everywhere. We're currently working with a number of amazing companies bringing transparency to the supply chain so that the consumer can see start to finish the individuals involved in the making of the product, and can tip them directly through an e-wallet. When you walk into a store you see not only the details behind the product but also the individuals behind them and are sure that if you sent them a dollar or more, they're going to get it. That's the sort of transparency and connectability that we believe is going to be the future of retail as well as storytelling.
What's your vision for the company?
We feel that if you are a traveler and you can go to any city in the world and can book a home to stay in in a few clicks, a brand should be able to book a space with a few clicks and receive support without necessarily physically being there. We really want to create the same connection we've seen in other industries for ethical fashion and real estate, and create a situation where small brands have more opportunity to grow.
Are there any challenges that The Canvas currently faces?
Covid continues to be a challenge and it will probably be for the next year or more given the state of the economy. Now it's about navigating the residual effects of the circumstances and making sure that we're providing as much support as possible to our brands. For many of them, we are their main retail platform. When they come and work with us, they're not only depending on sales support but often, a lot more, on marketing content production to grow their brand. We're really focused on how we can continue to grow those offerings and do so in a way that is directly supporting the pain points for a small brand.
One of the big things that we've tried to identify is, if you're a small brand, it's difficult to create new content, new imagery as well as opening a physical space, and so is that process that involves photographers, models, makeup artists, filmmakers... These things are not easy to access as a small brand and are often quite high in budget. That's why we created and just launched the Canvas Editorial Concierge. Now our brands can just log on to our website and have a creative concierge list of many of the creatives that we have on our platform. They have direct access to them so they can essentially build out a service that allows them to book professionals and bring them together with other brands, significantly lowering costs.
Anything else you would like to add?
Our brands have been unbelievably supportive of The Canvas and this would not be possible without them. During Covid we have been meeting almost on a weekly basis. The engagement of the brands was an inspiration to us and showed us how important the community had become. It personally got me very motivated and got me through Covid in terms of ‘Why are we doing this?’. For us, it was a moment of defining that as really creating value and a community of people that really care about each other. I want to give a shout out to the amazing community that we now have around the world. We're always looking for more members so we invite anyone that would like to join to reach out and begin a conversation.
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