On Monday evening, José Neves, the founder and CEO of Farfetch, told a gown-filled room at the 70th Parsons Benefit in New York City about his unlikely entry into fashion. He was a college dropout who started his career as a computer programmer, only to later realize his passion for shoes. After a few years developing software, Neves decided to change gears and move to London to launch a very subpar shoe brand.
"Clearly I wasn't Parsons-educated, but they aways make people smile and laugh," said Neves, pointing to his overly chunky footwear designs that had been blown up on two screens behind the stage. "If people laugh at your designs, you will survive it." The shoes are, by all accounts, ugly, but there's something endearing about the mastermind behind one the largest online fashion retail platform poking fun at himself, especially when he's confronting a room full of graduating students who are excited, albeit fearful, to be thrust into the cutthroat world of fashion.
"Life doesn't really follow a straight path," he continued. "And this is the message I'd like to leave: Parsons is a fantastic opportunity for you; an institution that is truly unrivaled in its prestige, in its access and in its network. You have the chance to be mentored by some of the most brilliant and most inspiring minds in this industry, and I'm sure that your journey will be wonderful, exhilarating and in the end, it will lead to wherever you hearts wants to be."
Neves, along with the stylistically brave Solange Knowles and Marco Bizzarri, president and CEO of Gucci, were saluted for their leadership and innovation, as well as their commitment to sustainability. Now in its 70th year, the annual Parsons Benefit highlights the next generation of fashion design leaders and honors icons in the field, while also raising instrumental funds for student scholarships. The evening itself was a glittering fashion event, peppered with designers like Aurora James, Derek Lam, Telfar Clemens and Kerby Jean-Raymond who floated about the room appreciating fashion's freshest meat, while also mingling with members of the press and industry heavyweights like Bergdorf Goodman's Linda Fargo and icon Dapper Dan.
It was a room filled to the brim with sartorial talent and big spenders, as evidenced by the live charity auction where Solange bid $27,000 and won both a custom bomber and a date with Dapper Dan. But, following the auction, Solange made her big splash by taking the stage in a sleek, long-sleeved, black jumpsuit look with peeping cutouts designed by Parsons alum and current faculty member Shanel Campbell.
Solange, who was honored for her impact as a pioneering figure in fashion and art, also shared a relatable story as a part of her acceptance speech. Her account dealt with ugly capris she bought as an adolescent on a trip to New York City, but had a similar takeaway as Neves's. "I went back to Houston, Texas straight feeling myself, walking into school with a little shoulder lean, head held high," she explained. "And the hating-ass kids dragged me from one hallway to the next. They asked if it was flooding because my pants were so high-water. And I learned then and there that I had to figure out a way in life to maintain and preserve my sense of pride when I felt good about what I did or what I represented or created."
Solange has always strayed from the proverbial pack, and she took the time to thank those women in her life who nurtured her passions and never questioned her cowgirl, goth and hippie phases. She also thanked Parsons for fostering an environment that allows students to be both "unafraid" and "disruptive" while also leading the way in "fashion, art, music and design."
Up next, Bizzarri, accepted his award, but he wasn't there to relay Gucci's ability to recreate itself as a fashion juggernaut: He was there, instead, to tell the students and the rest of the room eager to know his key to success that we all need to enjoy the journey.
"After seeing the designs of José's shoes, there is hope for everybody," said Bizzarri. "But in fashion, you should follow your dreams, I think, Dapper Dan shows all of us that, and there's never an end — it's always a beginning."
Bizzarri explained that he has no interest in investors and analysts that are so fascinated with Gucci's impressive sales growth. He hates the numbers and the predications, and said nonchalantly that he would like everyone to just "relax." Because, for him, Gucci's success is rooted in the people and in the culture.
"If you respect the people and you attract the best talents, then you're going to win," said Bizzarri. "To me, that is the most important thing – it's not just a statistic. People are the most important."