| creative women with a conscience| Dechel McKillian - GALERIE.LA founder, stylist, curator + entrepreneur.
Meet Dechel Mckillian, the founder of GALERIE.LA a multidisciplinary retail concept that operates both as a bricks and mortar space and an online destination. Dechel has curated this unique experience for consumers who love fashion but want to incorporate sustainability to their ethos, without compromising style. We met in L.A last year and hit it off straight away, as we shared very similar stories - both being stylists' and engaging in entrepreneurial pursuits in support of women, inclusivity and diversity.
I love this conversation as it really highlights Dechel's varied skill set as a leader, change agent, curator, stylist + sustainable living advocate.
Head on over to the GALERIE.LA platform to learn more about their mission and the small, independent brands they showcase and feature as part of their concept store.
With your hybrid platform Galerie L.A, your slogan is ‘Fashion with Integrity’ - what does that mean to you and why do you think it’s important for us to consider ‘Fashion With Integrity’?
For me it was coming up with the right wording to let you know as a consumer from the get go that this fashion is honest and has values right off the back of it. For me when you say “ this person is a person of integrity”, I know that person is established, they have values and you hold them in a certain space - so I wanted to create that connection with fashion and Galerie L.A right off the back. And the idea really encapsulates this emotional connection to the clothes, so that’s the slogan we ran with.
What does sustainability mean to you - not only in fashion, but in lifestyle as well? How would you define sustainability?
Well for me the overall message that I have for sustainability - because it means a lot of different things to different people – is that if you are sustainable, you are thinking in relation to yourself and the earth; the planet, the systems that are going on, as well as the people. That’s always the balance I have for sustainability, and you can really relate that to anything; you can start with yourself, for example, by leading a slow lifestyle of more consciousness and mindfullness in your daily decisions. This then also translates into the way you shop; if you’re more conscious and centred yourself, you’re probably more likely to make those kinds of conscious decisions when shopping.
I think what definitely differentiates you from other platforms - as you were one of the first to include this - is your value badge system. After having many conversations with women, it’s a constant dialogue that when starting out on this journey, you want to consume perfectly, but you quickly learn how overwhelming it is to be perfectly ethical and sustainable. It can be really hard, especially in those beginning stages when you’re doing lots of research and fact-finding – and the statistics can become very overwhelming to learn.
What advice would you give to somebody who is starting out and feels a bit conflicted about having to sometimes trade off one value for another? And how what advice would you offer to navigate what’s important to them?
When you see a movie like True Cost, you think ‘I can never shop at any retailer I’ve ever shopped at before! What am I going to wear?! How do I shop with sustainability at the forefront?’ It becomes this panic of not knowing how to consume.
But there’s so many different ways that you can start to support the sustainable way of living – beginning in one place and letting that carry over to other areas of your life. It could be fashion, it could be in food, or exercise – different things that you implement into your life. For me it was starting in fashion, I wanted to make it easy for myself and for everybody that came to Galerie.LA to actually know what they were purchasing - which is why we created the badge system. Everything carried on our site is ethical, but on top of that we have other badges that include values like; artisan, eco friendly, local, recycled, vegan – so you can search that value if that’s what you care the most about. And if you see a product with more badges it means you’re doing great, ticking more boxes and supporting more causes! We want to have that connection with people – it takes so many hours to research brands from all around the world, so we wanted to be able to bring it all to the one platform.
Do you feel as though there is a badge/value at the moment that is most common amongst designers?
I would say the ethical component is there for most of the designers I work with – this is the first point they start with and that’s why we reach out to them to begin with. It's the first level and the most impactful - knowing the factories and having that transparency is key. A lot of our brands will produce locally, whether that means they’re an L.A brand and they produce everything in the L.A garment district – this is a great way for them to contribute to the sustainable ethos. We’re working with a lot of brands that are producing locally, who are also working with eco friendly materials – there are so many brands doing such innovative things with fabrics that we’re just blown away by like tencel and pineapple leather, you name it.
In terms of the badge system, we also carry our own vintage silk collection too, which is recycled product, so if that's your value point, we've got that covered.
What do you think is one of the most innovative things happening now in terms of fibres?
Something that I think is really cool is integrating technology with fabrics and creating these new fabrics that will implement circuitry – you have like one shirt for example and it then downloads a different print for you – so you’re wearing different things, whilst only owning the one piece. Those kinds of things I find are genius and are the future of sustainability for every day items.
I think the conversation is happening now, and there's still more to add to it, which is exciting for future innovation and change.
When we chatted in person earlier in the year, you had mentioned that you come from a family of shoppers – you were also a celebrity stylist, where shopping was your livelihood. How do you shop now in comparison to how you used to, and what values do you adhere to when shopping?
It’s been a complete 360-degree change just even with the last 4 years, because I was a stylist, so all I did was shop. I’ve been a shopper all my life, and a paid professional shopper for the last 10 years so I was bringing all that stuff into my own home. And I was always into vintage, but I would just buy everything and not be as selective as I probably should have been - like I am now. So for me, really the last 4 or 5 years, I’ve made a conscious decision to live more sustainably. I even changed where I live and moved into a studio by the beach, instead of a bigger place where you can potentially fill it with more stuff. I got rid of everything and started from scratch and I have more meaningful pieces now. Especially when it comes to clothing – it’s pretty rare that I shop now; when I do it’s definitely for a ‘need’ rather than just shopping for the fun of it. I’m always trying to do more with less and really relying on style, rather than having a lot of pieces, to communicate that style.
Given you are a platform that supports sustainability and shopping less - and doing more with less, how does that translate to how you want your customers to shop and how this benefits you as a business, too?
Our ideal target customer is some one that is conscious, but they love fashion first and foremost, but they definitely do care about sustainability. Our customer is never going to forgo something because it doesn’t fit in with their 30 wears rule – they’re getting there though. It’s about finding pieces and learning the stories behind that impact because we have to meet people both ways. And although Galerie.LA’s message is to buy less and choose well, we’re also not putting out every single trend - and you’ll find things that are from different seasons carried all year long. But it’s definitely going to take them time to get there. I know that I’m a very extreme case of not shopping and living minimally and it took me a really long time to get there – and I think women are always going to enjoy fashion, especially with Instagram and social media. Clothes are a way to express yourself – we just want to make people really aware about their purchasing decisions. You can go ahead and buy the coat you love because you know you’re going to wear it awhile. Buy something to treat yourself, there’s nothing wrong with that on a spectrum of shopping behavior.
How do you think the digital world has changed the way we consume fashion?
It has changed it drastically, and it’s going to take a major break to be pushed to change the shopping behaviour, because even with just the way things are advertised now – you’re seeing pop up advertisements even on snap chat for a few seconds at a time. These digital advertisements are so in our face, along with the bloggers and influencers who have this ‘influence’ on what image we should be buying into. So I think it’s happening a lot faster. Also, you see everything from Gucci to Forever 21 and it all looks the same, social media has definitely sped up the way people are designing and producing and getting this instantaneous access to fashion at any certain point in time.
Do you think with social media, people are engaging in fast fashion more so because they want new outfits, and new content for their feed?
Oh absolutely, the Youtube hauls of people visiting Forever 21 screaming ‘we got all this stuff for $100.00’, is something they’re doing on a monthly basis. You have such access to things so you want to wear it, own it and move on to the next thing. Not everyone on social media is a blogger, I think it's important for people to know that these youtubers aren’t necessarily just getting donated these clothes. A lot of people are, but a lot of people aren’t. People are buying clothing to fit into a certain image, they’re wearing them now and wearing them once and then they’ll think we can never wear that again. There is a lot of waste going on to just create an 'image'.
Do you think with bloggers and influencers they’re doing more bad than good, or more good than bad?
Well there once was the celebrities and super models who were pushing fashion and culture, and companies used to spend $100k for a few ads or maybe even one ad in Elle Magazine or something, so it’s just that who’s behind it now has shifted - now it’s regular people...
the hierarchies have changed and been broken down and now everyone has access to it…
Exactly, now everybody could be that person, for me though I don’t think it’s bad or good. I just wish there was more transparency because people buy into these bloggers looks, yet they’re getting paid to wear these things, so it’s not like its their style or something they’d necessarily choose to be wearing - they’re getting paid to do it. So if you’re following a certain blogger because you think she’s authentic and you like her style, that might not always be the truth. I think people are buying into and consuming images that I don’t think they’re always aware of the why and the source.
We haven’t done any influencer placements yet with Galerie L.A because we feel torn between stopping the cycle of fast fashion and also just getting someone to wear something just because they’re an ‘x’ name, and we’re promoting the same thing. So I’d rather people who are bloggers collaborate with us and want to write about us or wear our clothing or do special projects with us because they care about our face and not because we’re paying them a certain dollar amount to do so. It is a business model for them as well, and I definitely understand that. But it’s important that our customers know it’s out of a genuine interest and belief in us.
One of the things I remember you saying to me when we met earlier in the year in L.A, really stuck with me and that is - when you’re doing projects and photo-shoots, and you’re collaborating with a whole team of people, you want to treat them the way you weren’t treated when you worked in the fashion industry. Can you tell me a little bit more about why you set those standards in place and how they’re different to what you experienced in the fashion industry?
It seems as though in the fashion industry - and maybe this was just my experience - but in the fashion industry everything moves very fast. You’re constantly told to hurry up and get these things done and moving, whilst also producing a Spring 2008 and Winter 2017 collection... The industry very much demands that you hurry up, move faster to do everything. I always felt in styling and in retail that you’re only seen as a form of labour producing things. For me if I’m really doing this sustainable fashion thing and really focusing on this lifestyle and this belief system, then I say it starts with the inner then the outer. If I don’t treat people with respect and dignity that are on my team, then how do I expect people to understand that people in different countries that are making their garments should be treated in certain ways. It all comes back full circle and I think being in fashion makes you take a step back and be like well it is just fashion, we’re not saving anyones’ life, its just clothes – you should have fun and it shouldn’t be this miserable experience – you should be able to take a break, have a meal and not in front of a computer. I want to create that culture in GALERIE. LA - one that I didn’t necessarily experience in many of my jobs in fashion.
As a female founder and an entrepreneur, how important is it for you to set the benchmark for the future of fashion and why are you so passionate about that?
For me it has to be done and if I don’t do it somebody else is going to do it and I feel an urgency right now, that it just has to be done and my idea needs to be brought to life in a bigger and better way. It’s good and its bad - I’ve learnt so much starting GALERIE. LA now. Within the last couple of months I’ve experienced a new wave with approaching the technology and venture capitalism side, and what it means to be a black woman exploring this space and talking about fashion and sustainability when you’re pitching ideas to mostly white men. Their values about fashion and sustainability are completely different from a woman that loves fashion and cares about sustainability, its difficult and its an interesting space to be navigating because its not mainstream and it is still such a small market in terms of fashion and what that industry is generation - but it has to be done, and right now is the time. Like you said earlier, if you see a film or you learn of something and you think, ‘ I cant wear any of this, so where do I shop? I want GALERIE. LA to be the place people will shop at when they turn a new page and they find where they actually want to shop and inturn like the clothes.
You touched on it a little just now, but its something I wanted to address – diversity is something for me personally that is extremely important, and I think it is slowly changing, which is great! I think you do such a great job in terms of the editorials and photo shoots you produce + curate. How important is the message of diversity for you to get across?
Thank you for saying that, because that’s the key to me personally. For me it was really important from the beginning, I was really sick of being shown and working on jobs where there was one standard of beauty. We were selling clothing to mass markets, and it was the girl with the negative 2 dress size, who was so tiny and looked like she was 12 years old - no body could relate to that image. People want to see someone that looks like them – or people they could be friends with.
We wanted more women of substance, which is why we wanted to make our models real people. Some of them are actually actors and models, some are musicians and and they do these wide range of things where people can relate to them and actually care about their message of sustainability, because they too are the same. And if we’re going to cross the mode of making sustainability mainstream then it has to include everyone – there are so many platforms at the moment that focus on one stereotypical age group and I think at the moment its more mainstream that people are being showcased. We need more diversity in everything – I’ve been very inspired by this body diversity, but it needs to be the norm. Even though its trendy at the moment it’s penetrating this mainstream level and I think its great.
I think its trendy at the moment because its new and hasn’t really been done before, but hopefully like you say it becomes the norm, and it wont be this trend, it’ll just be the way things are and the way things should be…
I wanted to talk a little bit more about what its like to be an entrepreneur – what does the day to day look like, and how do you stay balanced whilst you’re doing all these things?
I have no idea how its all getting done (laughs), I’m just trying to find the balance between it. I don’t have an ideal day, it changes from second to second. I currently don’t have a team that meets every day so it’s more me on a day to day, so a little more freelance in that sense. I start my day with clearing my headspace through meditation and yoga and trying to eat the best I can; eating clean so I can just be balanced and healthy in that way, because entrepreneurship is such a mental battle. It’s not even that its hard, it’s more the mental aspect – you’re perceived struggles and limitations are what you have to jump through and what makes entrepreneurship the hardest which is what I’ve learnt.
Would you say one of the biggest challenges as an entrepreneur is financial?
Absolutely. If you have a start up, the first tricky part is that you have to save for it, and you keep saving up until you can say; I can leave my other job and persue this full time and no longer have to worry about balancing the two at the same time. Or you might try to have some kind of investment that comes from family and friends or a partner that supports the household while you’re able to be an entrepreneur full time. It’s really tough to start - some people just go for it, and that’s kind of what I did and I’ve had to work at adapting a little backwards. Since I started GALERIE.LA I’ve worked full time, whilst getting this project off the ground –I did retail development for Clare V and opened six stores in the last 3 years. I opened a GOOP pop up in the Brentwood Country Mart, doing that in addition to working on GALERIE .LA, which is why I never got to commit to GALERIE .LA to its fullest. So this year I took the leap and its been the scariest thing, its that mental battle that we were talking about, and you think – ‘Am I going to lose everything, am I going to be homeless, is it worth it, is it crazy?’.
When you have those thoughts, because what you’re doing is incredibly risky, but also incredibly brave too – what do you tell yourself to keep you going?
For me I love it, and I believe in it so much and I know that its my purpose - if its not going to be GALERIE. L.A, its going to be something else bringing conscious fashion to the masses, and I know that’s my contribution to humanity and what I’m here to do. You have all of those things going for you, so it’s hard to say no. This is year three since it was a general idea, so I’m in it and committed to it until you bury me in the ground and there’s no more money and there’s no more anything! Then I’ll throw in the towel and still try and figure out ways to keep going after that. I love it so much and I really want to see a platform like this available because it’s not right now.
Why is it important that we have and support female entrepreneurs and female founders? You said before, this space is one that is mostly occupied by white men. Why is it important for us to take charge now?
I know for a fact that in the US alone there is a very high number of women who are leading these fortune 500 companies and have big leadership roles; they’re not CEO’s, but they’re Vice President’s and all of these kinds of roles. And there is also a larger number of women starting businesses every day that fill in a specific market niche that hasn’t been looked at or addressed yet. So we’re solving the problem of something that a man hadn’t thought of, like a platform that addresses a woman’s problem. So it’s important that women address problems that are important for women in the marketplace, because that is never going to be done like a man would do it, because its specifically for women. There needs to be this constant conversation in support of more women entrepreneurs, and there needs to be women who have access to capital and their own venture capitalist funds, that support other women entrepreneurs. If there’s one hundred women entrepreneurs and only two of those get capital, that means other businesses will probably never take off the ground and we don’t have that same level playing field to succeed.
What advice would you give to a budding female entrepreneur?
I would say go for it, do it smart, there is so much risk involved, but if you have an idea, pursue it and if it something you believe in, do your research, get the market statistics, prove why your idea will be beneficial, get as many early users and people that will care about your product before launching your life savings. Do it smart, but I think you should go for it. You have more access to getting products to people than you ever did before, so there’s no better time, and I think that’s cool.
Are there female leaders or women in the sustainable space that you really look up to or inspire you?
In terms of entrepreneurship more specifically, the founders of Rent the Runway are great – I’ve heard Jen speak on a few podcasts and she has a certain level of determination that led her to build a fashion technology company and raise capital and have that hustle which for me is super, super inspiring. I want to build a fashion, technology company and take it to a different level and see how technology can really influence the way we build a company from the ground up – and in that space there’s not a lot of women.
What does the future for you look like as an entrepreneur for you independently, but for GALERIE. LA as well?
We want to give people access to sustainable brands worldwide, and as a small platform that focuses on sustainability, one of the things I’m doing as a retailer is taking a huge risk by saying these products are cool, you should change the way you shop to buy these products now, being so far forward in the market to change people’s shopping behaviour. Big box retailers don’t write big orders for small emerging brands, so these brands then struggle to make their presence known – because they’re not getting into stores and having a physical presence to tell their stories, so we want to be this bridge in a new way to how retail even functions. We’re asking brands to take a risk on us as a small store that is emerging to access their inventory so that we can partner up with them.
So the way technology will influence our business is being a marketplace for other brands to showcase their collections.
Is this why you’ve started the bricks and mortar space so that the message and community you’re building not only translates to a digital space, but to a physical customer as well?
We call it a guide shop model, so we want to be a digital and physical hybrid space where you can come in and get this personalised, premium shopping experience working with a personal stylist, getting insight into how your clothes are made, what they were made from, if it’s your colour, finding the right fit - so all of that one on one attention, whilst also getting the same attention online.
What part does curation place in this – in what you want to build?
Curation places everything for me. I’m a perfectionist and a fashion snob - I actually care about the way things look, the design, the quality, checking the seams and it needs to be great. Right now there’s a lot of basics out there in sustainable fashion and I want to see more design influence – I’m a fashionable person and I want to see more than just a t-shirt or jogger pants – and of course we want to integrate those things and have basics in our ranges, but we also want to serve people with a little bit more – so curating and hand selecting and working directly with the brands one on one is everything for me and why GALERIE. LA exists.
What does personal style mean to you – a lot of the time I think fashion and style get used interchangeably, but I do think they are quite different. I talk about style a lot because I don’t really adhere to trends – what does personal style mean to you?
I personally love when somebody is fully expressing themselves and who they are through clothes and I think that’s what style is – fashion on the other hand is when a girl sees something maybe in a magazine or what a friend is wearing and is fashionable for that moment in time – a trend that is so right now! Of course you can enjoy those pieces in your own style, it’s still nice to play in fashion – there’s just a certain way to do it, but there are more people who are influenced by fashion, sometimes they’re considered the brainless consumer.
Why is it important for us to tell stories through clothes?
It’s how people perceive you before you even open your mouth! For me I‘ve changed the way that I’ve dressed in the last couple of years and have toned it down a little bit. I used to be very eccentric and I still own many flares. Fashion still plays a roll in who I am; if I’m wearing something simple I always add in an unexpected element; that’s my flare.
The tommie slogan here is ‘creative women with a conscience’ – I’ve found it really interesting to hear what others think about this. How would you interpret it?
I think what you’re doing is excellent - highlighting women who are doing creative things is key and there are a few different things that are happening right now that we need to be aware of. One is that there is a lot more feminine energy – so a lot more nurturing, more care, more love, more kindness – which are these feminine traits. Feminine is like a hug and we need more of that right now, especially here in the U.S with everything that s going on!
I think it’s important to note - and it's key - that women who are doing these creative pursuits, are courageous. So much goes into showcasing your creative talent and other women are usually the support of that, so we need to continue to support and showcase each other as we keep on making these strides forward. There’s a lot of it at the moment, its so beautiful and I want this chapter to finally turn for women so we can finally get the acknowledgement and recognition for all the work we have been putting in. It’s so easy to get trapped into thinking this is what my life should be - you go to school, you get married, you have kids, you go to a job and you retire – and there are some people where this is going to work for them,