BLANCHE MACDONALD FASHION MARKETING GRADUATE TALYA LEE TALKS TRAVEL, PR, GIRL POWER AND TORONTO'S RENAISSANCE
Public Relations maven Talya Lee is where effortless street style and old-school hustle come together. Following her love of the arts and honoring her wanderlust roots, she circled the globe after graduating from Blanche Macdonald’s Global Fashion Marketing Program, dipping her toes in the most exotic of locales. Today, with her feet firmly planted in Toronto’s bustling creative community and PR circles, Talya’s days are a whirlwind of fashion, events, travel, and collaboration amid Canada’s epicenter for the arts.
Streaming in via Skype from Toronto on a chilly afternoon, Talya’s signature mass of dark brown curls vie for a majority the screen as her metal, minimalist accessories glint in the sunlight that haloes her head and shoulders. Everything about Talya—from her posture to her grin—speak volumes about this genuinely cool and humble social media maven. Leaning in eagerly towards the screen, Talya offers greetings and kind words from her bare-lipped smile that immediately sets a tone of old friends catching up rather than a cross-country Skype call. Talking New York Fashion Week, Canada’s national treasure (hint: you probably know her too!), girl power and Toronto’s artistic renaissance, here’s Talya giving us an insight to her self-made, ultra-chic and creatively centered world.
Blanche Macdonald: A quick glance at your social media platforms tells us that you do a lot, but your main gig is PR.
Talya Lee: PR is my bread and butter and my outlet. The reality is that if you want to be doing something creative, it can be hard to make money. I found that with my role at Langton PR, it was a really great spot for me to be and I’m actually good at it! But because I have a great day job, I can be a bit pickier about the other projects I take on. Those vary from creative direction to styling to branding awareness and strategy; basically, whatever is needed visually. I’m very familiar with all kinds of art so I can connect to it in a lot of different ways. PR helps me translate the visual aspect into branding strategy.
BMC: Tell us about the PR work you do with Langton. What kind of events do you go to? What types of clients do you work with?
TL: Working at Langton has been a great learning experience. We focus largely on beauty and lifestyle brands and build multi-tiered initiatives. I myself get to straddle a couple of different roles such as Account Management as well as Social Media Strategies. Every day is completely different. Some days I’m planning a big event for a new product launch for key VIP media and other days it’s about driving a new social media campaign with influencers. We have been really lucky and worked over the years as a team and as individuals to build great initiatives around brands like Joico, Elizabeth Arden, Vita Liberata, and so many more. I think one very important lesson for all of us has been in learning the power of being a great team—working as a unit and not being afraid to get our hands dirty because the road to success isn’t always glamorous.
BMC: You must have made a lot of great connections so far in Toronto.
TL: It was a lot of pounding the pavement, but social media was really great for making connections and networking too. You can see someone’s gallery, for example, and you can immediately understand their hustle. I met a lot of people who I love to work with now just by reaching out over social media. The thing is, in this city everybody is a mover and a shaker, so it’s not weird to reach out to someone and say, ‘Hey, I love what you do. Can we connect?’ But I also did a lot of collaborations for free. As people started moving up in the world, they started taking me with them.
BMC: Do you have any PR tips for those looking to get into the industry?
TL: Never stop doing your research. The landscape is changing constantly and it’s important to be plugged in. Pay attention to who and what is a ‘come-up’. You’re more likely to be able to get time to network or collaborate with them than you are with someone who is extremely established. Consider where you might want to be and figure out ways to create mutually beneficial learning experiences. I think it’s really important to remember how important your personal brand and reach is. So much of what you do is going to rely on your relationships and how people perceive you, so give a lot of thought to how you market yourself on social media and conduct yourself in public spaces. Also, decide what you feel passionate about and work towards working in that realm. I love beauty, fashion, music, art… I try to work in those areas as much as possible so I can find joy in the long days and long to-do lists!
BMC: On the flip side, what are some PR no-nos?
TL: Don’t speak negatively in shared spaces—online, parties, gatherings, et cetera. News travels quickly, and if you’re caught speaking negatively, especially early in your career, you’ll never recover from it. Don’t get drunk at networking events. Don’t forget to follow up. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, either—make sure you’re working as many angles and opportunities as you can.
BMC: Let’s go back a little. Tell us about the career journey that took you from growing up in Edmonton to attending fashion school and then finally to making Toronto home?
TL: I was about to turn 25 and I realized that no matter what I was doing, I cared more about the clothes than what I was actually doing. I’ve always been obsessed with the ‘ensemble.’ I did some research and Blanche Macdonald’s Fashion Marketing Program popped up with all of their impressive alumni. I knew people who had gone and loved it. Plus, I’d always wanted the chance to live in Vancouver for a minute. Blanche Macdonald is a school where you get from it what you put in and that was made clear to me at the beginning. I went into things with that attitude and it seemed to breed success for me. All the things you get to learn in the program—from Merchandising to the Marketing side of things, and then courses like Fashion History—they are so, so vital. [Executive Program Director] Peggy Morrison is a national treasure! I feel that getting to be in her classes really changed the course of my life – that’s when I started looking at fashion as a distinct art. [Fashion Director] Tyler Udall also served as a huge source of support and inspiration to me - he continues to keep up with my work and offers feedback when I need it. He was actually the one to push me towards PR. He told me it would come naturally to me. This was funny to me because it wasn’t my plan at all but he was totally right.
Vancouver was perfection while I was there and I do miss it, but it wasn’t quite my speed and vibe. I initially went home to Edmonton for a minute and opened a boutique PR agency there. It was when I started getting opportunities in Toronto to cover Fashion Week for Kenton, a connection I made through [Blanche Macdonald Instructor] Lyndi Barrett while I was in school, that I realized this city was totally my vibe. So I sort of just integrated myself into it.
BMC: You founded HER Collective in 2014, not too long after graduating and moving to Toronto, and it’s become renowned as one of three all-female creative collectives in Eastern Canada. Plus, you have some rad Blanche Macdonald grads involved, like Lydia Okello of @styleisstyle. What was the inspiration behind that?
TL: HER Collective was started based on my trust, work and energy exchanges with women in the creative community. I wanted to create a space where we could share ideas, projects and advice and where it was required that we promote each other and support each other without questions asked. It needed to be a space that was ours! We were all working hard on individual projects in fashion, beauty, PR, editorial, marketing, SEO/SEM, social media marketing, visual merchandising, writing, photography, styling—you name it, we were doing it—and we needed a meeting place for it.
It started as a place for us to share our work with the world, but now it’s shifting into a platform that provides this safe space for creative and working women everywhere. We will be accepting input and contributions from women outside of the collective, so that they can share their work with our support and mentoring. Additionally, we want to work hard to continue to connect with and support other collectives run by women. I’m not interested in fighting to share the spotlight; I want us to commit to uplifting one another!
BMC: With so many projects on the go, do you have a motto or mantra you turn to that helps you power through them?
TL: I do. I don’t know if it would work for everyone, but it works for me. It’s ‘Use your head, but work from the heart.’ A lot of people struggle—especially in this industry—with individuals who aren’t genuine, but I actually don’t know how to be like that. I’ve never been that person. I find that speaking from the heart and getting to know people has served me really well. So I work from the heart and work really hard. I still study and I try to not get too comfortable. I also try to practice integrity and humility all the time, but when I need to be confident, I find the confidence. So much of this life is about being a chameleon and adapting.
BMC: And what do you find drives you in your work?
TL: A lot of things! I’m hungry for greatness all the time and I’m always growing or pushing myself. I’m driven by message, and like anybody, I’m driven by results, especially longevity. You do a project, you knock it out and it goes into the world and that’s great. But five years later, that project could really mean something to somebody; I really like the idea of being able to leave my mark in some way, whatever it is. I’m also driven by other people’s ways of hustling and mentoring. I try to do that as much as possible. There’s a lot of joy in getting to be part of somebody else’s growth.
BMC: What would you say is the accomplishment you’re most proud of?
TL: Being able to drive home a message of women supporting each other in creative fields is one of the things that makes me most proud, as well as being able to collaborate with the people I do. We work closely with as many other women as possible, removing the narrative that implies that women can’t work together. We consider teams like #Gyalcast, broke&living and LotusXGang to be our co-conspirators. We all pool our resources and work together to be better creatively and in business.
On a more tangible note, it was probably New York Fashion Week September 2013. That was a big week for me; I really connected with some people there and got to have a face-to-face with Kelly Cutrone, who really inspires me. I remember having this moment like, ‘If you work really hard, you’ll actually get to these spaces you only ever dreamed about.” I also did a really interesting project last year that I’m still so proud of. I styled a political film about the death of Michael Brown and the #BlackLivesMatter movement that went to Tribeca. I was so honored to do what I love on a project that meant so, so much.
BMC: You must bring a unique aesthetic to your work, then.
TL: I bring diversity to the projects I work on and a lot of references. I also study a lot. It’s the result of a lot of different kinds of exposure. My mom was a travel agent so my family was always traveling. We didn’t go to Disneyland, but we went to places like Singapore, Oman, Spain, and Japan—really amazing places that shaped [what] visually stimulates me now. But it’s constantly evolving. I’m always like, ‘I’m fucking with this right now and there’s this other reference I love over here; how can I combine them?’ A lot of it comes from me getting in touch with myself and knowing myself.
BMC: What was the last thing that inspired you?
TL: I went to the Prado in Spain and saw ‘real life’ art there, like Picasso and that shifted things for me visually. That was [a kind of] art I hadn’t really taken in yet. I’m always inspired by music, no matter what’s happening. Luckily for me, I live in a city where a lot of the best music is coming from and I get to be part of that picture. I can’t explain the renaissance that’s happening over here in Toronto, but it’s epic.
BMC: Not too long ago, you were featured in Cosmopolitan for your impeccable street style. What style tips do you have for the fashionable set wanting to work their street-style game?
- Do you. Be authentic and don’t wear something if it doesn’t feel right for you.
- Wear shoes you can walk in.
- Take care of your body, hair and skin. Those are the places you exude confidence.
- Always have a really great jacket around that fits the season.
- Have your signatures. For me lately, it’s been Indian-inspired fashion like bindis, bangles and heavy eye makeup. Just connect with things you like and make them new and fresh for you!