By: dr. Mark Joseph O’Connell, Olivia Belande, Anna Ludmirsky, and Rose de Paulsen,
Seneca alumnus Anita Clarke is a famous Toronto-based fashion blogger as well as a content marketer with Shopify Canada where she holds the position of Senior Managing Editor of the Shopify Engineering blog. Anita finds fashion inspirational due to its ability to reflect an individual’s nature, and since the beginning of her career has understood the great power of digital communication. She categorizes herself as an “Engineering Storyteller” and as the founder of the fashion blog “I want – I got” was not only one of the first online fashion writers in Canada, but went on to become one of the most prominent. She also frequently collaborates with local designers on projects, such as Seneca alum and School of Fashion (SOF) faculty member Philip Sparks. Anita has also been an unwavering supporter of Canadian fashion talent like Greta Constantine. (The latter have named not one but two gowns after her.)
A self-described “tomboy” and award-winning athlete, Anita grew up watching Fashion Television. She is now a fixture of the Canadian fashion glitterati with a stylistic presence that is equal parts quirky and chic, usually sporting a design trimmed into her (very) close-cropped hair. In 2009, Holt Renfrew featured Anita in a Canada-wide window campaign, and Now Magazine named her a Toronto Fashion Hero, in 2014, Vogue Italia interviewed Anita, and Hello Canada called her one of Canada’s best dressed.
Anita has always had the gift of identifying the potential in new technologies and social developments. She used the technology skills she had gained through her career in software development and combined them with her love of fashion to create one of the first blogs in the world. Her tech knowledge allowed her to communicate her creativity and passion at a time when even the most rudimentary technology for blogging was not yet in place, she was prescient in the fact that she identified the reach and communication possibilities of the nascent internet:
“[There is a] right time, right place for a lot of things, luck is definitely a thing that happens, and you have to know when to take those opportunities when they’re presented and see where they can go, because a lot of people miss those kinds of things…”
Regarding her career, she basically created the section of the Canadian fashion industry that is now syncing up with her current role in content development:
“I find it really weird, being one of the first fashion bloggers in the city, and kind of in the world. To see where it’s gone to now is very strange and it’s like ‘wow! I was part of that!’ I would never be in the position I am here at Shopify if I didn’t decide to start the fashion blog on a whim in 2002.”
As a Seneca alumnus, I was curious how Anita felt her career experience and aspirations had evolved since she graduated?:
“Seneca sent me off pretty well, I really valued what I learned from them, because at the time I was thinking of going back to university to computer science, but that’s way more focused on algorithms. Seneca provided the practical aspect, in terms of learning languages and learning how to program in these languages and learning other tools that you need to work in software development, [and] it’s not just the software, it’s also the computers that are running the software and the infrastructure that keeps this stuff up and running. I had no idea about that; but Seneca opened up my eyes. When I went in there I was like: “I hate people let’s go work with computers” not realizing that software development is a team sport you don’t get away from people, [in fact] you pretty much double down on people. No one is working in a box by themselves, you know, doing everything themselves. Any big software project is hundreds to thousands of people working on something. Honestly, when I graduated Seneca, I realized that I didn’t like programming that much. I love software development though, […] once I got my first job in software testing I realized that I really like breaking things more than building them and that’s where that career went [for the next 14 years].”
Anita identified the potential in the new technology of online fashion communication and distribution and moved into content marketing which synthesizes the traditional focus of consumer marketing with all of the new software, online retail platforms as well as the analytic data. As she states:
“Because I had been doing all this content work, I was like ‘Oh, maybe I’ll go into content, but not from a marketing perspective, and not really from an engineering perspective’, and really this job at Shopify kind of landed in my lap. Because I was looking at them from the content side; like working on their merchant facing blog. I could talk about products from my experience as a fashion blogger but not in the sense that Shopify talks about their product, but I figured I could easily go into that somehow if I got into Shopify. A friend of mine was running the team that I eventually joined, and he said ‘well we’re doing that, but we’re doing that for software and my brain just went what!? Oh, my God, are you kidding, this is the team, I need to be on’. This is what I’m interested in, I love friggin software development. I love producing stories and I’m putting this stuff that I have spent a long time in my career doing, together in one place”
Anita has thus artfully synthesized her technology and her fashion skills to create focused digital marketing content for Shopify.
To become better acquainted with Anita (both from an industry as well as a theoretical perspective), the Seneca Fashion student researchers each came up with a set of questions. We then met with Anita to explore her ideas around fashion, technology and culture:
Olivia Belande Questions:
Q1: On the topic of blogging, Anita is a sure expert, having ran her very own blog for several years. Now, however, some may argue that the idea of a blog is somewhat “outdated”. When asked whether she agrees with this statement, Anita says “If you know what your deal is, and you want to [present] more than just visuals, then blogging is still viable.”
Anita goes on to explain that there is a certain type of ownership with a blog that cannot be replicated through apps like Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. When posting fashion content on one’s own blog, and one’s own platform, there is no longer a tumultuous fight with the algorithms of Facebook and Instagram simply to be glanced upon in an endless sea of content. Furthermore, when blogging from a personally owned domain, the restrictions on what sort of content that can be shown are much less rigid—almost non-existent. This type of freedom to create sans censorship can be the make or break for certain creators who aim to push boundaries in a way that may not be largely accepted by the mainstream.
A blog, Anita says, is also a fantastic tool for the fashion academic. It is a permanent digital footprint that can work as both a haven for one’s thoughts, creations and explorations, as well as a sort of portfolio that future collaborators, partners and employers can use as a tool to get intimate look at a potential future contact.
Q2: Anita’s background in tech raised some questions, as well. Namely, our team wanted to know how she was able to balance two different lifestyles so seamlessly. Looking back at her past creations, it’s no secret that Anita is a fashion genius—but to be able to hold the title of both fashion genius and tech genius? How is it that she is able to be so deeply involved in two completely separate industries? “Well” she says, “you have to find [jobs] that give you flexibility.” While she admits that she did have to work extremely hard to be able to become so versed in both industries, Anita explains that having a steady job at a bank in the beginning allowed her to work a reasonable work week and also to explore her creative passions outside of the nine to five. Furthermore, she adds that several industries, especially tech, are looking for individuals who are well rounded and robust, rather than narrowly an expert in whichever industry they are seeking work in—in that way, having a background in fashion has helped her make connections to move forward within tech.
Q3: We also wanted to inquire about some more sensitive experiences of Anita’s, namely that of her movement through the fashion world as a woman of colour. When asked “Do you feel that being a woman of colour has hindered you in this industry, or is something that you haven’t really had to think about? And how does it compare to your experience as a woman of colour in tech?” Anita replies that the two experiences have actually felt very similar. She touches on the privilege that her white counterparts may be able to expect, noting that there is no shortage of ultra-famous and successful mainstream, white and conventionally beautiful fashion bloggers. It seems that the media has taken a kinship towards the “cookie cutter” fashion blogger/influencer, and these ideals are ones that are sometimes difficult to break through. Anita also notes that she has never been one to latch onto “feminine trappings”, not being particularly interested in applying a full face of makeup daily, or growing out her hair to be long and styled. She notes that perhaps fitting the mainstream’s image of the “ideal” fashion blogger may have granted her more opportunities to participate in brand collaborations and sponsorships, however as a fashion maverick, those types of partnerships never supremely interested her:
“[It’s easy to] feel like I’m being unapologetically me, I’m not good at being anyone else but myself—hence why I’m not an actress or anything like that,” Anita says. She also notes the awkwardness of many failed inclusion attempts on behalf of brands and companies who did not know how to tackle the idea of interacting with people of colour within their industry.
“In the early days [of fashion blogging],” Anita recalls, “PR (public relations) was getting sent to bloggers, and here’s this package of makeup with no foundation that I can use, and brands are then asking me why I’m not talking about their makeup.”
Anita notes that perhaps things have since changed, toying with the idea that brands have “woken up,” as she now sees influencers of colour receiving PR that is well suited to their complexions and grooming habits. Still that does not mean that there is not still a long way to go.
When reminiscing on her time in school, Anita remembers being one of very, very few women in her classes, and certainly the only black woman. By entering into tech, not only was she playing on a field that was dominated primarily by white men, this also meant that she had to act as a sort of ambassador for young black women in tech, which shouldn’t need to be the case. Anita says that she was able to overcome the hurt of discrimination simply by “plowing through it,” standing resilient and being unapologetically loud.
Anna Ludmirsky Questions:
One area of exploration around Anita Clarke is the way she is always extravagantly, unapologetically herself throughout her social media. If you snoop through her Instagram: @geekigirl, you come across the various aspects of her personality and lifestyle, yet her sense of dress catches the eye every single time. Every lover of fashion can appreciate the diverse selection of prints, colours, and silhouettes Anita sports in her day-to-day. When asked about her eclectic wardrobe and inspirations pulled to create outfits that many dare not to wear, she spoke about being the opposite of a uniform dresser and straying away one certain subcategory of fashion. As a result, she gravitates towards Art-Deco in terms of time periods, specifically for the fashion and interior design which explains her love for prints and varieties of shapes in her wardrobe. Similarly, she touches on the trends of the industry and lack-there-of in her clothing and she tends to find pieces that are stand outs which can last a lifetime. Growing up as a young person in the 90’s, she really felt a connection to that era of fashion, however, Anita still takes bits and pieces from the 70’s and 80’s as part of her style inspiration for her wardrobe.
Coincidentally, after speaking about her inspirations for fashion, Anita briefly spoke about her transition from dressing sporty to dressing closer to the way she does now. Growing up, Anita had multiple interests including watching televised fashion networks with her mom, as well as being an athlete with extreme dedication for a good chunk of her youth. Consequently, the cause and effect of the various sports she played: soccer, field hockey, baseball, and volleyball, led her away from the creative side of herself through her highschool days. For many years, sports was Anita’s life, reaching junior nationals for track, wanting this passion of hers to continue on throughout her life, but as a job it seemed unrealistic in her eyes. The outcome of dropping her goals of being an athlete shifted her career path towards the field of computers. Once she had the free time, she was able to explore personal style during this period of her life’s transition. Later, she spoke about the time she was an athlete, mainly about how she didn’t feel as though she could express both parts of her personality. Whilst having a jock-like mentality, she felt as though she blocked her path from opening herself up to the part of herself who loves to dress up and explore the world of fashion.
Generally, Anita went towards the path of computers and software, yet she still had her focus on her love for fashion. The way she combined the two was with her blog “I want it, I got it” she created in 2005, calling herself a computer nerd with a fashionable twist. Initially, her first blog post read:
I like to buy things. This blog is just me talking out loud about things I want and things I just got.
Published June 21, 2005”
Anita reflected on when she started the blog and the reason why it came about. As she is very well-versed in technology, she decided to write about the different material things she wanted, and things she had gotten. There are now one hundred and thirty three pages worth of blog posts from Anita. She spoke to us about how this became an obsession to keep posting and keep going to the next item that caught her eye. As you go through the pages, you truly see the transformation of the setup of the blog, from random pictures to high-quality photos of herself sporting garments she wanted to present; which influenced her posting an outfit every day during the pandemic.
Rose de Paulsen Questions:
As Anita has grown in her career, her buying power and shopping habits have changed. She avoids fast-fashion companies as they are cheaply produced and are practically landfill fodder. Knowing that the person who made and designed her garments was paid fairly makes her feel much more comfortable. Anita has a taste for nicer designed, nicer feeling garments but sometimes this does not line up with the designs from fair trade companies. At times sustainable designers opt for a simpler look than what Anita likes, usually these larger designers often greenwash their products as well. Anita describes herself as a collector, and carefully curates each piece she brings into her collection with the intention of keeping it for years to come. She is in a privileged position where she can afford clothing from smaller designers to add to her collection as well as monitor the amount of clothing she buys from larger companies. Anita’s favourite sustainable brands are Warren Steven Scott, Philip Sparks, and Black Crane.
Anita feels that the Canadian and Torontonian fashion identity is currently going through fragmentation. Since the closing of fashion weeks, fashion gatherings, and the growth of contemporary brands on social media, without the gatekeeping from the industry, fashion around Toronto has started building niches rather than a cumulative identity. Anita finds that Canadians do not focus on Canadian arts compared to other countries. She points out most people would buy global fashion brands rather than a Canadian designer like Greta Constantine because global brands are easier signifiers of wealth. She finds that Canada does not care about its fashion industry and has completely decimated the manufacturing businesses except for outwear production. Without a doubt investing in the arts and culture of Canada will not only provide a closer sense of identity but also improve the economy.
When it comes to the future of fashion and production, Anita believes that consumers will continue to push for innovative material regardless of where it comes from or what impact it has on the environment. She is fascinated with vegan and sustainable creations like vegan mushroom leather, but she understands if it were made in large scale manufacturing it would continue to contribute to pollution and fair-trade problems. She is optimistic we as humans will find some sustainable solutions. At the same time, she loves the idea of smart clothing and future advancements in clothing technology and will only buy what she sees as a worthy investment.
In conclusion, the School of Fashson student researchers and I were very grateful that Anita generously gave us the time to really explore both her personal history as well as her many insights into the Canadian fashion market. As she told us: “You guys dug deep”; well, there was a lot to dig into! Anita has proven that being open to new opportunities and also to see the potential for alternate applications of the skills that you possess is vital:
“Really, when I graduated Seneca I had no idea this was even a possibility, because actually at that point in time, it wasn’t you know? Content marketing became big through blogging and the whole social media thing and all these new industries all of a sudden popped up and it’s still growing from a software and tech perspective.”
“I had no idea what was going to happen back then and now it’s just like there are many opportunities in the industry that I didn’t anticipate. I was just happy to get out there and be able to transition to being part of making that software sausage to now talking about it instead; using all these skills that I learned. Becoming a better software tester and learning more about building software products and combining them: it’s been quite a trip. The world has changed so quickly over that time, even though it’s almost twenty years now, the stuff that’s changed has been kind of crazy. Half the stuff that we live by wasn’t even around then.”
For Anita the power of communication has always been key:
“Software companies realize that they need to tell their stories if they want to attract people to come and work for them. Or be good citizens in the industry. There are a lot of open-source tools, and we want to talk and exchange with other people using those tools in the community, that are building these tools, because we’re also part of that community building these tools.”
When asked for parting words she would give to a current Seneca student Anita states:
“Being an editor and someone who works on stories [I would say] be as interested in people and curious about them and their work. Not in an opportunistic way, generally just learn more about them. That’s the key, you have to have interest, you want to know about other people, about their lives, about what makes them tick and dig for those things and ask the questions, don’t be afraid to ask the questions. And that’s pretty much it…”
As a result of our interview and discussions with Anita, she has kindly agreed to donate a favourite piece from her amazing personal fashion collection to our Seneca Fashion Resource Centre collection. It is an Evan Biddell playsuit! Biddell, a Canadian winner of Project Runway has created this very popular (and fun!) fashion piece, and we were transfixed by Anita’s Instagram video of her dancing while wearing it. The video seems to encompass so much of what Anita has always championed: the creative use of technology, the focus on Canadian fashion innovation, and her own exuberant joie de vivre. We assured Anita during our interview, that not only is she a Seneca alumnus of the School of Software Design & Data Science, but she is also an honorary School of Fashion alumnus.