Lisa avant Tant: a fashion story

May 29, 2014
FAJO’s Power Series

It’s 8:50 a.m. on a Monday morning. The Holts Café on Bloor Street is filled with beams of sunlight. Red tulips are gracefully arranged in a transparent glass vase on the bar, contrasting against the sleek décor of the venue. Normally filled with guests, the café is empty and serene, while two staff members polish glasses and prepare for the opening in a few hours.

Lisa Tant arrives in a black suit with several outfits in-hand. Self-admitted “early riser” (she gets up at 6:30 a.m. at the latest), Tant seems energetic and upbeat. She smiles and introduces herself, then quickly takes off in the direction of the changing rooms.

Less than 10 minutes later, she emerges in a little black Donna Karan dress, a colourful, abstract-print Etro jacket and a pair of Jimmy Choos. The fashion transformation is symbolic of Tant’s work and lifestyle: despite her dedicated and tough business approach, she loves adding a creative touch to everything.

With a long-standing career in fashion journalism, Tant is currently the vice-president of exclusive services (store experience) at Holt Renfrew. After more than three decades in the fashion industry, she has helped shape careers of many people, ranging from photographers and writers to designers and stylists.

But everyone’s professional life has a turning moment: be it an encounter that led to a new start or a defining experience with an unusual twist. In The Transformation Issue’s cover story, Tant shares what that moment was like for her and how it made her who she is today.


Tant is on the cover of The Transformation Issue this month. Photo by Tara West. Graphic design by Kalynn Friesen.

HANNAH YAKOBI: Let’s go back in time a little. Could you tell me about your life in Vancouver?

LISA TANT: I was born and lived in Vancouver my whole life until I moved to Toronto in 1997 to be the beauty editor at Chatelaine.

I have two sisters. A small family. My parents are both British, they have no interest in fashion, they are not artistic or anything like that.

My mom worked part-time in retail and my dad was an accountant with the provincial government. It was a quiet upbringing, but it was beautiful—Vancouver is such a beautiful place to grow up in. I love the outdoors.

What drew you to fashion then? Was there a certain moment that changed everything for you?

I’m the youngest of three girls, so I got everybody’s hand-me-downs. Everybody’s. And long after it was even considered cool to wear purple velvet knickers, I got them. I remember my mom saying to me, ‘These are perfectly good, there’s nothing wrong with them, of course you’ll wear them.’ And I was young enough to realize it was a horrifying thing. (laughs)

And then, half way through Grade 8, I changed schools. That’s a very challenging time when you’re a pre-teen because you’ve just started to make friends and then all of a sudden they’re gone. I went to a new school, had no friends, and the only course left for me to take, because I came mid-year, was Home Economics: Sewing.

I started sewing and realized how much I loved it. I already knit and I would embroider: I was a very creative kid. I loved to make things, so this was like a whole new world opened up. I could make my own clothes that my sisters weren’t allowed to wear and [these clothes] didn’t look like anything they would ever want to wear.

So they never tried to steal them from you?

Oh, not at the beginning, but now, goodness. It’s a good thing we all live thousands of miles away from each other. I give my older sister clothes and things that I don’t want to wear anymore. But, yeah, that kind of opened a door for me. I realized that it was something creative that I could do and that was really fun.

Tant poses for FAJO at the Holts Cafe.

All smiles on a bright, sunny day, while posing for FAJO at the Holts Cafe.

What’s the age difference between you and your sisters?

My older sister is seven years older than me and the other one is 18 months older.

So not too much of a difference.

Not too much, but enough that by the time I got her hand-me-downs they weren’t cool anymore. (laughs)

And do they both live in Vancouver still?

No, I have one in Vancouver and one just south of London, in England.

Oh, and I don’t wear vintage either, the idea of vintage just creeps me out. I will not wear anybody else’s old clothes, I will not try on something in a store if it looks like it’s been tried on a few times before. I think it’s just left-over childhood anxiety.

Somebody else had a story with that and I don’t believe it’s mine to take over.

Going back to you sewing clothes. What was the first item you made?

I made a skirt with a ruffle on the bottom and it was in a big pastel, floral print. I wish I’d kept it. It would actually be cool for this season! I loved it.

And did you wear it?

Absolutely. I wanted to make a lot of clothes for my mom [too], but she grew up in wartime England and didn’t want to wear anything that was home-made because it reminded her of her childhood, so it was a bit of a struggle.

There is a big difference between making clothes and writing about them. What was the first writing spark?

I had always been a really good writer, it was my strongest class in school. I didn’t want to be a starving writer, but wanted to be in fashion. Somebody asked if I would write a few things for them, so I started dabbling in it a little.

Tant says that curiousity in fashion and strong writing skills helped the growth of her career.

Tant says that curiousity in fashion and strong writing skills helped the growth of her career.

How old were you when that happened?

Nineteen or 20. There was a writer at the Vancouver Sun and I really admired her column. So I worked up the courage when I saw her one day and told her that. And she said, ‘I just resigned, you should see if you can get it.’ So I got all my courage up and applied for this role. They said to me, ‘So many people want this, it’s really highly sought after. You have no experience, but write three columns and show us what you can do.’

I wrote one about sunscreen, one about beauty New Year’s resolutions—which is such a clichéd idea—and I can’t remember what the third one was. I worked hard, handed them in and they hired me. I found out later that nobody else had applied because no one else knew about it, they just wanted to see how hard I would try. And then, when I got the role, I was told it was a beauty column that was weekly, and I couldn’t repeat the same subject for 52 weeks. I knew nothing about beauty: I had long, blonde permed hair, and I wore blue eye shadow. I didn’t have a clue. I figured it out really quickly though. (laughs)

In your previous role at Holt Renfrew, you were a fashion editor. How do you normally do research when writing something?

I’ll Google somebody, look for them on social media, it’s so easy now to research people. I will just try and get a real feel about them from other areas too, but I also read a lot of magazines, fiction and non-fiction. I’m always on my phone. I think to be a good editor you have to have an insatiable curiosity, which I think I’ve always had.

If I read something about fashion I try and read something completely different next, I flip-flop around quite a bit, and I like reading autobiographies.

One of the biggest problems with fashion journalism is that ‘traditional’ journalists don’t often take it very seriously.

Oh, yeah, they never do. I had a desk at the Vancouver Sun that was next to the sports department. All the sports writers used to laugh their heads off at me, you know.

What did you say?

I would just wear crazier stuff to make them laugh harder because I really didn’t care. (laughs) It’s another form of art and expression.

What is that famous quote? ‘Fashion writers are the gym teachers of journalism,’ meaning that you have no legitimacy or credibility. But I don’t care what other people think.

The fashion industry has changed quite a lot in the last 15 years. What do you think has been one big change in terms of how the industry operates?

Social media. It has been a fantastic, positive change, and when I find out an editor is not involved in it, my first thought is: ‘Shame on you.’ You have to be where your readers are, and readers are on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. They’re watching videos on YouTube. A classic magazine editor who just sticks to print is such a relic. I think social media is absolutely fascinating.

What was it like being listed as one of the top tweeters last year?

Oh, when they launched Twitter Canada they asked me to speak as a VIT—a Very Important Tweeter. I thought that was really fun. I have lots of one-on-one conversations with people on Twitter too. It’s an exchange of ideas, so people who just tweet out, and never respond to others, are wasting potential of what it could be.

I picked Twitter and Instagram; I can’t spread myself too thin on too many different platforms. Those would be the two I really like.

Always on her phone: Tant says she loves social media.

Always on her phone: “I think social media is absolutely fascinating.”

What about films? The Red Carpet season continues, but going back to the Oscars: what was your favourite?

Oh, I’m an absolute film freak. I try to see a lot of films. I get called a lot to talk about Red Carpets too, but I really love film. It’s such a wonderful visual expression of a story and I love story-telling.

This year, I really liked American Hustle. The acting was sensational, every single actor really helped define and develop their characters, and the fashion was great too.

I always look at the clothes, and sometimes get so distracted by them that I have to see the movie again. The Great Gatsby was a perfect example. Even the opening of American Hustle and how Christian Bale is playing with his comb-over right away sets the tone for his character. I thought it was well done.

[I also] look at what’s happening in pop culture, to see who the latest new star is. Lupita Nyong’o from 12 Years a Slave has just defined herself in a whole new way — through Red Carpet and through this one, first role. She’s become the breakout star of the season and I find that really intriguing.

A regular Red Carpet critic, Tant enjoys dressing up herself. For our photoshoot, she wore

A regular Red Carpet critic, Tant enjoys dressing up herself. This particular outfit consists of a Stella McCartney jacket, Alexander McQeen top and skirt, and Fendi pumps.

What about the fashion designers in Canada, do you have any who you really admire?

A lot of them are my friends, so I can’t highlight anybody in particular.

You can be subjective, if you like.

I love the Greta [Constantine] boys, I’m a big fan of Jeremy Liang and Joeffer Caoc. And jewelry designers are so good in this country.

There’s no such thing to me as regional design, it’s global now. Through social media, you can reach people all around the world. I think we just need the opportunity to reach out in a bigger way through the web, because this country is so small and the opportunities are so limited.

With a lot of Canadians actually going abroad and expanding, what is one piece of advice you would give to emerging designers that would really help their careers?

I think young designers get caught up in the idea of their own show and the glamour. That is meaningless. You get one chance to make a good first impression and if you blow it on a show where you can’t meet the expectations of the audience, it’s very hard to overcome that.

It’s a business, first and foremost, and if you don’t have any business sense, make sure you have a business partner. I’ve seen so many talented designers go absolutely nowhere. They’re too creative, they can’t take criticism and they want to put out $3,000 evening gowns. It’s ridiculous.

Do you think that fashion is art?

Absolutely. Fashion is art, fashion is self-expression, fashion can be functional and practical but, at the end of the day, depending on how you present yourself to me and everyone else, I can tell what your message is in seconds.

By Hannah Yakobi
Art Direction by Marcus Kan
Photography by Tara West
Make-up Artist: Frank Aiello at Laura Mercier, Holt Renfrew
Hair: Tony Masciangelo

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