A conversation with Devin Gilmartin on cofounding The Canvas, sustainable art and fashion spaces dedicated to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.


It was awesome to interview Devin Gilmartin, the co-founder of The Canvas by Querencia Studio, global spaces dedicated to culture, art, innovation and progress towards the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals. Read about their mission and worldwide collaboration, as well as the challenges and rewards of starting and running a business. Thanks, Devin!

To start, tell me a bit about your background, career wise:
I was born in White Plains, just outside New York City, and moved to Brooklyn for high school. I always enjoyed the city more, the energy is contagious. Shortly after moving to Brooklyn, as a junior in high school, I had the chance to attend The Island School, which is a one hundred day experiential semester school on the island of Eleuthera in The Bahamas. There, math class is focused on solar efficiency and the use of resources like rain water, and science class is often SCUBA diving. You’re up before the sun rises, training for a half marathon and a four mile super swim in the ocean. This experience was a defining one for me, both personally and spiritually.

Following The Island School, I reset my interest in fashion towards a more environmentally sound approach. I had several internships across a range of brands like Loeffler Randall and NEXT, a fast-fashion brand in the United Kingdom, where I always looked to see how they approached sustainability issues, internally and externally. I spent some time working as a Social Media Intern at Milk Studios as well, covering New York and Paris fashion weeks for them. This was a great learning experience in how to use social networks to build audiences and establish complex, partnerships to create meaningful messaging.

How did you come to co-found Querencia Studio and The Canvas by Querencia Studio?
We co-founded Querencia Studio in the summer of 2016. As I was preparing to head to London for the one year foundation degree program at the London College of Fashion, my cofounder Tegan and I were connected over a phone call. Tegan grew up on the island of Eleuthera, and had recently returned from sailing all over the world. She had been looking into creating a better uniform system for The Island School and, after being introduced, we had a few conversations about the unique intersection of our respective backgrounds, and how we saw some opportunities in front of us. Three months after that initial conversation, we had registered an LLC and began producing t-shirts under Querencia Studio. The term “querencia” refers to a safe place, a place within which one feels at home.

As we developed the brand, and brought on Kate Walz, our Lead Designer to this day, we engaged in pop ups and installations in New York City around the world. We noticed along the way that there is a startling number of vacant spaces throughout major cities. Starting with our year long installation at Hunter College, within the school’s former bookstore, we began activating spaces. As we began cold calling the phone numbers in the empty windows, tracking down any lead and potential opportunity we could, we eventually found out about a vacant warehouse on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. We pitched a revenue share agreement for the space, and our landlord agreed. We moved in on November 1, 2018 and haven’t looked back.

Politico recently released a report that retail vacancies in New York City have doubled since 2007. We want to leverage this situation to activate these spaces, in New York City and globally, to transform them into hubs focused on sustainable development and the empowerment and the growth of ethical fashion brands. Beyond just retail, we are beginning to expanding our services to provide tools and analytics to help foster growth for our partners. If we can fill vacant homes via the click of a button, landlords should be able to do the same for their spaces. We want to make that easier for them, and do so at the expense of fast fashion, and those putting the creation of cheap clothing ahead of human livelihood and decency. The demise of fast fashion will be accelerated through a connected network of sustainability-focused businesses working together to stimulate progress towards the SDG’s in a unified, cohesive way.

Talk to me about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. What are they? Are there guidelines set by the UN that you follow?
The Sustainable Development Goals, also known as the Global Goals, are the seventeen goals issued and agreed upon by the United Nations’ General Assembly. They are a follow up from the, unfortunately, incomplete and insufficient effort of the millennium goals. The Global Goals are more ambitious and more sensitive to the diversity of complex issues nation states face. Seeing these as matters that also implicate the fashion industry, we thought it would be appropriate to judge our own efforts, and those of our partners, at the same level. A fashion brand, or any company for that matter, is a living organism, a network of people producing value. Sustainability must be at the core of how we assess value. We curate our brands and programming with this in mind.

This month’s goal is “No poverty” with brands from Los Angeles, Cape Town, Chicago, Havana, and Amsterdam focusing on addressing it. What is that workflow/process like?
No poverty is Sustainable Development Goal #1. Without the eradication of poverty, we cannot expect to make significant progress towards any other goals. We need to begin with basics, and the basics are ensuring that all humans have access to resources that allows them to tap into their potential. Eradicating poverty means finding ways to create opportunity, and fashion has a role to play in this process.

How do you measure success?
We try to measure progress instead.

Speak to other months and goals that the brands have tackled. I’d love to get a sense of how those differ month over month.
The “Goal of the Month” is a new initiative to go along with our recent publication, The Palette. The Palette is our way of sharing our brands’ stories to our audiences beyond their clothing. As we unveil each goal of the month, a brand feature will go along with it.

Photo credit: Darian Dicianno of BFA

What has feedback been from artists and buyers?
Our starting point was an empty warehouse so, in that sense, the most important step for us was to make this a building worth entering and observing. The feedback we’ve received since starting has been that there is consistent change, which we feel is a part of being a modern space.

We want to be able to adapt to a certain day, the weather, the energy of a moment, or for any particular event or activation. It is this ability to intuitively architect the different elements of the space that, as a team, I think we’ve come to make the central element. Being that flexible, were integrating feedback into our operation on a daily, even hourly basis.

For shoppers, what is important advice or information for them to know before they shop (anywhere) around sustainability. Is there an easy way for consumers to know that their money is going to a good place?
I think doing due diligence in knowing what a company stands for, what they choose to disclose, and what they don’t, is essential. The Canvas has made transparency a key component of our operation. We request information pertaining to the operation, supply chain and design process of all brands that apply to be a part of The Canvas. All garments on the floor are tagged with the Sustainable Development Goals, and each brand is checked off based on the goals their product addresses.

Speak to the experience of running Querencia Studio & The Canvas - what has been the most rewarding aspect to it, as well as the most challenging?
On The Canvas front, the most rewarding aspect is seeing the impact we're having on people and brands, and the network we’ve built along with it. We feel as if we now have an international family, an entrepreneurial team striving towards the same goal in different ways.

With Querencia Studio, it has been the unbelievable opportunities for innovation in fashion design. As our Lead Designer, Kate has focused on space travel as an inspiration source, not just aesthetically, but functionally.

Kate reached out Dr. Cameron Smith, a Professor of Anthropology at Portland State University and is well known for his “DIY Spacesuit.” Last year, she worked on her senior thesis, and the most recent Querencia Studio collection, The Earth Suit Project. A few months later, we were in Portland, at Dr. Smith’s studio, learning about his process first hand. Six months after that, we were all together in Paris for Paris Fashion Week, showing our joint exhibition entitled “We Are All Astronauts”. Going from t-shirts to spacesuits and earthsuits within a few years is one of the more exciting developments on the Querencia Studio side.

The most challenging part of this is that it does not stop. Coming to terms with that is the next challenge, and doing so has been rewarding as well.

For any individual(s) interested in starting their own venture, what would your advice be to them?
1) Do it and work hard to make it the best of its kind. In this day and age, no matter what industry or type of business you may be in, doing that usually involves sending as many emails as you can physically manage while maintaining a balanced and healthy lifestyle. The best way to test ideas is with people, and do so with anyone who will listen.

2) Make yourself available to receive feedback and request it constantly from those who are in a position to give it with proper context.

3) Have an end goal, but don’t mind adjusting it constantly. The world changes, and we must adapt and change with it. Be flexible and ready for anything.

From the past three years looking towards the next three years, what lessons have you learned that you want to apply? What are your goals going forward?
The world is a very exciting place and there is great reason to be optimistic. I think the lesson is that with a team, anything is possible. We’ve been lucky enough to, at our core, maintain the same team and that’s allowed us to stay true to our mission, and why we started this in the first place. Going forward, the goal is to keep on our path, stay true to this mission, and realize the potential we see in this company and the value it can bring to changing things in fashion, and beyond it.

Devin and Tegan of The Canvas, Thomas de Mulder of MADE, and Steff Vermeesch, Manager of The Canvas Antwerp

What’s going on at The Canvas in Antwerp?
We have long felt that for The Canvas mission to be viable, that is to be a global marketplace utilizing vacant space, we would need to create alliances and partnerships. Thanks to an ongoing collaboration and conversation with our friends at KUNSTGEZIND, an Antwerp-based art collective, we were connected to a company that sees these vacant space opportunities in a similar way.

In collaboration with our partners at MADE, the urban trend consultant, which is helping us bring The Canvas Antwerp to life, we are expanding The Canvas to Belgium as it's clear to us that the city of Antwerp is ready for a space that looks at fashion in this way. This location will have a variety of offerings beyond fashion as well, including yoga, a cafe and lounge area.

I understand you were recently in Peru on a buying trip, what does that mean? What’s a typical day or week for you?
PromPerù, which is Peru’s agency of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism, recently hosted their Sur Exporta conference in Cusco, which I had the chance to be a part of. I sat down with over a dozen Peruvian fashion brands, heard their stories and discussed the difficulties and opportunities they saw in the Peruvian marketplace.

Having attended with Marina Spadafora of Fashion Revolution Italy and Patrick Duffy of Global Fashion Exchange, we also travelled to Lima to speak at the Universidad ESAN Graduate School of Business. We had the chance to share our respective work with students and entrepreneurs, and brainstorm on the opportunities, both in Peru and around the world, for an ethical approach to fashion to thrive.

After these meetings with organizations like Concurrentes and AMSP promoting ethical fashion in Peru, we made an agreement to soon begin importing Peruvian artisan products to The Canvas locations. We’re thrilled to be working with Peru in this capacity, and to be telling the story of these amazing artisans while introducing their product to the global marketplace. At this point, I would refrain from attempting to classify any day as typical but that would be the most exciting part. The lack of consistency makes for excitement all around.

What is the Future Fashion Group at NYU and is there a relation between missions and practices to your work with the studio?
The Future Fashion Group at NYU is a university-wide club initiated last year. My fellow co-founders and I felt there was a growing interest in sustainable fashion on campus, but not enough information, resources and opportunities. With the ability to program events and connect with our fellow students across the twelve global campuses, FFG has looked to become a leader in the student movement towards a more responsible approach to fashion, on and off campus.

The opportunity to engage industry leaders and bring them into the conversation at NYU has been exciting. Academia should be taking the environmental impact more seriously and we are looking forward to being a part of the effort to make these conversations more mainstream at NYU.

Are there any companies or brands that inspire you in the realm of sustainable fashion?
I am certainly biased, but the creativity of the over eighty brands we see and work with every day at The Canvas Williamsburg, and soon Antwerp, is astonishing. We have accessories made of recycled tires, jewelry made from metal war remnants, Cuba’s first independent fashion brand and more. These are people, brands and efforts rooted deeply in a mission to make better and do better. Having the opportunity to work directly with them is what drives us to grow our business while improving our platform designed to facilitate growth in theirs.

To learn more about The Canvas, visit @thecanvasbyq and say hey to @devinjamesgilmartin.