LEADING LADIES INTERVIEW: Sophomore Magazine
Interview By: Liron Davis
Photos By: Carrie Jade Cai
On a chilly day in December 2015, I left the Fortnight studio sale only to discover an arts market next door. I absentmindedly wandered around until I was drawn to a table with magazines spread out on display. I picked up a copy and was immediately transfixed by the brightly coloured glossy. As I flipped through the pages, I fell deeply and madly in love with the visuals, which depicted various intersections of identity with a vibrant, effervescent quality. I took note of the magazine’s name, Sophomore, and promised to keep an eye on this new publication. Since then, Sophomore has become an online lifestyle and fashion brand that expresses a bold point of view through its visuals and editorials. The all-female team behind Sophomore are living embodiments of the brand – brilliant, striking, passionate and endlessly inspiring. Having wowed us since the beginning, we couldn’t think of any women (5 of the 12 Women Team) more fitting for our first group Leading Ladies feature.
STEPHANIE ROTZ, Co-founder and publisher
FORTNIGHT: Who are you? And what do you do?
STEPHANIE: I’m Stephanie Rotz and I’m the publisher and co-founder of Sophomore Magazine. Initially I started off in an editorial role and then pivoted into a role as publisher to be able to see bigger picture and help push us towards a business model of sorts. Now I have my hand in both visual and editorial as well as the communications side of things.
FORTNIGHT: What prompted you to start Sophomore Magazine?
STEPHANIE: There were originally three co-founders – Kiersten, Jeanine and myself. Kiersten approached me the summer after graduating from university (Fashion Communication at Ryerson). At that time I felt very disillusioned with the fashion industry and either wanted to leave it or be a part of something that could make a change in the industry. Kiersten had this idea of starting a feminist fashion magazine. She wanted me to help her conceptualize it and bring it to life. It felt like fate in that regard. We reached out to Jeanine to do the visuals because we knew of her through school and that’s how it all started.
FORTNIGHT: What’s it like to work on Sophomore full time in addition to a full-time job?
STEPHANIE: To be completely honest, it is an emotional rollercoaster. When you are in your late teens/early twenties you think you can do it all and that is definitely where my head was at for a long time, especially in school. I was working and doing a full course load and I burned myself out, which is partly why when I graduated I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be in an industry that you always have to hustle. Now I check in with myself asking if I am still getting out of this what I want to get out of this. I try to do that with the team as well. We just want to make sure staff is still feeling good and wants to move forward with being part of the team.
FORTNIGHT: How do you keep a large group of contributors and staff organized and moving forward?
STEPHANIE: I love virtual tools because a lot of what we do is actually remote. We use Slack on a daily basis to maintain communications with the team – utilizing different channels and categories of conversation – making it seem a lot less like we don’t see each other. We use Google Calendar to map out everything across the board so that we can all see what is happening in each part of the magazine. We also heavily use Google Drive, which is how we maintain our editorial calendar and our contributors content. We have one in-person meeting and one virtual meeting every month that we do through Zoom to accommodate staff’s busy schedule. That is really how we stay in touch and on top of things – it is entirely due to the Internet.
FORTNIGHT: How do you keep the magazine authentic while ensuring you have the funds to stay afloat?
STEPHANIE: That is an issue we are still grappling with. What we are trying to do right now is establish what makes a brand ethical or how many ethical or sustainable pillars they need to have in order for us to work with them. Because no company is perfect especially within the capitalist framework. As long as the company is taking some sort of stance to being more ethical or sustainable that is all we can hope for at this stage. So we look at environment, labour practices, wages. Being less black and white with things and allowing a little bit of grey area with us as well.
FORTNIGHT: What do you say to those who think a fashion magazine can’t be political?
STEPHANIE: I think Teen Vogue has been doing a lot of the heavy lifting in this subject for sure. They’ve been doing a great job marrying fashion and politics and acknowledging that just because you appreciate fashion doesn’t mean you are unintelligent. I think it is almost ignorant to think that fashion can’t be political. Because how are you interpreting an industry that is almost entirely feminized? Is that a reflection of your image of gender? Fashion can be feminist and people who consume fashion can be feminist. It is essentially about being self aware about what makes something feminist and who the labour markets are. Just being critical of the things we consume and communicate.
JEANINE BRITO, Co-founder and Art Director
FORTNIGHT: Who are you? And what do you do?
JEANINE: I’m Jeanine and I’m the art director of Sophomore and also one of the co-founders. As art director I oversee all the visual aspects of the brand. Everything from producing photo shoots to choosing images to go alongside content. How articles look on the website, maintaining the website itself and social media. In life generally, what I’m interested in is storytelling and I’m largely a visual person so I use images to tell stories.
FORTNIGHT: What kind of space do you hope you’re carving for young women?
JEANINE: I think with Sophomore what’s really important is encouraging people to be accountable. As a feminist not everything you do is perfect; at times you will make mistakes and learning to take responsibility for your mistakes and grow from them—that is what we are really trying to do.
FORTNIGHT: What do you hope you knew when you first started working at the magazine?
JEANINE: Something that I still struggle with but I’m definitely getting better at now is delegating. Also understanding that I don’t have to do everything by myself and that it’s okay to ask for help. Sophomore is a pretty comprehensive side project; it’s important for me to know where my limits are and not overexert myself so that I can keep doing the work.
FORTNIGHT: How do you stay motivated and energized to keep moving forward, especially working full time and for Sophomore?
JEANINE: A huge aspect of it is that we have this incredible team and every time we have a meeting I’m reminded again of why I’m doing this. Each meeting, we have a brainstorming session and everyone has so many ideas and brings their own experiences to the table. Seeing how excited everyone gets keeps me excited. The other thing is that Stephanie and I have this great relationship where if she is feeling kind of burned out, I’ll pick up the slack and she will do the same for me. And every so often we check in with each other and help reinvigorate each other.
FORTNIGHT: How would you advise women to exude confidence and self love in a world bombarding them with images and messages intended to push them down?
JEANINE: I definitely struggle with confidence. I’m not always the most confident person, but I think part of it is just growing up and understanding who you are. I think it’s about giving yourself time to be comfortable with who you are. When it comes to being confident about your body, I try to surround myself with images of women that aren’t what you see in a typical fashion magazine. On Instagram, I follow women who are body positive and don’t care if their cellulite is showing. Coming to terms with the fact that I had cellulite or that my bikini line wasn’t always going to be flawless, those things took awhile to accept but seeing other women own those things helped me. It’s a process and there are moments where you are uncomfortable, but that is how you grow.
FORTNIGHT: What direction do you see fashion publications taking? Or where do you hope they will go?
JEANINE: I think a huge thing is that publications are being produced by the audience they are intended for. Like Rookie for example – it is by teenage girls for teenage girls. Because who better to know the audience and speak to them in a way that isn’t condescending and has the content that you would want to read as a sixteen-year old-girl. When I was growing up I had Seventeen and CosmoGirl, but it never really talked about things that I was dealing with in any real way. It was very surface level. I think if I had something like Rookie and I could read about girls going through similar things as I had been, it would have been so helpful.
CEECEE LU, Video Producer
FORTNIGHT: Who are you? And what do you do?
CEECEE: My name is Ceecee Lu and I do the videos at Sophomore. So I do all the filming, editing, sound and colour. And then I make the social media videos and manage our YouTube channel.
FORTNIGHT: Where do you draw inspiration?
CEECEE: I draw inspiration from so many different things. I feel like when I work with Sophomore I definitely draw inspiration from the women I work with. Any references that they have or any inspirations that we’ve been recently talking about. I also draw inspiration from recent events and social issues. I started off doing video because I wanted to capture the stories of my family, from a woman’s point of view. I went back to China to visit my grandma and was armed with this DSLR thinking that I would take photographs. I ended up discovering video, loved it and wanted to make a documentary. Definitely my start in video came from a documentarian point of view.
FORTNIGHT: What do you hope viewers experience with from the content you create?
CEECEE: A lot of the videos we create have an educational side to it so hopefully the viewers will be able to take some sort of information from them. I hope that the content we put out sends a positive message to the people watching – one of inclusivity, equality, acceptance and social justice – definitely those are the sorts of things I like talking about.
FORTNIGHT: How do you handle disagreement in creative direction when working with the rest of the team?
CEECEE: That hasn’t happened to me much. If anything there is something I want to do and then I find out we don’t have the resources to do it. The beautiful thing about Sophomore is that it’s been one of the most open and safe spaces I’ve ever worked. I always feel comfortable to bring up my ideas and share my suggestions. I think we have a really healthy culture of communication within the team. There isn’t competition and I think that’s really important. Everyone is really respectful.
FORTNIGHT: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned working at Sophomore?
CEECEE: You’re going to think I’m so cheesy, but I feel like Sophomore is the most supportive and positive team I’ve ever worked with. It doesn’t matter if we are sharing stories about our personal lives, our career failures, success or aspirations. It isn’t just blind positivity, but the team takes a long time to understand each other and the language that we use with each other is appropriate with how we understand one another. That is what makes us want to put all our time and effort into doing these things. We would do so much for each other and so much for the vision we have. I feel so satisfied doing the work and like I’m part of this family that is really nourishing to me.
FORTNIGHT: What are some of the biggest hurdles you’ve faced working within your medium (creating video content)?
CEECEE: I didn’t go to film school so that is definitely the most glaring hurdle that I’ve faced, both technically and in terms of acceptance from the industry. I’ve faced a lot of skepticism. I didn’t really let that stop me because I was going through things in my life where this was the only thing that was making me happy and I obviously wasn’t going to stop. I didn’t take on the conventional way of learning how to do video, so I would learn bits and pieces of technical things and then fill in the spots later. Or I spend the money to rent out equipment so that I could learn how to do different things since I didn’t have access to it in school.
ELIZABETH POLANCO, Editor
FORTNIGHT: Who are you? And what do you do?
ELIZABETH: I’m Elizabeth and I’m the editor at Sophomore. I originally started as an editorial assistant two years ago, then moved up to associate editor and around the beginning of the summer I became editor. Now I work mostly in organizing the editorial voice and guiding where each theme is going to go and what we are specifically looking for in that theme. It’s fun to have a bit more control of the stories, the people we want to cover and the issues we want folks to talk about.
FORTNIGHT: What gets you excited about your work with Sophomore?
ELIZABETH: Telling stories have always been the focus for me. With Sophomore, I really love being able to have women and all kinds of marginalized voices tell stories themselves and have a platform to discuss things in ways that haven’t been done before. I loved being the associate editor because I was working with so many contributors. I would get so excited to receive new pitches and see how people presented their work based on the prompts we gave them. I just love working entirely with women. At the foundation that is my favourite thing.
FORTNIGHT: How do you stay inspired when it comes to creating fresh content on a regular basis?
ELIZABETH: That is hard now because websites and online publications are so democratized; which is really good in a lot of ways – but it creates an over saturation of information. It is hard to always have a new, creative idea. Now as the editor it’s about turning that over to contributors and the rest of the team if I feel like I don’t have anything new to say. When you are creatively stuck it could be an internal block but it could also be that you don’t have anything to add personally to the discussion. It’s great to turn it over to people who do and haven’t had the opportunity or the space or the privilege to do so.
FORTNIGHT: Which issue of Sophomore do you feel the most proud about?
ELIZABETH: I love them all because they are like my children. The one I feel the most deep tissue connection with is the Women of Colour + Activism issue. We had this huge production for the visual and editorial team and we had video and photography of nine women of colour activists in all different fields. We featured notable people like Sandy Hudson from Black Lives Matter, Sarain Fox from Viceland, Kai Cheng Thom who is an incredible writer. We had such great feedback from that issue and it was really big for us. I don’t write too often for Sophomore but I did write something for that. That issue also spurred the idea that we should do a flagship piece that would define the entire issue, a meaty piece that people could spend time on.
FORTNIGHT: What advice would you give to a young woman who is afraid to put her art or writing out into the world?
ELIZABETH: I think there is an understanding that women have to work hard to get to certain places. So much of that now is tuning out noise and certain voices that make you feel lesser than. I always think about that quote, “move through the world with the confidence of a mediocre white man,” because it’s just so frustrating seeing so many talented, multi-faceted, complex smart women that I know, still have crippling self doubt. And then I see men who are just mediocre and barely trying that are so proud and put their achievements out with such finality. I think it is about honing in on yourself and finding what gets you really excited. Tuning out the bullshit and looking into yourself and from then on you can move forward with confidence.
FORTNIGHT: Where do you see the future of Sophomore?
ELIZABETH: It’s really exciting. Now that we have a communications team they have such an incredible collective brain for PR and marketing. With that, I would hope to monetize the magazine in some way. I’m really excited to see the team grow in different ways and for us to move more into video now that we have CeeCee. I’d love to do bigger and bigger issues and also go back to print. I see a really bright future for Sophomore.
VICTORIA MARSHALL, Marketing Manager
FORTNIGHT: Who are you? And what do you do?
VICTORIA: I’m Victoria Marshall. I’m Sophomore’s marketing manager. When I joined the team they were in a transitional phase so it was really exciting because we got to brainstorm ideas for the magazine’s future. Now my position has turned into a lot of analytics and concept ideation – I am one half of our communications team. I run all our social media and I coordinate with our visual and editorial team on upcoming content to figure out what we are going to be doing, what the timing should be for promotions and what kind of visuals we are going to have to support that.
FORTNIGHT: How did you start working for Sophomore?
VICTORIA: I originally worked with Jeanine at American Apparel so I had her on social media and after we stopped working there I continued to follow her. I kept my eye on Jeanine, as she has always been very smart and very good at what she did. She started Sophomore and I really liked it. I was keeping an eye on it to see if it was something I could get involved in at some point and one day they posted a job posting for a Communications Director. I applied and they ended up hiring me and Naomi and splitting the job in two.
FORTNIGHT: What’s it like working with an all-female team?
VICTORIA: I love it. I’m lucky because I work with a lot of women at my day job as well, but it is very different at Sophomore. There is a lot of very open communication – everyone is very respectful of each other’s ideas. I don’t want to generalize and say that it only happens when it is all women but there is a different dynamic because we are all very aware of how statements can be perceived and we try to be constructive in everything you do. I think there is a palpable difference because all of us are very focused on creating a really good working environment.
FORTNIGHT: Why is Sophomore so important to you? And why is it so important that it exists in the world?
VICTORIA: It’s very creative. There are not a lot of boundaries of what we can and can’t do. The talent running Sophomore is capable of pretty much anything. People constantly ask me where the money comes from and I say we just do everything. It’s a lot of people putting the time and effort in and even donating resources because they care and see it as something worth doing.
I think the statement that we use to define us, “elevating and publishing voices from different intersections of identity,” is a really good way of saying we create a community where everyone is welcome that fosters a positive energy and raises people up who have not necessarily been able to find a platform to share their experiences and engage in a discourse. I think a big part of what we do is making the idea of intersectional feminism more accessible and appealing to younger generations. I think communicating our values and making sure we are staying true to that while we grow is really important.
FORTNIGHT: What’s the most challenging part of your role?
VICTORIA: I would say knowing where the limits are. Because we are so open and the company is young and still changing and growing, there are so many options. Sometimes I can get really excited about ideas that are just out of our scope right now or not necessarily something that is attainable. But I have a notebook of ideas that I keep in mind for the future. Restraining myself at times and remembering the day-to-day stuff needs to get done before we can think about the long-term big picture.
FORTNIGHT: Can you describe an experience where you realized the work you put out through Sophomore affected others or a broader scope of community?
VICTORIA: There have been quite a few articles that I have shared with people that did a really good job of continuing the discourse that I felt I was unable to continue because it was not coming from my perspective or was a subject I wasn’t that familiar with. That’s been really cool because Sophomore is a great resource for trying to understand other people’s experiences and put into perspective what we are all about. I think that is really relevant right now. There are a lot of mainstream media and Instagram accounts talking about intersectional feminism and it’s really easy to get caught up in the buzzwords. It’s important to make sure you’re actually listening to people who are living these experiences talk about how they feel, what they’ve seen and what that really means. Giving those people platforms instead of talking over them about their own issues is a real problem. I love that so much of our content is generated by so many different people coming from so many different backgrounds.
LIGHTNING ROUND (Speedy Answers To Lightning-Fast Questions)
FORTNIGHT: What’s your equivalent of the power suit? An outfit that makes you feel strong and powerful, like you could take over the world.
JEANINE: I have this giant men’s blazer that I got at Public Butter that I adore and I feel so good in it. The shoulders go out really far and I love that it’s kind of ridiculous. Also a good boot. My walk changes when I’m wearing a good boot with a sturdy heel. I feel like I walk with more purpose.
CEECEE: A faux fur coat over lingerie.
ELIZABETH: Mine would be a jumpsuit. I have so many jumpsuits in my closet; it’s ever expanding. I love a wide-legged jumpsuit. I also got my first suit this year and I love the feeling of having an actual power suit.
FORTNIGHT: In three words or less, how would you describe your personal style?
STEPHANIE: Scattered, extra and trying too hard.
JEANINE: Oversized, denim, and monochromatic.
ELIZABETH: Vintage, eclectic, and unpredictable.
FORTNIGHT: What are some of your favourite independent labels or products
STEPHANIE: I love Province Apothecary for all things beauty. Also Hayley Elsaesser – she is really great and all of her stuff is so much fun. I wish I could wear everything she makes!
JEANINE: I just discovered this new fragrance company called Apoteker Tepe and the fragrances are so interesting. I don’t really like floral or fruity fragrances. I like ones that you smell it and you’re not sure if you like it or not.
VICTORIA: I really like DECEIM | The Abnormal Beauty Company. They make a lot of really cool products and their ordinary line is a really accessible thing. There are also a lot of local stores in Toronto I really like. I still love Black Market – you can find a lot of good t-shirts there.
FORTNIGHT: Name three women you’d want to grab drinks with?
STEPHANIE: Charlie XCX, Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne. I love pop music and pop stars. I know everyone says don’t meet your heroes but I feel like I would have so many questions for them.
CEECEE: J.K. Rowling, Roxanne Gay and Maya Angelou.
ELIZABETH: Frida Kahlo, Carrie Fisher, and Cardi B.
FORTNIGHT: What’s your personal theme song?
CEECEE: “That Don’t Impress Me Much” by Shania Twain.
ELIZABETH: “Hombre” by MIA
VICTORIA: “Dance Yourself Clean” by LCD Soundsystem. I like walking around to that song.
FORTNIGHT: Who is your dream collaborator?
STEPHANIE: There is a publication called Vestoj it is partnered with London College of Fashion. It is a fashion periodical that puts out intelligent content about fashion. I really admire what they are doing.
JEANINE: I think it would be really cool to work on something with Tavi (Gevinson) of Rookie. I feel like she is such a force and has her toes in so many different creative things. I love working with Stephanie (Rotz) and I feel like we balance each other so well. I can’t think of anyone else I’ve encountered personally that I would rather work with than Steph.
VICTORIA: I love marketing and I really like what I do so I think that my dream collaborator would be someone in that area. Like Bozoma Saint John. In terms of business she is the coolest person and I think she would be a really cool brain to pick.