Empowering Editorial Portraiture: Finally, The Result of Our Photo Shoot

Right before Covid hit, I shared the countdown to my photo shoot.  Lucky for me, I was able to get in the photo shoot and the photo selection before the shutdown.  So why have I waited so long to share the outcome?  Like so many of you, I was in shock, hibernation, and then adaptation mode for the past few months.  I just wasn’t ready to present myself too much.  But now I am.  

Who cares, it’s just a bunch of pics, right?  But for me, this was an emotionally complex process.  I’ve always felt uncomfortable getting my pictures taken.  I am a ham in front of a video camera, but when it comes to still photos, I freeze up and always look unhappy, uncomfortable, and unlike me.  And let’s face it, we are a visual culture now.  We speak in pictures.  They matter.  As a woman who writes about beauty, and relies on it somewhat — for better or worse, I really wanted my pictures to capture me at my best.  More than that, I wanted them to capture who I am and my personality.  I wanted them to express my growth as a woman, professional, and human being.

I held off for YEARS getting my next round of shots.  I was afraid to commit the time and resources to photos that could end up horrible.  But when I saw a post by a former advertising colleague, Rebecca Rehder, about her portrait studio, June4thstudio, I was intrigued.  Upon meeting and chatting about the shoot, I immediately knew she was the ONE.  She truly tried to understand my expectations, my goals, and how to showcase my best assets.  She recognized that I was on a new journey professionally, and how I wanted to “show up” as a mix of thought leader, creative and fun.  In a nutshell, she creates Empowering Editorial Portraiture.  So I went for it.  

Rebecca uniquely combines her background as an advertising strategist and her photography talent to create magic.  She tries to capture a person’s essence, her power, and her many layers of beauty.  To hear more about her special technique watch our chat below.    

For a selection of our shots, see gallery below:

Beauty Convos with Gad #3: What Are We Going to Take Forward After The Crisis?

I had the privilege of catching up with my good friend and beauty stylist to the stars, Gad Cohen.  I totally scrapped my intended “look” for the chat (a groovy headscarf) and played up the moment.  A few hours prior to our chat, I decided to wash my hair and then ran into a meeting that lasted much longer than anticipated.  I was left with only a few minutes to prep.  So I leaned into it.  I didn’t blow dry my hair but, instead, worked with the au natural waviness and fullness.

Why am I telling you all this?  Because it became the theme of our discussion: embracing the NOW.

Gad and I kicked off our chat discussing the New York Times article: What Is Beauty Now by Mara Altman.  Altman shares a number of different opinions around our responses to the beauty constraints during this crisis, and what’s going to happen when it’s all over.  She describes the sheer panic people are experiencing over their gray hairs and how they are jumping out of their seats in anticipation of salons opening up.  While others, she writes, are embracing their new-found liberation from beauty maintenance.  When it comes to the moment we can go back to normal living, the article shares the concern that beauty brands will shame us into trying to get plucked, primped and preened by pointing out how we’ve all gone to pot. But the article raises the opinions of others — like that of Gad — that we will be a lot more empathetic and embracing of others’  appearances.  And that we will all come out better from this experience.

I tend towards the “glass half full side of things” and agree with the last sentiment.  Given that Gad is part of the beauty industry that Altman refers to, I asked him if he agrees that people will be convinced that they will be crappy about themselves and succumb to the beauty industry’s call for transformation.  He said absolutely no.  First, he believes people will reject that type of marketing and even rebel against it.  Second, he, himself, looks forward to playing with the changes that we are all experiencing — the gray strands, the longer hair, the grown out eyebrows.  The opposite of using shame, he will greet people’s evolving beauty with love, excitement and creativity. 

This discussion led us to anticipate what’s going to change for HIM when people start coming back to his atelier.  Will he be doing anything differently given what he’s learned from this crisis? Of course he will continue to do what he’s always been doing, that is, truly understand his clients — their personalities, lifestyles, aspirations and dreams — in order to create the best styles for them.  But he believes that we will all be much more focused on the NOW, i.e., how we are feeling at that moment.  In the past, we may have asked our stylists for looks that will work in different future scenarios.  We would think about what will grow out well in the long run or what has versatility.  But our sense of the future is so unsure now.  Who would have expected to be stuck working from home for months on end?  Who would have thought travel was off limits?  Who would have thought we wouldn’t be socializing or that our major source of connection would be a small screen?  We are not saying that we won’t be planning for days ahead but we will have a greater appreciation for the NOW — what we need, feel, want, expect in this moment.

Boy, am I looking forward to that NOW moment

Fashion, Politics & Diversity: NYFW Lily Fashion Event

With Lily General Manager, Chen Chuan & CCO, Sun Mingyang

In my many years writing about beauty, I’ve commented on the bridging opportunities of fashion.  I believe that because fashion and beauty are often relegated to the “nice to have” or “fun/cultural” spaces (aka not THAT important), it gets overlooked by those in political power.  Yet this “status” rewards it the freedom to defy authority, push boundaries or advocate for certain agendas.   

I’ve had the privilege of being associated with Unipx, a Chinese lifestyle/culture/fashion publication.  More than that, I’ve become good friends with members of the publication, including its CEO. Through our relationship I get to do fun things like attend fashion shows and speak at events.  But more importantly I get to hear different perspectives, and, in some small way, help to bridge the gaps that exist between our cultures. No question, with all the events happening in Hong Kong, we jump into lengthy debates.  And of course, we acknowledge China’s limitations for people with different sexual orientations and identities. But at least we are having these conversations and trying to connect.

The recent event at the Lily fashion event: “The New Generation of Chinese Women,” and the subsequent fashion show during New York Fashion Week further reinforced this goal of connection, understanding and openness.    Of course, I loved being outfitted by the brand :). But I REALLY loved the shared values expressed at that event. We all — no matter the culture — want to find ways to empower women — ALL women. Fashion has the ability to help us feel confident, successful, powerful.  And this includes women of different shapes, ethnicities, abilities. This culminated in the fashion show where I was able to see the wonderful diversity of looks, ethnicities, identities and ages at the Lily fashion show tonight. As Pablo Starr from Fashion Week Online said at Lily’s event about today’s fashion scene: 

“There’s a beautiful mingling of cultures…we aren’t just tolerant of other cultures…we want to embrace them…we are excited by them! People want to take from other cultures because there is one human culture…we all belong and can embrace together. “

Sure the Lily brand showed off gorgeous outfits, but it also went out on a limb and pushed an agenda of openness.   Fashion and beauty may not be a subject raised at the U.N. but it allows for sharing, communication and defiance.

See this video for all the diversity of ages, looks, sexual orientation, ethnicities.

Some more pics from the event:

With Unipx CEO, Yitong Qui
With Louie Herman, fashion photographer & FashionWeek Online founder, Pablo Starr

Beautiful Rebellion: How Beauty Can Become a Symbol of and Gateway to Freedom

If you ever thought the topic of beauty products was frivolous, think again.  When women are willing to risk their freedom to smuggle or wear beauty products in totalitarian regimes, then you know it’s no small thing.  

In the recent story by Lexy Lebsack, Lipstick, Hair Dye, & Power — How Beauty Is Fuelling A Revolution In North Korea, women, such as Danbi Kim, share their stories of risking imprisonment in prisoner camps in N. Korea in order to offer people smuggled beauty products. But this pursuit isn’t just a way to make money, it’s a form of political and cultural resistance.  “Products and styles from South Korea, whether it was unlawful lipstick or banned apparel, began to signify a shared disobedience against the North Korean regime and an unspoken nod that the wearer had seen a glimpse of the outside world and was willing to get in trouble to show it.”   How so? North Korea’s regime dictates much of everyday life, including how women should appear in public.  There is even “beauty police” to ensure enforcement of these rules. Punishment for defying the rules includes public humiliation, “confessions” to local authorities and people cutting off hair and clothes as the “offender” passes by.

Beauty and fashion aren’t just a means to defy certain laws, though.  They represent forms of self-expression — exactly what a totalitarian regime abhors.  And exposure to beauty products opens a desire for expertise with them which then leads to a whole new industry for women:“…saving up hair straighteners, makeup, or nail supplies has opened a door for microeconomics among women who otherwise would have no income stream.”  Finally, the exposure to these new products, looks and images of glamour, opens people’s eyes to a world beyond the borders of North Korea.  This exposure — this taste for something beyond — compels people to push for change.  And the governments know this. In fact, Dr. Sung-wook Nam, chair of the department of North Korean studies at Korea University in Seoul points out that “beauty products are just the latest focus in a chess match between the two Koreas. He’s quoted as saying, “’South Korean K-beauty is a threat to the Kim Jong-un regime and the control of the system’”.

This story reminds me of a study I conducted while at college with Russian immigrants living Israel back in the mid-90’s.  I was studying social anthropology and wanted a way to get to Israel to see my long-distance, Israeli boyfriend.  Merging my studies, with my love for beauty and need to go to Israel, I pushed to secure a grant to study Russian women’s view on beauty.  I wasn’t really sure what I would get other than a free ride.  But I didn’t come up short.  What I remember most vividly (after all it was a long time ago) is that while in the Soviet Union, Russian women were so desperate for beauty products that they would save up their lunch money for days on end to buy a simple lipstick.  Beauty was deemed a frivolous pursuit by the Soviet regime and cosmetics were hard to come by.  But that wouldn’t stop Russian women from finding ways to outsmart the system and look beautiful.

This is not the first time I’ve written about the liberating power of beauty and fashion.  In Clothing is Power I share the story of Jasvinder Sanghera who expressed her freedom from her abusive husband via her highly feminine mode of dress, and in Fashionable Protests: The Unexpected Source of Saudi Women’s Independence I raise the possibility of Saudi lingerie shops as the spark to greater women’s empowerment.  Why is fashion, and, particularly, beauty products and ritual especially triggering of rebellion?  First, for women beauty has often been “our world,” i.e. something that we can claim greater use and understanding of — whether because of male objectification or not.  Second, I believe beauty holds so much power because it is so central to our bodies.  Beauty products literally become part of who we are each and everyday.  Creams, colors, scents blend with our skin and our hair, integrating with our physical selves.  They reflect what we feel, they show our sense of imagination (who do want to look like today?) and what were willing to fight for.  They excite us and give us confidence.  No wonder people have created, traded or smuggled beauty products for centuries.

Beauty may be superficial to some, but for so many of us, it’s a key part of who we are.  Of course there are still some social norms about how much to wear or in what ways to wear it. But, for the most part, we have the freedom to enjoy it.  Let’s appreciate that most of us can put on blush or spritz some perfume any time we want.  Let’s celebrate that we can look beautiful — or not –and no one can stop us.  As this is Memorial Day weekend in the U.S., how fitting it is to celebrate the freedoms — both large and seemingly small — brought to us by fallen soldiers, including the freedom to look buy, apply and wear in public any kind of cosmetics EVERY SINGLE DAY.

Diversity & Inclusion of Looks in the Workplace Isn’t Just Great for Fashion, It’s Great for Corporate America

I’ve sat on panel after panel but this is a first for me.  I am the only light skinned person in this entire conference, speaking about beauty in the workplace.  And I’m bubbling with excitement (and a bit of fish-out-of-water feeling) because I’m sharing the stage with four gorgeous, brilliant, fierce business women who are blowing me away with their poise, warmth and insights.  My friend Ty Heath of Linkedin organized an amazing conference for women of color, TransformHER, and she asked me to join this particular panel.  No question, I jumped at the chance.  Ty gave me an opportunity to discuss the truly important topic of beauty in corporate America.  While I write about this issue in Beautyskew, I’ve never had the honor to SPEAK about it.  I am thrilled that this topic is finally getting some real attention. 

I can totally understand why this is a key topic for the conference.  There is no denying that African-American women face a double challenge: they often have to concern themselves with BOTH not appearing too feminine or too “black.”  In this era of greater diversity an inclusion, the business world has loosened up the expectations of how we should look in the office. But let’s face it, we still have a long way to go.  I, myself, am still challenged with not looking either too sexy or too dowdy or too corporate. I wrote an angst-filled post about this last year when I had to prep for a huge speech in Norway.  What a pain to have to a. worry about what to wear, and b. have to curb our true selves so so others can feel comfortable.  Why is being comfortable so good anyway?

Diversity of looks goes beyond even ethnic identity or sexual identity.  In a recent Washington Post article, “Hey Goldman Sachs, does your dress code allow thigh-high boots?” the author, Buzz Bissinger, points out that a shift to casual attire may indicate a loosening of rules but doesn’t demonstrate a broad acceptance of divergent looks and styles despite the company’s claims of diversity and inclusion.  There’s still a big gap between allowing chinos in the office and being tolerant of all styles.  He continues to write: “… (A) shift to more “casual” attire is fine, as long as the choices are dictated by what others want, others think, others find appropriate. Which, of course, is antithetical to what fashion should be about: individuality, freedom, self-expression. What one wears, not just on heightened days but every day, should never be captive to anyone else except yourself. It is only clothing, which, as far as I know, is not harmful or lethal — unlike, for example, subprime mortgages. “

Bissinger’s passion is palpable.  How we look isn’t something to take lightly.  It’s fraught with anxiety, judgement, and insecurity. As Bissinger writes: “… In our society of self-suppression, nothing is more subject to instant judgment than clothing. You are defined by what you wear, and if you wear anything different from the mainstream, the furtive stars come out. Then come the snickers. Then come the inevitable stereotypes associated with styles of dress. Worst of all comes your own overwhelming self-consciousness, the sense that somehow, some way, you are actually being offensive by choosing to wear what you want, and that it’s better to be a lemming of conformity, boxy and boring, stultified and stifled, but not sticking out. So you jettison what is most sacred of all, your own sense of self.”

What Bissinger doesn’t stress as much is how our fashion can also also be a source of pride, fun, self-expression and happiness.  And these feelings undoubtedly make us more successful.  So, yes, it’s about time we engage, seriously, in the topic of beauty and fashion in the workplace.  From our hair styles to our clothing, to our thigh high boots, our ability to show up as we want is critical for our senses of self and of confidence. But, as I say on the panel, it doesn’t just impact ourselves.  It signals to our colleagues, our friends and families that we don’t need to hide ourselves, but rather embrace who we all are with pride and happiness.  And doesn’t a happier, more confident, more diverse workplace lead to a more corporate success? No question!

For a full look at the panel watch this:

Damned if You Do, Damned If You Don’t: In 2019, Let’s Be Done With With The Beauty Prejudice Already

 

 

Elizabeth I‘s make-up killed her. At least according to some historians. In her attempt to look youthful and blemish-free, the queen used a toxic white powder, Ceruse, containing high doses of lead. As you can imagine, lead isn’t something you want to put on your face every single day for years. No wonder the prosthetics and cosmetics to turn Margot Robbie into Queen Elizabeth I in the much-anticipated film, Mary Queen of Scots, gets so much attention. There’s an almost macabre fascination with it.  Margot looks freaky and that “look” actually ends up killing her.

But my fascination with her appearance is for a different reason. The queen went to great lengths to look like this (and suffer for it in multiple ways) for much of the same reasons we “kill” ourselves to look beautiful. According to Rebecca Onion‘s detailed story in Slate, The Real Story Behind Margot Robbie’s Wild Queen Elizabeth Makeup, Elizabeth was stuck. She was expected to look youthful and beautiful, as Onion explains: ‘People perceived a queen’s beauty as a sign of her divine right to rule.” In other words, she had to look good for her job. Sound familiar? Being the Queen, and a virgin at that, she became a worshipped, a cult-like figure that MUST remain youthful. Her appearance was one key aspect of that worship. “Living inside it all, Elizabeth clearly seemed to realize her presentation of a mask that didn’t slip was critical to her survival.” writes Onion.

At the same time, however, there was a strong anti-face-painting movement brewing. It’s questionable how much her subjects actually criticized her for it, but historians point to jokes made about her and published criticisms of the use of cosmetics in general stating that painted women are foolish, foul and abominable. Elizabeth just couldn’t win this game. Either she loses for looking old and ugly or she loses for masking her changing skin. And no question, she loses to her make-up’s poisonous effects.

Times have changed. Make-up won’t kill you (though some plastic surgery, like botched butt enhancements for example, can). Women can lead without having to be worshipped. And adorning ourselves with cosmetics is second nature. But we, women, aren’t fully immune from the high, and often complex, beauty expectations demanded of us in society. We have to look youthful, so as not to be deemed as frumpy and, thus, old-fashioned or not on the cutting edge of our fields.  And, at the same time, we can’t look too beautiful, so as not to appear too provocative or frivolous, and therefore, not smart or competent. Let’s be honest, how many of you — women and men — comment on what your female corporate or political leaders wear vs your male leaders wear? I remember these very discussions when my division was led by a woman.  I willingly took part in these conversations too! I’m not blameless. We didn’t want our female leaders to appear unstylish. Now that it’s being led by a man, not a word is raised. I’m not saying male leaders aren’t expected appear a certain way. It’s that it doesn’t become water cooler conversation, ever.

I love beauty. I love to play with make-up, wear fun outfits and get my hair blown out. I undoubtedly feel more confident and energized. And, yes, I want to be admired for it too. But why does it need to go beyond that? Why do women have to be caught between all of these tensions? Why can’t we look frumpy or dolled up without any of the negative associations? Why can’t we look beautiful without being accused of being flirty and flighty? My only hope is that as men invest in their beauty more (according to the American Association of Plastic Surgery, in 2017, nearly 100,000 men had filler injections, a 99 percent increase since 2000), we will level the playing field, and the conversations will turn from what women and men look like to whether they have something worthy to say and give to society.

 

BE outside the box, don’t just think it! Kicking Off my New Adventure on Expansive Living

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of being both a panelist and a moderator for a few events at Advertising Week in NYC.  One of the perks of being on the speaker roster was that I was chosen among a few other women to be interviewed by Katie Kempner for her video series: “Perspectives with Katie Kempner.”  As Katie describes it on her site, this video series is a way to: “To inspire and empower working women who are attempting to live meaningful, happy, healthy lives as some combination of wives and partners, mothers, friends, sisters, daughters and successful professionals while retaining a sense of self and navigating the crazy 24/7 always-on life that is today’s reality.”

So what did we speak about?  Prior to the interview — I’m talking minutes prior — she asked me what am I known for and what I do at Google.  When I answered her, she looked at me nonplussed.  But when I told her that I live nine lives and try to integrate them all, then she got excited.  And that topic became the main subject of our interview.

And, thus, this interview became the first real forum for me to discuss my next adventure: to share my story on how to live a meaningful (successful? happy? — still not sure of the exact description yet) life.  Here goes: so many of us are an amalgamation of seemingly contradictory aspects.  When it comes to me, I’m part tech maven, part beauty/fashion commentator, part spiritual animal, part athlete, and part mother.  But we don’t necessarily celebrate or push those sides to their fullest, and certainly don’t always weave them together.  For years, I’ve been excited and energized, but also conflicted and challenged by the many nuances of myself.  On the one hand, I’ve been enriched by these many sides, they have opened up new opportunities for me.  I realized it’s time to fully buy my own seemingly random but fruitful, fun, expansive approach to life and inspire others with it.

On the other hand, I’ve been accused of giving people a mind fuck.  People often ask me, “wait, what, you work in tech and sit at the front row at fashion shows?”  Or, “huh, your speaking on big stages about creativity all over the world and are raising three kids?”  Or “you combine anthropology with technology?” And this is my favorite: “you dress like that and strictly observe the Jewish sabbath?”  Yep.  And what’s more, it’s BECAUSE of these different sides that I can be as fulfilled as I am.  Don’t get me wrong, I bitch and moan like the rest of us, so I’m not saying I’m fulfilled ALL the time.  But when I take a step back I can say I have lived, and know I will continue to live, a pretty badass life.  I believe I’ve found my success because I’ve embraced — versus compartmentalized or rejected– these different sides.  What’s more, I have found ways to interconnect them.

In the video, I give an early life example of this.  I studied in small, yeshiva high school. This meant I endured intense days filled with secular and Jewish studies.  Needless to say, college was not just a breeze compared to that but definitely eye opening. I was exposed to many different types of people and subject matters.  Did I reject all that despite having slightly different upbringing or lifestyle? No way! Moreover, I took my treasure trove of judaic studies and applied them to almost every subject!  By combining my two different worlds I realized I could stand out, and ultimately, succeed.

Another example: when I transitioned from my advertising life to Google, I felt like the biggest fish out of water, a total charlatan.  What did I REALLY know about tech anyway? But I was an expert on how to uncover human insight.  I studied social anthropology in college and then spent 20 years partnering with anthropologists to help me uncover those insights.  Aha! That was my special sauce. Leverage the study of anthropology to uncover what drives our deep relationship to the digital space.  That sparked an industry-first thought leadership series of studies, Humanizing Digital.  These insights not only drove digital campaign after digital campaign for my client, but also elevated my team within and outside of the company.

Of course the subject of beauty made its way into the video.  Like I have done in this blog for years, I encourage us to embrace it.  So many people I know see the subject as frivolous and therefore, unsuitable for intelligent business women or men to discuss.  Bull shit. There is no reason to not to weave beauty into our daily lives and let it inspire and empower us.  Yes, we can embrace beauty AND brains!

Ok, I think you get the gist.  I realized it’s time to fully buy my own seemingly random but fruitful, fun, expansive approach to life and inspire others with it.  I’m still spinning this concept around so I would LOVE your feedback.  Or at the very least have fun watching the video :).  Click the image below to watch.

Can Brick & Mortar Fashion Retail Resurrect Itself? A #Video Conversation with #experientailretail — Le Board — Answers the Question

Hello readers!  Apologies for being so out of touch. I’ve been caught up experiencing some great beauty and fashion experiences that I will THEN write about.  And… I’m writing a book!  Yep. In fact, I will be surfacing some of my book via Beautyskew over the next months to get your take on it.  

But now let’s go back to the topic at hand.

Henri Bendel, a fashion institution for close to 125 years, is shutting it’s doors.  It joins a long list of retailers.  Living in Manhattan I see the demise of retail, especially fashion retail, all around me as almost every block near my neighborhood displays at least one for rent sign.

The struggles retail are experiencing are not new.  Thanks to online shopping, retail, especially fashion retail, it is in bad shape.  I’m as much to blame as the rest of us.  I really hate clothing shopping.  I hate the process of going to a store, then trying to find something, ANYTHING, that fits my body and the look I’m going after.  I hate waiting on lines, I hate poor sales help and I hate the atmosphere of being surrounded by loads of clothes that squeeze me.  So I stopped shopping.  I hired an amazing stylist and we shop online and occasionally run into a store and where she finds me everything.

But I’ve always been a believer in the role of a great fashion shopping experience.  I just think most brick and mortar retailers haven’t cracked it. With perhaps a few exceptions out there, most clothing stores see the retail space as a depot to unload their inventory.   Yet, physical spaces can offer SO much more, especially more than online experiences.  They can offer a sense of adventure, customization, emotion and true style.  They we can be meeting grounds and places to experience new sensations.  Sure, physical spaces allow us to literally try on the styles.  But it’s more than that.  It’s only in a physical environment can you feel, smell and examine the the stitching, fabrics and textures.   In this era of  online-everything, we crave the physical — maybe even more so.  We’re still human, and it’s a fundamental need to want to connect with the physical spaces a places around us.  In anthropology this need is called “place making.”

And it’s only in a physical environment that we can connect with human beings in a nuanced, deeply emotional way.  These humans can be expert stylists who seek to truly understand our  bodies; our needs and our aspirations or other like-minded people who want to share — whether that’s their excitement around fashion or feelings about other issues.  There’s no surprise there is still love for the open bazaar or souk or shuk.  These are places where shoppers shop, yes, but more than that they come together to share in a cultural experience. (I happened to have written my senior Anthropology thesis on the topic so I’m very close to it.)

Good news, I think I found such a retail space that gets it: Le Board.  Conceived and developed by Creative Director, Sofia Karvela (who also happens to be my stylist — lucky me!) and CEO, John Aghayan,  Le Board is a retail experience that merges fashion with entertainment and, ironically, leverages the medium of immersive technology and human interaction.  It can host events like trunk shows, offer immersive tech experiences like holograms and VR “Behind-the-scenes,” and share the talent of thought leaders via panel talks, and art shows.   Another bonus?  Opening end of September, the store promotes brands of women-led businesses.

Beyond the many different aspects of Le Board, is the the feeling the experience evokes.   The ultimate mission of Le Board, Karvela explains, is to provide a place where “women could feel a part of something a little bigger…we created this space so we could bring women together to feel inspired…Women with goals…to give them hope to believe that whatever they want to do can happen. We use fashion as a great to avenue to bring these women together to create a look for themselves to inspire to go out there and do great, big things.”

Let’s hear it directly from Karvela in the interview I conducted at the shop a week ago.  (By the way, I’m wearing a latex dress which was related to the event which Le Board hosted, Social China…You can hear it in the background :)) Click image below for interview.

For more information visit: weareleboard.com

Will AI Kill Fashion or Improve It?

I have to confess: I’m FAR from being an expert on AI.  But given my role at Google, and the work of my team members, it comes up in many conversations, is the engine behind some of the tools my team creates, and it makes its way into at least one article in my news feed a day.  So I have some understanding of it.

Lately, I’ve been talking about it in the context of fashion.  It’s undeniable that AI will have an increasingly greater impact on the fashion world in the coming years.  The question everyone asks is,”is that a good thing?” Like in other creative fields I work with, people are concerned that AI could squelch creativity or limit it altogether.  After all, its key value is automation. What happens to the human being behind all of this? Does all creativity just end? Will creative industries like fashion just fade away or change into something empty of artistic expression? One particular entrepreneur engaged in the fashion tech space argued that soon AI will scan our behaviors, predict what we’d like into an ideal outfit and then we’d scan the looks into a 3D printer which will print out our clothing at home.  No more need for fashion design and no more need for fashion retailers.

I don’t quite agree.  

I was asked to comment about this topic and few other fashion and strategy related issues in an interview with Geoffrey Colon, a marketing disruptor and innovator from Microsoft.  He hosts a podcast, “Disruptive FM” and interviews various people from across the globe every year at the Cannes Lions Festival.  His Cannes video is called “Fashion Boutique.” Geoffrey didn’t waste any time with me under the hot sun and homed into the interplay of AI and fashion.   No question AI will be able to get a faster, maybe even more, nuanced read of our habits, preferences and activities than a human being could.  And with that speed and nuance, it can create styles that every individual would likely find appealing. 

But there is still a need for the human being to oversee and correct or pivot the findings of AI.  Certain cultural norms or expectations may underpin our fashion sense that can’t be picked up through behavior alone.  Certain permutations and combinations may seem to look nice via an algorithm but appear “off” as the end result. Technology is our friend.  It does the tedious work for us so we can then build off of it and spend more time playing and evolving fashion.

Prior to my podcast I was mining my friend and fashion tech guru, Amanda Parkes for insight on this matter since she speaks on stages all over the world on this and related topics.  She highlighted a few fashion companies taking hold of AI like H&M and Myntra which uses machine learning to design full collections in record speeds. But there’s human beings along the way, tapping their sense of creativity to enhance machine learning to be that much more nuanced.  AI isn’t killing fashion or creativity; it’s allowing us to do it more quickly and in different ways.

AI will give us greater personalization than ever before, we we all love that (think the craze over Nike ID).  Could the hyper personalization we crave and receive from AI further discount the need for human side of fashion?  After all, we are getting exactly what suits us, right? Of course we seek clothing that benefits our specific lifestyles and needs.  But there’s the other side of fashion. The side that surprises, enlightens and inspires us.  It’s the side that opens our eyes to something we never even REALIZED we needed. AI can bring us closer to that, but it’s human beings who can take it to the next level.

As Dr. Anastassia Lauterbach, tech entrepreneur and author, said so adroitly: “The word intelligence in AI is highly confusing and causes funny discussions. Today there is nothing absolutely intelligent in Machine learning applications. Everything happens by design, and this design is done by humans – preferably in diverse teams. Humans decide what criteria get emphasized in a model. Machine learning scales what ever good or bad gets into the datasets and algorithms. Every profession needs to adjust to a world where some coding will be as normal as cooking today. Yes, you can eat in restaurants every day and let others cook for you. But it is maybe nice to be capable to produce something on your own. Same is true with AI in any industry. If you choose technology illiteracy, you can lament the death of creativity. Or you can use your great knowledge and add new skills, partner with technologists who are capable to listen, and do the work. AI is not a conscious agent. It is a tool…it can be used in a smart way, and support your ideas. The Intelligence on what and how remains yours.”

The opportunity is in front of us: retreat from AI or harness it to take creativity to newer and maybe even greater heights.

For the full video, click here (My piece starts around the 10 minute mark).