Chinese Fashion: Not A Case Of Cultural Appropriation But Cultural Understanding…I Saw It With my Own Eyes

Yue-Sai Kan, Miss China Universe 2011-2016 and me at the Plaza

I’m sure you’ve all read about the bruhaha about a Utah girl’s Chinese prom dress.  Keziah Daum wore a classic Cheongasm dress and got beaten up in social media by people accusing her of cultural appropriation.  In response to that shaming she received tons of encouraging messages directly from China.  And I’m not surprised at all the positive feedback.  Having just hosted the China Fashion Gala at the Plaza last weekend and seeing all the amazing mixing and matching of traditional and modern Chinese elements worn by Westerners and Chinese alike, I can tell you that Keziah’s choice of dress was a wonderful and future-forward one.  Not only was her dress beautiful but it was symbolic of the wonderful fusion of Chinese and Western fashion, and dare I say, the growing multi-cultural understanding we are all craving..

A little context for you all: you may recall that I’m collaborating with Unipx Media, a Chinese media channel that focuses primarily on fashion, lifestyle and tech.  The goal is to turn me into an “influencer” in the Chinese market.  To be honest, our early attempts weren’t making much progress.  Then we had an idea: host the China Fashion Gala!  It would be live-streamed into China, I would meet some movers and shakers, and be photographed with lots of China’s “beautiful people.”  It was all last minute and a bit crazy up until the end.  Not only did I have to attempt to learn a bit of Chinese, but I had to pronounce A LOT of Chinese names without butchering them too much, yikes!  I was also super fortunate enough to wear not just one but two amazing dresses by haute couture designer, Grace Chen.  

The event was gorgeous.  Men and women — old and young alike, — dressed in stunning gowns that expertly married modern with classic, and Western with Chinese styles.  Each and everybody looked regal with a bit of kick!  In fact, when I kicked off my hosting gig, I had to go off script and comment on how everyone looked so proud and beautiful.  And, just to name drop, I got to hob nob with the likes of Christian Louboutin and Vivienne Tam!!!

What struck me the most, however, is fashion’s unique ability to help people appreciate each other’s cultures.  Clothing is a language of it’s own.  For better or for worse, it “speaks” a culture’s definition of beauty, it’s values, rituals, and social norms.  Just as I convinced my 5th grade teacher when I chose to write my history term paper on the fashion of the Wild West (vs, oh, say, a defining war or key U.S. president), we learn about different cultures through our clothing.  Fashion is a way to see how we differ and how we are very much the same.   Grace Chen reinforced this when she treated us to a fashion show of her latest lines.  And thanks to Yue-Sai Kan‘s urging (Yue-Sai, by the way, has been named the “most famous woman in China.”) Chen explained to us how each piece resembles elements of ancient and modern China culture, as well as those of Western life.  It was fascinating and educational!

Even though I just scratched the surface of Chinese fashion in my short experience as a gala host, I will look at Chinese fashion with a deeper sense of appreciation.  And I will know that much more about a culture rich with heritage and nuance.  So instead of criticizing Miss Daum, we should thank her.  We should thank her for taking a risk and going against the grain and wearing a classic Chinese dress.  But more importantly, we should thank her for introducing a different culture to her community, to social media, and, now, to the entire U.S..

Feel free to check out our page hosted by Unipx!

The Other Side to Media’s Unrealistic Depictions of Beauty

Apologies for the break in posts over the past few weeks.  I’ve been cooking up a whole new aspect to my blog!  Stay tuned for the upcoming changes.

Courtesy of Numero Magazine

I was flying back from Paris last week and picked up the August issue of Numero magazine in the airport.  Though my French is terrible, my eye sight isn’t, so I relished in the magazine’s beautiful imagery.  But nothing blew me away as much as the amazing spread by Sophia Sanchez and Mauro Mongiello.  Of course the photography was gorgeous and the fashion beautiful.  What stopped me in my tracks, though, were the striking images of young and older women (see pic above).  Despite my heavy load, I knew I had to carry that magazine with me all the way home.  This photoshoot elated me.  And it confirmed what I’ve been believing for a while.  Let’s not fear and reject media outright for it’s shaming of men and women.  Instead, let’s find ways to uplift it.

As a young strategic planner at DDB in the 90’s, I couldn’t escape all of the famous quotes from legendary ad man and founder, Bill Bernbach.  As you’d expect I barely remember most of them but a few have stuck.  One that has influenced me throughout my career, and frankly kept me connected to the marketing and advertising business as long as I have, was this:

“All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.”

Today, media, especially social media, is often vilified for projecting unrealistic, negative, stereotypical imagery of people.  And it can lead to the vulgar sides of society: body shaming, poor self image and crazy standards.  As a mother of girl entering puberty, I’m acutely aware of this.  Plus, I often catch myself measuring my looks against these standards.

But can we recognize the opportunity the media affords us too?

For better or for worse, we are visual creatures.  We are drawn to imagery, especially images of people.  Moreover, we are fundamentally attracted to beauty — beautiful people, beautiful images, and beautiful things.  Of course we have different interpretations of beauty.  But the truth they appeal to us… greatly.   And because we’re that much more likely to focus on a picture or video than sit down and read an essay, or listen to a pundit speak, we are likely to let these new notions of beauty and self-expression penetrate.

We could just bemoan today’s media or we could use our tendency towards beauty, and the media that leverages, it to “uplift”society, rather than “vulgarize it.”

How?

First, let’s use the plethora of imagery to spark a conversation with our kids.  We can ask them how they feel about it and how to view it all with a realistic eye.  Through that conversation we may venture into much larger issues of body image, aging, and confidence.

Second, we can influence media to push for more inclusive imagery.   And it’s happening already!  Media is starting to hear us.  A recent article in Digiday references the numerous examples from beauty and fashion magazines that are now reflecting the many different forms of gender, ethnicity, body type and age.

Finally, because we know we are attracted to such imagery, the world of beauty and fashion can be a vehicle for even greater social change!  This same article gave us two great quotes, one from Jenny Bailly, Allure’s executive beauty editor, and the other from, Cat Quinn of Refinery29, which summarized this well:

“Beauty is a great vehicle for driving conversations about social change, because it’s accessible to everyone,” said Quinn, of Refinery29. It’s a topic that many argue lends itself easily to the bigger picture. “When we talk to Halima or [trans model] Andreja Pejic, or [boy beauty star] James Charles, or a young woman on a reservation in Montana about hair and makeup, we’re also having intimate conversations about where they’ve come from, what they believe in and how they interact with the world,” said Bailly.

Let’s not expect to shield our children entirely from the imagery around us, or even poo poo it.  Plus, we all know they find ways to see to it anyway.  Instead let’s embrace the imagery.  Let’s use it as a forum for discussion, and even encourage our friends and our kids to let media outlets know what they want to see projected.  After all, isn’t that the beauty of social media?  Everyone has a voice :).

Data, Intimacy & Wearables: A New Take on “We are What We Wear” And How We Feel About It

The beautiful, scary, amazing and conflicting role of data is a conversation that has only gotten hotter over the years.  And now with our clothes and jewelry offering access to intelligence about us like never before, the conversation has gotten that much more dynamic.

Welcome to our fifth podcast about fashion-tech from the NRF Big Show event.  For this discussion, I was, again, accompanied by my friend and ESPN Exec, James Eshricht.  And, again, I had the fortune of hosting a few amazing guests who are shaking the business paradigm and bringing it to new, exciting places.

We kicked off this session with the brilliant and highly fashionable co-founder of Trendalytics, Karen Moon, and her colleague, Amos Chiou.  And then we had the privilege of hosting Julie Rodgers Vargas, director, Digital Solutions at Avery Dennison and Andy Hobsbawm, co-founder & CMO, EVRYTHNG (Yep there’s no vowels…I didn’t forget to spell check :)).

Trendalytics is the “moneyball for fashion,” according to Karen.  Thanks to the company’s sexy combination of data scientists, engineers and retail experts, Trendalytics can forecast fashion trends based, not on the age-old source of historical data, but on a slew of sources including user searches on Google, social buzz and e-com data.  This means they can truly be ahead of the curve.  I couldn’t agree more!  As you can imagine, I’m constantly surrounded by data.  And I love it.  But just because data is so valuable, doesn’t mean it’s not all created equal.  We have to take into account the source.  Historical data is much less foretelling, and, frankly less “human” than data from people’s own search behavior, conversations and activities.  The company is only 2 years old but working with a host of retailers.  Like so many of our guests, Karen and Amos spoke to the key value of understanding the end-user, i.e., the human element.

Speaking of data, James and I had a quick but captivating conversation with the folks of EVRYTHNG, a company that combines hardware, software and real time data in the form of our clothing. “Clothing is the ultimate wearbable”, they said.  (The reason for no vowels?  The company provides “only the essentials,” according to Andy.)  As you interact with these clothing items, “rules in the cloud trigger analytics” which then give you back something like, let you in to a VIP event with a special invitation, or gifts, and the list goes on.

While I’m a big fan of data, I was a bit weirded out by this notion.  After all our clothing is so intimate.  As the technology develops, how much of our intimate feelings, experiences, bodily function do we want to emit?   I couldn’t hold myself back, I had to push this with the EVRYTHNG folks.  Their answer?  You can choose what you want to share of yourself.  Of course, we all realize that this is a new world, and we’re still navigating it.  There is indeed a value exchange.  When we give data, we get something in return.  It’s only a matter of time when we figure out the comfortable boundaries of that exchange.  But there’s no question that the train has left the station and we have to figure out what that means for us.

In a sense we’ve always been using data to understand one another.  It may not have been in such large quantities or at such speeds.  And int he case of “wearables”, we have learned something about someone through their clothing for ages.  When someone wears something of high quality, with particular fabrics from distant origins, we are hit with a number of pieces of data.  We know that person cares about his/her appearance, is affluent, and has a sense of the aesthetic.   So are times really changing or are we just collecting, analyzing and sharing data in new ways?

Personally, I’m more excited than not about what’s to come and how we can make everything (or evrthng :)) — even our clothing and jewelry –be even greater sources of awe and inspiration for us.  And the more we understand this world, the better we can turn it into something valuable vs bizarre.

Please click on these two podcasts to hear more:

Interview with Trendalytics

Interview with Evrthng

And if you want to see us chat, have fun watching this Periscope version.  Please start at 25 minutes into the podcast.

Podcast #4: Fashion Tech Rock Stars Show Their Amazing Wares and Share What Inspires Them

Screen Shot 2017-02-22 at 7.25.22 PM

I’m really excited about bringing to you all our fourth podcast in our fashion-tech series of conversations from the NRF Big Show.  For this discussion I had the honor of co-hosting with my hilarious and highly accomplished friend and ESPN exec, James Eschricht.  We had a few amazing, brilliant and beautiful guests joining us in the fun, including Veronika Harbick, founder of Thursday Finest; Christina D’Avignon, founder and CEO of Ringly, and Betsy Fore, Founder and CEO of Wondermento.

This rapid-fire series of conversations were all about product, product, product.  Like the earlier conversations, there was a lot of talk about aesthetics being key to the experience.  In other words, if one of these fashion tech products doesn’t make me drool because it looks so damn good, it’s not worth it.  That’s why Veronica focuses on customization.  Thursday Finest is a 3D knitting company (check out the blue knit scarf worn by James in the Periscope video below — that’s one of their creations).  The company produces the whole garment, i.e., no need for self-assembly.  BUT you can choose the style and even order “granular” sizing (that’s a totally new term for me!).  One of their best items?  The knit tie.  Yep, it’s back, and for all you fashion-forward guys, knit ties are super IN.

Ringly, a smart jewelry accessories brand — namely rings and bracelets — creates all their items with semi-precious stones so every product is unique.  Again,  the good have to look special, not just act it.  As Christina, the CEO of Ringly, states: “So many of these types of products look gadgety and unisex, but that’s not the way men and women shop…I have to want to wear it even if it did nothing.”  Even Wondermento gets this!  The brand’s founder, Betsy, has created smart jewelry for pets.  She showed off one of the products that’s like a “Fitbit” for dogs called Wonderwoof — oh, and it’s one of Oprah’s faves, BTW.  This product let’s you track your dog and her exercise progress, and find other doggie friends.  She can even compete for top dog status!  My favorite line of our conversation: “I often get asked: ‘can I put this on my boyfriend?'”  LOL

What’s super clear about these products, as the guests noted themselves, is that they are really defining a new category.  They are, certainly, high-tech devices but also works of beauty.  Many of them sell in top-end department stores and there’ often a debate by the retailers about which section of the store to sell them in.  Should they been the jewelry section, tech section, watch section, you get it. How cool is it to be creating a whole new category, charting new courses, and having a ton of fun while doing it?!

But what eclipsed all the cool products, was Veronika’s uplifting and gracious story of gratitude.  As an immigrant from Russia to the U.S., she realizes how fortunate she is to be in the U.S., and in New York in particular.  She recognizes the value of hard work her but also appreciates the American spirit that buoys her.  Her words: “People are really rooting for you.”  While many of us complain about the U.S. being a country “divided,” let’s still remember this country is also a place where we can rise from being an immigrant to an amazing tech star, and do it with a spirit of encouragement and comradery around us.

Please click on the image to enjoy each of our three podcasts below.

Interview with Thursday Finest, Veronika Harbick

Screen Shot 2017-02-22 at 4.05.43 PM

Interview with Ringly’s, Christina D’Avignon

Screen Shot 2017-02-22 at 4.06.45 PM

Interview with Betsy Fore

Screen Shot 2017-02-22 at 4.13.35 PM

And if you want to get a glimpse of our amazing guests and their fantastic products, click on our periscope video starting from the beginning until minute 25 or so.  I have to confess the sound is very faint but you at least you can feast your eyes on some cool stuff!

Screen Shot 2017-02-22 at 4.41.07 PM