Empowerment, Political Affairs & Youth Education: Fashion Week’s Other Side

If any of you follow fashion, you know every major city has celebrated it’s Fashion Week over the past month or so.  And I can’t help but reflect on it all.  Sure, Fashion Week is full of crazy outfits, “who’s who” sightings, and glamazons.  But in some overt and covert ways, it also uplifts society.  Based on what I’ve read and experienced first hand, Fashion Week also helps open borders; gives those otherwise ignored and let down by society a sense of respect and hope; and, in some veiled ways, empowers a group of women living within a conservative and somewhat sexist society.  And when it comes to me, personally, it has helped open my eyes to and widen my appreciation for another world.

No question, the fashion world has it’s share of issues: underage models, eating disorders and, most recently discussed in the press: sexual harassment.  I’m certainly not saying the industry is perfect.  But there’s a beautiful side to it.  Let’s just take a look at New York Fashion Week as an example.

One particular show that kicked off the week, received a ton of buzz, and impressed the hell out of me.  It celebrated the talents and models of the NYC’s homeless youths (see full New York Times story here).  For four weeks, designers from PVH mentored homeless youth, teaching them how to design, sew clothing and choreograph a show.  These lessons culminated in a show that displayed major doses of creativity, elation and pride.  So many of these youths are on the street due to abuse and neglect from their families.  You can imagine the lack of confidence, anxiety and helplessness they must feel on a daily basis.  But this experience not only taught them key skills in design and crafts, but gave them a sense of accomplishment and pride they rarely felt before.  The pictures of the event, alone, tug at the heartstrings.

Here’s another fascinating example from The New Yorker.  Given the uber-New York-ness of fashion week, The New Yorker dedicates a whole issue on the topic every year.  The best story by far in this year’s edition, “Armor and Lingerie,” features Amaka Osakwe, the designer of Nigerian fashion line: Maki Oh.  She, too, showed her talents at NY Fashion Week.  Despite her “unassuming” appearance, Osakwe is “obsessed with the female form and seduction,  subversive interests for Nigerian women.”  She also makes it a point to highlight Nigerian fabrics and designs, embracing  and bringing to light her culture around the world.  Perhaps most exciting for me, is her expertise in turning her clothes into a form of “elicit escape.”  In other words, her designs give women the permission to embrace their sexuality — on their own terms — despite the taboo of sex in Nigeria.  As such, she gives women back their power to determine how, when and in what ways they want to express their sexuality.

Needless to say, the NYC Fashion Week story that affected me the most was that which I experienced myself.  I was invited to attend a fashion show for Chinese brand, Naersi, at the American Museum of Natural History.  I had no idea what to expect.  I’ve never been to China nor have I developed an sense of Chinese fashion.  But given my relationship with UniPx media (a source of fashion and lifestyle to the Chinese market), and the wonderful VIP accommodations I was given, I jumped at the chance to attend.  Naersi dressed me in one their own beautiful gowns, sat me in the front row next to it’s founder, one of the top models in China, and a few seats down from TV star, Leighten Meester (how’s that for a view?:)).  And best of all I was able to drag a few of my good friends to join me.  The brand’s role, according to its literature, is to “instill confidence and success to independent women….through beautiful and modern design.” As to be expected, some of the designs are meant for the runway show only, but there were quite a few that inspired me.  What hit me most was not so much designs themselves but that I was able to peer inside a world that I have admired from afar but, until now, have little contact with and understanding of.  But right there and then I felt a new sense of kinship with Chinese fashion lovers.  Despite the political, cultural or philosophical boundaries that separate China and the U.S., the spirit of beauty, celebration of female empowerment, and love of pushing the limits unites us.  Thanks to fashion, I feel a new sense of appreciation for and connection with a culture that always seemed to distant and different.

No doubt fashion is fun and sometimes frivolous.  And in some ways, it’s because of its very lack of seriousness that it can be used to subvert culture, push against our assumptions and make us think.  When used for the right purposes, fashion has the potential to unite and empower people.  That and a nice new pair of boots will certainly give me a lift. 🙂

 

Fashionable Protests: The Unexpected Source of Saudi Women’s Independence

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 10.48.35 AM

With the glut of oil and rising Sunni – Shia tensions in Saudi Arabia, I’m sure all of us have been wondering,”what happens if the Saudi regime actually falls?”  The impact will be dramatic, no doubt.  The region will be in that much more turmoil. But I can’t help imagine what would happen after all the potential catastrophe.  In particular, how would society change — the social strata and gender dynamics? After so many years of limitations, could Saudi women actually fulfill the independence they so deserve? This question reminds me of a post I wrote a year ago based on a New Yorker article about Saudi women called “Shopgirls” by Katherine Zoepf.  This story shows a glimmer of women’s liberation.  What’s interesting is that these seeds of independence aren’t starting in the schools or the home but in the beauty and fashion subcultures.  Read below for the edited down version.

In June 2011, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia decreed that women could, no, should, replace men in shops where female customers are seeking intimate items.  First the law referred to lingerie shops and then the law extended to other typical feminine spaces like apparel and cosmetics, and even into supermarket checkout counters.  For women who have not gone to college (and there are many), this is their first opening to a sort of financial independence.

To us Westerners, that should feel like a “no duh”, especially in a country with such rigid rules restricting contact between the sexes.  Wouldn’t you rather be told your true bra size from a woman than a man?!  Ironically, there are many protesting such laws because they fear women (that is, the shop girls) will be in that much more contact with men.

The article certainly highlights the intimidation and family pressure many people receive once starting to work.  It ain’t easy.  But it also shows how much more confident and happy these shop girls are.  Instead of living secluded lives at home or maybe in the malls shopping, these women can learn a skill, broaden their social network and secure themselves against financial ruin (the divorce rate is high in Saudi Arabia and often women lose custody of their children because they can’t afford to care for them).

While so many of us independent, well-educated Western women love make-up and a cute bra or two, we would probably think the last place women would gain a sense of freedom and independence would be at a Victoria’s Secret shop or at the Macy’s make-up counter. But in Saudi Arabia, these places may not only be wonderful, liberating places for women, but may actually prove to be the spark to set in motion so much more change.

What strikes me about this story is how people will find interesting and unexpected ways to assert themselves.  For some it’s beauty for others it may be music or sports.  Let’s not think that just because some people are pushed down by society that they can’t find ways to rebel and eventually fulfill their dreams for a better life.  The key is to open our eyes, look for those sparks and help ignite them further.

Geopolitics, War & Beauty Intersect

idf-garnier
I’m often asked, “why in the world do you write a blog on beauty?”  I get it.  I don’t exactly work for the beauty biz nor am I some kind of model or beauty vlogger.  But I quickly explain that, first, I don’t write about beauty trends, but rather the role of beauty in our culture. And, second, when it comes to beauty, there is ALWAYS enough fodder to write about.  I always have material to inspire me.  And I’m not just referring to the latest intro of eyelash curlers.  I’m also talking serious, geopolitical stuff.
The most recent example that landed in my feed is the highly controversial story about Garnier (parent brand is L’Oreal) sending beauty care packages to female Israeli soldiers.  Many anti-Israel folks jumped at the opportunity to slam L’Oreal.  And then when Garnier USA claimed a lack of knowledge around the whole initiative and essentially distanced itself from the project, Israel supporters slammed L’Oreal!
While to some sending beauty products to soldiers may seem frivolous at best and certainly politically risky, I think the gesture was pretty cool.  It points the spotlight on a little-known group of soldiers who fight every day — female ones.  Long before the U.S. had such a strong female base in its military, Israel enforced almost all women to serve.  And women serve to this day.  While we may not seem them in the battle photos, they are out there busting their butts.  They deserve some recognition, just as I think all female soldiers deserve recognition no matter what country they fight for.
While I’ve never served in combat, I’m not sure how much I would care about how I smell or look during a pretty intense war. And yet, as we all know, things of beauty and feeling just a little bit more beautiful can give us the comfort, strength or will to carry on.
In the end, beauty may not seem be important when it comes to politics, warfare, or harsh times.  Of course so many other critical concerns outweigh it.  And yet the trigger it can give the spirit can be super powerful.
 
 

Geopolitics, War & Beauty Intersect

idf-garnier

I’m often asked, “why in the world do you write a blog on beauty?”  I get it.  I don’t exactly work for the beauty biz nor am I some kind of model or beauty vlogger.  But I quickly explain that, first, I don’t write about beauty trends, but rather the role of beauty in our culture. And, second, when it comes to beauty, there is ALWAYS enough fodder to write about.  I always have material to inspire me.  And I’m not just referring to the latest intro of eyelash curlers.  I’m also talking serious, geopolitical stuff.

The most recent example that landed in my feed is the highly controversial story about Garnier (parent brand is L’Oreal) sending beauty care packages to female Israeli soldiers.  Many anti-Israel folks jumped at the opportunity to slam L’Oreal.  And then when Garnier USA claimed a lack of knowledge around the whole initiative and essentially distanced itself from the project, Israel supporters slammed L’Oreal!

While to some sending beauty products to soldiers may seem frivolous at best and certainly politically risky, I think the gesture was pretty cool.  It points the spotlight on a little-known group of soldiers who fight every day — female ones.  Long before the U.S. had such a strong female base in its military, Israel enforced almost all women to serve.  And women serve to this day.  While we may not seem them in the battle photos, they are out there busting their butts.  They deserve some recognition, just as I think all female soldiers deserve recognition no matter what country they fight for.

While I’ve never served in combat, I’m not sure how much I would care about how I smell or look during a pretty intense war. And yet, as we all know, things of beauty and feeling just a little bit more beautiful can give us the comfort, strength or will to carry on.

In the end, beauty may not seem be important when it comes to politics, warfare, or harsh times.  Of course so many other critical concerns outweigh it.  And yet the trigger it can give the spirit can be super powerful.