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

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!

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. 🙂

 

A Call for Eroticism

In this week’s edition of The New Yorker, I came across a quick story by Peter Schjeldahl, “The Roaring Stetties,”  about the artist Florine Stettheimer.  In anticipation of The Jewish Museum’s retrospective of her work, the story gives us a taste of this New York-based artist living during the end of 19th century and first half of the 20th .  Based on the story, Stettheimer seemed fascinating, bold and talented.  In 1915, Stettheimer painted the first full-length nude self-portrait by a woman.  No coincidence the image accompanying the article was a copy of this very painting.  It’s quite beautiful, tasteful and arresting.  Never would I hesitate to share this story and the image with my children.  In fact, I would be proud too!

But why is a painting of a nude woman any different than other images of naked woman we witness all too often in today’s culture on the internet?  Would I want to show these other images to my children?  My initial response is “no!”  But why? My question reminds me of a post a wrote a number of years back about the difference between erotic art and pornography.  Below is piece from that post:

What explains why pornography is considered base while erotic art is deemed beautiful? In both cases we lay our eyes upon the beautiful (or sometimes not so beautiful) human form.  According to Robert Scruton in Beauty, pornography objectifies the body whereas erotic art represents the embodied person — soul, personality, character….

What struck me about the argument is Scruton’s own words: “My body is not an object but a subject, just as I am…I am inextricably mingled with it, and what is done to my body is done to me.”

His thinking has implications way beyond pornography for me.  Essentially he’s elevating the role of our bodies.  They aren’t just flesh and bone, they are inseparable from ourselves, from our essences.

Keeping our kids shielded from pornography makes absolute sense.  Pornography demeans us and distances ourselves from our bodies.  And the reverse should be true as well.  We should not only deem erotic art differently from pornography, but actually encourage our kids to view it.  They will get a taste of talent and challenge themselves to understand the art in the context of its time.  But perhaps more importantly, they will hopefully embrace the human form and see it as something beautiful not some distant “piece” of who we are, or even worse, a source of shame.  Instead they will see it as inherently part of us, and as such, will  respect it, treat it well and love it that much more.  In a time and culture where we have so many conflicting feelings about our physical selves, let’s at least give our kids a sense of our bodies as sacred and worthy of self-care.  I truly believe such a stance towards our physical selves will make us healthier, happier and more respectful of others’ physicality as well.  Imagine that: we will not only be more loving and protective of our own bodies, but more accepting, caring and cherishing of others’ bodies too.  Could this help to stop body shaming and actual physical harming others?  Maybe.  I hope so.

I would love your reactions to this and I’m looking forward to the exhibit and may even some of you all there :).

 

When the Seemingly Ugly Is Very Beautiful

IMG_20151106_091859Imagine this: you walk to work surrounded by cranes in the sky, trucks roaring beside you, cars impatiently waiting at a tense standstill as heavy mobile cement mixers drive against the traffic.  Then imagine having to take walking detours as men in hard hats motion you to get out-of-the-way of a huge load of metal rods that are being lowered onto the street.  And almost every street has scaffolding obscuring any character of the buildings you pass.  There are no scents of flowers or shady trees.  There are no sculptures or mini parks.  There’s just concrete, trucks and wooden make-shift walls.

“Ugh,” you’re probably thinking, “what a horrible place to be.”

Well, this is my commute, EVERY SINGLE DAY.  I walk from 59th St and 10th avenue to my offices on 15th street in in Manhattan. For over 40 blocks I can’t avoid any of this.

And, yet, I love it!  I find all this hassle, men in hard hats, grinding sounds of construction and boarded up buildings, well, beautiful.  There is an energy to all of this construction.  Men and women are hard at work, yelling commands at one another, measuring distances or hustling to manage some sort of construction material.  You can really see the imagination and brawn of humankind taking shape. It’s quite magnificent.  It literally takes my breath away.

Why am I sharing this experience with you all?  Because so many of us live in cruise control.  We don’t notice the beauty around us.  More importantly, we don’t the notice the beauty that may be hidden to us at first glance.   We are constantly on the move trying to achieve the next thing — picking up our kids, getting to work, prepping for our presentation.  And let’s be honest, there may not be any flowers to stop and smell along the way.  But I guarantee you that there is beauty taking shape in interesting ways all around us, all the time.  We just need to tilt our heads in a slightly different angle and truly notice it.

This desire to see the beauty in the seemingly mundane — even ugly — things around us is one of the explanations for the preponderance of banal images that seem to overwhelm our internet feeds.  In my research I found that people are attracted to these everyday pics MORE than the the unusual, out-of-this-world stuff because we crave the beauty in the everyday.  Such a discovery elevates our everyday and reminds us that our daily lives are full of wonder, not just the grind.

What may seem ugly, drab or boring may just be quite beautiful.  We just need to scrape away the layers a bit and truly take the time to think about it.  But when you do, you’ll realize how cool our everyday world really are.

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Weekend Observations: Sites from Down Under & Why Diversity is Truly Beautiful

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I feel like the luckiest girl on earth.  As I write this I am sipping coffee in a coffee shop in Sydney, Australia!

And despite weather predictions of rain, it is sunny and cool outside.  Yesterday was even better — sunny and hot.  So I spent a lazy Saturday roaming the streets, parks and monuments of this beautiful city.  I learned about the ferns — who knew there were so many?, the aboriginal history and edginess of Aussi clothing designers along the way. It was absolutely wonderful!  Best of all?  I’m here for business so I get an automatic set of guides and friends from work. I feel like such a dork walking around with a grin from ear to ear as I conduct the most mundane of activities, like buying a coffee.

Something struck right away that made me realize that all is not totally beautiful in my eyes: the sea of whiteness. I’m not saying the women and men aren’t beautiful.  Just the opposite.  But what I felt was sorely missing was the range of skin hues.

There’s definitely an obvious Chinese population.  In fact I got a manicure my first day in Sydney from a Chinese-Aussi woman :).  But when you enter the restaurants or bars, i.e., the places where people socialize, all you see is white skin.  Coming from NYC, the uniformity hits you in the face.  It’s actually disconcerting.   Maybe I’m just homesick. Maybe I just like what I’m used to.  Or maybe I feel a moral or political tug for diversity given my politics?

Nah.

Evolutionarily speaking, we need diversity.  It’s through a mixing of unlike genes that we produce not just gorgeous children, but healthier ones too.  Net net, we are naturally attracted to diversity, just like we are attracted to other things of beauty.

Part of the beauty of travel is to witness the beauty of different places and people.  And sometimes that includes the realities of that culture.  I am by no means criticizing or diminishing the beauty of Sydney.  But I am that much aware of the beauty back home :).

Weekend Observations: Is Graffiti Art Worth It?

5Pointz
As I was getting a few minutes of “elliptical time” this weekend, I watched NY1 — the only channel my apartment gym gets these days.  Because NY1 only broadcasts the latest news around NYC, you end up seeing the same scenes and bite-sized stories about seven times over the course of a workout.
This weekend, one scene caught my attention.  Graffiti artists in Long Island City were pushing to have “5 Pointz” turned into a historical landmark.  Why now?  The City is looking to demolish it and build two residential towers in its place.  By turning 5 Pointz into a landmark, the graffiti mecca is saved
As a New Yorker, I totally sympathize with need to create more housing.  Apartments are in high demand and extremely expensive.  The more we can build, the better for everyone.
But in this case, I share the passion for the 5 Pointz protestors.  This site doesn’t represent just another mural on a side street.  It’s a museum of graffiti from a whole slew of international artists.
If you’ve read many of our past posts, you know that I’m a huge proponent of beautifying our cities.  But is beauty more important than housing?  Maybe.  While housing does shelter a large number of people, beauty enhances everyone who sees it.  And that enhancement can lead to happiness, inspiration and hope.
So, is graffiti art worth a protest, even the cessation of important construction?  Yes.
 

Weekend Observations: Why Street Art Matters

Hudson River Boardwalk Sculpture
Hudson River Boardwalk Sculpture

As Mayor Bloomberg begins to end his reign as leader of this great city, everyone has been talking about the gifts and the messes that we, New Yorkers, are left with as a result of his mayorship.  Since I’m not a major follower of politics, I can’t really participate in these discussions.  But one thing I do know is that he has left the city much more beautiful than when he received it.  From the High Line to the Hudson River boardwalk to the sculptures that have popped up over the decade, there’s no question that the city has become a more colorful, and lovely place.
Beyond the great view, though, this legacy of his has resulted in profound benefit to our society.  To see beauty around us not only brightens our day but, more importantly it inspires us.  For my children to see beauty around them gets them thinking, imagining, and, ultimately, believing that they too can make something beautiful.  And this is especially true for many of our underprivileged neighbors in NYC.  My children have been born into privilege.  And this means that they take for granted that no matter what they want to pursue, they will get the emotional and financial resources to make it happen.  But for children who don’t necessarily have the backing of their family or school, seeing solid examples of beauty can both inspire and remind them that they too may be able to make their creative dreams come true.
I’m not naive enough to believe that kids with fewer resources will have it easy.  In fact, as this beautiful and heartbreaking Guardian article by Chris Arnade shows, so many creative poor children give up.  But being exposed to beauty, at the very least, sparks their imagination and gives them the hope that maybe, just maybe they can turn their ideas into reality.

Pic of the Week: Who is Watching Whom?

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While it may look like a painting, it’s actually a typical scene from the Highline.  And though I feel so sneaky for capturing them via my camera, there’s no doubt they spotted me first on the streets of Chelsea!  How amazing it is that my commute to work is so full of beauty and fun.   Seeing this gave me a great jump start to the morning.

Weekend Observations: The Gift that Saved Me

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I was struggling.  It was my husband’s birthday this weekend.  And it was a big ONE.  But he didn’t want a party, any gifts and even a dinner out.
What’s a girl to do?  I have to do SOMETHING, right?
Then it dawned on me.  It’s not about the tangible gifts.  It’s about the experiences.
Lest I sound like every trite consumer trend study out there that claims that the “younger generation doesn’t want to accumulate wealth but accumulate experiences, ” I have to explain that for my husband, experiences don’t amount to sky diving or mountain climbing.  They amount to an organized apartment and great sex (sorry, mom if you’re reading this :)).
Soooo, this meant me spending a few hours organizing my drawers and cabinets, and, of course, amazing lingerie.
Now that I figured out the gift, the next question was, “what kind of lingerie do I get?”  In NYC, there’s no shortage of places to shop for such goodies.  There’s La Perla for the fancy mistress, Victoria’s Secret for the one-time-only, cheapie deal, and then the places in the Village for the crazy-ass stuff that really only should be worn on transvestites.
Hmm, none of them seemed right.  Then I did a little searching on Google and happened upon Sugar Cookies.  It had all the right qualities: near where I work, mid-priced and high class enough with a bit of raunch mixed in.
As all of you who follow us know, I don’t make it a habit of endorsing brands or products.  But every so often, I’m so overwhelmed that I MUST.  And this is one of those cases.  Sugar Cookies (with the great sub-head: Decorate Your Pink Parts) is a small boutique managed by the owner.  She is lovely and helpful.  While many of the items fall into the silky, white bridal sort, there’s still enough fun mixed in too.  And, there’s none of the cheapie element.  And if you want to pick up some nice sleepwear, they’ve got that too.
I ended up with what you see above.  As you can tell, I was able to satisfy my need for elegant plus a bit of sass.  Let’s face it, white and black can get tired!
I’m happy to report that the results were fab 😉  Sugar Cookies has a repeat customer in me.  I encourage you to take  a look for yourselves.  Who knows what kind of gifts you’ll end up with?  Hee Hee.