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).

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!

Fashion & Sex: How #Metoo is Changing It, But Is It For The Better?

A few weeks back you may have a seen a short video between my friends, Rachael McCrary and Marci Weisler about our reactions to the #metoo movement.  One of the areas discussed was our attire.  How should women dress?  Are we asking to be seen as sex objects if we wear something alluring or are we displaying our sense of empowerment?  This isn’t a new debate but it’s just that much more heightened due to the times.  Rachael and I believe its the latter.  This should be of no surprise if you know me, my blog posts, and how I tend to dress; and no surprise given Rachael’s role as a CEO of lingerie company, Jewel Toned.

But now this question is also being discussed by the fashion and its surrounding industries, i.e., publishing.  In a recent Financial Times article, “Lets Talk about Sex,” Lou Stoppard reflects on the fear of fashion designers and magazine brands to display sexuality in their designs and photo shoots. The story cites the trends by fashion brands to cover up, develop more unisex items and create “reserved” looks in response to today’s climate.  Likewise, style magazines are forcing themselves to rethink their often-hyper sexual imagery.  The article aptly kicks off with these words:”There is little joy of sex in the fashion industry right now.  In fact, the industry seems seems almost scared of it.”

As a mother of boys and a girl, I’m not disappointed that the media industry is challenging itself to portray women in a more empowering light.  But must we avoid sexuality all together?  Of course not all brands are avoiding it.  As the article points out, designers such as Christopher Kane are still developing alluring designs.  His words sum it up for me: “No one should be taken advantage of, but sex is not a bad thing, either.  Abuse is a bad thing.”  EXACTLY!  Demonizing sex or avoiding it isn’t the solution.  If we assume sex or being sexy is bad, we will not only inhibit women from trying to look as alluring as they choose but also will link sex with abuse.   By making such a tight connection between sex and abuse, we may be encouraging the abuser to further use sex as a way to exert his/her power over and anger towards others.   If we regarded sex and looking sexy as a beautiful thing and as a wonderful way to commune with others (assuming its consensual), we will begin to stop using it in an abusive manner.  Call me crazy, but I liken it to our relationship to food.   We need food.  And it’s wonderful!  Of course we should treat our bodies with respect and not over do it.  Nor should we stuff crap down our throats.  Both of those are harmful.  But to demonize food is harmful too.  But when we have a screwy relationship to food –when we feel both consumed by it and then ashamed when we eat it — we begin to hate it.  The result? We abuse it and abuse ourselves that much more.  We need to change this negative relationship …with food and sex.

Everyone has a different interpretation of sexy attire.  No matter what that is, I think we should all be free to embrace our own version of it.  As I’ve said in past posts and in our video conversation, eschewing sensuality or sexuality isn’t necessarily empowering.  For me is depressing.  Just as eschewing lovely foods or spirits.  Sexuality is part of our amazing lives.  We just have to respect it’s boundaries and honor it.

Look out for our next video chat in a the coming weeks!

Masculinity, Beauty & Peace: How a Light Make-Over Show Can Be the Key to Tolerance

Queer Eye’s Fab Five

While it’s the month to officially celebrate women, I’m actually going to turn our attention to men today.

In my quest to find a binge-able show on Netflix, I was scrolling through its latest releases and happened upon  “Queer Eye,” the remake of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”  While the make-over premise is still the same, this version has a new team or “Fab Five” and differentiates itself by evolving some of the least likely types — from religious Christians to self-described red necks.   Out of desperation for something — anything — to watch, I gave it a whirl.   Within days I had watched all eight episodes and cried at the close of  EVERY SINGLE ONE.  Needless to say I was moved.  And I’m not the sentimental type.

Every one of the male “subjects” featured goes through a major transformation.  Sure, each gets a better haircut and wardrobe in the end.  But that’s not what I’m talking about.  They all become more open-minded, more understanding and more self-loving.  And like me, each of them cries at the end of his metamorphosis.  But don’t discount the physical changes.  It’s because they have elevated their personal beauty, and the beauty of their surroundings, that this tremendous change happens.

I was so excited with the show that I immediately called my long-time friend and partner-in-crime on all my professional anthropological studies: cultural anthropologist, Thomas Maschio.  Because his insights never cease to amaze me, I basically forced him to watch this show and share his thoughts.  Like me, he was moved.  And like me he saw how it was the beautification process in particular that brought these men to a higher plane.

Would these men have evolved if they learned other things, like playing a sport or learning to appreciate poetry?  To some extent yes, but it was their exposure to beauty rituals and their new found knowledge of beautiful things that stretched them as far as they did.   Tom phrased it like this: “beauty opens up inner space or emotional life for the subjects/objects of the Fab Fives’ attentions.  It frees them up from their constricted ways of feeling and their constricted ways of moving about their own lives.”  In other words, beauty opened them up, and as a result, each has his own “coming out” experience.

What’s really going on here?  As the consummate anthropologist, Tom points out that each episode has a ritual of sorts that leads to the transformation:

  1. Setting out  —  the team gets an overview of the subjects and his particular areas of development
  2. Encounter and initial assessment —  the Fab Five meets the subject and sees all of his issues …often this can be the most hilarious part of the show
  3. Discarding of material objects  —  as it sounds, an in-your-face act of throwing the old life away, from stained easy-chairs to clothes that are 5 sizes too big.
  4. Sharing of truths (mutual empathy) — these are often the most profound moments.  While the individual team members are very different from each subject, there’s always something they bond over.  This could be a fear of coming out to one’s family, an intolerance of the “other,” or the sad truth that neglect of one’s appearance shows a lack of concern for his partner.
  5.  Teaching and convincing — life coaching through scotch tasting or shopping or a trip to the salon.
  6. Connection — emotional recognition by the subject for his need to evolve and his gratitude to the team for his reinvention
  7. Reintroduction to the social realm — this is when the men reveal themselves to their families or loved ones and take the leap they didn’t have the courage to do prior to the experience.  They all gain greater confidence in themselves which opens themselves up for more love and kindness towards others, e.g., their wives, parents, children and friends.

Through these steps the men change.  The outward changes lead directly to inward ones.  And beautification is the impetus.  As Tom explains it: “Beauty opens people up…the beautiful is disruptive; disrupts perception, enlarges it, halts the usual flow of thinking and feeling.  So when these guys are introduced to that in ways they can understand, their usual ways of going about things are disrupted.”   Because most of the subjects live in a culture that embraces a conservative or hyper western sense of masculinity, e.g, lack of concern around attire and grooming and a more constricted way of socializing, the Fab Five free these men to explore new, more expansive aspects of male beauty, and maleness in general.

What’s more, these men embody the changes.  They experience them via their physical selves, not just their intellectual or spiritual ones.  From new hairstyles to beard looks to eating different foods, these reformed men literally see the transformations on and around themselves.  Finally, whether it’s via grooming, getting dressed or or consuming more sophisticated flavors, these men are literally touching their physical selves.  They are performing acts of self care which I believe help them  love and care for themselves more.

Why do I care so much about this?  As I’ve said in previous posts, I think men in our society can only benefit from getting in touch with their physical selves.  By opening themselves up to beauty, they will not only see the world in a new, elevated way, but they will get in touch with their bodies.  The result?  A greater appreciation of themselves, and in turn, more empathy and love for others.  Now, more than ever, in this time of so much hatred and abuse in our society, don’t we need this?  If more men actually loved themselves, not in narcissistic way but because of their new-found confidence, they would undoubtedly embrace others.  And if beauty is the key to unlock this change then let’s harness it.  And oh yeah, who doesn’t love to see men in a well tailored suit?.  That’s something we should all celebrate!

A Video Conversation: Exploring How #metoo Can Be A New Way Forward, Not a Tidal Wave of Division

A few weeks back I shared my reactions to the #metoo movement.  And while I wrote about how wholeheartedly supportive of it I am, I also cautioned us not to inhibit our femininity or masculinity.  I urged us to embrace our bodies and celebrate our sensuality.

As promised in my last post, I am sharing the first of our video series of stimulating chats I had with my good friend and entrepreneur, Rachael McCrary, and host, Marci Weisler, CEO and Co-founder of SWSI (Smart Women. Smart Ideas.) Media.  Rachael is not only a brilliant and beautiful woman but also the founder and CEO of the lingerie company, Jewel Toned Inc.  Phew lots of heavy hitters, eh?

In the video we address how people we know are responding to the movement, e.g., whether they are acting differently, dressing differently or speaking differently.  The discussion moves from business success to erotica.  We raise the questions we’re all facing around whether we can give compliments anymore or whether we have to squelch our femininity or masculinity; whether having women with power lessens or raises levels of sexual harassment; whether the paranoia around sexual harassment can some how diminish our confidence and success; and how owning our sexuality can actually empower us.

Please don’t get us wrong.  We are not challenging the movement in any way.  Nor are we necessarily taking the position of Morning Joe host, Mika Brzezinski, who is concerned for men who could be accused and fired without due process.  She was quoted in Newsweek saying: “The problem is that any woman can say anything, and that’s it, it’s over.  Is that how we’re running businesses now?”  We certainly  are not dismissing Brezezinkski’s opinion, it’s more that we are speaking about something different: our own, personal experiences, and more specifically how how to empower one another.

No matter where you stand on the issues, the only thing we truly urge for all of us is to be open to the different opinions and sides.  Listen to others’ points of view, concerns and ideas.  Don’t judge women or men until you hear what they have to say.  Get the conversation going amongst your community in work or outside of it.  We all are going to all have to navigate through these issues to find a better way.  Just don’t expect others to do it for us.  It’s up to us to make the change.

Have a listen and share your feedback.

Embrace, Express and Own: Empowering us to be Feminine, Sexy & Powerful

Golden Globes 2018 fashion

Lots of buzz this week regarding the Golden Globes, especially all the references to women’s empowerment in the industry.  As you all know, many of the female attendees banded together to wear black to protest the industry’s prevalent sexual harassment.  I’m happy to notice that, while the community of show biz women expressed their outrage via the color of their attire, they were still eager to show their femininity and style.  From deep cleavages to hourglass shapes to enhancing sparkle and shine, these impressive women looked sexy and feminine. 

I’m not writing as a fashionista or style commentator here.  I’m writing as an empowered woman who is eager to help empower others.   

I’ve been struggling a bit with my feelings about the #metoo movement.  Undoubtedly I support a woman’s ability to live and work free of sexual harassment.  After all, I, like so many of my friends, have faced harassment in some shape or form from my school days to today.  In fact, I was encouraged by my followers to write my version of #metoo stories.  And I did.  But I never published them.  It wasn’t that I was ashamed.  Partly I didn’t want to incense my readers and then leave them with no inspiration.  But, really, I think I was concerned that all of our anger would lead us to want to disallow our femininity and sexuality.

We are starting to see the backlash from the movement: from women showing their support for men in social media to French celebrities, led by Catherine Deneuve, criticizing American women for “confusing” violence with seduction.  They argue that the movement reduces our sexual freedom, that “instead of empowering women, the #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc movements serve the interests of the enemies of sexual freedom, of religious extremists, of the worst reactionaries,”and of those who believe that women are separate”.

I certainly DON’T want people — women or men — to misjudge me because of my gender or how I appear.  I’ve been burned by it.  BUT, what I also don’t want is to feel I have to hide myself either.  I want to own my beauty, sexuality, sensuality, femininity — whatever you want to call it.  Could the #metoo movement lead some of us to inhibit our sexuality out of fear that we are advertising for sex or “asking” for it?  Could our efforts to encourage men to judge us for our creativity, intellect and point of view, also push us to dampen or quell our femininity?

I’m not saying we should all be wearing lingerie to the office.  But, from what I’ve experienced, even while wearing a suit and high-necked blouse, people have still judged me as being too provocative.  In the end, it’s not just what we wear, it’s our whole aura: our style, how extroverted we are, how confident we seem.

What I’ve learned is that the biases we face or the harassment we may encounter is not about US, it’s about them — the harasser.  Any anger or mistreatment of us is a reflection of others’ own issues, particularly issues with sexuality.  Thanks to our Puritanical underpinnings, U.S. culture is conflicted about sexuality and beauty.  We either deify or demonize it.  To make matters worse, we have a hard time believing women can be both smart, and beautiful. To this day, we’ve failed to successfully debunk the negative “dumb blonde” stereotype still floating around our culture.  The BBC created an ironic skit, showcasing the amazing Tracey Ullman, aptly demonstrates the biases we face towards women and their expression of their femininity.  But she turns the tables.  In it, the almost all female police team, make a men dressed in a suit feel like he deserved getting robbed at knifepoint since he look so “provocatively wealthy.”  Have a look yourselves: 

 

In all seriousness, we should be able to express ourselves, including our femininity or masculinity, without the fear of harassment.  We can change this.  We HAVE to #TimesUp.

We need to appreciate beauty and sexuality — our own and that of others.  If we embrace it, we won’t feel so conflicted by it — and treat it with the respect it deserves.   Once we embrace it, we won’t feel so conflicted by it.  And I believe our affirmation will mitigate others’ power to use it against us.  Think about it, we apply the same logic to religious or ethnic expression, right? Do we feel we should shut down people’s ability to physically embrace their specialness?  No way!  I’ve given up trying to appease people who feel uncomfortable with beauty and femininity.  If they want to deem me somehow inferior, that’s their problem.  They will lose what I have to offer.

To all of you — men, women, and or however you define your selves — don’t lose that unique and wonderful part of you that is beautiful, sensual and magnetic.   And if that means wearing a powerful pair of pants, a body conscious dress, or short sleeve shirt that shows off your sculpted muscles, go for it!

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. 🙂

 

Not What You’d Expect: What Blind People Can Teach Us About Physical Beauty

Courtesy of WatchCut Video

What does beauty mean if you’re blind?  After all, you can’t see, right?  Does it actually matter to a person who can’t see?

The answer?  Yes!

I came across a fascinating video by WatchCut Video interviewing blind men and women on their relationship to beauty.   This video generated over 900 comments and over 400,000 views (for video see below).  Why?  Because this short film gives us an honest and thoughtful view into how blind people really think about how we all look.  While they may not be able to see, their desire to be beautiful and be among beautiful people is just as strong as that of seeing people.  We might have imagined that a world without sight would turn us into less shallow, deeper human beings.  But, alas it is not so.

I say, “Thank goodness!”

The women and men in the video admit how important it is for them to be attractive, and for their mates look good as well.  Despite society’s pressure on us not to be vain, or certainly to never admit to it, they, refreshingly, confess that they DO care about it.

So how do blind people experience beauty?  As one subject states: “other senses kick in.” Blind people can detect a curvaceous body, or gorgeous sound, a sexy scent, and smooth skin.  As expected, they don’t think vision has a whole lot to do with people’s perception of beauty.

Some of you idealists may bemoan this story, as you yearn for a utopian society where we can be like the unseeing, that is, blind to others’ physical looks.  Considering all the pressures to be beautiful and all the biases around appearances, I understand this sentiment.  But this video brings something else to light that I still think can still inspire all of us.  Because beauty can be experienced through all of our senses, we all have beautiful aspects of ourselves to appreciate, or to appreciate in others.  It could be someone’s infectious laugh, tender skin or warm touch. This video reminds us of all the gorgeous parts of ourselves and others that we often ignore.  But, also, by resurfacing the physical characteristics of beauty we often forget, this video reminds us us to open our eyes to all the many, many more ways the world around us is so beautiful.

Thank you to all the brave and beautiful blind participants in this video for helping us see more clearly.

Beautiful-Ugly Monuments: Should They Stay or Should They Go? How The Beauty of Ugly Monuments Challenges Us

Courtesy of the Daily Mail

All of us have been swept up in the horrible violence and rhetoric that occurred last weekend in Charlottesville, VA.  As you probably know, the initial spark to this was dismantling of the city’s statue/monument memorializing  the Confederacy’s top general, Robert E. Lee.   The city’s leadership wanted it down.  White Nationalists wanted it to stay.  I’m sure most of you, like me, would want that statue not only taken down, but destroyed.  While it may have been crafted beautifully (as President Trump seems to think), it stands for something very, very ugly.

I discussed this with my friends back in May and one challenged me saying that we NEED these monuments to remain. “If we take the beautiful, but, ugly monuments down,” he said, “will we forget the ugliness they symbolize?”  Condoleezza Rice argued the same thing.  A few months back she was quoted saying in the Washington Examiner, “I want us to have to look at those names and recognize what they did and to be able to tell our kids what they did and for them to have a sense of their own history.  When you start wiping out your history, sanitizing your history to make you feel better it’s a bad thing…”

I see their point.  There are many beautiful, yet, ugly monuments.  In countries around the world stand beautifully crafted structures that represent ugly behaviors, philosophies and leaders, think Czars’ castles or Egypt’s Pyramids, for example.  But  having them remain is critical.  Not because we endorse the behaviors of the leaders behind these places, but because they force us to remember.   But I think it goes further than that.  Their very beauty challenges us.  We are forced to ask “how can something so beautiful be so bad?”

A few years back I wrote a post around a similar topic: The Stark Contrast Makes It The Most Chilling & Appropriate.  In it I reflect upon journalist’s, Laura Kelly‘s, visit to the beautiful, picturesque village of Wannsee on the outskirts of Berlin.  In this town, and, in particular, in a beautiful villa that still remains there, the Nazis met to conceive the Final Solution.  My initial response to such a place was also “tear it down!”  But then I realize we need to maintain these places.  Like Rice’s point, they remind us of our history.

But why not just keep the ugly reminders: concentration camps, parts of the Berlin wall, or bombed out buildings?  Wouldn’t keeping the beautiful (but ugly) reminders offer the wrong message?  Couldn’t we be at risk of people interpreting the very presence of these beautiful structures as a sign that we should admire this dark history?

But it’s the very beauty of these “ugly” monuments may offer an even more searing effect.  As I wrote in my post: “Seeing the beautiful landscapes of Wannsee don’t deflect from the horrors but actually reinforce them. When we see how beautiful the world CAN and SHOULD be, and then realize how ugly it actually has become in some instances, the ugliness feels that much more jarring.”

I referenced Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List as an example of this very thing,  I go on to write: “While the film does an excellent job portraying the horrors of Holocaust, the film is still a masterpiece.  It’s beautifully written, acted and shot.  Perhaps this is why the film still captures our attention to this day.”

If we take down all the beautiful, ugly the monuments will we be effectively letting part of our history go?  Will we forget? And will the very painful dichotomy of beauty and ugliness be spared?

What differs the Robert E. Lee monument from the others I mentioned above, though, is that sadly enough, there remains a critical mass of people who don’t see him or what he stands for as horrible.  In the other cases, the philosophies underlying the monuments are rejected by most of the population: Egypt no longer has Israelite slaves, Russia is no longer ruled by Czars (well, it has another type of despotic ruler but let’s not get off track), and it’s illegal to be a Nazi sympathizer in Germany.

But sometimes the ugliness of beautiful things is too horrible to for us to keep.  And sometimes its the very ACT of tearing it down, vs having it remain or having it gone, which is the point.  We all need to remind those who still support Lee’s beliefs that we won’t, as a nation, tolerate them –years ago, years into the future but especially RIGHT NOW.  We need to actively tear these beliefs down along with the statue that represents them.

So, yes, Robert E. Lee must go.