Fashion, Politics & Diversity: NYFW Lily Fashion Event

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some more pics from the event:

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

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. 🙂

 

Finally Going East: Creating Ties Through Beauty and Culture

As I hinted in my last post, there were some changes going on with my website which was why I’ve been a bit delinquent about my posts.

Well, I’m happy to announce that I’m officially a member X UNIPX INFLUENCE Program!  In other words, I’m now acting as an influencer in the Chinese market leveraging UNIPX media platforms which focus on pop culture, lifestyle, media and entertainment.  Here is a recent article my friends at UNIPX published that effectively introduces me to the market as a strategist and lover of all things beauty (It’s super easy to translate into English :)).

While I’m going to represent one of many different points of view from the U.S. market, I realize I need to wrap my head around views of beauty in Chinese culture too.  As you can imagine this can be a life long pursuit, but even just peering in to this new world could be give some insight.

So the first thing I did was look into my past research.  To explain to my colleagues and clients how views of beauty differ across cultures, I compared how Americans vs French, Russian and Chinese natives interpret beauty.   Initially I jumped into social media and published research.  While it’s a few years old (I’m looking forward in my new role to motivate me to do update this), and I’ve had to generalize a bit, I believe some of these themes stand the test of time.   What intrigued me the most, and it surfaces in the article written about me linked above, is the true duality of inner and outer beauty in China.  While concepts of inner beauty are in “vogue” in Western culture, when we talk about beauty, let’s face it, we are really referring to our outer appearances.  From an outer beauty perspective, the Chinese tend to view a healthy body and skin, as well as white skin, and an sense of approachability as attractive.

As a woman wrote in social media (translated into English): “Actually health is beauty.  It’s better to get up early, do some exercise everyday and focus on the balance of whole body.”

At the same time, Chinese culture deems traits like confidence, intelligence and honorability as beautiful.  As another stated:

“Out long tradition emphasizes more the inner beauty of a woman.  Beauty is not only your appearance but also your charm, characteristics and nobility…..”

Of course this is only scratching the surface. But imagine if we started thinking about or appreciating beauty this way. I’m not saying that all the Chinese notions of beauty will be right for us here. In fact, maybe by sharing some of our more enlightened notions of beauty with them we can all grow. I’m looking forward to learning more about these differences, experiencing and adopting some of them myself.

Speaking of experiencing them, I tried to do just that.  While I couldn’t take the next flight to Beijing, I did the best I could and headed down to NYC’s famous Chinatown to explore the beauty world.  I went shopping with my friend, Kristi, at the neighborhood beauty shops, and indulged in some beauty treatments a few weeks later.  Not surprisingly, the shops offered way more beauty products from Korea and Japan than from China.   But that didn’t stop us from partaking. 🙂

In terms of beauty treatments, I went on a lark to a place that had a website offering manicure and blow outs on Canal St.  The manicure didn’t seem any different than one I would get at a typical salon uptown.  But the hair experience certainly was.   (Let me caveat by saying this is certainly not a comparison of all Chinatown salons since I only went to one. )  The first thing that happened was I was asked to sit on one the of the blow out chairs while a woman covered my collar in plastic.  She then gave me a 5 minute shoulder massage — which was awesome.  Here is where it gets really interesting: while I’m sitting there, she takes the shampoo, pours it on my head while another woman squeezes water out from a plastic bottle to be mixed with the shampoo.  The first woman washes and massages my scalp for another 5 minutes as I’m sitting right next to a gentleman getting his hair cut.  So I’m thinking, do they not have sinks?  What’s the deal?  They do! I know because after the 5 minute wet hair massage I’m led to the sinks where my hair is rinsed and rewashed and then conditioned.  Clearly a healthy, clean scalp and head of hair is a MUST!

Another interesting difference between “western” blowouts and and the ones I experienced myself or saw on others in the salon, is emphasis on smooth and straight (vs full volume).  I was not surprised at this look given the high preponderance of Japanese straightening products that have made their way around the globe, and especially in Asia.  Given the humidity and my general lifestyle the look lasted a day or so but experience was a blast.

No doubt beauty is more than skin deep.  But I’m not referring just to inner beauty.  Rather I speaking about how much beauty is a product and reflection of culture.  While there may universal truths about physical symmetry and health as markers of beauty, it’s so evident how our rituals around, beliefs of and issues with beauty tells us a world of information regarding our values, social politics, environment and the list goes.  This is one of the key goals of Beautyskew: to shed light on culture through the lens of beauty. More than that, as evidence of my new relationship with UNIPX media, beauty can be a vehicle to connect with and learn from others, even those from a totally different world.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to this great new relationship, sharing what I know and learning from others too, maybe just maybe, helping to build some amazing bridges.

To get a taste of some of the Chinese-American beauty influencers on U.S. soil, check out Soothingsista and Francis Lola.

Beautiful Protests: Don’t Dismiss Beauty Queens. The Chinese Govt is Downright Scared of Them & for Very Good Reason!

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There’s a lot of different ways to protest.  Unfortunately, we’ve seen some of the worst of them over the past few weeks.  But, for the most part, challenging the status quo, the social wrongs we see, or just plain ol’ anachronistic thinking is an incredibly valuable and innate human behavior.  And, tonight being the first night of Hannukah — a commemoration of the Maccabees’s protest against the repressive Greek regime of their day — it’s only fitting to celebrate it!

The more tyrannical or oppressive the object of our protest, the more crafty, clever and creative we must be in our rebellious acts.  We can’t always march in the street or publish our thinking.  We need to use what we have at our disposal.  And that is exactly what a few feisty beauty queens did as they protested against the Chinese government.  Over the course of the last few days, I saw news story after new story highlighting not just one, but two, beauty pageants that have enraged the Chinese government.

At the Miss Earth beauty pageant, the contestant from Taiwan, Ting Wen-yin, refused to change her sash from “Miss Taiwan ROC” to “Miss Chinese Taipei.”  Her explanation: “I was born in Taiwan, my sash now says Taiwan, I represent Taiwan, and I’m going to use the name of Taiwan in appearing at this pageant.”  She also shared in social media the horrible treatment that all the contestants were subjected to like not being served some meals and forced to attend night clubs to flirt with men.  The result? She was reprimanded, banned from certain activities, and not allowed to be in pictures.  Eventually she was kicked out all together. (For more of the story, read here)

Around the same time, another story hit the news stream about Anastasia Lin, a Chinese-born woman who was crowned Miss Canada.  She has been using the pageant’s platform and the subsequent press coverage to speak against the Chinese government.  She has also created films and written essays to share the corruption and repressive acts of her former government.  And the Chinese leadership was pissed.  Majorly.  They tried to ban her from the Miss Universe pageant.  This, of course, backfired creating an even bigger uproar and heightening her efforts that much more.

Needless to say, the Chinese government is super skittish now when it comes to beauty pageants.

What these stories show us is that the “popular” cultural activities, like beauty pageants (and the people who participate in them) which we may snicker at, can play a powerful role in society.  While I have a hard time endorsing the parading of women around in bathing suits, I also have the seen the power of these “institutions.”  Since the beginning of time and into today, pageants have served as spaces where women could achieve something — whether a way out of poverty or a podium to protest.    I applaud Lin and Wen-yin who not only risked their success to tell their stories, but who realized how to best use the gifts they had and the circumstances they found themselves in, i.e., beauty contests, to do it.  Would they have been listened to if they didn’t use this platform?  Maybe…but, then again, maybe not.

It’s easy for us to look down at people who want to show off and get rewarded for their physical beauty.  But many of us aren’t in the same social, economic and political situations as these people.  Moreover, when beauty contestants use their beauty, and the pageants that showcase their beauty, in ways that most of us wouldn’t have the guts to, how can we NOT admire them?

Lesson here? First, let’s never ever assume that beauty queens are dumb.  Second, we shouldn’t assume that the popular, seemingly frivolous events, like beauty contests, don’t have a potential role for social betterment.  Finally, let’s appreciate the fact that we live in a society where we CAN protest a multitude of ways without fear of reprisal.

 

Pic of the Week: A Chinese Celebration of Curviness

Artist Xu Hong Fei
A few weeks ago China exhibited Xu Hongfei’s amazing sculptures.  While you may not recognize his name, you probably recall his gorgeous sculptures of what he calls “chubby women.”  His sculptures depict curvy women in action to demonstrate, as the exhibition catalogue states, “an ingenious union of clumsiness in wisdom and dexterity in heaviness.” In the end, he wants to say “fat women can be very happy and very beautiful and very confident,” according to the artist’s translator.
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/beauty-and-joy-in-curvy-art-20130620-2olvp.html#ixzz2YOSdZ9ju
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Week in Review: 9/3-9/8

 

Back to School (And work ;))!
The political power of clothes as experienced by enslaved women Weekend Observations: Clothing is Power
Highly buzzed-about Ukrainian Sleeping Beauty exhibit.  See why! Pic of the Week: Sleeping Beauty Installation Leading to Real Life Marriages
You’d think after years of communist rule China would have changed its views on women and beauty.  Not so much. Why Are Age-Old Beauty Values So hard To Break?
Curated beauty-in-culture reading for a leisurely weekend afternoon! More to Love: Additions to the Reading List

Summer is almost over, enjoy the outdoors this weekend!

Why Are Age-Old Beauty Values So hard to Break?


A culture can under go cultural revolution after cultural revolution — many of them totally upending social and gender roles, and yet perceptions of a woman’s beauty remain more or less the same.
Take China.  Very few countries experienced such a dramatic shift in opposed gender roles as this one.  Soon after the revolution, women went from foot-bounded, oppressed damsels to hard-core workers in the fields, factories and offices.
Fast forward decades  and Chinese culture is changing once again as it becomes more Westernized.  And it would seem women’s roles should become that much more equal to men’s.
And yet, there still remains more than a trace of sold-fashioned exism when it comes to women’s appearances.
In the wake of the country’s first Miss World Beauty Contest win (as well as tons of Olympic gold medals), many eyes are on China.  And what is being observed is that ancient views are hard to break.  According to a recent article, The Meaning of Beauty in Chinese Society, beauty contests are rampant.  Even Cow herders conferences add a beauty contest for fun. And not only must women provide pics with their resumes, but sometimes they have to comply with height and weight requirements to be hired!
Chairman Mao tried his hardest to wipe out all remnants of ancient Chinese society during his reign of terror.  And of course many things changed. And yet, old-fashioned views of women and their beauty can’t be totally eradicated.
How long does it take anyway?

More to Love: Additions to the Reading List

 

  • I’ve had my eye on China when it comes to beauty, luxury and fashion for a few years now.  Turns out they have a long heritage in clothing design…check it out for yourself

http://www.sacbee.com/2012/07/09/4619906/experience-china-beauty-of-chinese.html

  • Seems like beauty pageants have gotten a ton of press this year for unusual contestants.  This one is blind?!  How does she put her face on then?

http://abcnews.go.com/US/miss-florida-usa-contestant-legally-blind/story?id=16741255

  • As erotica is becoming hyper-cool these days, Anne Rice is jumping on the band wagon AGAIN with a revival of her old trilogy

http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/08/in-race-toward-the-erotic-reviving-an-old-trilogy/

  • Not only can beauties have brains, but bravery too!  The story of how a Parisian beauty acts as spy, smuggler and decoy for a defecting Syrian general

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/parisian-beauty-outwits-syrias-assad/story-fnb64oi6-1226420209129

Anything more to add? Comment or tweet us @Beautyskew