Monica Phromsavanh: From refugee to serial entrepreneur. Hear her story on our first-ever-podcast!

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A few weeks back I announced my panel and podcasts at the National Retail Federation‘s Big Show (“Getting Up Close and Personal with the Hottest, Coolest Ladies in Fashion Tech).  I was so fortunate to meet with some of the brightest, loveliest and most interesting women in the world of fashion tech and wearable technology.  Over the course of the next weeks I will be sharing their stories via the podcasts that we taped.

During our podcasts, we discussed a slew of topics like these women’s journeys, their points of view on the convergence of beauty and fashion with technology, and the challenges and opportunities they face as women in the technology.

In light of President Trump’s deplorable immigration ban, I have to kick this series off with the amazing story of Monica Phromsavanh, Founder of Modabox and formerly from Burberry, and Limelight Shops, to name a few.  She overcame tremendous odds to become the amazing entrepreneur that she is.  Her journey starts as a refugee in Argentina, working in a sweatshop.  

My favorite quote of her’s: “Technology is a great tool but at the end of the day we’re still human and we still want human connection.”

See what she’s referring to in this snap shot of our conversation.

No question the conversation with Monica could have gone on for hours.  Chatting about the beauty of, implications of, and challenges with the interplay of fashion and technology is and was fascinating.  But let’s also recognize what Monica, and others like her, gift us.  Perspective, new ideas, tenacity, grit, gratitude…to name a few.  Can you imagine if we let this administration ban more brilliant, game-changing people like Monica from entering and flourishing in this country?

You can hear the whole conversation, plus interesting dialogue with my co-host Valerie De La Rosa of Conde Nast Entertainment, and my other special guest, Jackie Trebilcock, Founder NY Fashion Tech Lab, via our podcast below!

https://soundcloud.com/kathleen-kiley/show-1-beautyskew-mixdown

Looking forward to your feedback!

 

Beauty, Judgements & Hypocrites: Enough is Enough

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That’s a picture of me when I was about 6 months old.  As you can tell I’m wearing a special shoe on my left foot.  That shoe, along with a cast, straightened (well, for the most part) the crooked leg I was born with.  I’m sure my parents were thinking that having a slightly crooked leg would hamper my movement as I grew up.  But I bet the biggest reason for the correction was that I would just look plain funny with a twisted leg.

So many of us have reconstructed some part of our bodies that we don’t even think twice about it.   Think about how many people have straightened their crooked teeth or in the case of Debora L. Spar, who recently authored “Aging and My Beauty Dilemma” in last week’s New York Times, reduced her breasts via breast reduction surgery.  Such procedures rarely faze us or compel us to judge people harshly because of them.  When a 13 year-old boy walks around with upper and lower braces in his mouth,  we don’t say: “oh, he’s so vain” or “he’s succumbing to social pressures, he should be above that.”  Of course not.

So why do so many of us strong, empowered women feel so damn insecure getting fillers or a boob lift?  Why must we think we are somehow being hypocrites or turning our back on feminism?

I have to hand it to Spar for putting herself out there and sharing her insecurities.  And bravo for the New York Times to take her words seriously enough to print them.  As president of an excellent women’s college, Barnard, Spar is certainly a model of feminism.  And yet, she, like so many of us, are fearful of looking old, and, at the same time, ashamed for feeling that way or doing anything about it.  It wasn’t so much that she was insecure with her changing looks (though she clearly is) but that she feels she is going against her feminist principles that really bothered her.

I get it.  The media or western culture in general can often makes us feel ugly and prey on our insecurities around aging.  And then, to make matters worse, it pressures us not to address those feelings lest we be called frivolous or worse, a hypocrite.

But, c’mon.  Getting a haircut, shaving our legs, and wearing Invisalign are such common behaviors now we don’t think anything of them.  And yet they are all part of our daily regimen to transform how we look.  Should we feel ashamed that we do them, no way!  And men do them too.  They don’t make us less powerful, brilliant or leader-like.

And the same should be true for fillers, botox, breast augmentation, you name it.  They will become so common one day that we will put them in the same bucket as teeth whitening.

So let’s stop wasting our precious energies on judging others for their beauty boosting behaviors.  And even better, lets stop wasting our time and effort feeling ashamed for partaking in them.

I applaud Spar for her article.  Good for her for having the courage to be so vulnerable and talk about something WE ALL feel in some shape or form.  But wouldn’t it be even better if all those “judges” just left her alone so she can feel confident about how she looks and what she does to keep herself feeling beautiful.  And that way she can spend more of her time writing about and sharing her valuable insights on women’s education and leadership instead.

Are We Hard-Wired to Be Attracted to the Beauty of Our Elders?

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Is it me or are we finally looking at our elder beauties in a new light?  Every where I look I feel like people are starting to pay attention to the beauty of the older women and men in our society in a different, progressive and admirable way.  Or perhaps it’s because my birthday is coming up that I look at aging with a fresh eye.  Whatever the reason, I feel like we are finally starting to see aging beauty for all the glamour, wisdom and experience it offers.

First, I was struck by the amazing comments I received in one of my recent Linkedin posts: Age and Decay: A Twist on What We Actually Crave.  The fact that we instinctively need to experience the aging process in others is what makes vinyl records, dilapidated buildings and older women so beautiful.  And then I came across a scientific study claiming that women don’t want beauty companies to offer them “anti-aging” products, but rather products that make them look and feel awesome as they are now. (Science Daily)  Finally, when I came across this story in Los Angeles Racked: “Fashion and Beauty Secerets form L.A’s Most Stylish Older Women,” I knew I must be on to something.  The article shares images of gorgeous older women, strutting their stuff, donning eclectic outfits, and displaying amazing hair and make-up (see pics above & below).  And what’s even cooler about them?  They are all active members of society — working in film, non-for-profits or even modeling!

But why try to stay beautiful?  For younger people it promises a mate and eventual propagation of the species.  But who needs it as we age?

But maybe there’s another way to think about people’s beauty.  Beauty — both inner and outer (frankly, I can’t separate the two) forces us to take notice.  It mesmerizes us.  It stops us in our tracks and draws like a magnet.  Nature has hard-wired us to react this way.  For the youth it may have one reason for it’s existence, but for others, another.  By admiring and being attracted to an older person’s beauty we can’t help but learn their stories, adopt some of their joie de vivre and hopefully take on their desire to keep building in this world vs let it all go and wait for the end to come.  When we see it in the best possible light, beauty’s allure can help us learn something, build for a better future, and see the opportunities before us.  We need the beauty of youth AND the beauty of old age.

Nature has made us beautiful creatures at EVERY stage so that we all strive to build a better world — whether that means more babies, more equality, better forms of entertainment, more happiness — and the list goes on.  Let’s hope I can adopt some of this lesson for myself as the big day rolls around :).



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Beautiful Rebellion: When Media Breaks Down the Walls of Segregation

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The media, especially advertising, is often criticized for our warped expectations of beauty. There is no doubt about it: photoshopping, highly sexualized portraits and impossibly thin models, create unrealistic — even harmful — visions of the ideal. We just love to lambast the media, and I get it.

But then there are those instances when advertising becomes a source of progress. It challenges the status quo and pushes us to demand a better way. Even in the world of beauty.

Take the recent campaign by Shea Moisture, “Break the Walls.”  Shea Moisture is a line of skin and haircare products primarily for people of color. This ad, and the accompanying YouTube film, shed light on the segregation of “ethnic” beauty products to the a small portion of the beauty aisle.  As the spot points out, there the a beauty aisle for white people, and there is the ethnic aisle for everyone else.  The implication: white people are beautiful, others are, well, “ethnic,” i.e., not beautiful.  The hell with that!  The video dramatically shows the aisles blowing up as a metaphor for breaking our assumptions about what beauty is. It’s great!

As someone who grew up in the world of advertising, I see both sides.  I realize that we, in media, can present unrealistic worlds of exceedingly happy families, the glory of wealth and prestige, or flawless beauties.  But, I still believe that there are, and bear witness to, those times when advertising can raise our awareness to society’s ills a suggest a better way.  When I worked in the ad industry, believe me, all we wanted to create was something meaningful, no matter how idealistic our clients were. Given my years at DDB, I still can’t help but quote Bill Bernbach who said:

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

For any of us who create media in some shape or form, let’s always strive to lift our world to a higher level.  And for those of us who merely engage with it (all of us, actually), let’s not just view it with a disdainful eye but fully embrace and applaud those advertisers and media makers who help lift it for us.

“The inevitable dissatisfaction with one’s own appearance is the engine not only of philosophy but of civil society at large.” Andy Martin. SXSW, Satre & Scissors: Getting Prepped for SXSW Reflects the Basis of Philosophy

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I’m in SXSW now but before my trip, I knew I had to clean up my act before my panel. I don’t mean I had to behave like a responsible adult (the totally wrong move in Austin :)).  No, I had to get beautified.

When it comes to getting my hair cut, I push it off as long as possible. I just can’t commit the time. But when I do, I enter into a state of euphoria as soon as I plunk myself down in the stylist’s chair.  This is especially true when I’m at getting styled by my good friend, and beauty expert to stars and tech gurus alike, Gad Cohen.

Hair transformations have been even more top of mind for me thanks to this week’s episode of American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J Simpson.  Poor Marcia Clark (played superbly by Sarah Paulson) undergoes a hair redo in order to be better liked in the courtroom. The look on her face as she’s about to get shorn totally looked like mine: gleeful excited and full of happiness.  Thank goodness, my result did not resemble her’s on the show! Oy.

Why do so many of us love this type transformative experience? Is because we all need a change? Actually it goes FAR deeper than that.

This question reminds me of a post a wrote a few year back in response to a pretty heady article in the NY Times, The Phenomenology of Ugly called Philosophy: A Bi-Product of Ugliness.  In the Times piece, writer, Andy Martin, realizes (while getting a haircut) that our recognition of our ugliness (in other word the need for physical improvement) is the basis of philosophy. We believe that the world, like ourselves, can be improved.

Here’s an excerpt from my post:

Is vanity vapid or virtuous?  Andy Martin certainly makes a case for the latter.  As you can imagine from the title of his article, the piece was a bit esoteric (lots of references to Sartre and Camus, with a bit of Britney Spears mixed in). But what I got out of it was quite interesting.

In essence, he writes that analyzing your beauty (or lack of it in his case due to a very bad haircut) can have great consequences. That is, by virtue of recognizing that an aspect of your appearance can be improved, let’s say a bad hairdo or big zit cropping up on your chin, you realize that improvement is within reach in other aspects of life.  Says Martin, “that original, self-conscious, slightly despairing glance in the mirror (together with, “Is this is?” or “Is that all there is?”) is a great enabler because it compels us to seek improvement …The inevitable dissatisfaction with one’s own appearance is the engine not only of philosophy but of civil society at large.”

If the knowledge that we have some power over our looks empowers us to change other aspects of our lives for the better, maybe a dose of vanity is what we all need!

I certainly walked away empowered from my amazing transformation experience thanks to Gad.  I feel like I can conquer the crazy networking in Austin and, especially, my stage event on Monday.  But knowing that any kind of change — even just a few inches chopped off and colored — can be the spark to even greater societal movement, gets me all goose-bumpy.

If you’re in Austin, come to our panel!  But if you’re not, then go get a haircut :).

Sexy Social Change: Don’t Shun the Vapid Selfies and Videos; They Can Be A Source of Brilliance

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My buddy John alerted me to this fascinating story from the Telegraph, Is this the first Instagram masterpiece? A well-regarded young artist, Amalia Ulman, spoofs the Instagram’s selfie phenomenon to not only make a point, but to create her art recent exhibition: “Excellences & Perfections.”

This story captivated me for so many reasons.  Ulman never revealed the motive behind her selfie project.  Instead she shared pic after pic of herself in images typical of so many young, female-selfie-addicts (think the Kardashians).  As the article says:  “In some of them she posed in lingerie on rumpled bed sheets in boutique hotel rooms. In others she offered cutesy close-ups of kittens, rose petals, and strawberries and pancakes captioned “brunch”…. She was mindlessly bragging about her supposedly enviable lifestyle in LA, as she attended pole-dancing classes and underwent breast-enlargement surgery.”  She admits that people started hating her as a result of these images, even warning her that her cutesy, sexy and showy attitude was going to damage her career.

But all of this was a ruse.  After a year and a half of this photo diary, she collected all of her selfies and is now exhibiting them at the Tate and Whitechapel Gallery.  Her point? As she tells the Telegraph:

“I wanted to prove that femininity is a construction, and not something biological or inherent to any woman … The joke was admitting how much work goes into being a woman and how being a woman is not a natural thing. It’s something you learn.”

Clearly this mastermind fooled us all.

But the other reason I love this story is that she proves a phenomenon that I’ve been witnessing and writing about for a while.  We don’t speak in words, paint, or photo paper as we used to.  We are visual thinkers. and we speak through the medium of a digital cloud using digital pictures, videos and memes.

Instead of using the traditional art mediums of the past, Ulman recognizes the lingua franca of today’s younger generation.   As Ulman says:

“The idea was to experiment with fiction online using the language of the internet,” she explains, “rather than trying to adapt old media to the internet, as has been done with mini-series on YouTube. The cadence and rhythm were totally different.”

While our new language may seem frivolous or self-absorbing at times, it can be quite profound.  It can be THE way to send a powerful and provocative message for social change.  We have to dismiss our preconceptions (e.g., selfies are for ditzes) and look a little deeper.  Actually check out the selfies below taken at Davos, the least ditzy place on earth right now!  And when we start looking deeper, it’s amazing what we can learn about the world and ourselves.

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What Mesmerizes Us is As Old As Time

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When I gear up to write a post, I sometimes troll the news feed to see what folks are chatting about.  So I did the same thing this time. After the third or so article I happened upon a post of top photos collected over the past weeks.  I wish I could say the photos depicted images of landscapes or amazing feats of nature.  But they didn’t. They were shot after shot of beautiful celebrities courtesy of US Weekly.

Before you groan, please recognize that I’m not proud of this nor did I intend to even focus my attention here.  But once I opened the post and started flipping through the images, I was hooked.  Time flew and before I knew it, it was a half hour later.

What gives?  Why in the world would I waste minute after minute poring through images of beautiful people in gorgeous outfits.  Well, it is award season so maybe that’s what’s catching our attention.

Nah, it’s more than that.

There is something mesmerizing about images, especially images of beautiful people.  Before we admonish ourselves for admiring these shots, let’s forgive ourselves a bit.  You see we are hardwired to not only focus on visual stimuli, but to focus even more on “beautiful” faces.

As someone who spends hour upon hour trying to figure out why and how we engage with all of our digital paraphernalia, one thing is for sure: we are a highly visual culture now.  In fact, we communicate through our visual sense now more than ever.  Think of all the photos, clips and emoji’s we take, upload, download and share EVERY SINGLE DAY.  Of course our digital gadgets make this easier than ever.  But the real reason we are so visual is that we are hardwired to be so.  Our visual sense is one of the oldest and most nuanced…much older than our ability to decode written and oral language.  Remind yourselves of how how babies first learn — through smell, touch and yes, our eyes. Our digital culture has allowed us to return to that state.

Speaking of babies. There are tons of published evidence on babies’ attraction to beautiful faces.  How do we define beautiful faces?  Of course that’s up for debate and not the focus of this post.  But in the most basic way, we are referring to faces with symmetrical features.  So the fact that we can’t get enough pictures of gorgeous people made even more gorgeous thanks to red carpet styles and make-up is, well, understandable.

I’m not advocating that we waste hours reading US Weekly or poring through shots of people with unattainable gowns and coifs.  All I’m saying is that when we do catch ourselves being pulled towards images of beauty, we can now understand why.  And with that understanding we let ourselves indulge a bit and then walk away.