As the generally accepted Wellness Agenda continues to shapeshift, one of its most celebrated tenants remains miraculously intact: “work-life balance.” Think of it as an organizational method for life, which seemingly demands that each of us: 1) Maintain an illustrious, lucrative career, 2) Nurse a thriving personal life (add: activism, romance, family, etc.), and 3) Ensure that both of the former categories exist in an utterly unattainable, magic breed of symbiosis.
The whole work-life-balance ideal came into existence as a way of promoting a healthier lifestyle — one where the modern careerist was free to “have it all” without having too much. Where client meetings didn’t overtake time with family and friends, and the messy business of personal livelihood didn’t occlude all manner of professional success. The sentiment is an important one: We shouldn’t have to choose.
In 2017, the French passed a law declaring that no company could hold its employees accountable for email responses after 6 p.m. “Girl boss” outlets across the U.S. tirelessly promote the importance of having your cake and eating it too. A 2018 study found that 72% of Americans in the workforce consider work-life balance a pivotal factor when seeking out jobs.
Like most idealistic pillars of wellness, though, the pursuit of equilibrium comes with a pressure all its own. Memes repeatedly poke fun at the stress that’s tied to keeping up with a job and a social life, while adhering to a 17-step skin regimen and occasionally drinking water. Just last week, my roommate — who is, at present, training for a marathon and taking a pottery class, alongside her slightly-more-than-full-time job — pointed out that she was stressed about “fitting in productive downtime.” Yes, she’s an American hero, but beyond that, the takeaway is that sometimes, the pressure to maintain an even, distinct balance between so-called “work” and so-called “life” can be just as overwhelming as each of those categories themselves. Not to mention the fact that there is immense privilege associated with the idea of “work-life balance” to begin with.
But what about those of us who manage to remove the scale entirely — who abandon the prescriptive notion that our professional and personal lives should be experienced separately and in equal measure?
“Sometimes it’s hard for us to tell what’s ‘life’ and what’s ‘work’ — they’ve sort of blended together in this amazing way,” says Helena Barquet, cofounder of Coming Soon, a New York-based gallery-like furniture and design shop with a thriving online retail operation to boot. “The two become more enmeshed by the day, and we don’t necessarily feel like that’s a bad thing.”
While Barquet’s situation may be unique (she and her cofounder, Fabiana Faria, are married), she’s not alone in deviating from rigid work-life duality — particularly in a time rife with freelancers and entrepreneurs, for whom the professional and the personal often feel unavoidably intertwined. Ahead, we talk with Barquet and Faria, along with self-employed photographer turned Instagram icon Sarah Bahbah, and creative partners Hannah Choi and Shannon Kennard of hair-care brand Baby Tress — all of whom founded a portion of their businesses by way of Shopify, a platform dedicated to helping independent vendors start, run, and grow their businesses. Here’s how they’re rewriting the laws of work-life duality.
Helena Barquet & Fabiana Faria (Coming Soon)
As far as names go, “Coming Soon” is a relatively noncommittal one. “I liked the idea that, like with everything else…it meant things were always going to be shifting and evolving,” says Faria.
On a street that felt “particularly New York” to both women, lined with a like-minded community of up-and-coming vendors in the retail sphere, the two women created a space that felt, to them, like another home. “Everyone who owned a business on that street was in there day in and day out,” says Faria. “And so were we. We practically lived [in the store].” While the two didn’t move into an apartment together until years later, to a degree, the store — cloistered down Orchard Street, where Chinatown meets the Lower East Side — was their shared living space.
Conveniently, the same can be said for the company as a whole. Faria and Barquet met in more traditional roles, working in the same Chelsea art gallery. In due time, both women felt they’d “hit a ceiling.” While they had been involved romantically from the get-go, they were ready to take the plunge into “business partner territory.” So together, they quit. “We really felt like we had to free ourselves up and jump into our new project completely,” says Faria. “We couldn’t just do it halfway.”
Naturally, the lines between home-life and work-life continued to blur as business picked up, and, in turn, their romantic relationship intensified. They honed in on their image — loud, vibrant, kitschy but never tacky. They built up their online shop on Shopify and solidified their status as furniture vendors. And on the side, they began dipping their toes into interior design. Not only have they seemingly subverted the work-life-balance model, but they’ve burned it to the ground completely.
“Sure, for a lot of people, there’s this idea that you can finish work, then you’re done. We don’t have that. Our work brains never shut off. It’s hard to compartmentalize. We live and breathe our jobs — that is our lifestyle,” says Barquet. “Then, at the same time, we get to do what we love. Every single day. And we get to be together. Every single day. And that means that some of the work just feels like pleasure, too.”
For all the days that require late-night emails or early-morning pickups, just as often, the workday brings joy or even leisure. Often, between the shop’s hours of 12 and 7:30, there is just as much bliss — and togetherness, and creative propulsion — as most of us hope for in our off hours.
“I understand that this lifestyle isn’t for everyone,” says Barquet. “But we fell in love working together. And I couldn’t imagine it any other way.”
Whether or not you can conjure her face, it’s all but guaranteed that you’re familiar with Sarah Bahbah’s work. The Instagram auteur — who is, to some degree, a forebearer of the original meme (her photographs have displayed overlaid captions since the start of her career) — is responsible for a number of images that have circulated through your social feeds, probably more than once. Most notably: a film-grain image of a naked girl, only her bent knees visible, a slice of pizza dangling from her hand. Years ago, you probably posted it on your Tumblr.
The daughter of two Palestinian immigrants, raised in a particularly whitewashed area of Australia, Bahbah has long felt that photography is an important reflector of identity. “Each series I’ve ever done is very personal to me and drawn from my own traumas. Each holds a very special place in my heart,” she explains. “Growing up with traditional, conservative, Palestinian parents, and going to a very Western school, I felt like I was being raised one way at home and another at school. In many cases I had to behave ‘white’ to be accepted by my peers. Its taken me years to undo that mentality, and I’m still undergoing that process by telling my truth through my art.”
While working in advertising and building her freelance photo career on the side, Bahbah began to garner some acclaim for her portraits (her on-image captions — inspired by French film stills — quickly became her signature). So, she quit her job, secured a visa, and moved to the United States. “I just had an intuition that it was time. I tend to be sort of spiritual about those things,” she says. “At a certain point, it felt like the universe was whispering in my ear, so I had to go. I wouldn’t necessarily give that advice to anyone else, but I knew it was time for me to take my art more seriously.”
Now that she’s become something of a household name amongst influencers and industry folks, Bahbah says, when she’s not shooting, the admin work is endless. There are correspondences with clients (think: major fashion labels), there are invoices, there are fans to respond to on social media, and prints to sell by way of Shopify. “As a brown woman, I feel like I’m constantly having to reassert my voice with clients — I’m constantly fighting to have labels honor my rates as they would with less experienced white men,” she explains. “Right now, it feels like 80% of my work is administrative and 20% is creative. But for 2020, I’m trying to change that ratio.”
That 80% — the largely unsexy portion of independent business — leaves little time for a balanced, compartmentalized, work-life dichotomy. But Bahbah finds time for decompression in her own, un-rigid way.
“Some days, I wake up and I would rather do anything than work. On those days, it’s important that I don’t put pressure on myself. Sometimes it means I need to sleep in. Some days it means an hour workout or going out for breakfast, because mental health comes first. And there are certain headspaces I know I can’t work in,” she says. As she sees it, there’s no formula. There’s no 6 p.m., laptop-down cutoff. The work is constant, so the odd personal moment has to be wedged in, carefully, on days when there’s no set to schlep to, gear in tow, before the sun rises. Rather than a balanced scale, it more closely resembles a salad bowl of professional pushes and personal tidbits.
“I’m always hoping to make time to create art just for the sake of art. To tell my story, rather than just make something pretty. A lot of working artists forget to do that. I’m nursing a broken heart at the moment, so I’ve been focusing myself back on personal projects,” Bahbah laughs. “But I’m so sorry to the human I’m about to annihilate.”
Shannon Kennard & Hannah Choi (Baby Tress)
“‘Edges’ are really part of a larger story,” says Baby Tress cofounder Shannon Kennard. “Edge styling comes from a whole complicated, beautiful tradition. It’s exciting to make something that celebrates that.”
The Baby Tress “Edge Styler” is the first product on the market designed, specifically, for shaping baby hairs. “For years, most women have used toothbrushes [to style edges],” says Kennard. “We figured it was about time we put something more glamorous on the market.”
Two years prior to the product’s release, Kennard’s cofounder, Hannah Choi, opened her own NYC-based creative agency, Mama Tress, focused on hair and beauty products designed for women of color. “In the Black hair and beauty space, there’s always been this gap between consumers and sellers,” says Choi. “For the agency, my goal was to really connect with consumers and to have real conversations and build real relationships and bridge that gap.”
Having formerly worked in branding and social media at a beauty supply company owned by her parents, Choi was familiar with the ways home life can infiltrate work life and vice versa — even before she’d begun a company of her own. Fortunately, her family was supportive in the transition. In fact, they signed on as her first clients — one more way her professional and personal realms came braided together. “Nothing about my work-life balance is even-keeled,” says Choi. “I guess it’s been an evolution of learning how to catch myself before burning out.”
In the early stages of the agency, Choi met Kennard — who, at the time, was writing freelance social media copy — and brought her on board. As the (small) team sat together, brainstorming trinkets they could develop as event handouts, the idea for Baby Tress was born. And soon after, Choi and Kennard set out as creative partners to make their revolutionary product a reality: first, building prototypes, then selling their early iterations on Shopify.
“A lot of what we do here is spend as much time as possible talking to people — friends, customers, significant others — about what they want and what they need,” says Kennard. “The best advice I ever got was to bring your ideas and your world together.” But naturally, jamming your personal and professional lives together in seemingly inseparable ways can be as complicated as it is inspirational. “I find that most revelations and good ideas come when I’m not in the office,” she adds, “so it can be difficult to ‘turn off.’” Still, this doesn’t seem to strike Kennard as a problem. In fact, as she sees it, the melding of life and work is a factor in Baby Tress’ success, rather than a hindrance.
For Choi, that same ethos applies with respect to family. Having grown up in a household where business and kin were intermingled, she feels at home among a tangled, bespoke iteration of the work-life conundrum. But that’s not to say it’s easy. “My parents worked Monday through Saturday, from as early as 5 in the morning to 8 at night. Looking back, they didn’t often have the physical or emotional energy to be fully present with me when we did spend time together,” says Choi. “Now, as a working adult, I get to be mindful about how I want to prioritize my own life, on my own terms.”
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