It’s not easy being a pioneer.
Mother and daughter, Elisa Goodkind and Lily Mandelbaum forged forward with their progressive web site, Stylelikeu.com, even when blogs — especially those promoting unique, non-conformist style during the height of generic fast fashion — were blips on the industry’s radar. But as their web site took off, so did its mission in a grander sense. Authenticity and self-acceptance climbed the ranks of priority to the socially swayed Millennials and Gen Zers.
Tomorrow, the duo will release their second book, “True Style Is What’s Underneath: The Self-Acceptance Revolution” published by Rizzoli. The edition is an analog variation of its wildly successful “What’s Underneath” video series that showcases subjects in and out of their clothes, stripping down bodies and personal barriers. “Girls” leading lady Jemima Kirke, socialite and actress Tallulah Willis, and “Orange Is the New Black” actress Lea DeLaria have sat for interviews.
In all of Mandelbaum and Goodkind’s endeavors — a college tour and live filmings are in the works — authenticity is top priority. And while they have encountered plenty of their share of challenges — it is a start-up, after all — the retail and fashion markets are catching up to share in the need for unrivaled reality. Glammed-up, air-brushed and idealized models are making way for more wrinkled, rumpled and all-around imperfect looks that resonate with a broader consumer audience.
Here, the StyleLikeU founders discuss their new book, the shift in the consumer mind-set and their perspective on the need for diversity in the fashion apparel market.
WWD: Tell us about the book — what can StyleLikeU followers expect?
Elisa Goodkind: Here we include our point-of-view of the journey we’ve been on and what we’ve discovered in terms of self-acceptance and what’s behind style and beauty over the years. We wanted to express the deep knowledge that we’ve gained from hundreds of interviews and put that into words.
We wanted to pull together what StyleLikeU has meant to us and what we’ve learned from doing the closet interviews and “What’s Underneath.” It forced us to take a bird’s-eye view of what we’re doing and make sense of it. It forced us to get very precise and articulate our message of how beauty and style is all about the spirit on the inside. There’s the external expression and the joy of that, which is super important.
WWD: You’re on the ground meeting with various individuals who have encountered adversity due to their characteristics like racism and gender. Are you detecting a shift in people’s willingness to share their experiences?
E.G.: I think that Pandora’s box has been opened. There’s the beginning of an understanding that to make the world better is to remove the shame that’s been built around almost everything single thing about us. We’ve been made to be ashamed about every aspect of ourselves to make us buy a lot of things.
I think that the opening of that conversation has started and it’s really come from social media, Instagram and from people being able to get away from the middleman and express themselves the way they want to. Clearly there is an audience for that, so slowly the power is being handed back to the people. There is going to be a tremendous amount of undoing and that undoing is long road ahead. I feel like people need to first understand that there is a problem.
WWD: Where do you think most individuals are in terms of comfort and willingness to openly share their differences?
E.G.: People are just beginning to understand and like any big revolution in the world, it begins with the smaller amount of people who are on the forefront. The thinkers are the ones that people follow. It’s a tsunami right now, but the level of undoing has a ways to go.
Right now there’s a lot of focus about body image and curviness, and it’s the beginning of [addressing body image issues in the media]. But the areas and ways in which people have been made to feel bad about themselves goes so deep — race, age, gender, sexuality, disabilities. Our hope for what we’re doing is for people to recognize that the beauty is in how unrepeatable every single person is. We want to spread the message: You are like no one else. That is the gift.
WWD: We constantly report on Millennial and Generation Z demographics craving authenticity from their social outlets and favorite brands. Is this a fad or do you think this new priority is an evolution in a larger shift in the group mind-set?
E.G.: I feel like there’s no turning back. The whole system will have to change or collapse. When people know that they can feel good about themselves, why would they continue to feel badly about themselves?
Lily Mandelbaum: The things that people buy will shift. When you’re not blindly consuming in imagery that’s affecting your self-image, what you’re consuming will change. Blind consumerism has created so many of these problems. People have been blindly following images of the body type of the model and then buy what the model is wearing to try to look like them. I think people are becoming more awakened and conscious on every level.
WWD: Do you think fast fashion has become prescriptive? The sizing system has come under fire with inaccuracies that’s called into question the need for categorization in general.
L.M.: Ideally the utopia is that there isn’t a distinction and it’s personalities that matter. Anyone who has the confidence to embody clothes in an inspiring way will be models. I think the plus-size model movement is the first step — you have to do that first before you can meld it together. The tokenization of race and sexual identification will be next to be leveled.
E.G.: I think that the future of fashion will be the exploration of the individual. It’s something that’s coming from the inside that in turn will create a completely different market.
L.M.: Hopefully the market will become lots of small designers and artists who speak to different people. Smaller and more niche communities rather than mass for everyone.
WWD: What you’re suggesting sounds like a return to the tradition of visiting a specialized artisan or designer for a niche product.
E.G.: I think it will be so great for designers who have been alienated by the system. It will be awesome for them to be artists — it’s a win-win for everyone.
WWD: As a grassroots movement, what were the biggest challenges in building the web site?
L.M.: The not-challenging part has been uncovering these incredible people and the sharing between us and the subjects, which is so easy and magical. I think that our biggest strength is in being inspired by their beauty and finding diverse people.
The hard part has been both marketing and the financial component. I think since starting “What’s Underneath” our message has crystallized so it’s been easier to get out there.
I think that when “What’s Underneath” videos started going viral really helped everything take off. That was a big turning point for us. I think the culture has really changed and the zeitgeist has caught up to what we’re doing as well.
E.G.: I think we made a big change around the new year with accepting outside support instead of the two of us doing every single thing. I think that’s because there’s been an overall change in the culture with people willing to work with us because they feel that it’s important to support our message.
L.M.: Financing has always been a struggle, but it’s gotten easier in the last couple of years. But it’s still difficult since we’re still non-commercial. We’re really careful about the brands we collaborate with. We found a way and because we’re a small team we’re able to shift gears quickly — depending on the moment we can shift our strategy for that week, month or year. It’s very fluid.
E.G.: The curse is becoming part of the gift. The landscape requires us to be fluid. We want to give a platform to what is happening in the culture; what is the soul of the culture; what is the beauty of culture and being able to pivot quickly.
I think in the future instead of things being so big that you can’t change what you’re doing fast enough, more businesses will downsize to be nimble — social media has really helped change all of that.
WWD: With the book launch under way, what can we expect from StyleLikeU in the near future?
L.M.: The big news is an expansion is a series of open calls for a public “What’s Underneath” series. We’re doing one on April 22 in New York. It’s where anyone can put their name in a hat to be selected to do a live interview. We did one in London last year that was really magical.
E.G.: The audience was really involved and added a whole other dimension to it. It was amazing.
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