Interview by Kelli Armstrong
FASHION ACTIVISTS Elisa Goodkind, 59, and her daughter Lily Mandelbaum, 27, have been steadily building a community that celebrates authentic style in the truest sense. Based in New York City, Elisa started her career as a fashion stylist in the 80’s working for magazines including Self, Glamour, Vanity Fair and the New York Times fashion pages. Twenty-five years in, she says she felt oppressed by the industry and was disillusioned by the takeover of fashion by advertising powerhouses, and longed for the lost art of soulful dressing. At the same time Lily, then a teenager, was blindsided by the very same industry-conformist attitude toward dressing. Cue the evolution of what is now a global movement, encouraging women to embrace their true selves. It all started in 2009 with the website StyleLikeU and has now evolved into multiple media offerings. Intimate documentary style videos explore how true style is not about money or presenting a perfect facade, but is the result of radical self acceptance. Their What’s Underneath videos have garnered a cult following for the uninhibited undressing of women of all ages, sizes and shapes, including designers, actresses and models, as well as women you pass in the street every day. And now, with the release of their second book True Style is What’s Underneath: The Self-Acceptance Revolution, with honesty and vulnerability the duo guide readers on a journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance through stylish self expression.
When did the idea to work as a mother/daughter team come about? Did you have any reservations?
Elisa: It was a very organic moment; we never sat around and said, ‘OK, we’re going to start a movement or a business’. We both felt very alienated by the fashion culture and society we saw around us. When we started, there wasn’t a business plan, we were just extremely passionate about creating an alternative to the fashion and beauty industry. We feel it’s our purpose and calling in life. Working together has its ups and downs, but we both strongly feel that we’re doing what we are supposed to be doing and have never questioned that.
Lily: For the most part we are super opposite in our working style and approach so we end up day-to-day doing really different things. We balance each other and are united by our obsession and passion for what we do. I think the reason it works, and why we don’t drive each other insane, is that we are both so motivated by our mission. We believe in it so much, that it feels like an extension of who we are as people.
Elisa, as a fashion stylist you were putting clothes on people and now you’re interviewing people as they’re taking their clothes of. What tools did your background give you for what you’re doing now?
Elisa: It gave me fantastic tools… my whole perspective on my work now comes from having been in the fashion business, when I started in the 80s in New York, to 25 years later when the whole industry had completely changed. When I started, it was such an inspiring industry that exposed me to a tremendous amount of authenticity and individuality, innovative ideas and creativity. Over time I saw the whole business change to become formulaic and one-dimensional. That fuelled my passion to tell the world what I really believe ‘style and beauty’ to be.
Lily, did growing up with your mum in the fashion industry influence your personal style?
Lily: Yes, definitely. We have overlapping sensibilities as far as a love for colour, patterns, and big jewellery. But because our bodies are so diferent, I’ve had to ind my own sense of style that’s separate. My style is a lot more feminine than hers, she’s more tomboyish than I am. Being on fashion shoots influenced me in different ways. On the one hand it made me struggle even more with my body. I wanted to look like the models, I was envious of them. But simultaneously it opened my mind up to style and possibility because of all the creative people – I was inspired by the way they dressed and expressed themselves.
Do you think today that people are subscribing more to the expectations of fashion rather than their own individuality?
Elisa: I think people are. We’re trying to undo the very deep patterns and brain-washing of the media and how oppressive this can be to one’s self worth. We remind people, through interviewing amazing women, what real fashion is. It’s not what you buy or about owning a new fad, it’s not looking like somebody else, Kim Kardashian, Kendall Jenner or Kate Moss, it’s about how you feel, your spirit, who you are, and finding comfort in your own skin. It’s about accepting the things that are unique to you. he things society says are laws are what we believe is special in you. If you embrace that, you find your own style.
Originality is so hard to ind today …
Elisa: Yes it’s very difficult because no one is exposed to it. I was looking at some Met Ball photos and saw pictures of a group of girls in a row. Here’s this event featuring Comme des Garcon and Rei Kawakubo, which is all about art and not objectifying the female, and they’re wearing almost the same dress, have almost the same body shape, the same hair and almost all the same age. his is not original. No one gets it. What is really sad to me, and what I think most people are incredibly oppressed by, is the male gaze – the portrayal of women through the lens of an objectifying,patriarchal male gaze.
“To distinguish style from fashion, you must start to look at what’s in your closet; is it made up of items that really speak to you, or is it filled with clothes you feel you are supposed to be wearing?”
What’s the message behind your movement?
Elisa: Just be true to yourself. hat’s really our only message. [Ask yourself ] Is this true to you, or are you unconsciously buying into a system that is disempowering?
Is it harder for women to ind their true self in a world so obsessed with social media and imagery?
Elisa: It’s incredibly difficult. To distinguish style from fashion, you must start to look at what’s in your closet; is it made up of items that really speak to you, or is it filled with clothes you feel you are supposed to be wearing? In our book True Style is What’s Underneath: the Self Acceptance Revolution, we talk more about how to do this.
What have you discovered about yourself and own personal style since the website started in 2009?
Elisa: My style has changed and evolved dramatically. I’m much more unapologetic, much more comfortable in my body, much more irreverent of age. I have license to dress according to my mood and emotions. Through what I wear, I perform a protest – self love and self
expression is a great form of activism which I feel very committed to. I feel the fashion industry has sort of brainwashed everyone into thinking that you should always wear black, or you should always wear beige, you wear this fad if you want to go to this party… I just can’t follow fashion like that. So my style is defined first and foremost by my need for self expression.
Lily, has your style evolved from this work?
Lily: It’s evolved 100 percent. When we started, I was super self-conscious about my body. I thought something was wrong with me for being a bigger girl, I thought it was my fault and the only way for me to have style was to diet and lose weight. I was pretty tormented by that. When I started StyleLikeU, my style shifted immediately, because I realised there were options about how to dress and express myself and it wasn’t about trying to conform. The What’s Underneath series took it to the next level. I’ve shifted my perspective so much that even if you paid me a million dollars to lose 30lbs I probably wouldn’t take it.