I’m posting this wonderfully written narrative by Piera Gelardi. It’s definitely worth a read! –RafidisGraffiti
Multiple times a day, something I hear, see, or experience moves me to tears. I’ve always been this way. There’s so much magic and meaning all around us, and I can’t shut it off or tune it out. As
Multiple times a day, something I hear, see, or experience moves me to tears. I’ve always been this way. There’s so much magic and meaning all around us, and I can’t shut it off or tune it out. As Refinery29’s executive creative director and cofounder, it’s my privilege and mission to be a part of that magic by creating content and experiences that empower women, express progressive ideas, and celebrate individuality through an inclusive vision of what beauty looks like and what stories are worth telling.
In that process of telling stories for the last 10 years, the thing that’s inspired me the most, and that I’m most proud of, is the role that we’ve had as observers, creators, and shapers of culture, connecting women to each other, themselves, and to the world around them; the ability that we have as individuals and as a company to create ourselves and to continually strive to be better. I’ve watched our industry shift to follow suit, to broaden the conversation and to become more representative (just look at Sports Illustrated, Barbie, and Axe in the past few months). To speak to such a large audience of women is an honor and a responsibility — one that I never take lightly.
Creative living isn’t always easy. It requires you to be vulnerable, emotionally honest, and open to both your intuition and the world around you. You will deal with criticisms and doubt — internally and externally — as well as frustration. You have to be willing to go to uncomfortable places. Not to mention, it’s mountains and mountains of work. Ahead, just a few of the most important things I’ve learned on my own journey that might help you get closer to becoming the person you want to be. (Spoiler: I’m still finding my own way there!)
Don’t be afraid to let your job overlap with your life.
I come from an artistic, entrepreneurial family. They are my biggest inspiration. My mom was a social worker, and I always admired the way that she lived her purpose through her work. My dad owned a music technology company (and is still an entrepreneur today). Growing up in a family business — where everyone worked for my dad at some point — taught me that work was part of life, and that it could be a source of energy, not a draining bore. Those borders were always blurred. We would have family brainstorms, dreaming up business ideas around the kitchen table. Today, I work with several of my dearest friends, as well as my husband. Having a familial feel in the office is something that I love, and part of what makes R29 such a joyful place to work for me.
Ignore the rules if you don’t like them.
I grew up Catholic but my parents were liberal feminists. When I pointed out the ideological incongruities there, they told me to just disregard the parts of Catholicism I didn’t agree with (and there were many). I think that taught me that rules were meant to be questioned; if you don’t like them, don’t follow them — or make your own.
When we launched R29, so much in fashion felt like it was engineered to exclude and make people feel bad with rules and “don’ts.” We were all about thumbing our nose at the canons of fashion, instead celebrating personal style, and reveling in people who were going their own way and expressing themselves unabashedly.
It was our mission to make inclusive content that represented a diverse range of women’s experiences, brought voices and different perspectives to the table, and mixed high and low: all things we felt were missing from the publishing landscape at the time. We try to always take an unconventional approach to our content, looking for the alternate viewpoint or new way of seeing something. (see: Take Back the Beach; Fuck the Fashion Rules; Men in Lipstick; I Don’t Give a Fuck Beauty). The same is true of our visual style. When we redesigned, we took a youthful, bold aesthetic and mixed it with a timeless-fashion one — a concept that made our branding agency uncomfortable at first, but that our audience loved.
Bring laughter into every brainstorm.
The best brainstorms are accompanied by fits of hysterical giggles. My first job (other than babysitting) was an internship that later became a photo director position at Citymagazine — a design, fashion, and food mag known for amazing photography and art. That experience was formative in many ways. It was a very small staff, so everyone got their hands dirty and did what needed to be done, and I got to learn a bit of everything that went into creating a publication. It was also where I met Christene Barberich, who became my “work wife” and partner in launching R29, alongside our cofounders Philippe von Borries and Justin Stefano. (Today, she’s our global editor-in-chief.)
At City we had so much creative freedom and we’d have these hilarious after-hours brainstorms that would get so crazy because we were all really comfortable with each other and loved to laugh. People would throw out the silliest ideas, and we’d crack up and then someone would connect the dots from the joke to a gem of an idea. That really taught me the power of humor and openness in the creative process.
Make yourself available to listen.
Ideas can really come from anywhere, and it’s so important to nurture a culture where everyone feels comfortable voicing their ideas and can see them come to life. That’s the best way for innovation to happen. Whenever I’m stuck creatively, the best thing for me to do is ask someone open-minded and energetic to come sit with me and talk it out. Talking helps my brain work its ideas out, and listening sparks new ideas.
Taking in ideas from our audience has been one of the biggest secrets to our success. Our followers have been our North Star and helped steer us over the years into interesting conversations and surprising realms. Since the days when I was moderating the comments personally, we have always listened to our audience and taken their feedback to heart. That can be hard because there are always haters, but we sift those out and adopt the motto “Haters gonna hate, creators gonna create.” Even when it’s hard to hear, criticism can be a gift.
In my role as an executive, I have a full plate and I’m moving a million miles an hour, but I’m always available and excited to hear from my team — they tend to have a bit more time and space to dream. My goal is to empower them and make their ideas happen. Some founders and executives aren’t comfortable with that because ego gets in the way, but at R29 we consciously choose employees who have an entrepreneurial spirit and will contribute to our success with how they think outside of the lines.
Pause before you share.
I routinely wake up at 3:30 a.m. with a million thoughts running through my head. When you have so many ideas, it’s important to figure out the best place and time to share them, so that they go from your brain into a pipeline. I used to blurt out every idea I had, or email people 24/7, but I realized that it was overwhelming for others (and ineffective!), so now I hold my ideas for the appropriate brainstorm, meeting, or relevant conversation. A truly amazing idea can grow with a little nurturing so I fill pages and pages of notebooks and routinely translate those notes to Evernote for safe keeping until the ideas get a bit more fleshed out. By the time I share with colleagues, I have a clearer vision and a relevant way to incorporate them into R29.
Keep ’em guessing.
The element of surprise was something we talked about a lot in the early days. We wanted people to wake up and open their inbox and think, Oh those crazy kids at R29, look what they dreamed up today!
It still holds true 10 years later. We feel that if we can continue to surprise ourselves and our audience, we will keep the creativity flowing. I tell my team, “If you’re tired of doing something the same way, go ahead switch it up.” Stepping outside of your comfort zone — whether it’s making a tiny tweak to your morning routine or taking a big, career-defining risk — is what keeps us all engaged and excited, so we can keep moving forward as a group.
Be open to inspiration in all forms.
People often ask me where I get inspiration and it’s a really hard question for me to answer because I find inspiration EVERYWHERE. Inspired is basically my default setting! I have a huge appreciation for beauty and excellence. My friends hate walking down the street with me because I’m constantly stopping to inspect something or take a photo. From the beauty of ripped wheat-paste posters toraindrops on a window, I see in detail and find beauty and wonder everywhere. I am constantly listening to podcasts, and searching for visual inspiration on Instagram, Pinterest, and IRL. I spend weekends at museums and galleries. I think mixing inspiration from different sources and looking for ideas from outside sources (not direct competition) is the most interesting approach.
In my work, it’s critical to be a sponge for culture in order to stay connected to an evolving audience’s tastes and interests and to keep challenging and surprising them. I take in so much inspiration, but it’s important to channel it, so I am constantly taking notes, snapping photos, and trying to connect the dots to upcoming projects and initiatives in my work and life. One of our favorite creative team meetings is a monthly reference share where we each bring visual inspiration in and discuss it in a group. It’s always exciting to see the themes that emerge and to see our inspirations go into the work we produce immediately afterwards.
Be creatively courageous.
Creativity is all about letting your guard down, opening your mind to new ideas, being inclusive of others, and allowing yourself to be vulnerable. It takes courage to go into unknown territory and lead, not follow. But at R29, we challenge convention. We have a strong point of view, and we believe that we can create change.
I believe that creativity and beauty have the power to heal, inspire, and uplift. That we all want is to be seen and understood, and that that begins within ourselves. I believe that true dialogue happens when we have the courage to show our full selves. I try to apply this principle to my life and my leadership style, which is somewhat uncharted territory in the media industry. There aren’t many role models for the type of leader I want to be. For me, this means being transparent with my team and letting them know that I don’t always have the answers. It means channeling emotion into my work (I see it as a source of power and beauty) and it also means being brave and outspoken about things that I think are important, like representing diversity of all kinds in our imagery. And of course, to take major creative risks, like 29Rooms, the interactive installation/dream world we built inside a Brooklyn warehouse last fall to celebrate our 10th anniversary. It was a HUGE undertaking and the scariest project I’ve ever done, but also the most rewarding.
Figure out what success looks like to you.
I used to think that to be successful, I had to be like other people who are successful, but that wasn’t working out for me. I would look at another leader who was very disciplined and I’d think, I need to be WAY more disciplined, but that’s not my strength and it probably never will be. Over time I learned to pay attention to my own patterns and strengths, and amplify those, bringing kindness, humor, and imagination into my leadership style. Once I identified who I want to be, I try to be courageous enough to hold onto that vision for myself, even when faced with doubt. Sometimes I ask myself, “Is what I am about to do a reflection of who I am and who I want to be?”
I also figured out when I was most productive and creative, and tried to tailor my habits accordingly. For example, I realized I had the most emotional energy in the morning, so that’s when I deal with challenging topics, and that I’m most creative at 3:30 a.m., so when I wake up then, I get up and take notes. I also learned that when I get stuck, I need thought partners to help me brainstorm around problems. Self-awareness and paying attention to what makes YOU successful is the most powerful way to harness your unique strengths. For me, it also cut down on self criticism, because it reduced my impulse to focus on the things I’m not good at.
Remember that you’re never done growing.
When we started Refinery29, I was 24 and the digital media world was a really new and different place. We had to chart new territory, learn so much, and admit what we didn’t know. I have told myself “I can’t do this” SO many times over the years but, despite that, I have done it. I have learned and pushed and grown and it’s been hard and it’s been amazing.
I believe that as humans we have the ability to constantly grow, learn, and discover new things about ourselves and the world. I believe that life is a work in progress, and therefore nothing is ever finished or perfect. We’re in a perpetual state of creating ourselves. That can be unsatisfying at times, but I think it’s realistic and keeps you pushing forward and more able to forgive yourself when things go wrong, because there’s always next time. My motto is “forever forward,” a variation on my other favorite motto, “onwards and upwards.” If I had a tattoo, it would be that.
To see our creative vision in action, come check out R29’s SXSW School of Self Expression, an event that celebrates all the ways that modern women share their identities with the world. Equal parts learning environment, discovery zone, and interactive playground, the space will be highly visual, immersive, and will bring our mission of celebrating individuality to life through classes, hands-on workshops, and more, as well as opportunities for our attendees to create their own content. Find out more here.