People 31 January 2018
In 2013, Marla Aaron walked away from a powerful job in global communications to launch her eponymous jewelry collection. Aaron knew in her gut that her jewelry designs—designs she was fiercely passionate about—were destined for success. “You're a blind idiot when you create something that you're proud of. You believe, ‘This is so amazing—everybody will want it,’’ Aaron says. “I thought I’d just pitch the top twenty-five independent jewelry stores in the country and they’d buy my line.” But, Aaron quickly found out that it would take more than a great pitch letter. “Naivety is a good thing sometimes. I had no idea that stores wouldn’t blindly respond to my emails. I was nobody and one of zillions pitching new products.” When Instagram first launched, Aaron used it to showcase and tell the stories of her brand. She didn’t realize the impact it would have, expanding her reach and building her devoted following. Today Aaron’s collection is sold online and in select stores across the United States, the Middle East, Asia and Europe—and one very special vending machine.
Aaron was on a business trip in Japan when she made a startling discovery that would pivot the brand strategy behind her collection. Vending machines were everywhere! They took over every street corner with people lining up to buy everything from the highbrow to the low brow, from the pocket-sized to the humongous. A lightbulb went off and Aaron knew she had to shake up her brand strategy and find a way to sell her eclectic pieces in vending machines too.
“Our jewelry is about playing,” Aaron explains. “People buy our locks and chains and then add their own pieces. It becomes a very playful experience even though it's fine jewelry. That was in my head as soon as I saw the vending machines.”
Marla Aaron. Photo Courtesy of Marla Aaron Jewelry
But, how does one even begin to find a vending machine that sells luxury goods? Aaron started where most brilliant ideas are born: Google. She typed in “vending machine makers” and easily got the information she needed. That, however, was the easiest part of the process. Not only was it an uphill battle to build a vending machine with the right aesthetic but also it was tough to find it the perfect home.
Aaron had many deal breakers. The machine had to live in her home base, New York City and placing the machine in an obvious location—like a jewelry store—wasn’t an option. “Many stores were very interested—but putting a vending machine in a non-jewelry environment? That was actually harder to achieve,” Aaron explains. It took almost two years to get the machine built and find it the perfect home. “I wanted to offer consumers a non-traditional, fine jewelry experience. If I put the machine in a jewelry store, I’d just be creating a silly promotional experience.” Aaron really wanted the vending machine to reside on a street corner like it would in Japan—but with the need for electricity and WiFi, that was simply not possible.
“What I always assume will be the easiest part of something, actually becomes the hardest part. I thought building the vending machine would be the hard part, and finding a place for it would be easy,” Aaron explains. “Nothing could have been further from the truth. I sat in many meetings where people looked at me like I was out of my mind.” But, Aaron thinks if she goes for vending machine number two that it will be an easier sell. “People never want to try something different,” she says. “No one wants to be the first.”
Medium Stoned Lock. Photo Courtesy of Marla Aaron Jewelry
Except for Aaron.
Becoming the first luxury jewelry designer with a vending machine became her mission. So, she knew it was meant to be when one of her best customers floated the idea of the Brooklyn Museum and made the introduction. “For me, the Brooklyn Museum was just a total slam dunk,” Aaron says. “When you partner with the right people, when someone really grasps your idea—it's very easy.”
Then there was figuring out the branding via the vending machine. Even though Aaron’s jewelry collection falls under the “luxury brand” umbrella—she actually takes issue with that distinction. “I loathe the word luxury. It sounds so separatist,” she explains. And, watching the vending machine become a reality meant redefining the luxury experience. “At first, I thought the machine should be lined in suede to look like a jewelry box and I knew that having the customer receive a beautifully packaged product was very important. But, the luxury experience is really about having a sense of choice and telling a story.” The choice her vending machine customers have is seven products from her collection ranging in price from $100-$1500 dollars. Aaron’s story is told through a video that plays on the machine’s screen.
That unwavering persistence, a mandatory part of making visions a reality, is nothing new for Aaron. She admits that her approach to business might be relentless and annoying—with no middle ground.
“I’m like a dog with a bone. I think, to a certain degree, you have to be that way to get things done. It's very easy to not get things done,” she says. “It’s much harder to bring things to fruition. We're constantly developing new locks for the collection yet I'm always putting things in the pipeline. Not all those ideas in the pipeline will see the light of day, but you just have to be relentless and keep going. You can’t make things happen by half-assing it.”
And, the vending machine isn’t the only way Aaron has fought to break the mold. Her personal #LockYourMom project is a cornerstone of her business, giving away a unique lock (worth $150 and not available for purchase) to single moms on Mother’s Day. “I was a single mom for the first six years of my son’s life. I worked fulltime and it was very difficult. Mother’s Day was such a bittersweet experience. My son was too young to get me anything and I felt like everyone around me was getting presents,” she explains.
Knowing that unique experience firsthand made Aaron want to support that community. Giving away locks was the perfect fit. “It's a small, silver heart with an exclamation point on it to represent the ‘uh’ of motherhood,” she explains. To receive a lock, people write in with their own story or nominate someone they’d like to bestow with the honor. Last Mother’s Day, Aaron gave away 200 locks. She hopes to top that number in 2018.
For now, the vending machine has turned Aaron into somewhat of a rock star among the design community—and she wants to inspire them to take risks and think outside the box too. “The response has been extraordinary and I'm anxious to share our learnings with the design community,” Aaron says. “I think it's important. There are very interesting applications to explore with vending machines. Can you imagine a craft fair with just vending machines?”
Yes, yes we can—, especially if Aaron is the brains behind it. Her master plan is to continuously challenge the ways you’re “supposed” to build a brand and business. “I don't want to do anything traditional. I want us to be different, I want us to stand out,” she says. “How we're building my business and selling fine jewelry? I hope we're doing a modern interpretation of it.”
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.