Culture 18 October 2018
Attendees group photo in their sunglasses provided by Luxottica. Photo Courtsey Of Sarah Merians Photography & Video Company
What happens when 36 executives in the fashion and media fields come together over autumn-inspired dishes and cocktails? “Meaningful connections and authentic relationships that hopefully can lead to bigger partnerships,” says SWAAY’s founder, Iman Oubou, on the cohort of female executives warming up the room on New York City’s first brisk evening of the season.
Power. Resistance. Authenticity. Alacrity. This was last night’s tone hovering throughout Haven’s Kitchen, a female-founded restaurant complex, dedicated to forming communities through cooking and eating. The third-floor loft space provided an amiable setting for established executives from brands like Luxottica, Rosenthal & Rosenthal, and Steve Madden to mingle with founders of emerging brands like ADAY, Neely & Chloe, INSPR and Affordable Luxury Group; brands that emphasize the fashion world is never too saturated to break into.
“We live in a world where we’re consuming and discovering trends in a different way than we ever have before,” said INSPR’s co-founder, Chantel Waterbury, explaining her brand’s ability to take advantage of a consumer trend’s short-lived cycle and turn it into an entire label. “We’re essentially giving creatives an empty canvas to tell their story for around 90 days.”
Iman Oubou, Neely Burch, Nina Faulhaber, Amelia Lovaglio
Photo Courtsey Of Sarah Merians Photography & Video Company
Aptly named “A Night of Empowerment,” Oubou celebrated the evening as SWAAY’s first partnership with Accessories Council. “Karen and I met at our last SWAAY dinner,” shared Oubou before introducing Karen Giberson, President, and CEO at Accessories Council. “We had a conversation about how we can always be doing more to support one another; it’s about collaboration, not competition.”
Karen Giberson, president of the Accessories Council, continued, “We are an industry that serves women and there really aren’t enough women in most senior leadership positions. We have an opportunity to change things.”
As the room glowed with an aura as soft as the tea candle-lit tables, connections came alive as the fashion-forward attendees shared their industry experience by introducing some of their glorifying wins, but more importantly recognizing similar struggles while building a career within a still male-dominated field.
“Being the only female family member in the Rosenthal business often makes me feel that I have to work just that much harder to prove myself,” says Cassie Rosenthal, Senior Vice President at Rosenthal and Rosenthal, opening up the floor to introductions from the range of women she brought together in collaboration with SWAAY and The Accessories Council. “What I’ve come to learn over the years more than anything is, it doesn’t matter how outnumbered I am, it’s my unique perspective and approach to business that allows me to affect change.”
Karen Giberson, President of Accessories Council
Photo Courtsey Of Sarah Merians Photography & Video Company
In response to her honest and humbling opener, the room buzzed with similar tales of unfathomable wins and what makes each invitee’s story unique.
“Being a woman in this male-dominated world has helped me a lot,” admitted Arelis Gutierrez, President and CEO of Aria Logistics, who also unabashedly referred to herself as the “Elle Woods of the trucking industry.”
Affordable Luxury Group’s founder Aimee Kestenberg also shared in success by giving into being different. “People told us we were too young and stupid to do anything in fashion, but now we’re the only millennial owned and run fashion company in Manhattan,” she shared, also noting they were just named the fastest growing, privately owned fashion company in America.
“If women demonstrate qualities that men are revered for, they are interpreted as bitchy, overbearing, and tough to deal with,” explained Sloan Tichner, President of Steve Madden Handbags. “If you want to achieve an objective, you have to detach emotions. As women, it’s indicative to take on everything for the cause, even if it means doing someone else’s job but you can’t manage and do; it was only when I got here that my business took off.”
Staci Chen, Chanel Brand Director at Luxottica inherited her comfort in communicating after moving to the U.S. at 15-years-old; she didn’t speak English, therefore, wasn’t vocal. “My parents said do whatever you need to do to get your point of view across. If you speak your mind, you communicate in a way that you get what you want.”
Fran Lukas, CEO of the Jewelry Group, shared her lessons from growing up in the industry surrounded by men, and applying their wisdom to inspire women, “not to be intimidated by each other’s strengths, but to lift each other up and take it to the next generation.”
Neely and Chloe is an aspirational, attainable handbag brand that represents this next generation, with sisters Neely and Chloe Burch attributing their success to the leading ladies in style who came before them. “So many women have struck out on their own and have made it possible to do what we do. It’s our turn to dive back into this world to support other women in their endeavors and dreams.”
Other names in fashion included former executives at Hermes, Nine West, and Ivanka Trump, along with innovative companies such as zero-waste, superfood organic beauty brand LOLI and luxury accessory brand Deepa Gurnani working to change the stigma surrounding women’s roles in India.
It was an evening full of camaraderie and confirmation of what happens when women work together to support one another, not just from all angles of the industry, but from international corners and across all ages. Oubou concluded the inaugural dinner with an ode to the series on the horizon, to keep the conversation flowing and inspiration consistent. “Our hope with these intimate gatherings is to give a platform for women to come together and insist on each other’s success.
We all get comfortable in supporting each other from afar, or commenting on each other’s social media posts, but there’s something magical about women coming together in real life to build deeper relationships and have meaningful conversations. We are excited about this dinner series and the incredible stories that will come out each gathering.”
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.