Culturist: StyleLikeU | Elisa Goodkind & Lily Mandelbaum
Interview by Lauren Downing
Sure, Bill Cunningham set the street style standard and Scott Schuman of Sartorialist serves beautiful and iconic images on a gilded platter daily, but do you ever find yourself wondering who exactly these anonymous style icons are, where their covetable looks come from and what street in the world it is they’re standing on?
Shirking the anonymity of the street, Elisa Goodkind and Lily Mandelbaum—the mother-daughter team behind the enthralling and expansive web site StyleLikeU.com—revel in the chaos and disorder that those style icons, made famous by the Cunninghams, Schumans, Dorés and Ohs, cultivate in their very private spaces.
Through video, candid high-contrast photographs and thoughtful monographs—all of which are staged in the subject’s home—their expansive archive provides a rounded out glimpse of style today featuring some recognizable faces alongside individuals who are on the verge.
However, StyleLikeU transcends the surface sheen of street style and hegemonic editorial fashion in many ways. A bit rough around the edges and abounding with tangible creative energy, Lily and Elisa proffer a voyeuristic glimpse into those tastemaker’s closets. Surprisingly though, after hundreds of profiles, a recently published coffee table book and a degree of fame, their content still feels fresh.
This is due largely in part to the duo’s steadfast and total embrace of creative chaos. With their unwavering “total package” philosophy, Elisa and Lily discourage their subjects from tidying up for the sake of the interview—Elisa feeling that there is beauty and value in those non-editorial imperfections like straightening iron cords, piles of rumpled clothes and a stack of mail.
As I sat talking to them in their apartment-turned-office—sipping tap water out of a coffee mug while petting their dog—I couldn’t help but feel refreshed by their honesty, sincerity and dedication to this project. For, much like their subjects, Elisa and Lily are an open book.
An excerpt from my conversation with Elisa Goodkind and Lily Mandelbaum follows.
Lauren: Can you just tell me about StyleLikeU and perhaps what sparked the idea initially?
Lily: Well my mom was a fashion editor in the 80s and early 90s, and she loved the business back then because it was super creative. And then she dropped out of the industry to raise my brother and me, but then she went back like 10 years later and had become really, really frustrated with the state of how commercial the fashion business had become.
Elisa: I had been an editor at a few different magazines, and when I first started in the business I was completely in love with it and inspired by the people that I was meeting all the time… these seminal individuals who dressed really differently. There wasn’t as much of that flock mentality as I find now, and I was just incredibly influenced and inspired by these people that I met; I really felt like I’d found my tribe, and it was an unbelievably exciting time, and people were valued and celebrated for their uniqueness and for their creativity and that came before money.
When I came back into the business freelancing—when Louis and Lily were more like early teens at that point—I just felt extremely frustrated, like I had hit a wall on many levels, and creatively I didn’t feel there was a premium anymore for creativity…that it didn’t really matter how great you were at what you did or what your experience level was…It was sort of just getting it done on the lowest common denominator. Everyone was a stylist and you were picked for being someone’s best friend. There wasn’t really a bar and I didn’t feel like there was as much care for something that was really unusual and different. And there is a certain amount of it still, but it’s different, and it’s in very small pockets, and also, I just felt that the business itself had become very kind of closed in and pretentious and club-like and not interested in the world outside of themselves, whereas when I started earlier on it was all about the world outside. It was all about people on the street. It was all about collaborating and meeting new people and exciting people. Your social credentials and your socioeconomic credentials didn’t matter. It was much more, sort of, “we love you…you’ve got a ring on every finger and your hair is amazing” and you’d get hired for a job.
Long story short, I just felt I knew more interesting people in my life than I knew in the world I was working in in fashion. I felt like I knew more interesting people outside of it, and some people inside, but for the most part outside. Those were sort of the beginnings of how it came about.
Lily: And I was never interested in fashion really. I was super turned off and disempowered by the magazines, especially not being a stick-skinny girl. I just didn’t feel like magazines were inspiring, and I was really obsessed with people in my life that had really great style. It was so much different than what you would see in a “fashion” magazine, so it was a combination of her frustration and my lack of interest in magazines and knowing about the Internet and feeling like I had all these girl crushes on people. You know, things in her life or my life that weren’t being highlighted when you were just seeing Cameron Diaz and the same people on the front of every magazine. So it was both of those things combined.
Lauren: How old is StyleLikeU and how many closets have you been into since you began?
Elisa: It’s two years old…2 years live and 3 years since we started doing it.
Lily: We came up with the idea about 3 years ago and started randomly interviewing people that we knew, and then it went live 2 years ago. We’ve done almost 500
Elisa: I would say 600…
Lily: We’ve done like 500 and something interviews and there are 400 on the site.
Lauren: So I realize this will be a difficult question, but if it was 2 or 3 years ago that you got started, then I guess the street style blogging phenomenon was starting to gain steam, and was that an impetus for you to get this going?
Lily: Honestly, we didn’t really know that they were going on. We were super naïve when we got started. We weren’t trying to look at the competitors…
Elisa: Yeah, we weren’t trying to do anything. We were just trying to be inspired…it was really random…
E: It wasn’t like, “let’s plot this business and we are going to take over the world.” We just started doing it.
L: And then a few months into it people started telling us, “your site’s kinda like The Sartorialist” or it’s kind of like you’re doing that kind of thing.
E: I mean, I probably had some awareness, but I don’t really remember that much.
But I think that’s kind of the beauty of this. The merging of the generations, so it’s kind of like my vision in terms of having a lot of experience and a very deep experience and having met amazing people in the fashion business at a different time and being very inspired by these people and having an awareness of what it really is for there to be a bar. For a level of something that’s noteworthy or not. You know, as opposed to what’s on television and people saying that they’re speaking for fashion when they have absolutely no taste whatsoever. I didn’t start in a business that was like that. I started in a business that had a bar. You didn’t call yourself a stylist until you mentored and assisted someone for years. There was a level of worth and value to the whole thing. But Lily is so much about how people are consuming today—on the internet obviously and the emphasis on style. She’s much more interested in that than the fashion business or what the fashion industry is promoting to her. She doesn’t care at all about that, which is really how I think most people feel.
L: It’s because I knew I wanted to talk to people. I knew I wanted it to be about talking to other people.
E: We knew that it had to be in depth rather than just snapshots. Part of the beginning of the site came from looking at her closet. I used to always leave the closet doors open and say this is like you [Lily]. It’s too pretty and we should leave the door open. Like when she went to college I was like, “oooh this is like you in a closet.” So that was part of it, too. That part of her personality was so expressed in her closet. I even see things like that now when I’m shooting. If I see someone’s shoes on the floor or someone’s mess in the corner, I love all that. To me, it’s like their beautiful mess. A portrait of them. Even their books on a bookshelf.
Lauren: That actually brings leads me to one of my other questions, and that regards how people like The Sartorialst and Garance Doré work on the surface, photographing primarily on the street. So how do you feel going into people’s closets and into their homes informs your vision for StyleLikeU? And also, have you found any surprises going into people’s homes that you may not have been expecting?
E: In a good way.
L: Well I think that the whole point of StyleLikeU is that the style of someone we would pick for the site exudes not only great style but a level of confidence in themselves and that’s what comes out through their style. The point of what we’re doing is to show people who feel really comfortable in their skin and are interesting and free spirited and independent thinking people. It’s not even necessarily about the clothes. I mean, we love their clothes, but it’s so much more about who they are and why they’ve become so confident. Like, what’s brought them to have this vision for themselves. Why are they so connected to their style while someone else isn’t? What is it about their insides that is making them really connected to how they want to represent themselves to the world.
E: Which is how we feel. For me, I feel I’m fascinated by people like this that make my head turn. I’m fascinated by what’s behind them because I know how much it means to me. Like, everyday the joyfulness of it. It’ll be the first thing if I have spare time, you know, in my life. The most enjoyable thing is for me to walk down the street and even just see a snapshot. Like yesterday, a guy was in an oxford shirt walking with his girlfriend and he had a chiffon pink scarf on. But what I want to know is who this guy is. I can just tell by that scarf that he’s an interesting person and there’s a lot more going on. And when you say surprises, it’s been nothing but amazing surprises. Absolutely. It’s brought us to tears. It’s brought assistants and interns to tears. And I can’t believe that no one has ever done this before because so many people put so much into this: into their rooms and their bathrooms and their homes. Not like decorators. Not for House & Garden, but for themselves.
L: It’s like when I moved into my college dorm room, the first thing I wanted to do was make it me otherwise I would be like so not connected and awful. And all these people and the things they surround themselves with is super them. So quirky and interesting. And then all the reasons why and the stories behind thing that they’ve collected is so fascinating.
E: You know, like the person who finds it beautiful…We’re so unbelievably inspired by everybody in different ways. Like you know that person that takes something that is broken and puts it into a dish and makes that into something pretty. It’s like we have that times thousands.
L: What’s a surprise? A specific surprise?
Lauren: Yeah, do you have any especially memorable visits?
E: Well there was the boat. Walking onto that boat on the Hudson River that these people live in. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything more…it’s like if you jumped down the rabbit hole. It’s as amazing as that. Or more. They live in the Rabbit Hole.
L: And then there’s Victoria and McKenzie.
E: It’s just the most spectacular fantasy…this little kind of tugboat. But what’s inside of it. I mean there’s just lots and lots. From just a small room to literally a closet to like something bigger like that. But just an explosion of their fantasy world and imaginations and lives.
Lauren: So where do you start when you go into a space like this?
E: We get overwhelmed. It’s overwhelming. With Jimmy Webb from Trash and Vaudeville it took two of us, only two rooms—not big rooms—and it took two of us 4 hours to photograph everything. It was so filled with stuff.
Lauren: And then you have to edit afterwards, which I’m sure must be impossible.
L: That’s right. It seems like it’s not that much but that’s why we have video editors now and photo editors and now we’re doing all these new features.
E: And transcribing the interviews, which takes like three hours for five minutes. So doing that both with text and on video. We do have all these new features that we’ve been working on for months that we’re very, very excited about. It took us a while to get the site up—which happened today—because we’re so overwhelmed by the amount of information and how much we need to bring back and all these different ways to bring it back and the different details and all the threads and the sociological and anthropological stuff.
[Lily shows me the new site on her laptop.]
E: For example, we’re doing this new series called second skin where we have two people trade clothes and follow them for the day to see what it’s like to be in another person’s clothes. Also addictions, people’s addictions. It’s all video.
Lauren: How are you finding people at this point, now that you’ve gotten so big? And how did you start out? Were you approaching people on the street or were you approaching friends?
L: We started with friends.
E: Now it’s tons of referrals. Once we start in a city and do 20 people, the next time we have 100. We’re traveling a lot. The goal is to be all over the place in terms of the world. We’re traveling a lot in the near future.
Lauren: Where are you traveling in the near future?
E: Um, we’re going back to L.A.—which we’ve done many times—but we’re going back. We love doing L.A. because it’s just such an antidote to New York, and it’s houses and the way that people live is so different and so interesting. It’s that alternative lifestyle and why they’ve chosen it. They’re similar to New Yorkers in a lot of ways, yet really different. Also Nashville and then back to London and then Paris.
Lauren: And so your book was just published, yeah? Can you tell me about the process of pairing everything down and consolidating?
E: Lily did all that. Lily did the whole book.
L: Well, Powerhouse approached us last April maybe. And then it was done by December. But basically I reshot about 60 something people from the very beginning. I went back and did them again because we had gotten so much better with our photography, which was actually a funny story because I wasn’t necessarily going to do that but it was the biggest blessing even though it seemed like a curse at the time. I had three weeks and we realized that a bunch of people’s photos were saved in the wrong format and couldn’t be printed, so I was like oh fuck we have to shoot like 75 people in the next three weeks. So literally in three weeks I did like 50 and then I finished a couple after that. But like it was a nutty three weeks and then it was just editing for a couple months. I really wanted the book to be about the people in the beginning because they were so meaningful—they let us into their house before StyleLike was even up. I was embarrassed because our quality was so bad back then. I feel so grateful to them for letting us begin there. So it’s mostly people from the beginning, but almost 300 people are in the book.
Lauren: Was it hard to translate from the different media to just text?
L: There’s not much text in it. I knew I had to either choose between a lot of imagery or a lot of text, so I did mostly images and then picked one quote from each person that I felt best embodied them or was inspiring. So, it’s just a quote and then a bunch of pictures. It was hard to edit down, but it was kind of simple. It kind of came from a scrapbook I had made at the very beginning of StyleLikeU because I wanted to hold on to all these quotes because I had found it so inspiring. I found pictures from the website and put them into a scrapbook and then when they came to us to do the book they were like, “what should it be like?” and I showed them my scrapbook. So that’s kind of how it happened.
Lauren: Do either of you see any threads that perhaps bring all these disparate individuals together? Is there a common theme?
L: There’s a lot of common themes.
E: The overriding is that they’re open. We consider them artists. They consider their life to be art and their existence to be art on some level and as a result they want to share. It’s not about having a title and being better than someone else. They’re artists and they want to share. And so that’s been really fascinating. We just sort of can tell when the person is right because they get it and they’re excited to open up and to express themselves and for people to care about this part of them because this is such a big deal for them. And a lot of people don’ notice that or ask them those questions. I’d say that’s an overriding theme. That willingness, that warmth and a willingness to share and to be part of a community. To be part of something larger than themselves. To be inclusive even though they may be ultra talented or consider themselves to be more talented or cooler than other people, there’s not an attitude about it.
Lauren: I have three more questions. What have you as individuals learned from this project? About yourselves maybe or about life?
L: So much. From the people, I feel like we’ve taken something from everyone. [To Elisa] Tell the story about Erica…
E: The amount that we’ve learned about people borders on completely overwhelming. It’s everything from the very first person that we did…this young beautiful girl in L.A. who worked at Marc by Marc [Jacobs] at the time on Melrose. She’s a musician and she starts to talk about loving.—she points to the part of her body, her chest, which is completely flat, she’s completely flat chested—and she’s talking about this part of her body so she wears certain things that accentuate that and it started then. That day. And since then it’s been like that. Where there’s that comfort in their skins and in themselves. It’s been so influential in terms of accepting ourselves in the same way and stepping into our own power in our own shoes and believing in ourselves. What they’ve done by being this open and accepting to do this is that it’s pushed us on our way into doing this. And now we’re running this fairly big business—we don’t even know how we got here—but it’s off the ground and it is a business and we employ people and we have a lot of pressure and a lot of responsibility and I just used to be a stylist. And she was just a kid in college. So we have this tremendous pressure, but overall I’d say if you take all of their influences and all of their bravery and courage in themselves where they were marginalized for some reason or not accepted for some reason, and you take all of their bravery and their happiness—it’s ushered us along to be in our power and to take on something that’s much greater than ourselves and much greater than whatever we’ve done before. So overall we’ve been really pushed to, and encouraged and brought along to step into our power because of theirs. And then there’s tons of little things.
L: Tons. I also think that working together has helped us grow a lot. We’re both really opposite in the ways that we work, but inspired by the other one’s way. We’re pushed in different ways by the other one. She’s way more super perfectionist and passionate about the creative side and I’m a little more like “what are we doing today, what are we doing tomorrow,” like organized, but I’m pushed to that extra mile because of her and she’s pushed to reign herself in because of me.
E: Well as a stylist I never had to do that. I didn’t have to run a business or think logically, really. I mean very minimally, like messengers and the day of the shoot. That was about as concrete, the rest was just sort of this manic frenzy and my assistant would just organize everything. Whereas now, I really have to prioritize. It’s much much more responsibility. Now it’s not someone else’s business, it’s my own, so I’ve sort of had to stretch myself in that way and Lily’s had to go the other way with, “okay yes, it does matter if there is a hanger on the bed”—you know, that kind of stuff.
Lauren: This is a silly dinner party question, but if you could go in anybody’s closet—fictional, living, dead, anybody in history—who would it be?
L: There are some people on our wishlist that we’re about to start going after that I’m really excited about. I really want to get MIA on StyleLikeU…that would be awesome.
E: For me, Patty Smith, Leonard Cohen, would be like tippy top living. And then not living…
L: I want to go into Janelle Monae’s closet. I don’t know there’s so many people.
E: Not living is a good one…um…I think someone like Karl Lagerfeld would be amazing. Mozart [laughing]. I know, I’d love Mozart’s closet. And maybe Charles Dickens or a character in a Charles Dickens book. Queen Elizabeth, Marie Antoinette.
Lauren: This is going to be a hard one because all we’ve been talking about is inspiration, but I have to ask you, what’s your AMMO? That’s our M.O. at AMMO Magazine, so what’s your inspiration if you had to sum it up.
E: My daughter [laughing].
Lauren: Can you top that [to Lily]?
L: My mom!
E: I’m inspired by the creative connection between people. I get the most inspired by the conversation and the connection and the energetic exchange between visually thinking people. I’m addicted to it.
L: I would say I’m really addicted to—beyond whether it’s StyleLikeU people or not—people who just care about the world outside of themselves, but starting with themselves. I feel like it starts with caring about yourself and tending to yourself and getting dressed in the morning but then that’s the first step to caring about everything. I am inspired by people in my life who want to make the world better…even though that’s cheesy.
E: That’s not cheesy. That’s very you.
Visit StyleLikeU now to check out your favorite people’s style.