As you all probably know, March 8 is International Women’s Day. Conceived in the early 1900s, it has always been understood as a remembrance and reflection on the political, social and economic achievements of the female gender. There is still a lot of work to be done in this regard, but it is also an occasion to remember the political movements to claim women rights, which date right back to the beginning of the last century.
I grew up having my mother and grandmother as role models; strong, resilient women with innate charisma. They taught me to fight for what I believe in, to overcome my limitations, and to have confidence in myself, even at times when I had less self-esteem and when I felt most discouraged.
In addition to them, I have had various female role models among the famous ones who have been a source of inspiration for me over the years; they have inspired me not only in terms of style and attitude but also in terms of what good and positive changes they have helped bring to the world.
On the occasion of this International Women’s Day, I have chosen five women in history who influenced me in my formative years (which still last today, because I think you never really stop learning):
1) Audrey Hepburn : I think Audrey was one of the most charismatic actresses of all time. I was about thirteen years old when I first saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s, probably the film for which she is best known worldwide. I spent my teenage years reading books about Audrey and copying her style, supported in this by a high school friend of mine, who also loved Audrey very much as an actress and style icon.
What is most striking about Audrey is that certain “je ne sais quoi” as the French say, meaning an unintentional and completely natural charm, devoid of any construction or falsehood; Audrey always conveyed her inner beauty not only through all the roles she played but also in her civic commitments off the set. Born in Belgium but raised between the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, she lived under the Nazi regime and studied dance and theater before beginning her film career. After a series of successful roles (which also earned her an Oscar for Roman Holiday), she later preferred to devote herself to her family and toward the end of her life she became an official UNICEF ambassador, committing herself full-time to humanitarian work and the less fortunate (perhaps partly because she remembered all the suffering she had endured firsthand during World War II). Even thirty years after her death, she is remembered primarily for her role as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and her style on and off the set is still an inspiration today (even for the character of Blair Waldorf in the book-series-turned-TV show Gossip Girl). Many of the items worn by Audrey Hepburn (who was also a friend and collaborator of Hubert de Givenchy) have now become wardrobe staples, such as the ballet flats and the trench coat. Not forgetting her iconic short haircut, which my mother also sported recently; she looks a bit like Audrey because of the dark colors and thick eyebrows, and I still remember when a guy who was carrying one of my Audrey paintings when we were moving out asked my mother, “Excuse me ma’am, is this a picture of you when you were younger?” In addition to the paintings, I also have some magazines with Audrey Hepburn covers, many coffee-table books and a DVD box set of her most famous movies inherited from my grandfather; Audrey is and will always be a great inspiration to me.
2) Annie Leibovitz: I have loved photography for as long as I can remember, like I wrote in this post that is a bit of a tribute to the art of photography. As a child I would take a lot of pictures with the disposable Kodaks that were in vogue in the late 1990s/early 2000s, encouraged also by my father who has always had a passion for videography and photography. At that time he was among the first to buy the new digital cameras available on the market and always filmed our family vacations with a camera. The art of photographing and documenting everything was partly influenced by him as well. As you can see from some of my work on my Flickr profile, I’ve always been the “official photographer” in my group of friends, both with the Canon EOS cameras I have owned over the years and with my smartphones. I have always loved photography of all kinds and admired the work of the world’s most celebrated photographers; Annie Leibovitz has always been one of my favorite photographers especially for her portraits and editorial shoots done for Vanity Fair and Vogue. She has a special empathy that allows her to tell stories through every photograph she takes, and this is particularly evident in her portraits of celebrities. Although she is now recognized as one of the world’s greatest masters of photography, it strikes me how everything she does is preceded by a thorough study of the subject and the story she intends to tell through her work. In 2011 she told the Italian online photography magazine Sguardi: “I always do my homework. For example, to prepare to photograph Carla Bruni, the new wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, at the Élysée Palace, I looked at many photos of the palace. I got pictures of other people who had lived there. I looked at several pictures of couples in love, as well as all the pictures of Carla Bruni taken by other photographers. She was immortalized several times, but I think Helmut Newton saw something in her that no one else ever caught. Finally, knowing that she was also a singer, I listened to her songs. Of course, I always carry with me a large “memory bank” made of the images taken by the photographers who came before me, a kind of hard drive that has its seat in my head. I am a photography enthusiast. Or a scholar, if you prefer. I collect photographic books. It happens that some element belonging to the history of photography contributes to the style I choose for my shots. And the style of an image is certainly part of the idea.” I love the self-taught way she learned and her ability to find sources of inspiration on her own; I have not yet purchased her photography volumes but I am very interested in Wonderland. One of the editorials I love most by Leibovitz was made for Vogue US in December 2003; starring model Natalia Vodianova, it was inspired by Alice in Wonderland and it is truly something unique and never seen before.
3) Emma Watson: the fact that Emma Watson is one of the women who has influenced me the most over the years is probably due to her belonging to my generation (she is only a few years older than me). Having become famous as a child for her role as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films, she went on to devote herself more to activism, becoming Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women, which focuses on gender equality and women rights. Her famous speech at the UN for the launch of the #HeForShe campaign also highlighted the role of men in promoting gender equality. It is no coincidence that she has played “feminist” roles since the beginning of her career; not only Hermione but also Belle in Beauty and the Beast and Meg in the recent adaptation of Little Women directed by Greta Gerwig. Since I work in fashion, I particularly enjoyed her collaboration with the Fair Trade brand People Tree a decade ago, and many times she has been an inspiration to me in terms of style, especially back in the days when she was Burberry’s brand ambassador. In addition, I think she did an excellent job directing the commercial for Prada’s new perfume “Paradoxe,” in which she also appears as the main character, because you can see her talent on many levels and it is great to witness her artistic evolution. I think Emma Watson has a lot to offer not only as an actress; in the last few years I have followed all the interviews she has done with prominent people like Caitlin Moran and Rupi Kaur for her book club Our Shared Shelf on Goodreads, and I also particularly enjoyed the interview she did with Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai (whose story I recommend everyone read). In 2016 my mother and I had the opportunity to attend “An Evening With Gloria Steinem and Emma Watson” (to which I will devote a more in-depth article later), which was incredibly interesting and informative. Since the Six Degrees of Separation Theory seems to apply, Jigna, my trusted brow artist in London is the same as Emma’s; since they have known each other for years, she confirmed to me that Emma is indeed a sensitive and intelligent person in everyday life as well.
4) Michelle Obama: I have always listened to Michelle Obama’s speeches on the most important issues, both when she was First Lady of the United States of America and later. Her story is an example that through study, commitment and tenacity one can succeed in both personal and professional life. Born and raised in Chicago, Michelle Obama (née Robinson) undertook law studies at Princeton University and Harvard Law School, beginning work as a lawyer in her hometown upon graduation. She met Barack Obama, future President of the United States, when he was hired as an intern at the company where she worked; after marrying and having two daughters, Michelle stood by her husband’s side from the beginning of his political career, when he was elected to the Senate. When she became First Lady, Michelle Obama also began to be known for her elegance and established herself as a fashion icon, being listed several times as one of the best-dressed people in the world. She has always been a charismatic speaker, as noted by her inaugural speech at the Democratic convention in 2008, in which she promoted her husband’s work and the belief of both of them that “you work hard for what you want to achieve in life, because your word is your bond, and you do what you say you’re going to do, you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them in person, and even if you don’t agree with them.” Michelle Obama did not cease her civic and political engagement even after the end of Barack Obama’s term, supporting many causes including LGBTQ rights and the fight against racial discrimination, taking part in various conferences across the nation. In 2018 she published Becoming, her first memoir, which was an incredible success and it is now one of my favorite autobiographical books. Her latest book came out last November; titled “The Light We Carry: Overcoming In Uncertain Times,” it immediately made it onto my list of books to read in the near future.
5) Diane Von Fürstenberg: there are many female designers whose work I admire, but one of the first who influenced me the most was definitely Diane Von Fürstenberg. Head of the eponymous brand, founded in the 1970s, the designer was born in Belgium and began working in the fashion world during her college years. Crucial for her was an apprenticeship at a manufacturing company in Como, where she learned all about cuts, colors and fabrics. After divorcing Prince Egon Von Fürstenberg, with whom she had two children, she designed a clothing line for women that instantly became popular because of the imaginative prints on the dresses. Her most famous creation was probably the wrap dress, with its comfortable cut and robe closure, which became suitable for all occasions and body types. A wrap dress model is still on display today at the Costume Institute of the Met Museum in New York, a reminder of her global fame and social impact. After a difficult period for the fashion house, the brand was relaunched and achieved global success in the 1990s under the leadership of several creative directors. This gave Diane Von Fürstenberg the opportunity to start other activities parallel to fashion, such as a cosmetics line and the takeover of a French publishing house. She has won various awards in the fashion world, most notably a Lifetime Achievement Award from the CFDA, of which she later became president. She has always been active on social issues, supporting causes for women’s rights, and has also organized various charities, such as the DVF Awards. I have read her autobiography entitled “The Woman I Wanted To Be,” in which she talks about her own personal experiences and reflects a lot on the status of women in the world of work, with a focus on economic independence, and I highly recommend this book to young women today, especially if they wish to pursue a business career.
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