EXECUTIVE CREATIVE DIRECTOR AND COFOUNDER // Refinery29
RISK // Proving that a lifestyle brand can be a heavy hitter
When Refinery29 launched in 2005, it was just one in a sea of fashion blogs. But the startup had larger ambitions, and over 12 years it has evolved into a holistic news and lifestyle site, one that’s eager to wade into thorny issues its competitors tend to run from. Refinery29’s unmistakable voice (think an ultra-supportive, ultra-informed big sister) has attracted a global audience of more than 20 million. Executive creative director Piera Gelardi—who cofounded the site with Christene Barberich, Justin Stefano, and her now-husband, Philippe Von Borries—is the embodiment of that voice, constantly pushing her own limits as much as the brand’s.
In September, you may have followed Gelardi on Instagram as she toured through 29Rooms, Refinery’s Brooklyn art-show-meets-funhouse that promotes up-and-coming artists and causes, including Planned Parenthood and Women’s March. (This December, 29Rooms will set up shop in Los Angeles for the first time.)
Or maybe you’ve seen her speak about the 67% Project, an initiative launched last fall to increase the representation of plus-size women in media and retail—including curating a new stock-photo library—inspired by the fact that while 67 percent of American women are “plus size,” they’re seen in just 2 percent of media.
Or perhaps, in July, you came across Gelardi’s deeply personal story about her own miscarriage, which she suffered this June. On Refinery29 and on social media, she chronicled the trauma and the struggle to move forward, and expressed gratitude for her friends, family, and her company’s health insurance—especially when her hospital bill arrived.
Gelardi shared her story on the same day the U.S. Senate was preparing to vote on the Health Care Freedom Act, otherwise known as the “skinny” repeal of Obamacare. Why? The 20 hours she spent in the ER cost her $150 out-of-pocket, but the grand total without insurance would have been a staggering $40,374.06—more than enough to bankrupt the average American family.
“It’s always important for us to challenge different taboos that create shame in women’s lives and keep them from having the important conversations that move them forward,” Gelardi says. “I want to help dismantle that shame. After my miscarriage piece posted, we had so many submissions from women sharing their own stories and hospital bills, and it really started a conversation about healthcare. So many things in our culture are kept in the dark, but it just perpetuates suffering and keeps people from the connection they deserve in those tough moments.”
Keeping in line with Refinery’s mission, Gelardi’s story came with a call to action. Not only were readers encouraged to share their own #CostOfCare stories, many of which were posted on the website, but they were also given info on access to healthcare, how to contact government representatives, and support groups for traumatic experiences. “We try to strike a balance by providing tools, not rules,” Gelardi says. “We really think about what the resource is.”
Just weeks later, they were guiding their readers through another difficult topic and news event: the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. Gelardi and her team shared a series of tools to help the Refinery community be an ally to those affected, and provided tips on how to effectively talk about race.
“You have to go into these uncomfortable territories,” Gelardi says, speaking about both life and business. “Sometimes we try and sometimes we mess up. But it’s always going to be important for us to take a stand.” —Stephanie Schomer