Williamsburg, BK - March, 2015.
Punk, Pink, Piera
I’ve heard you speak of having a “big life.” I love this and think it speaks to your creativity and intellect. What does having a “big life” mean to you?
Having a big life means that life is jam-packed… I say “yes” to too many things and don’t want to prioritize (to me work, family, friends, travel, my husband, nurturing my creativity all compete and take precedence at different times). I know that as crazy as it can be, it’s the only way for me to feel truly fulfilled and it means I am often overwhelmed in many ways good and bad! It also means really living the moment, focusing on the person you’re with and the thing you’re doing (to an extent where you lose track of time and might be late to the next thing!).
In my friend group, we have an expression about doing things “Gelardi Style.” This stems from my parents who are even more ambitious livers-of-life than I am, but I try to follow in their steps. An example of doing something Gelardi Style is the 36-hour trip I took to Bangkok with friends in which we explored Chinatown (twice), ate at an outdoor street restaurant, visited a night flower market, went to a Muy Thai boxing match, bar-hopped in the red light district, made friends with a dancer at a club, danced on stage at a strip club (our new friend’s idea), went to three temples, went to a rooftop bar, saw a Beyonce cover band, ate an epic lunch at a locals-only spot, noshed on street food, tried durian (tastes as bad as it smells IMO) and raced tuk tuks through the streets… and I’m probably forgetting a lot of things!
You never know when the party’s gonna end so I like to pack it all in, have no regrets and close down as many dance floors as I possibly can.
Tell me about your first love!
When I was really little (probably around 4 years old), I fell in love with Paul Moshimer, a firefighter in my town who was friends with my parents (he also played our local Santa). He soon after got engaged and I was heartbroken and angry… I gave him and his fiancee the treatment for a while (my stink eye at that age was as potent as my cutes). After that I fell in love with the child actor in the Flight Of The Navigator. That didn’t work out well either.
My first real—and requited—true love was in high school, I fell in love with a girl I went to a pre-college art program with. We shared a sense of absurdist humor… I remember laying in bed cracking up at the “Things You Never Knew Existed” catalog and having tons of inside jokes. We also shared a love of art, movies, and music and although we didn’t always agree on them we opened each others eyes to a lot of new things. At the time, I dressed crazy, colorful, and kooky (my favorite outfit was baby buns, blue sequin mini dress, white fishnets, and platforms) and she was a Polo raver (her favorite outfit was oversized red Polo shirt, raver jeans, and sneakers)… I loved John Waters, Yayoi Kusama, and Sassy, and she loved Greg Araki, street art, and The Face.
She thought she was straight when I met her and it was really hard for her to be with me. I’d been with a few girls at that time and had told my parents and friends but even though we were together for nine months (an eternity in high school time), she never told her parents or the majority of her friends. That, in turn was tough for because she would always downplay our relationship. In the end, we broke up and I don’t totally remember why although I think it happened in a car near a lighthouse in Portland, Maine. We were both going off to college and it wasn’t going to last. We had fun, I learned things, so it was worthwhile.
Think way back to the R29 beginnings. You must have known you were on to something that would eventually become one of the greats in media, Anna and I are both curious – did you know in your gut? Your heart? Your head?
I am definitely a “one-foot-in-front-of-the-other” type of person but I’m also pretty intuitive. I knew we were onto something but I didn’t know exactly what or how big it would become! As we went along, each next step magically became clear… I was following a mix of gut and heart—and my founding partners who I trust loads!
We knew that we wanted to change the focus of fashion, creating a more conversational, smart voice that didn’t condescend to readers or make them feel bad about themselves. And we wanted to focus on the independents in every sense—independent designers that weren’t getting lots of airtime in mainstream media but also an independent mindset of dressing for yourself, mixing high and low, and knowing that the best look is whatever makes YOU feel fly. Our connection to our audience really motivated and drove me from the start…the fact that we were solving real problems for people and that what we were doing mattered to our audience was an incredibly powerful driving force.
What did you study in college? Did you have a favorite professor who taught you a lesson usually not learned in a classroom?
I studied Studio Art in college so I learned a lot about Art Theory as well as the range of disciplines from sculpture to video art to printmaking and photography. I focused on photo and video. My most influential professor was Nancy Barton who taught me that NYC was the greatest teacher and source of inspiration and who really urged me to take full advantage of all that the city had to offer—she wanted us to go to gallery openings every week and read the art reviews and check out underground theater. She taught me that my peers would be the most important career connections and that making something with passionate peers could start a movement.
You’ve been married 10 years! That’s one groovy decade. What did you do or will you do to celebrate?
I know! It’s pretty crazy that it’s been 10 years. On the night of our anniversary, we went to Balthazar which is where we went after we got our marriage license. We reminisced on the last 10 years, ate oysters and fries, had champagne, and loved each other hard (which we pretty much do every day). I made a memory box filled with photos, written memories, and little artifacts from the decade which was a really fun and happy-tear-filled activity and it was really fun to go through it together. We’re also taking a trip to Cuba to celebrate in May…we love traveling together and with friends.
And lastly, if you don’t mind. Tell me once more about your grandmother, her name and what she did when she arrived to the US.
My grandmother was Isabelle Bertani (Gelardi). She passed away about 5 years ago and I still miss her every day. She had a house a mile away from us growing up and after my grandfather died, she would spend nights sleeping at our house. I’d go over to her house after school often and watch Golden Girls or her soaps while she cooked meatballs or Italian wedding soup or focaccia. I loved her house and it’s a big influence on my own home because she had objects from all over the world. My grandfather was in the Army Corps of Engineers so they lived all over the world from Lahore to Libya to Taiwan. Everything in her house had a story and it was fascinating for me. Now I have some of her things in my apartment as well as objects I’ve collected from my own travels.
My grandmother lived 98 years and what blew my mind is how her life illustrated how much can change and how much you can experience in one lifetime. She grew up in Italy and her dad was a carriage maker who then went out of business when the automobile was introduced. They emigrated to the United States on a boat through Ellis Island. By the end of her life, she was getting a virtual tour of my NYC apartment via FaceChat. So from carriage rides to FaceTime. The fact that your brain can even process that much change is pretty phenomenal!
Piera is a hot laser blast of neon pink light: her energy is palpable and contagious but controlled. She has the kind of internal electricity that is bright and shiny but far from overwhelming. She listens with rapt attention, thinks about every tiny detail. Her taste is an idiosyncratic idea that she’s been cultivating her whole life and watching her work is fascinating. The last time I saw Piera we were collaborating on an interiors project for the Refinery29 office and I found it fascinating that no detail went unconsidered. I spend a lot of time thinking about what personality traits make people successful and I remember thinking, “Her energy, attention and total desire to live everything well and full is the thing that makes her so admirable and amazing.” This version of success is incredibly fun. - Anna
The day I met Piera to conduct our interview, I’d spent a good deal of time beforehand considering love. The idea, the action, the feeling and the different iterations of it… The black, white and gray distinctions towards that feeling.
When I walked into her Williamsburg apartment building I metaphorically forced myself to switch brains for an hour so as not to project my wild notions and racing personal thoughts on emotional topics but to instead focus on the rare time two busy people have dedicated with objective to share in one afternoon.
Piera is welcoming – she feels like what a wink would look like if it was a live thing and not just a gesture. We got to talking… And, as it were, the topic of love came up. The unwound brain rarely hides its sides in an open and safe context or forum. Piera brought up the New York Times article, Try the 36 Questions on the Way to Love, and we laughed considering giving it a go right then and there.
Here in this interview, Piera refers to the big and beautiful moments and people in her life and world. Piera is the Creative Director of Refinery29 and I’ve worked with her for a few years but hadn’t known the depth of heart and creative courage she has until I shot her portrait and shared love stories. - Jen