“Clothes are tools that you can use to express yourself, but they have everything to do with the person inside the clothes. People need to see you; style and beauty is all about the comfort in one’s skin. You should take off all the armor.” – Elisa Goodkind
This is how Elisa Goodkind and Lily Mandelbaum explain the foundation of the interview series, The What’s Underneath Project. The overarching platform, StyleLikeU, was founded in 2009 to promote self-acceptance. The What’s Underneath Project delves into the worlds of underrepresented types in mainstream media, who boast a style that is deeply reflective—one that “isn’t bought,” as Goodkind puts it. StyleLikeU was born out of the mother-daughter duo’s personal realization that the fashion industry had gained a disempowering function driving individuals to conform to beauty standards. Goodkind bowed out of her two-decades long career as a fashion stylist; Mandelbaum, who had struggled with her body image for most of her teenage years, deferred her professional entry to embark on the personal journey.
The interviewers place their subjects inside airy rooms, on chairs in front of plain walls, with the camera facing them as they undress. ‘When do you feel most vulnerable?,’ they may ask them, luring them to expose personal connections or intimate experiences. This year, Goodkind and Mandelbaum pay tribute to Berlin, featuring local musician Lary, Soul Objects founder Kornelius Werhahn-Mees, and Zazi Vintage owner Jeanne de Kroon.
You ask your subjects to express themselves at their most vulnerable. How would you express yourselves?
Elisa: I am intense, passionate, complicated, emotional, and creative.
Lily: I would describe myself as rebellious, visual, and spiritual.
How does that connect to The What’s Underneath Project?
E: Of everything I’ve done in my life, StyleLikeU is the most accurate expression of myself. It enables me to express that intensity, passion and, spirituality, plus what’s real and authentic.
Ultimately, the people are the most inspiring. After all of these years in the fashion industry and having this real passion for style and self-expression, being able to put these people out into the public and give them a chance to breathe is, next to having children, one of the most important things I’ve ever done.
L: The project reflects my hypersensitivity. Interviewing someone about their deepest pains, secrets, and shame comes very natural to me, because I don’t really see it as something that’s bad. I see it as something that’s beautiful. Everybody should be connecting more on that level.
We’re similarly super hyper-sensitive, emotional, highly empathic, and intuitive. We’re similar in our love for the beauty of people, and our curiosity about people. However, we have really different personalities. When it comes to our work styles, and our strengths and weaknesses, I’m more big-picture minded. My mom zooms in on detail; she’s more obsessed with visual details than me. I’m more obsessed with structures.
The project is heated; it’s a direct extension of how I see the world. What these people say as a collective is my idea of an utopia. Everyone we interview as a group is the version of the world I’d like to see more of.
What does that world look like?
L: More creative, open-hearted, and warm; unpretentious. Where people march to the beat of their own drum.
“We’re similarly super hyper-sensitive, emotional, highly empathic, and intuitive.”
The What’s Underneath Project was launched in 2009, at a time when the fashion industry’s transformation slowly emerged. What made you turn over a new leaf?
L: We started it based on our mutual frustration at the fashion industry, my mom being in it as a editor and mine being a consumer of it as a teenager. We felt it was a disempowering space that had become so exclusive, homogenous, and pretentious. Style should be inclusive, open-hearted and creative. The What’s Underneath Project wasn’t about trying to fit into any trends or the norms that the magazines were pushing at the time.
E: It was about bringing people together. We we came to the conclusion that style had nothing to do with the clothes you wear, although they’re fun, they’re tools that you can use to express yourself. But they have everything to do with the person inside the clothes and his or her spirit. We started to realise that people needed to see you, that style and beauty was all about the comfort in one’s skin and being an individual. We wanted to show them that they could take off all the armor.
How does this season reflect that intention?
L: Many have told us that Berlin is the perfect city for what we’re doing because there is such a thriving artistic culture and so many strong individuals. Berlin proved to be everything and more than we could dream of, although we feel that we only just scratched the surface.
Tell us about a special encounter.
E: Kornelius. We scouted him when we were there; we literally just saw him out the corner of our eye at a restaurant and thought he looks amazing. He invited us into his store, Soul Objects, the next day, which blew our minds.
L: He’s fostered this really beautiful relationship of trust with his customers. He won’t let you into the store unless you are willing to have him walk you through it. He wants customers in the store that are committed to understanding the background of each piece. We had no cash on us, only our credit cards, which he wouldn’t accept. He doesn’t want someone he doesn’t know involved in the transaction; he just wants it to be with a person that he’s having the interaction with.
He was your first straight male subject, right?
L: Yes, it was untapped territory. Kornelius was an inspiration for men that are conscious and feminist. He kind of feels like a feminist man to me. We’re gonna do a big series of the What’s Underneath Project featuring men.
You don’t seem to have an agenda.
E: We don’t prepare our interviewees at all. Not having an agenda has given this a certain magical quality. That feeling you get when you meet someone for the first time and you feel connected to them—that’s our ideal conversation. We try to keep as much of that rawness and lack of preparation as we can to subvert this overly prepared and overly produced form of interview that is out there. Before The What’s Underneath Project we used to go into people’s homes and interview them about style and identity. It became harder to capture what we really wanted to capture, because people started cleaning their apartments. We want that spontaneity of your real life.
L: All the stories are unique; they haven’t been told before. We try to feel as much of a blank slate as possible. That makes the interview more authentic and more genuine. The more curious we are and the less we know, the more organic is the conversation. We let it go in many twists and turns and tangents based on their responses. We end up having a conversation as if there’s no cameras rolling. We just listen to what they say.
What have you personally taken with you from the series?
E: We’ve been very affected, by everybody. You don’t have to be a celebrity to have that potency and to have important things to exchange and transmit to the world. It’s not them just talking about themselves, it’s the exchange which helps them to open up. Each person and each video, for me, is like the little myth of life. It shows that in all of us is this mythological and universival understanding of life. It really undermines what the media tries to tell you—that there’s only a few people in the world that are important and that everybody else should just worship them.
How about your relationship with each other?
L: It’s been a really intense journey. We don’t know what it would be like to be just mother and daughter. At this point it’s been nine years of working together; my whole adult life. I don’t know what it would feel like to be an adult with just a normal relationship with my mother.
E: We don’t question it because we know we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. It’s a blessing and a curse, because you live your whole life wishing to find your calling. Doing something you’re supposed to be doing is great, but it also has its own set of issues.
Can you imagine taking a separate path?
E: We are, actually, because Lilly is about to move to L.A. It’s not going to change StyleLikeU; we look at it like an expansion. There’s been periods of time where we spent barely any time together and others where we’re together all the time. We’re entering a new period.
Since 2009, Elisa Goodman and Lily Mandelbaum have entered the personal spaces of creatives worldwide, eager to steer clear of mainstream-media dominated beauty ideals. To learn more about the duo’s endeavors, visit their website or follow them on Instagram.
Musician Lary is no unfamiliar face to FvF. Here, the Berlin-based singer let us in on her artistic background, influences, and getting into music in the first place.
Text: Ann-Christin Schubert