Thursday, October 29, 2015

Women and clothes: Jennifer Cho Salaff

If you have the good fortune to experience Jennifer Cho Salaff in the flesh, the first thing you might notice is her petite 5’1” frame wrapped up in some delicious colors and textures. A nano-second later, you will most definitely notice her smile, through which you will immediately sense the most important things about this powerhouse of a woman: authenticity, warmth, vibrancy, inquisitiveness and the kind of confidence that peels out from the depths of someone who knows herself and her mind.

Can someone’s smile really say all of this? I’m picturing the last time I hung out with Jenn, which was for lunch at Messhall Kitchen in Los Angeles this past summer. I’m rewinding to the moment just before she even said hello, when a smile of recognition bloomed on her face as she spotted me … And, yup, her smile definitely said all that.

Smart as a whip and thoroughly engaged in the world, Jenn is someone for whom the things that matter the most are the matters of the heart. Whether it’s her faith, friends and family, creativity or self-care, she navigates them with intention and vulnerability, which means being okay with mistakes, sitting in shades of gray and asking the tough questions. She doesn’t shrink away, apologize or change the core of who she is but she also doesn’t puff up her chest to roar the loudest or feel that she has to appear invincible.

I love this about Jenn, and I love that it’s also the way she sees beauty and power in clothes. I was so honored to interview this gem of a lady. Our conversation about fashion and clothes was filled with “a-ha” moments and giggles alike. I will now forever think of harem pants when I hear the phrase “I sh*t my pants.”


Helen Kim (HK): Even though we see each other oh-so infrequently now, I love how we can just slip into a conversation without missing a beat. It feels like a favorite, well-worn knitted sweater: dependable, comfy and feels so glorious every time I put it on!
Jennifer Cho Salaff (JCS): YOU are glorious, Helen!

HK: Stop it! But tell me more!
JCS: Seriously, we are kindred spirits! Go-get-em females who like to shake things up a bit -– whether in style, our musings or how we look at the world. I wish we lived closer to each other so we could hang out all the time!

HK: Girl, you are singing my song! Speaking of how we look at the world, I really love how you can seamlessly weave something that’s supposedly “frivolous” like fashion with deeper matters of the heart and mind. It tells me that you give thoughtful consideration to all aspects of your person and that fashion resonates with you in a soulful way. What is your earliest memory of fashion having this kind of significance to you?
JCS: Oh thank you, love! Well, my earliest fashion memory occurred in 1984, the year my family moved across the country from Des Moines, Iowa to Irvine, California. It was my parents’ dream to move to sunnier climes. So we traded in cornfields for the beach. I was so excited about this new adventure. But when we settled into our new Southern California life I quickly realized I had absolutely zero style.

The girls at my new school were so different from my classmates in Iowa. These girls, some of them like the “Mean Girls” depicted in the movie, were not only beautiful and confident but so put-together. I had never seen such amazing outfits. Studded jeans, pastel off-the-shoulder tees, high ponytails and acid-washed mini-skirts. Suddenly, my upside-down glasses and maroon velour tracksuit (sent to me by my relatives in Korea!) became the pinnacle of nerd-dom. OMG those girls made fun of me for my lack of fashion sense. Ha! Kids can be so cruel. But believe it or not, I’m actually thankful for that experience. It awakened something in me.

(By the way, that's me in 1979, in the photo above. Unfortunately I don't have any pictures in that velour track suit. You'll just have to take my word for it.)

HK: I landed in Southern California about three years before you but I came straight from Korea, which means I brought nerd-dom from the motherland myself. Funny how Korea is one of the most fashionable places in the world nowadays.
JCS:  I LOVE this about Korea. From nerd-dom to taste maker.

HK: I am not even going to ask you if fashion matters. Duh. WHY does fashion matter?
JCS: Going back to my fashion awakening when I was 10 years old. I learned how clothes could be incredibly empowering. I realized it could be used not only as a way of expressing oneself, but also as a tool of re-invention. I remember begging my mom to take me to the mall to get what I called “new fashion clothes.”  We bought a pastel blue jean mini-skirt, a short sleeved button-down shirt with geometric designs, and white Keds. Those white Keds were everything. A few years later the braces came off and I got contact lenses. The transformation was complete. And those girls stopped bothering me because my fashion choices had eclipsed theirs. Ha!

HK: Ha, indeed! And it’s evident that your fashion choices have only continued to evolve and elevate. If those girls could see you now! You are, among many other things, a journalist, wife, mom, and professional arts/culture/style aficionado. How has your sense of style reflected the various phases and/or roles over the years? 
JCS: I love this question! I think the way we dress reflects different seasons in life. When I was a newspaper reporter I wore a lot of functional clothing. Lots of flats and styled sneakers and jeans (since I was running around all day chasing stories). 

As an editor at a magazine I spent most of the day sitting at a desk. So I enjoyed wearing dresses, skirts and heels.

When I had my babies I lived in yoga pants, t-shirts, soft button-downs and the dreaded nursing bra (ugh, I hated those!). My nails were rarely painted and I hardly wore makeup. I didn’t care much about looking "done" during those newborn/infant days. I was just looking to survive. Squeezing in an uninterrupted shower was my greatest fashion luxury at the time.

HK: I love the concept of an uninterrupted shower being a fashion luxury!
JCS: You can accomplish lot in the shower! But now that my kids are older and I have more time to devote to my career I’m enjoying being a fashionista again. I think my style has become more refined as I’ve entered my 40s. I care more about quality. I’m willing to save a little and purchase investment pieces, like the fabulous Italian sneakers I bought for my 41st birthday!

HK: See, I love that. Evolved and elevated can be fun and youthful. Well, Ms. Fashionista, do you have a rule of thumb for maintaining a fundamental fashion self while experimenting with new trends? I mean, how do you embrace the au courant without turning into a fashion victim?
JCS: You know, I enjoy watching trends but I don’t really follow them. I’ll see something in a magazine and have a fleeting thought like, "Oh, that’s beautiful and imaginative!" but I won’t have an urge to go out and buy it to stay au courant. Maybe I’ll do that for a lipstick or nail polish –- but again, it’s more because I think it’s pretty and less to stay fashion relevant. 

As for the rule of thumb, I don’t really have one. I go with my gut. I’ll know right away if it’s going to work for me or not. I think there’s a lot of truth to what style icon Iris Apfel said about fashion sense: "You either have it, or you don’t."

HK: Gotcha. I ask because you’re so great at keeping things fresh and staying on top of new trends and ideas. I’m curious to know if there are any mainstays -- whether they be clothing or accessories -- that have permanent status in your closet?
JCS: My only rule is to go with things that make you feel powerful, pretty and confident. And perhaps my biggest rule: HAVE FUN. I don’t follow fashion rules. Who says you can’t wear white after Labor Day? Who says certain colors are only for fall or winter or spring or summer? Nonsense! Perhaps I’m great at keeping things fresh because I don’t like to follow rules. I’ll wear overalls with high heels. I’ll mismatch patterns because I love to clash. I’ll pair leopard with stripes because why the hell not?

HK: Why. The. Hell. Not. I know I sound like a broken record but, girl, you’re singing my song! So in your rogue world without fashion rules, what is the worst fashion crime (current or past)? 
JCS: Harem pants. I don’t care who you are. It’s not sexy when it looks like you’ve sh*t yourself.  

HK: Bahahaha! What about a favorite trend in fashion (again, current or past)?
JCS: This isn’t a style trend but more of a zeitgeist -– I’m loving how we’re focusing our attention on the original gangstas of fashion –- living icons like Iris Apfel and Joy Venturini Bianchi and fashionistas of the past like Coco Chanel and Diana Vreeland. These women were (and are) so fierce, fashionable and fearless. We can learn a lot from them. It’s why I’m so glad there are books, documentaries and blogs dedicated to “advanced style” as its referred to.

HK: What are you trying to do or achieve when you dress for the day?
JCS: It depends what I’m doing and where I’m going that day. When I’m writing from home, it’s pajama bottoms and a comfy t-shirt. No make-up and hair un-brushed. Which always makes me laugh on days I’m writing about fashion. “If they could only see me now,” I think as I nearly knock myself out with my coffee breath. When I’m at Anthropologie (where I work part-time) I’m dressed like Superwoman. I say Superwoman because I feel like Superwoman. Pretty and powerful. Ready to kick some serious fashion ass. I’ve always loved Anthropologie and its branding really fits my style sensibilities. Eclectic, romantic, feminine, imaginative.

HK: Oh, those words definitely describe you! And now I’m picturing you looking fabulously eclectic, romantic, feminine and imaginative in an outfit that includes a cape. You’re flying from corner to corner inside Anthropologie, saving people from fashion disasters left and right. Now, that would be an impressive display! 
JCS: Oh Helen, you crack me up!

HK: Ok, back to reality, Helen! What else did I want to ask you? Oh, right: How much do other people’s opinions or feedback influence your fashion choices?
JCS: I don’t really care what other people think about my fashion choices. The only person I dress for is myself. Perhaps that comes off as arrogant or selfish, but I simply trust my instincts. I have a pretty straightforward attitude when it comes to fashion: I like it and I can see myself wearing it, therefore I choose it!

HK: I totally get that. I don’t think it’s arrogance or selfishness but a self-confidence that comes with age, with knowing who you are and embracing it. As a sister from another ahjussi (hm, that doesn’t have quite the same ring), I’m curious to know how your background as a Korean American from Southern California affects the way you dress. Or perhaps there’s another aspect of your heritage/background that has had an impact on your style?
JCS: As a Korean American woman –- an Asian woman for that matter –- I really lucked out in the genetic lottery when it comes to not looking your age. People are shocked when they find out I have two school-aged children. And then they’re even more floored when I tell them I’m 41. I think that has definitely given me an advantage with fashion. Some women feel the need to “dress their age.” I don’t.

HK: I have always been confused by that concept myself. I think it’s centered around the fear of being inappropriate. Ironically, I think it’s more “appropriate” to dress in a way that compliments who you are, inside and out. Speaking of which, how would you describe your figure?
JCS: Petite with an athletic build. Overall, I’m thankful for my strong body and all the wonderful things it can do. There are things I love –- my size 6 feet, my small waist (on those non-bloated days), my shapely calves. But like every girl there are also things I don’t love –- my short legs, my broad shoulders and the fact that I have no boobs.

HK: Oh, boobs schmoobs. What tips can you share about dressing to accentuate and flatter your particular body type?
JCS: First of all, thank the good Lord for the Victoria’s Secret Very Sexy Bra. A flat-chested girl’s best friend.

HK: Wait. Let me write that down...
JCS: (Laughing) Second of all, I can’t stress enough the value of good tailoring. An ill-fitting item of clothing is the fashion kiss of death. You could have the cutest outfit, but if it doesn’t hang right it could be a complete disaster. Oh and shoes! Shoes make the outfit! Think about it. You could have a basic ensemble (like jeans and a plain white tee) and then KAPOW! Add a badass pair of shoes and suddenly your outfit went from a 2 to a 10.  

HK: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. My song. You singing it. When do you feel most sexy?
JCS: I feel most sexy when I feel confident. And I feel pretty damn confident when I’m wearing a bold lip and killer heels.

HK: What would you say is “you” and what would you say is “not you”?
JCS: I’m game for almost anything, so it’s easier to answer what’s “not me.” White jeans, sherpa, halter tops, polo shirts, khakis, mini-skirts, Tevas, harem pants and the color lime green. None of these look good on me.  

HK: What do you admire about how other women present themselves?
JCS: I love it when a woman exudes love, warmth and confidence. I admire a women who takes care of herself, not out of vanity, but because she truly values herself. She knows she is a treasure, a rare beautiful jewel.

HK: Love it! That makes me wonder, who is your fashion muse? Is there anyone you would like to channel if you could play dress-up?
JCS: Helen, two words: IRIS. APFEL.

HK: I. DIE. 

[Editor's note: Fortunately, Helen did not die. Though momentarily verklempt, she was quickly revived with a spritz of Fresh Rose Floral Toner and a swig of kombucha vodka tonic.]

Photos courtesy of Jennifer Cho Salaff and Anthropologie.