Brain Pickings

Interview with Mary Tomer, Brains Behind Mrs-O.org

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Fashion, politics and how to live every blogger’s dream.

Today, we’re picking the brains of Mary Tomer, creator of the uber-successful Mrs-O.org blog-turned-book following the fashion of Michelle Obama. Mary’s book, Mrs. O: The Face of Fashion Democracy, is out today and we sit down with her to talk about the inspiration behind the project, culture’s conflicted relationship with fashion, and the notion of high-low style.

q0

Hey Mary, good to have you. Tell us a bit about yourself, your background, what inspires you and your brand of creative curiosity.

Hey Maria! Thanks for the opportunity to chat with you a bit. I’m a 28-year-old account planner at BBH New York. I moved to New York to work at BBH four years ago, an ambition that involved repeated trips on the Fung Wah bus from Boston and back.

Before working in advertising, I spent a few years at a Boston-based private equity firm. Advertising appealed to me as a field that mixed business with creativity, and in that respect, would better suit my strengths.

What inspires me? Fashion bloggers Tavi and Jane Alridge (of Sea of Shoes), tea and chocolates with my mom at the MoMA cafe, foreign travel, glossy fashion magazines, and, of course, Michelle Obama, Mrs.O.

q1

What was the original inspiration for the Mrs. O project?

Michelle Obama’s style was on my radar for most of 2008, but it was during the Democratic National Convention in late August 2008 that I became captivated. By the second night of the convention I was googling to learn more about Michelle Obama’s style — details on what she was wearing and what others thought. I expected to find a blog dedicated to her style, but surprisingly, it didn’t yet exist. I thought others had to be as interested as I was, if not more so, and that a blog was in order. I approached BBH to help me create it, and a less than three weeks later, Mrs-O.org launched.

If I take a step back, I see a few other influences that were more subconsciously at play. Through the years, my mother has imbued a fascination with Jacqueline Kennedy’s style. In Michelle Obama, I instantly felt that my generation had found its Jacqueline Kennedy.

At BBH, there was a definite appetite for new types of creativity, particularly in the digital space. That was coupled by past experience working on Zag — BBH’s brand and innovation unit — that invites everyone at the agency to propose ideas. I wanted Mrs-O.org to be as stylish as its inspiration, and knew that BBH would help me to achieve that.

q2

Over the past few years, many street fashion blogs have emerged as champions of decentralized, democratized, power-to-the-people fashion. Mrs. O is similar in a lot of way in its overall mission of “fashion democracy,” but opposite in going about it through centralized focus on a very famous public persona. How do you see Mrs. O relate to street fashion beacons like The Sartorialist?

Through both the first lady’s style and street style blogs, I think we see an increasing value placed on creativity in fashion, as well as a kind of reappraisal of luxury. The latter became apparent to me while working on Mrs. O: The Face of Fashion Democracy and interviewing various figures in the fashion industry.

Repeatedly, designers spoke of their customers rejecting an empty facade of luxury that they might have bought into a few years ago, instead choosing garments that are of genuine, real value, whether priced high or low. That seems to be the underlying driver behind high-low style, embraced by the first lady as well as the muses of street style blogs.

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You’re a fellow planner — a rather complex, hybrid discipline that lives in the epicenter of the ad agency environment of cross-pollination of ideas and skills. What role has this played in fostering the Mrs. O idea and bringing it to life?

The idea for Mrs-O.org was born out of a personal passion and interest in Michelle Obama’s style. But in many respects, I was also planning on autopilot. For example, the idea required recognizing a gap in the market coupled with a growing consumer need, defining a clear voice for a brand, etc. It just all happened a bit more intuitively and with less process than usual. And actually, before I was a planner, I started out at BBH in account management. I think the hybrid skill set has been an asset here.

On the flip side, this experience has also taught me a lot as a planner. I never considered the value I would get from moderating a blog, but things like stimulating and steering conversation, and listening to your audience all feel quite applicable to planning.

q4

There’s always been an interesting social tension about fashion. It’s surrounded by an air of glamor and creativity, but there’s also a lurking perception that it’s a somewhat superficial, inferior, non-serious thing to revere. At the same time, politics is a space to be taken seriously, there’s even a certain solemn reverence about it. And Mrs. O lives at the intersection of the two. How do you balance that tension?

I’m continually trying to wrap my head around this. The oft asked question is: Are you selling Michelle Obama short by focusing on her fashion? In truth, I don’t know anyone who’s only interested in Michelle Obama’s style. But at the same time, I think that the clothes bring their own kind of substance — as part of our culture, and in shaping our social history — that is often overlooked.

The dress codes that accompany politics do make it all the more complicated. On both the blog and in the book, I’ve tried to present a balanced perspective, by acknowledging the story behind the clothes themselves, but also presenting the context in which they were worn.

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Almost four decades ago, another Mrs. O became the first First-Lady-turned-style-icon. If blogs were around then, who would be writing the then-version of Mrs. O — Peggy Olsen, Betty Draper, Joan, or Sal? (You didn’t think you’d slide by without a Mad Men reference, did you?)

Ah yes… Probably Joan. She seems both interested in fashion and a bit enterprising. I almost chose Betty, but she might consider blogging to be improper.

Mary’s wonderful book, Mrs. O: The Face of Fashion Democracy, is out today. It takes a closer look at America’s modern style icon with more than 120 photographs of the first lady, placed in a rich historical and biographical context that captures Michelle Obama’s revered charisma, intelligence and substance through a fascinating journey into her personal style.

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