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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Journalism Redefined: The Photographer

A photographer, a graphic novel, and the remarkable story behind the headlines.

As we observe the eighth anniversary of Afghanistan’s latest occupation, the world would do well to reflect on the history that brought us to this most recent impasse. That complex history deserves a fittingly complex treatment, which it gets in the genre-breaking masterwork The Photographer.

First published in 2003 in French, The Photographer was reissued in English this year. Melding a graphic novel, photo essay, and travelogue, it tells the story of photographer Didier Lefèvre’s journey through Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Lefèvre documented the group’s harrowing covert tour in 1986 from Pakistan into a nation gripped by violence in the aftermath of the 1979 Soviet invasion. While a few of his 4,000-plus images were published upon his return to France, years passed before Lefèvre was approached by his friend, graphic novelist Emmanuel Guibert, about collaborating on a book that would finally tell his remarkable story.

The resulting effort, assembled by graphic designer Frédéric Lemercier, is a seamless tour de force of reportage unlike anything else in modern journalism. Through hybrid forms of history, The Photographer tells one tale of what is of course an ongoing narrative in a part of the world we usually hear about in abstract headlines. We were moved by the courage and strength of the Afghani people and the MSF doctors who risk their lives to help them under exceedingly difficult conditions, especially the team’s young, female head of mission. Although we know how this particular piece of the story works out—against long odds Lefèvre makes it back to his native France, and MSF will stay until forced to abandon its operations temporarily in 1990—that does nothing to diminish the book’s suspense.

The Photographer is a true hybrid of artistic approaches. Frames of photos run in succession to provide parallax views of a scene, and Lemercier’s coloration of the drawn panels enhances the immediacy of the experience. (The Persian script in several scenes was even penned by Persepolis artist/author Marjane Satrapi.) Moved along by interwoven panels of photography and illustration, we were completely absorbed by the action and had to be pulled away to tell you about it.

For a singular storytelling experience, let The Photographer take you on a trip through time to a place we still need to understand better.

Kirstin Butler has a Bachelor’s in art & architectural history and a Master’s in public policy from Harvard University. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn as a freelance editor and researcher, where she also spends way too much time on Twitter. For more of her thoughts, check out her videoblog.

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Best Albums of August & September 2009

Lovable monsters, Middle Eastern obsessions, and why good things only get better with time.

August and September have been extraordinarily good months for music, with new releases ranging from remarkable debuts, to much-anticipated new albums by old favorites, to fantastic soundtracks. Here are 8 of our favorites.

VIVIAN GIRLS EVERYTHING GOES WRONG

A 2008 critic darling, Vivian Girls faced great expectations for their sophomore album. And, we have to be honest, the first time around, we really didn’t think the indie duo lived up.

But we’re glad we gave Everything Goes Wrong a second shot. And then a third. And a fourth. And a fifth… Punchy and bold, it’s one of those albums that just keep getting better with every listen.

Favorite track: The End.

THE BIG PINK A BRIEF HISTORY OF LOVE

Trippy and surreal, The Big Pink‘s debut album is difficult to describe — it’s a brilliantly paradoxical mix of fast and slow, sharp and soft, easy and restless. Hear for yourself.

Favorite track: The title one, A Brief History of Love.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE SOUNDTRACK

We fell in love with the pairing of dicrector Spike Jonze and vocalist Karen O of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs ever since that wonderful “Hello Tomorrow” adidas commercial. Now, the soundtrack to Jonze’s much-anticipated latest piece of magic makes us love the pair even more. It makes the kid in you hold hands with your inner musicologist as the two stroll together through whimsical forest of modern storytelling.

Favorite track: Hideaway.

A FINE FRENZY BOMB IN A BIRDCAGE

At SXSW 2007, we instantly knew Alison Sudol, a.k.a. A Fine Frenzy, was a force of talent to be reckoned with. Her debut album was an indisputable testament to this, and her much-anticipated follow-up, A Bomb In A Birdcage is every bit as brilliant.

Violins, piano, and an undercurrent of meticulously chosen drum beats give the album an incredible range of sound and emotion as you get lost in her perfect, perfect voice.

Favorite track: Blow Away.

PRINCETON COCOON OF LOVE

We first heard (of) Princeton at this year’s SXSW, where they made waves with The Waves, and we were instantly captured by their Beatlesque vibe bent through a prism of Scandinavian harmonies and instrumentals. Their new album, out last week, lived up to our expectations, and then some.

Cocoon of Love is an eclectic yet consistently excellent anthology of stylistic allusions to indie icons — think Fleet Foxes meet Belle & Sebastian — wrapped in a sound completely their own and dipped in a rich sea of cinematic orchestra instrumentation.

Favorite track: Calypso Gold.

ZERO 7 YEAH GHOST

We’ve loved Zero 7 for years and years and years, ever since the Imogen Heap days.

This year, Yeah Ghost comes as a curious mix of meh and wow. But with the help of Sia, one of our all-time favorite vocalists, they manage to deliver a fw crownjewels on their existing crown of excellence. We even toy with considering Swign the best track they’ve ever recorded.

Favorite track: Swing.

VANDAVEER DIVIDE & CONQUER

There aren’t many 5-star tracks in our iTunes library, especially ones coming from the same album. But Vandaveer’s sophomore album, Divide & Conquer, is a string of 4-stars-and-up excellence.

This isn’t “light” music — it’s drunken with a powerful heaviness that puts the weight of the world on your head as you bob it. From the haunted acoustic guitar, to the profound piano, to the intense lyrical sensibility, you just can’t stop listening in a hurts-so-good kind of way.

Part Citizen Cope, part Paolo Nutini, part something else entirely, Vandaveer — spearheaded by Mark Charles Heidinger, with vocalist Rose Guerin — bring a brilliant balance of male and female vocals, reminiscent of that Damien Rice / Lisa Hannigan dynamic that we miss so much.

Favorite track: Turpentine.

TAKEN BY TREES EAST OF EDEN

We love everything Victoria Bergsman is involved in. You may know her as the female vocal on Peter Bjorn & John’s now-iconic Young Folks, or know her band, The Concretes. But her solo project, Taken By Trees, has been making us smile since 2006.

Taken By Trees’ latest album takes those same haunting-sweet vocals, and layers them on top of a Middle Eastern acoustic sensibility. East Of Eden was inspired by Victoria’s travels to Pakistan — and you can hear it every perfect drum beat, in the superb flutes and enchanted backvocals that adorn her typically rich lyrics.

Favorite track: Day By Day, a beautiful anthem to a bittersweet obsession.

For more curated music, check out tune of the moment, our Tumblr spin-off, where each day, you can listen to a full track that’s making us smile.

We’re launching a newsletter, published on Sundays and featuring the week’s articles, plus an exclusive curation of 5 more Brain-Pickings-worthy things from across the web. To sign up, simply send us a blank email from the address at which you’d like to receive it. Although optional, we’d really appreciate including your occupation and where you live.

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Sound Meets Image: Visual Tributes to Music

The world’s most international passport, why cassettes are the new Buddhism, and what Thom Yorke has to do with motion typography.

We love music. We love art. Naturally, we love seeing the two meet and make out. After last week’s Meta-Vinyl Creativity, we’re on a mission to dig up creative projects that pay visual tribute to everything music stands for, both aesthetically and conceptually. Here are our top three finds.

RAM FM

To celebrate the culture-crossing, border-blind power of music, Palestinian and Israeli radio station RAM FM channeled its slogan, Music has no boundaries, through a brilliant visual metaphor — artist portraits “painted” with travel stamps.

It’s one of those rare concepts that you instantly get — not merely because the campaign creative captures the positioning brief so wonderfully, but also because you can simply relate to it on a personal level. We certainly can — what better way to live vicariously, to connect and converse, than through music?

RAM FM is actually known as Peace Radio and serves a greater social purpose — to serve as a cultural bridge between the people of Israel and Palestine, through the most universal social glue there is: Music. Which makes us love the campaign on yet another level.

Out of Gitam BBDO, Tel-Aviv.

via Abduzeedo

GHOST IN THE MACHINE

Non-traditional media artist iri5 works with old books, playing cards, magazines, credit cards and other everyday miscellany to create compelling, double-take-requiring artwork. Her Ghost in the Machine series uses recycled cassette tapes to create phenomenal portraits of musicians from their original cassettes.

Bob Dylan

The project is inspired by the philosophical sentiment that the body is but a package for the spirit.

Robert Smith

I imagine we are all, like cassettes, thoughts wrapped up in awkward packaging.

Jimi Hendrix

via NoiseAddicts

MUSIC MAKES US

The GRAMMYs. What a cultural icon. While it’s easy to dismiss them as an entertainment industry popularity contest, we like to think of them as a way of honoring the music that inspires, impacts and moves the greatest number of people.

This year, The Recording Academy wanted to capture this very sentiment in a fully integrated campaign that asks a simple yet profound question: Do we make great music or does great music make us?

It’s no secret we’re big fans of motion typography, so we love both the concept and the brilliant execution.

Out of TBWAChiatDay.

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