the what's underneath project explores fashion by removing clothes

How to have style naked, and other lessons you learn taking your clothes off in front of strangers.

by Sabina McKenna
24 March 2016, 5:15am

Image via Instagram

Elisa Gookind and Lily Mandlebaum make videos of women (and gender non-conforming people) taking their clothes off. While that conjures up a world of assumptions, the two see their offerings as a celebration of style and individuality. The New York City based mother and daughter are founders of the website StyleLike U where they explore alternative narratives around beauty and fashion.

In 2014 they launched their ongoing video series The What's Underneath Project, which invites inspiring individuals to literally peel back the layers. As their subjects remove their clothes they speak about their insecurities and triumphs. Both projects were born after years working in the fashion industry had left them feeling that dressing was no longer a soulful experience. In short: the videos are their attempt to change a culture they saw as making everyone feel shit about themselves.

Meredith Graves from Perfect Pussy talking about authenticity in punk.

So why did you start the What's Underneath Project?
Elisa: Creatively, we've always been about exposing what's underneath and what's behind the way we dress, especially for those with really authentic style. I used to take Lily to the Russian baths and we could tell who was cool and interesting-in the nude-and who would have great style if they were dressed. Since then we would always joke that you can have style and be naked.

Lily: You can tell when a person is comfortable in their own skin, it makes them inspiring and that's what style really is at the end of the day. It's about removing the notion that dressing well is about money, trends or aspiring to a certain ideal of beauty. We wanted our videos to awaken people to the notion that real style should be about a soulful expression of who you are and something that empowers you to feel comfortable and confident. Having everyone undress was a metaphorical way of showing that individual taste isn't about material things. And everyone started to share stories that were so vulnerable, so honest and so revealing of the ideals in our culture and of the extent to which marketing and media affected people's self image.

Model Jacky O'Shaughnessy on age.

Do you think we'll ever get to a point where the issues around how women are presented in the media aren't even a talking points anymore?
Lily: It's a complex thing to say, but I think that there's a collective consciousness right now that's really powerful, because so many new voices are now able to exist and thrive through the internet and social media. So I think the industry kinda has to change-even if it doesn't want to. There are so many people offering alternative perspectives; between the body positive movement and the trans movement, everything that is happening now is insuppressible. I don't really know whether it's as genuine as I would like it to be. I hope it's not just because nowadays, that's one way to make money.

Elisa: I think change is inevitable; it's a matter of our humanity, I don't think you can repress the desire for people to be in touch with their individuality.

Writer Ryan O'Connell speaks about his experiences with cerebral palsy.

Has this project changed you as individuals?
Lily: When we started I was really insecure about my body. I wanted to look like an emaciated model and could never get there, as hard as I tried-and I tried pretty hard. I wasn't accepting of who I was, and I was a real victim of a lot of the things that we are now fighting against. I've been completely freed and been able to find my style and involve my body.

Elisa: I was a fashion editor and stylist for about 25 years on and off before this so that love for clothing, individuality and expression is something I've always had. What we're doing now very much embodies what I discovered then; during that time it was very much about individuality. I wanted to do something that responded to an industry that had become so exclusive, uncreative, and corporate. Before doing this, I felt like such a black sheep and so left out of something that I at one time loved so much. Now I'm obsessed with validating all of the other black sheep in the world. 

Lily: I had an inkling there was something else out there, because of my mum and the interesting people she surrounded herself with. I knew there had to be a difference between what I was consuming in fashion what was making me feel bad about myself.

Photographer Petra Collins admits that it's not always easy to practice the body positivity she preaches.

How do you see StyleLike U and The What's Underneath Project evolving over the next few years?
Lily: I'm interested in how this movement for self acceptance can be spread, and how we can activate and engage people beyond me, my mum and our interviewees.

Elisa: The ultimate goal is for What's Underneath to really be something that is constantly building and making a humongous change in the culture.



Text Sabina McKenna

body image
elisa gookind
lily mandlebaum
style like u
the underneath project