[Guest Post] Runway Rising: Perks and Challenges of a Socially Conscious Fashion Company

Hey everyone! In this guest post, my friend Danielle writes about fashion, mental health, and running a socially conscious business.

To all fans and readers of Brute Reason,

I am Danielle Kerani, CEO/Founder of the knit fashion company AK Kerani and a fellow student at Northwestern with Miriam.

When Miriam first asked me to write a guest blog for Brute Reason, I was both flattered and excited. I have become a huge fan of this blog, mainly because of the bravery it takes to so openly confront anxiety and depression. Having struggled myself with these issues, I know how much of an internal battle it can be. For many months you can be stuck in a cycle of believing you are better only to let yourself down. And this cycle continues until you grow strong enough to realize that your depression is not only a pest that sticks to you. It is your twisted lover that you hate but from which you cannot part. And when you realize that you, not your depression, are the one keeping yourself from a healthy life, only then can you cast the ring into the fire.

Miriam requested that I talk about the seeming paradox of running a socially conscious fashion business. I created AK Kerani last summer in honor of my uncle, Atindra Kumar, who had passed away in June. Since then it has grown from a simple online platform to a vibrant small business selling high quality handmade products to promote knitting as a therapeutic activity for those struggling with anxiety and depression.

At this time, I knew just as well as I do now that the media, fashion-related media being one of the worst, is very conducive to anxiety. Fashion ads don’t merely attempt to persuade us into buying pretty and trendy clothes and accessories. They often seem to be rooted in a deeper manipulation, telling us that our worth lies not in our inherent value as people, but in our ability to represent society’s standard of sexuality. Seeing the adulation that models in ads appear to receive, we get thrown into loops of self-centered anxiety. If adopting the identities of these figureheads is the key to our happiness, why not starve our bodies and souls to be like them? Having partaken in all of these mindsets, I was able to see how all encompassing the media has become, such that nobody in the world, no matter what career path or lifestyle they choose to pursue, is completely immune to its influence.

I hope that AK Kerani can represent a different kind of world – one in which fashion is a means of individual expression and inspires us to love the world and its gifts. We don’t need to hate the world like helpless martyrs when we have a large part to play in whether this cycle stops or continues. I believe that one day, fashion can represent many pathways of real diversity, beauty and sexuality as opposed to one pathway of twisted, photo-shopped lust.

The main challenge of running AK Kerani is to figure out what place our company holds in the entertainment industry, the fashion industry and in society. Are we mainly in business to sell high quality fashion products? Or is our main goal to promote our socially conscious mission? Is there a way that these two elements of our business can intertwine perfectly? Or will one always come out on top? Ultimately, I often find myself struggling with one complex issue: How does AK Kerani battle the trends of the current fashion media without somewhat playing into the current industry enough to gain influence? If we don’t create traditionally appealing visuals to interest potential consumers, how will we ever be able to shout out our mission to a large crowd of ears?

We want to believe that the fashion industry can be a tool for social change. We want those who hear our mission to understand that hurting, starving and demeaning ourselves are not the only ways with which we can fight our anxieties. In hopes of counteracting these common reactions, AK Kerani will set up programs in hospitals and mental health institutions to give those struggling with anxiety not only an employment opportunity through knitting for us, but also a refreshing outlet for feelings they thought they could never control.

There is nothing wrong with looking appealing and celebrating the gifts that we all have been given. Pretty eyes, luscious hair and sculpted legs were never the problem. The problem is the significance that we ascribe to them. The problem is that we have been conditioned to believe that these attributes mean happiness, success and even love. And often, we force ourselves to relinquish all of these things in favor of pursuing the unattainable goal of a skewed perfection.

Though I have become way healthier at handling my own struggles with self image, disordered eating and overall anxiety, I have often wondered if the media’s damage is too pervasive to allow those of us who grew up with it to be completely healed. At times I am tempted to give up. If I am guilty of the same struggles my company condemns, how can I truly lead it to victory? And then I realize that humanity is not about being perfectly healed. It’s about struggling through adversity so that the light shines even brighter than it would have had you never fallen. We will always find ways to struggle, hate and doubt. An improved media, no matter how reformed and supportive, would not change that. But nor do we want it to. Because what we are striving for is reality – for the media to see us truly as we are and proudly represent it. And this can happen at anytime in any place as long as we learn to uphold different values – ones that seek to encourage instead of discourage.

Knitting, writing, and spastically experimenting with social media for AK Kerani have all taught me that success and health lie on an ambiguous continuum. To work out the kinks of a broken society and media, we must rebuild the confidence that we have lost piece by piece under its influence. And though we might think in grandiose terms picturing a new world, this world can only be achieved if we all commit to a slow and repetitive, but rewarding process of healing, row by row–one stitch at a time.

AK Kerani models (photo credit: Priscilla Liu)

Danielle Kerani is a native New Yorker who only just recently started appreciating the all-black stereotype: both in clothing and coffee.  Danielle is a junior journalism major at Northwestern University and is the Founder/CEO of the knit fashion company AK Kerani. In her free time, Danielle is a singer/songwriter, a blogger, a distance runner and a huge fan of exploring cool places with her boyfriend Jang, taking walks with her mom, and having crazy adventures with her super quirky friends. 

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the B’s

College students seem to love this poster, perhaps because it reminds us to calm the fuck down. Did you know it was originally created by the British government during WWII to keep citizens calm in the event of an invasion? How’s that for perspective.

A few weeks ago, our final grades for spring quarter were posted online. This usually happens on the Monday evening after the end of the quarter, and you see people posting Facebook statuses about their grades all night.

I used to be one of the people who’d sit there refreshing Caesar or at least checking my Facebook newsfeed so that I would know my grades the second they were handed down from above like a court decision. When you work for something for ten weeks, you want to know the results immediately.

But this time, I didn’t check my grades right away. In fact, I still haven’t checked them. And I’m not going to until the next time I need to update my resume.

It’s not that they were going to be extra crappy this quarter or anything. It’s not that I need good grades any less than I did before. Nothing changed, except that, one day not long before the quarter ended, I realized that grades had started to rule my life.

This is a long story, and one that will be familiar to anyone who’s attended a school like Northwestern. This story involves panic attacks, hours on the phone with one’s parents, Red Bull, and contrite emails to professors. It involves checking the average GPAs at all the top grad schools and choosing classes based on how likely you are to get an A in them. At times, it involves sacrificing education–true education–for a false feeling of accomplishment.

There are many episodes in this series. There was the time I sat in the snow winter quarter of freshman year and bawled before going back into Tech, finding the computer lab, and dropping a class for the first time. There was the time I told my mom I was going to just become a housewife after graduation (a housewife without a husband?). There was the time I seriously considered just moving to Israel and joining the army. There were the times–yes, unfortunately, that’s plural–when I did something self-destructive.

All that, because of a number.

One of the most insidiously dangerous things about the culture at Northwestern (indeed, probably at most elite schools, but I can only speak for this one) is how driving yourself crazy over grades and schoolwork becomes normalized. If a normal, average, non-Northwestern person saw me a few weeks ago–when I was freaking out and crying because I might do poorly on my Hebrew final which might give me a B in the class which might lower my GPA substantially enough which might prevent me from getting into graduate school which might prevent me from having something to do after I graduate–that person’s reaction would probably be horror and pity.

But a fellow student at Northwestern would just nod their head and smile and perhaps suggest that I get drunk this weekend to forget all about it.

While it’s great to have people who understand what we’re going through, I think it’s hazardous to our mental health that we have such an echo chamber of academic anxiety. Because any informed adult will tell us that this is all ridiculous. You’re not going to be screwed for life just because you failed one class at some point in college. You’re not going to be turned down from every job just because you only got a C in calculus. It just won’t happen. These are lies we sell to ourselves when we’re (understandably) worried and uncertain about the future.

I wish I had a crystal ball that could tell me exactly how it’s all going to work out–whether I’ll go to grad school right after college, which one I’ll go to, which degree I’ll get, where I’ll live, who I will be.

But I don’t. And in the meantime, I want to live my life.

It’s entirely possible that right there in my Caesar account, unbeknownst to me, is a grade so horrendous that I actually will get rejected from grad school. So I’ll go get a job until I can get into grad school. And if I can’t get a real job, I’ll go volunteer and work part-time until I can get a real job. It’ll work out, even if I might have to live paycheck-to-paycheck for a while.

Of course, it’s impossible to aspire to go to grad school and yet completely not care about your grades. I need to care about them and keep them as high as I can, and I think it’s natural to worry occasionally that they’re not good enough.

But this constant catastrophizing of every single exam, paper, and assignment?

That needs to go. I can’t live like that.

More to the point, living in a state of anxiety probably doesn’t do wonders for my academic performance anyway.

Regardless of my grades, everything will be okay and life will eventually work out.

Update: And because I can’t write a post without including something political and sociological, read this.

Leaving Medill

I knocked on the office door promptly at noon. She opened the door and said, “Can you just wait a few minutes? Our teleconference is running late.” I nodded. The door shut. I waited.

Twenty minutes later, I was sitting at a round table in a large, airy office full of plants. It had two windows, one of which faced my freshman year dorm.

“So, you’re thinking about transferring out of Medill?”

“Definitely transferring.” Her eyebrows go up. “I mean, I’m a junior, and I actually decided quite a while ago, so…”

“Can you tell me a little bit about your decision? I’m not trying to dissuade you.”

~~~

I remember all those nights. Clutching my camera or my notepad or both. Trying to find a way–any way–to escape the situation.

The worst time was when I was doing my final project for the last journalism class I ever took. I went to a gathering at my brother’s apartment–an event for young adults of Jewish/Russian descent. I had to interview people–not my brother, obviously. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make myself talk to anybody. My throat started closing up.

My brother’s apartment was on the sixteenth floor. Would that be high enough?

I ran outside and collapsed on a bench in a park, crying and trying to catch my breath. I felt ridiculous. The Medill School of Journalism had accepted just ten percent of its applicants the year I got in. There were nine other people who had desperately wanted my spot. And now I was bawling like an idiot because I had a terrible fear of talking to strangers.

They told me it gets easier with time, that you have to just make yourself do it. They said you would stop feeling self-conscious after a while. They explained how important it is to my future career that I learn to be pushy.

It never got easier. I always ended up gasping for breath and crying.

I don’t remember how I finished that project, but somehow I did. Not long after I started having weird neurological symptoms and became more or less numb to everything. I spent the summer at home, doing almost nothing. The one thing I accomplished was starting antidepressants to undo what being in Medill had, for whatever reason, done to me.

~~~

And today, two years later, I sat in her office and answered her question.

“It just wasn’t my thing,” I said.

~~~

Two years have passed, and I’m only now filling out this paperwork, going to this meeting, and making sure that the university knows whether to give me a BS in journalism or a BA in psychology.

Part of reason for the delay was my own laziness and lack of fondness for formalities like this, but another part of it was avoidance.

I hate going into the Medill buildings. Both of them. One is very new, all sleek and shiny, with high ceilings and plush chairs and new technology. The other is its opposite, old and creaky, with a rusty fire escape winding up the back. I once climbed all the way to the top of it and sat there late at night.

They’re both beautiful. I hate them both.

In these buildings I learned how to write a lede and use AP style. I learned how to use Adobe Flash and InDesign, Final Cut Pro, and Audacity. I learned how to shoot video and record audio. I learned how to harass people who didn’t want to answer my questions until they did it anyway.

Mostly, though, I learned what it feels like to fail.

I don’t mean what they call a “Medill F,” which is what happens when you make a factual error in a piece and receive a grade of 50%. That did happen to me, as it did to virtually everyone else.

But that’s not failure. That’s just screwing up. Failure is when your mind conspires against you and keeps you from doing something you desperately want to do.

I wanted to be a journalist, but I couldn’t stop the panic attacks that I got whenever I had to actually be one.

~~~

She signed my form and made sure I knew where to take it next.

“And know that we’re always here for you, even though you’re leaving. If you ever have any questions, I’m always happy to help–even you!” She smiled and I had to smile back.

She congratulated me again for my acceptance to the psychology honors program, and I thanked her kindly.

“Good luck, my dear,” she said.

And then, less than five minutes later, it was over. I left the building and I left Medill.

~~~

It’s been two years since I took a journalism class. My video camera, voice recorder, and microphone lie abandoned in my closet back home. I still use my tripod for my own photography.

My external hard drive died suddenly over a year ago, and with it died all the articles and projects I did. If there’s a heaven for vain attempts, that’s where they are.

My new chosen profession is similar to journalism in some ways. Both journalists and therapists do a certain amount of investigation and excavation. Both live and work by a code of ethics, and both must keep secrets. Therapists, like journalists, ask questions and listen and take notes.

But that’s basically where the similarities end. Therapists don’t get to attach their names to their successes. I don’t get to point out a person who came to me barely able to get through the day and now lives happily, and say, “This is my work.” They don’t award Pulitzers to therapists. If a therapist’s name is in the newspaper, it’s probably for something bad.

And yet. My freshman year, one of my journalism professors told me a story about something she saw as a young reporter. A horrific plane crash had just happened and many were injured or dead. She was assigned to cover the story and showed up at the local hospital along with all the other reporters. The hospital staff told the reporters that there was a special room for grieving friends and family and that they must not attempt to interview the people inside.

Then someone came out of the room and sat on the floor, next to the door, with her head in her hands. My professor couldn’t bring herself to do it, but another reporter walked right up and said, “So, who’d you lose?”

I retell this story whenever people ask me why I chose psychology over journalism. It illustrates so pointedly the differences between these professions. Journalists do important work, work without which our society couldn’t function. But their allegiance is to “the people,” who “need to know.” The allegiance of a therapist is always, always to her client.

~~~

But I won’t pretend that this is a happy choice. I’m glad to have found my calling in life, but when I tell people that I “chose” psychology instead of journalism, as I told you just now, I’m not really telling it like it is.

“Choosing” means picking one thing when you are equally free to do either.

I was never free to be a journalist, because my broken brain wouldn’t let me.

Maybe if I had been, I would still have chosen psychology. Maybe not. Either way, now I’ll never know.

Most of us were raised with the idea that we can be whatever we want to be. Well, maybe that isn’t always true.

Learning How to be Happy

I’m going to go out on a limb and criticize something even more popular than the things I usually criticize–my school’s Happiness Club.

The Happiness Club is a prominent student organization at Northwestern that aims to increase happiness by planning all sorts of activities for the campus, such as kite-flying, free hot chocolate, water balloon fights, “silent” dance parties, and so on. In other words, all fun and exciting activities.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that it’s not “happiness” that these activities are promoting; it’s momentary joy. Momentary joy is an important component of a happy life, but it’s not even close to all you need.

Let me explain. Most Northwestern students have been fed on a steady diet of stress, sleep deprivation, and SAT prep classes since before we hit puberty. The kinds of effects that such a diet inevitably has–for instance, perfectionism, fatigue, anxiety, and depression–are things that no amount of kite-flying will cure.

To put it bluntly, most people I know here (myself included) are simply not capable of living our lives in a way that’s conducive to long-term happiness and well-being. We suck at prioritizing–academics and extracurriculars come before friends and family, every time. We demand perfect grades from ourselves. We apply to only the most prestigious internships and burst into tears when we inevitably fail to get those positions. We fill our schedules to the point that we have to schedule in shower time. We don’t pause to relax, think, or meditate.

In other words, the skills that we lack–balance, mindfulness, perspective, and a healthy amount of compassion for ourselves–are exactly the things that are not being taught to us here. These are the skills that lay the foundation for a happy and meaningful life.

Of course, there are resources. CAPS (our psychological service) offers workshops, and RAs are encouraged to emphasize the need for balance and stress relief to their residents. But the people we look to and trust the  most–our peers–are often more of a negative influence than a positive one. (For instance, how do you think I feel about my own study  habits when my friend tells me she stayed up till 4 AM studying, slept for two hours, and got up at 6 to keep going?)

That’s where a group like the Happiness Club should, theoretically, come in. In addition to the undoubtedly fun activities that they already plan, why don’t they offer workshops on stress relief, meditation, or yoga? Why don’t they bring in speakers who talk about how one can be both productive and happy in college? Why don’t they encourage greater awareness of things like perfectionism, anxiety, and depression?

We need to start up a campus dialogue about these things, because there isn’t one right now. Occasionally, late at night, one of us will admit to a friend that we’re just not living the right way. But this conversation needs to happen on a larger scale. There is too much misery here. I don’t doubt that many Northwestern students are happy in some sense of the word, but they’re not as happy as they could be, because while all the adults in our lives have taught us how to live a successful life, nobody’s taught us how to live a happy one. Maybe it’s time to teach ourselves.