The Aesthete

Pretty in Pink

Piera Gelardi of Refinery29 is the ultimate indie girl

by Annabel Tollman photography Backyard Bill

Piera Gelardi was destined to take the road less traveled from the start. Growing up in an artistic, entrepreneurial family, “we would joke that the Gelardis are unemployable so we have to employ ourselves.” Getting a culture fix in pre-Internet, rural Maine required research, planning and orchestration—driving an hour to get to the movie theatre that showed indie films—“Almodovar, John Waters, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Strictly Ballroom, Party Girl, anything with Parker Posey”—or 45 minutes to the bookstore that sold The Face were standard missions.

When Gelardi was 13, she spent two weeks in New York City with a friend and was sold. “I went to Jerry’s [the legendary diner in Soho] and saw Stephanie Seymour. It was around the time of Guns n’ Roses’ ‘November Rain’ video. I remember exactly what she was wearing—a vintage-looking sundress.” Gelardi took a summer course at RISD and then went to NYU to major in Studio Art. At 19, she did an internship at City magazine where she eventually worked her way up to photo director. It was there that she met Christene Barberich, now Refinery29’s editor-in-chief.

“You can’t take yourself so seriously if you’re wearing pink.”

Launched in 2005 with $5,000, Refinery29 now attracts one billion page views per year and has editions in six U.S. cities as well as a global version and was recently ranked by Inc. 500 as one of the fastest growing private media companies in the country. Philippe Von Borries (Gelardi’s husband) and Justin Stefano came up with the idea for a site that would serve as a place where you could discover the best independent boutiques, designers and products. Gelardi and Barberich then joined in as co-founders, and Refinery29 was born. “At the time, there wasn’t anything focusing on more emerging designers,” says Gelardi. “We wanted to create a place where we collapsed the physical space. We featured 29 boutiques—we wanted to refine and distil it down to the best.”

Gelardi’s style is, in her own words, “colorful, eclectic, modern meets vintage,” whereas Refinery29 is “refined but with a wink. Clean and simple but also fucked-up—but maybe I shouldn’t say that…let’s say ‘controlled chaos’…” Although there’s not necessarily a definite visual parallel between the two, Gelardi’s charming off-the-beaten-track, emerging-designer-centric, thrifty, arty point of view is evident.

Gelardi’s closet is as impressively and tightly edited as her site. She ruthlessly purges (“if I don’t wear something, it’s gone.”), and filled with color, print and novelty. There are several pieces that she hangs onto for sentimental reasons—the “Mojo” shirt she wore on her first date with her husband, as well as the T.J. Maxx jumper that her mother bought for her when she was 12 (and that she wore for this shoot). “Once a year I’ll think ‘this is awesome’ and I’ll wear it and nobody gets it—they’ll say ‘Oh, I like your shoes.’ For a time I tried to tell people it was Jeremy Scott.”

Hanging on the door handle are vintage bags—a raffia clutch embroidered with bright pink flowers, a metallic crochet satchel, a primary beaded hobo bag. Neutrals and basics need not apply. Vintage is clearly a passion, and like all good vintage-a-holics, “I do tons of shopping on eBay. (Her saved searches are Rachel Comey, Vena Cava, Loeffler Randall, Miu Miu.) The cover of Sassy magazine featuring Jenny Garth in the late 80s was Gelardi’s inspiration to start shopping at thrift stores. “You could see the price written from the Salvation Army on the bottom of her clogs. I like to recycle, and I don’t like to spend a lot of money on clothes. I’m a bargain hunter!”

Although Gelardi is not a splurger (“My upper limit is $300 on an item.”), she does have her fashion fetishes: mini skirts, short shorts, all things printed, colors, motorcycle jackets, button-down shirts, statement earrings, geometric gold jewelry, the aforementioned weird bags and high heels that she can walk—or dance—in for hours. Her annual Pink Party birthday celebration has been a tradition since her first year in New York. “You can’t take yourself so seriously if you’re wearing pink. If everyone’s guard is already down then they can just have fun.” (Before they started dating, her husband attended one of her pink parties wearing black. Apparently Gelardi gave him hell.) 

Because wherever you are, or whatever you’re doing, clothes matter. “The picture taken the day I was born shows my mom wearing an amazing nightdress and earrings – she thought about what would make a good picture.” Gelardi packs that philosophy along when she travels: “When we go to Cape Cod, we go for long epic walks, and I’ll bring long, bright dresses because I know it will inspire my photographer friends. You’re adding to the visual plane and your outfit is part of the experience.” We speak about Marilyn Monroe being buried in Pucci. And what of Gelardi's own finale look? “I’d like to be buried in an amazing nightgown with wonderful statement earrings. I want to be comfortable yet glamorous.”