professional style, fashion blog, lifestyle blog, preserve, blake lively, career, opinion piece, lifestyle brand, fashion illustration, beauty, work, outfit, wardrobe, martha stewart, goop, gwyneth paltrow, business, startup, starting your own business

After reading a string of increasingly acerbic reviews of Blake Lively’s languidly executed foray into the celebrity taste-making market over the last few weeks, we decided to objectively assess her eclectic blog-tique creation for ourselves. While trying to figure out what Lively could do to, pardon the pun, Preserve, her website as an e-commerce mainstay, we realized the need to examine the concept of the “lifestyle expert” more closely. Where (and when?) did this career path materialize? What distinguishes a bona fide, qualified expert on homemaking and entertaining from a mere peddler of non-necessities? Finally, how can Ms. Lively succeed as a purveyor of goods like artisanal small-batch pickles while simultaneously cementing herself as a trusted authority on the very lifestyle that she endorses?

Though the concept of the lifestyle expect may sound fairly new (and one which we frequently associate with Martha Stewart, queen regnant of all things domestically cooked, constructed, and decorated), it’s actually been around for ages in slightly different incarnations.  What likely began as a social hobby for the noblesse oblige paved the way for various wisdom-imparting women, and, later, for the “lifestyle gurus” we know today.  From Emily Post’s omniscient manifesto on manners to Dear Abby’s cheeky but adored advice columns, lifestyle commentary has always had a place among women.  Then, with the advent of television, we got our first food prep guru (Julia Childs, arguably the O.G. of the celebrity chefs).   Though these guru-predecessors each had a narrow purpose and a specific goal (manners; ethics; gregarious gastronomy), they were loved and respected by women for their expertise in their respective fields, and were relied upon for their lessons and recommendations.  Then, with the emergence of Martha Stewart, everything changed. 

Stewart (whom we admittedly cannot discuss objectively because we generally take her word as gospel) essentially invented, cultivated, and promoted the modern concept of the domestic goddess/lifestyle expert.  Not only could she cook, but she could decorate, host, and even take on impressive home improvement projects—all with grace, creativity, skill and efficiency.  Martha Stewart gave girls and women of all ages and backgrounds an endless supply of achievable inspiration to try innovative, practical, and beautiful projects in the kitchen and beyond.  Part archetype and part fairy godmother, Ms. Stewart has laid a path for countless women (in the media and in their own homes) to try new things, take on new projects, and elevate the quotidian to the elegant and delightful.  It is this very notion of elevation that has led many of today’s self-anointed lifestyle experts down the rabbit hole, often crossing into the territory of eyebrow-raising smugness.  Despite the tendencies of her successors, Stewart has managed to stay true to her purpose.

While Stewart has promoted a lifestyle of elegance, her presentation has always been grounded in democratic practicality.  Though her storyboards, ideas, and recipes often incorporate high quality products or implement specialty tools, her overall concept is universally achievable—by practically anyone willing to put in the work.  Stewart’s ideas (and products) inspire and elevate, but they are earnest and not overwhelming.  Her ideas may have elements of primness, but they are not smug.  Some of her recipes may be difficult to pull off, but they are rarely presented with either cheap shortcuts or obnoxiously gourmand requirements.  It is largely due to her consistent delivery of the achievable dream to the masses that Stewart has managed to maintain a wide sphere of influence over the lifestyle guru/domestic goodness market without being dethroned.  Though there are plenty of chefs, decorators, homemakers—lifestyle experts—who contribute their own valuable expertise, Stewart is generally accepted as the true guru.  Still, the lifestyle expert market is growing, and not all such gurus adhere to the achievable-for-all model.

For example, many post-Stewart lifestyle experts have chosen to cater exclusively to the activities and shopping habits of the upper-crust demographic.  Because a large number of one-percenters (1) don’t mind spending exorbitantly on things they don’t need and (2) generally have far less domestic and DIY hobbies than their lower tax bracket counterparts, the “life advice” directed at the well-heeled is typically more focused on chichi shopping tips and materialistic, curation-based ideas, and less on creation-based projects.  Of course, as celebrity lifestyle emulation has become increasingly popular, the non-upper-class masses have gravitated toward the luxury consumerist ethos, and “lifestyle, generally” has shifted to “lifestyle of the wealthy.”  Coupled with a buy-now-pay-later economic mantra, an increasing emergence of retail therapy and the convenience of e-commerce, the bar on acquisition and affordability (whether real or imaginary) has been partially lifted for the general public.  Having the means to afford things previously allocated to the leisure class has turned into a fluid concept.  Savvy retailers, marketing gurus, and with them, lifestyle experts, have capitalized on this changing tide.

This “champagne taste/champagne pockets optional” paradigm shift partially explains the runaway success of GOOP, Gwyneth Paltrow’s newsletter/celebrity Skymall.  GOOP enjoys an equally massive following of both devotees and dissenters.  Conceptually intermingling the price tags of Net-a-Porter with the approachability of Rachael Ray, GOOP entered cyberspace at the apex of the fashion and lifestyle blogging craze.  Though Paltrow has always noted that GOOPwas started for her friends (presumably, her pecuniary peers), she also conveys this idea that the easy, effortless, breezy life (that comes with a not so breezy price tag) is within anyone’s reach.  Though the unintentionally condescending tone of her recommendations and musings often illustrates a deep disconnect from her largely plebeian audience, Paltrow promotes a lifestyle of simplicity through luxurious consumption. GOOP’s approach to lifestyle expertise illustrates the contrast from “achievable by all” to “obtainable by all those with means.” 

Other observers have pointed out that GOOP’s inherently tromp l’oleil approach of spending liberally to curate an image of effortlessness stands at odds with Stewart’s implicit position that it takes actual work to achieve actual results.  But take this distinction a step further and consider the teleological implications of these approaches.  While GOOP’s guide to lifestyling seems to encourage taking pride in hiding the ball on how much was spent to appear au naturel, the Stewart way, which focuses on DIY instead of spending, results in enjoying the fruits of one’s labor and taking pride in both the labor and the results.  Though we are not going to compare the merits of embarking on $500 a week juice cleanses to roasting a flock of Cornish hens from farm to table, it is important to recognize the fundamental differences of these two forms of lifestyle guidance—and that generally, they are fundamentally at odds with each other. 

With two opposing models in mind, Preserve’s niche in the lifestyle market becomes quite perplexingLively’s project, which she admittedly spent several years developing, is one part smorgasbord of pretty snapshots and blurbs, one part eclectic country store for rich out-of-towners, and one part altruistic/reflective travelogue.  Though taken individually, each of these missions is well-promoted and well-executed, Preserve seems to try to accomplish entirely too much in one space, which is confusing for some and irritating for others.  The final product kind of resembles an eager teenager’s inspiration board–lots of pretty snippets reflecting an array of competing interests and ideas.

Beyond its ambitious punch list of goals, Preserve’s very ethos is fundamentally at odds with itself.  In part, Preserve sets out to travel deep into our country’s roots and tell the stories of its path-less-traveled Main Streets.  It’s a lovely idea—and the effort is visible in the photos subjects—but, when combined with the elements of lifestyle curation and e-commerce, the storytelling loses much of its meaning and its authenticity.

Other than content cohesion, Preserve also seems to have a hard time identifying a viable target audience. By attempting to appeal to the everyday young American (who is, generally, of limited means), Preserve misses the price mark.  Trying to entice the population of today’s youths—who are, according to Lively, moving away from the big corporate consumption model and toward small, individual, hand-crafted special things with a story—Preserve tries to offer something different, but perhaps falls short of thinking that transaction through to completion.  How can a socially conscious but broke 22 year old be induced to purchase a $500 skirt or a $17 jar of pickled vegetables, especially when said consumer is (1) likely strapped for discretionary funds and (2) well versed in cost-saving options for achieving the same effect? 

Further, the very demographic that Preserve seeks to target—young, slightly artsy, Americana-loving consumers—is inherently unlikely to buy into a website created specifically to appeal to its purported interests.  In fact, that is the demographic most likely to reject anything that sounds remotely like a gimmicky attempt at selling something.  

At its crux, it seems that Preserve tries to reconcile the Stewart ethos—taking pride in craftsmanship and appreciating the hand-made—with the GOOP aesthetic—spending freely in hopes of attaining the appearance of effortlessness (a sort of consumerist Nirvana?).  By profiling artsy DIY-ers and then selling their fancy, steeply priced creations all in one place, Preserve overwhelms the palate.  Part of the taste-making formula is figuring out the difference between whetting the audience’s appetite with captivating ideas and offering a sensory (and conceptual) overload.  It also helps to have a lifetime of experiences and trial and error to pull off a venture of this magnitude and complexity with success. 

Perhaps Lively was not sure what she was getting into when she started this website.  Maybe she was given some bad advice, or was pulled in too many directions by her team.  It is possible that Preservefell victim to the over-editing effect, as is evidenced by its lily-gilding verbiage and filter-heavy layout.  Criticism of the website, which has held a magnifying glass to the website’s every flaw, has pointed out that Preserve tried a little too hard to be something without really figuring out what that something is.  That’s a harsh observation, but probably not entirely untrue.  It also doesn’t help that Lively is often conflated with her most famous role, UES vixen and mumbly aficionado of sequins and bedhead, Serena van der Woodsen.  To see Lively shift gears from big city glamazon to dusty road documentarian is a bit unexpected, particularly for those who have a hard time separating the actress from a character she portrayed on a TV show.  Though seeing Lively in this new light is going to be quite an adjustment for both her fans and critics, it doesn’t seem right to hold her acting roles against her future career choices.

Despite its rocky start, Preserve can certainly evolve from a hipster hobby shop to a fun and engaging lifestyle hub, and hopefully the criticism has not discouraged Lively from taking notes and making improvements.  It takes years—sometimes even a lifetime—to build a successful website, let alone an entire lifestyle brand, and to achieve critical acclaim requires luck, talent, and patience. There is no reason why Lively can’t find her own niche in the lifestyle market; it’s just going to take some time and creative restructuring.  

Preserve needs to figure out her audience, and find a way to connect with them that’s a bit deeper than an invitation to “preserve the connection.”  Beyond that, Preserve needs a clear position to take in the lifestyle expert world without caking on too many layers (effortless shabby overpriced Americana chic, for example, is going to need some tinkering).  When Preserve finds its footing and develops an unique and unconflicted point of view, it could very well find itself thriving among already established lifestyle experts.  It is too early to judge Preserve’s success, and it’s only fair to give its ambitious take on a well-meaning idea the benefit of the doubt.

-Stylish Council

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