Mel Kobayashi: Fearless Fashion

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For the launch of my new book Fifty and Other F-words, I'm sharing a series of interviews of women over 50 who are kick ass warrior women. They exemplify the message of the book, that rules are made to be broken and women over 50 are fascinating, fabulous, fierce creatures! I wanted to make a virtual version of The Lady Party, inviting powerful, persistent women to the table. These women are redefining what it means to grow older, through their art, writing, businesses, and even their romantic lives. 

We begin with Melanie Kobayashi artist, writer, provocateur, stylist, public speaker, videographer, and wonderfully wild woman over 50. She’s the fascinating personality behind the popular Instagram and blog of the same name Bag and a Beret. She pens a Vancouver street style blog Culture Serf and creates surrealist videos on her YouTube channel. Her paintings are alive with color and movement, fascinating, energizing, beguiling. From abstracts to social commentaries, she has a distinct voice and perspective.

Mel has been featured in Elle, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire Ukraine/Brazil/Hong Kong/Netherlands, and PopBee. She was named one of the top 7 best blogs by older women and Over 50 women with ridiculously good style by Who What Wear. She was also listed as a top 10 fashion blogger over 50 who completely dominates the style game by Pop Sugar.

 Mel with her alter ego Miz Bagg.

Mel with her alter ego Miz Bagg.

There’s a connection between her paintings and her fashion images. She’s become the canvas and the clothing and accessories the paint. Mel loves fashion, fashion loves Mel. Mel and her outrageous alter ego Miz Bagg are proof positive that age has absolutely nothing to do with style. If you aren’t following her adventures online, get on it. She’s puts the f in fabulous, one of our favorite f-words.

I have been following you for the past few years online. You have such a great sense of humor and fun, and I think that sets you apart from other style bloggers and Instagrammers. Did you have a plan when you started Bag and a Beret, or did it grow organically?

First, thank you for those words of praise. It almost feels like you’re talking about someone else!

I started my blog in early 2012 to have a blast with “Style, Comedy, Art,” which is my tagline. I still do; that basic tenet hasn’t changed. Outfits, sketches, videos, mini rants, style fictions, art, a satirical life/style magazine, I’ve played hard. And aging and fashion are fertile grounds for comedy and exploration. But there have also been subtle organic shifts in my blog too.

At the beginning I was all about pushing my style boundaries. Through that process, I discovered that my clothes are almost secondary to how I “own” what I wear. So now, with limitless style options, I’ve begun asking myself, what do I really, really want? My stage covers a wider scope of expression as I feed myself in new ways.

Many new real-life challenges that have come up through my social media. I’ve confronted the terror of modeling, auditioning, public speaking, schmoozing, being interviewed, and filmed, things I never imagined doing when I started out, and I blog about it all. Now I can imagine anything.

Which brings up this next point, the idea that social media success means monetization. At first it freaked me out. Would that make me a sell-out? I’m not alone in this; it’s a convoluted idea held by many artists, especially women. But now I say, hurray! Get paid for my social media success and creativity? That’s wildly empowering when I retain editorial control.

What drove you to explore style as a form of personal expression? Who is Miz Bagg and how does she factor into your equation?

There was a confluence of three major events that propelled my style explorations. 1) In my late 40s I noticed that people started to gaze right through me like I was invisible. I was not!! Their vision was broken and I used my personal style to fix their “youtheyetis.” It worked. 2) I lost my big art studio where I did large-scale action painting, so I started funneling that pent-up energy into action styling. 3) I was going through life turbulence beyond my power and surrendering to the chaos through creative expression in art and style saved me.

 Miz Bagg by Melanie Kobayashi

Miz Bagg by Melanie Kobayashi

Miz Bagg, I love her! She is my alter ego - outrageous, narcissistic, super-high-fashion, absurd, Anna Wintour on crack maybe. Miz Bagg is an extreme risk-taker who enjoys satirizing fashion, lifestyle rules, and aging beyond my own comfort level. She is a scapegoat and cultural vanguard at the same time.

You have a very strong sense of color. It’s clear in your paintings and your fashion photos. Women tend to tone themselves and their fashion choices down after 50. You’ve dialed it way up! I’m with you on this 100%. There’s this weird pressure on women to “age gracefully” and become invisible. In Fifty and Other F-words, I encourage women to age in whatever manner they see fit and to allow other women the room to do the same. Talk to us about your thoughts on color, style, and being Technicolor after 50!

We are definitely on the same page here, Margot!

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It’s ironic that just when women are starting to become invisible, a bunch of style rules kick in on how to stay that way. I don’t get it. It’s a bit like the chicken and the egg: are we invisible because we want to be or are we invisible because people treat us that way?

Personally, I’m doing my best to be seen and heard through styleactivism, a word I made up which means, when I dress to feel fabulous, those positive vibes impact my environment as well. It’s a form of community care. I have never felt more alive.

My clothes bring any movie, song, character, or scene to life, real or imagined, from Tilda Swinton to Charlie Chaplin. They affect my movement, attitude, and even interactions, full-on Technicolor. Dressing in something I love can turn a down day into something extraordinary – without drugs, well, except caffeine and chocolate.

I think it’s a shame when women looking for more excitement in their lives don’t take advantage of this easy pick-me-up because they are afraid, so I feel fantastic if I can motivate them to embrace a more colourful existence.

Finally, for me, clothes are also not just fabric on skin; choosing to wear what I love is an exercise in freedom. Use it or lose it; that sounds implausible, but is it?

We share a deep love of thrift shopping. You’ve made some great thrift store videos.  Do you have any thrift store tips to share? What’s the coolest thing you’ve found at a thrift store? What’s the weirdest thing you’ve found at a thrift store? What do you say to women who are hesitant to step inside of a thrift shop?

 Melanie Kobayashi strikes a pose!

Melanie Kobayashi strikes a pose!

Haha, my thrifting videos are a blast to make with my friends. In fact, thrift shopping with friends is one of my top tips - it’s never time wasted laughing, rummaging, and trying on outfits in a thrift shop. Where else can you relive your school days, your prom, and your first job? Of course, it’s always a shock that these clothes are now, gulp, vintage.

On the practical side, thrift shop clothes can be mis-sized and mis-hung, so it pays to have a peek through several sizes. Also, check the sections you might usually overlook, like sportswear or suits, or even menswear, I’ve found great robes and t-shirts there.

The coolest thing I’ve thrifted is also my best score – a pair of lace-up Miu Miu boots for $15, which I saw featured in a Vanity Fair magazine the next day. The shop thought the crackle finish was damaged leather. Of course I have many vintage pieces that are also contenders for first place. The weirdest thing I’ve found is a tie between a pair of faux-suede, fringed short shorts and a real tutu.

To the hesitant woman, do your research in advance to find a thrift shop that looks the least intimidating – there is a wide variety of them. It would probably help to make your first visit a fun outing with friends, and consider following it up with a debriefing at a favourite hangout. Also, keep an open mind. You’ll be amazed at the range of quality and variety, and the low prices make it easy to experiment with new looks. My only caution? Watch out – you might get addicted!

I am intrigued by the Art and the Brain lectures you did with Dr. Paul Swingle. A lot of my fans are artists, can you talk to us about Unlearning How to Paint? What does that mean? How does it work?

The university where I studied art specialized in what I call brainy art, the kind that sacrifices beauty for deep meaning, so art for beauty’s sake was a no-no. Realism was a no-no. Painting itself was pretty much dead.

 Mixed Media Abstract by Melanie Kobayashi

Mixed Media Abstract by Melanie Kobayashi

At the time, I liked the intellectual exercise, but I didn’t know it would cripple my ability to make joyful art for the next 20+ years. Every time I’d try to do a still life or landscape, I’d hear the questions – Does this have meaning? Is it valid? And stop. I was so stuck!

Then, on impulse, I started making art that integrated, say, joyful colour, but within a critical framework, as a sneaky way to get my happy fix, although I didn’t see it like that at the time. I went through tons of these exercises exploring different themes. Of course, I was subconsciously creating a roadmap for Unlearning How to Paint – or deprogramming myself from the rules.

One day, a couple of years into the journey (yes, it took a while), I found myself poised over a carpet of paper 5 feet by 12 feet, a one-foot brush in each hand, with several cans of house paint, great music, and no brainy context whatsoever, just the freedom of the moment. And it hit me: I was CURED!!! This is the success I shared in the lectures and workshops.

Now I’m amazed that I can create paintings that look not unlike those of one-time child prodigy Marla Olmstead from the documentary, “My Kid Could Paint That.” Or brainy art if I choose; the point is, now I have choice, and I see the value of each approach. Getting there wasn’t easy, but it was so worth it. If someone now looks at my painting and says, my kid could paint that, my reply would be, Thank goodness! Could you?

Let’s talk about the Travelling Yellow Skirt Freak Show. You took a negative comment from a friend and turned it into an invitation for women to celebrate positivity. It’s interesting to me, because it’s such a layered thing that you experienced and shared. You let it breathe, and considered it, and that’s powerful. What I like best is that you’ve decided not to give negativity power. I think that’s wise. I’m a huge fan of delete, block, exhale. We don’t have to accept or entertain every thought that someone flings in our direction. Can you share the story of the skirt? Is it still on the move?

Like you, Margot, I try to celebrate the positive and exhale the negative. This is exactly what the Travelling Yellow Skirt Freak Show was all about.

The Freakish Yellow Skirt (FYS) is a big, bold, bright-yellow maxi with an elastic waist, which I bought on super-discount at a retail shop. The first time I posted on it, I received a negative comment from a male friend. The other women on my blog immediately sprang to my defense. I tried to make light of the comment, but it was the first critical one I’d had on my blog.

A blogger in Australia, Sarah of Misfits Vintage, suggested that I send the skirt out into the world for a cleanse and as a symbol of positivity. This was her idea, not mine, but I thought it was excellent and The Travelling Yellow Skirt Freak Show was born. Australia was the first stop. Another blogger, Shelley of Forest City Fashionista, soon joined in to help coordinate FYS’s itinerary.

Six years later, FYS now hangs in my closet, retired, safely home after thousands of miles logged around the world, heavy with the imprints of 35 woman, including myself, who have worn her, photographed her, and honoured her spirit with the addition of a unique signature in fabric, paint, and notions. Clearly, it’s not my skirt anymore; FYS belongs to every woman who has contributed to her fabric. And her energy still shines.

Although FYS is not still traveling, I feel that her journey is not over. It’s possible there may be a little book about her adventures or a small gallery show.

What’s next for Mel and Bag and a Beret?

 Mel Kobayashi in Armani

Mel Kobayashi in Armani

Ah, the big question. The success I’ve had with social media is creating many exciting new opportunities. I am starting to offer style-boost coaching and an e-course. I’d love to do more motivational speaking on the topic of joyful pissed-off aging as well. I say “speaking,” but what I do is a bit more like performance art. I have other projects in mind too that feature the words Think Big. Heh.

In general, I am more proactive than reactive in my life now. When I started out, I named my email actlikeadiva because I figured if I aimed over-the-top, falling short would still be a step toward empowerment.

So get ready for more Mel and Bag and a Beret – if you can stand it! Hahaha!