Designing the future
Photos by Rochelle Brodin Photography
Since the start of The Doyennes, we’ve been fascinated by cool collaborations and people who put their skills to work in surprising ways, often to make positive change. The women behind Sexy Beast for Planned Parenthood LA do exactly that: by combining their talents and their experience from different fields within the creative industries, they have merged their passion for the arts with a desire to support an organization that’s vital to women’s health. Since the founding in 2014, Sexy Beast has raised over one million dollars for Planned Parenthood LA. We’re impressed, and met up with the three directors to hear more about their work: Sonny Ruscha Granade, a former gallery director, now a private art dealer; Kristen Stegemoeller, a writer with heavy names like Paper Magazine on her resume and now creative director at Karen Kimmel Studio in LA; and Tera Uhlinger, who with a background from brand marketing and the music industry now works with Sexy Beast full-time.
First of all, what is Sexy Beast about – what do you do?
Kirsten: Sexy Beast started off as a bi-annual fundraiser for Planned Parenthood Los Angeles. Two gallerists founded it, and Sonny was part of it from the start. The two founders disbanded their partnership right after the election in 2016, but obviously women’s reproductive rights are still front and center with this terrible new administration, so we couldn’t let it die! The founders basically passed the torch to Sonny, and she brought us along. We have more diverse backgrounds – Sonny’s in the fine art world and Tera and I are in brand partnerships and strategy; I’m a creative director and Tera is a strategist with a lot of production experience. Given the nature of our diverse backgrounds, we took Sexy Beast and wanted to transform it into something that incorporates the creative community at large, rather than just exclusively the art world. Also, because of the urgency for fundraising for Planned Parenthood right now, and for keeping it in the public eye, we got really ambitious and decided that instead of Sexy Beast being just a fundraiser, a gala event that happens every two years, we wanted to make it a year-long conversation and fundraising project.
The first component of that were the t-shirts that we did with Jenny Holzer and Virgil Abloh. We’ve done a lot of local community events and product partnerships with artists and designers as well, and we will host the mentioned gala fundraiser in October.
Speaking of… how did the t-shirt collaboration happen?
Tera: The Sexy Beast founders also had a collaboration that they did, so when Kirsten and I were brainstorming ways to kick-start fundraising efforts, we thought “what a great way to do that!” - to partner with an artist to make a t-shirt that we can sell. We came up with a list of artists that we wanted to approach, and Jenny Holzer was at the top of the list. We approached her and she, by some grace of God, agreed to work with us!
The whole group laughs, and tells me that Holzer then asked them if her friend Virgil could join the collaboration, as she had just done a menswear collaboration with him. Long story short – the friend of the renowned artist Jenny Holzer turned out to be fashion designer Virgil Abloh - founder of streetwear brand Off-White and now artistic director for menswear at Louis Vuitton. Needless to say, the ladies of Sexy Beast were ecstatic about the collaboration with both, and the t-shirts turned out amazing.
The #JennyxVirgil collaboration boosted Sexy Beast’s social media following and gave them a more global audience. Their Instagram is particularly popular, engaging their audience with topics related to social activism against sexism and racism.
But how do they choose what to post?
Kirsten: I’m the de facto social media coordinator, haha! I’ve consulted for brands before, but this is the first time I do social media for myself. I’ve previously worked with copywriting, so it sort of felt natural. The great thing about this project is that it’s not like we’re putting on any kind of voice… it’s 100% aligned with our perspective and who we are, how we want to speak to our peers in the creative community. We want to keep the conversation about women’s rights and reproductive rights, but also about activism in general. Obviously, there are a lot of really bad things going on right now, and many people are getting upset about it and getting involved in it. We’re part of that wave ourselves, and felt a personal urgency to connect our talents and the things we’re good at with a cause. In America, people have since the election in 2016 gotten in touch with their political identities in ways I don’t think has happened in decades. We know what’s happening locally with our politicians, and there’s this awakening on the importance of local politics. So in all different arenas, whether it’s for Planned Parenthood or gun safety, regular people that aren’t community organizers or have any political ambitions at all, are trying to find their own lane to push these causes forward, in a time where they are threatened from all sides.
So, coupling that with my status as the oldest person who’s still on Tumblr – haha – that’s where the images come from, Instagram just felt like a really natural outlet. We want to encourage people like us, who are artists, designers, writers, chefs, dancers… to look at this and see their own kind of activism inside of it, to get them involved in the conversation and get them involved in fundraising for Planned Parenthood.
Tera: It’s an easy access way to involve people, in a non-threatening, fun way.
Kirsten: We’re trying to keep the conversation powerful and joyful. We talk a lot about joyful resistance – there are days when you look at the news and it just feels like there’s no good in this world, like it’s being choked out, by terrible ideas and terrible people… There’s plenty of that in social media, so we try and keep the tone powerful and pro-active, because all is not lost and there are plenty of things we can do.
How is Sexy Beast moving forward these days? What are you working on?
Tera: we have another collaboration going on, we’re working with jewelry designer Gabriela Artigas on a signature pendant that will be sold to benefit Sexy Beast for PPLA, we’re really excited about that, and then we have our gala in October.
Kirsten: We’re going nuts on the gala right now!
Tera: A gala is a big undertaking for us, in a good way. It really is a full-time job. This is a small to mid-size event to produce, but we’re also handling all the product partnerships, sponsorships and talent, and getting the grants to pay for it. The three of us do all the work ourselves, along with the host committee that supports us. The gala really embodies LA - the work that we’re doing, bringing the community together and bringing artists and fine art, emerging artists and chefs together. That’s what’s really exciting about this. We do some micro-events for fundraising as well; we’ve partnered with Philip Lim on a shopping event at their flagship store downtown, and we’ve had an event for the Women’s March. We’re always trying to pay attention to things that we can be involved in that don’t take too much of our time.
Organizations like Planned Parenthood are now more important than ever, with the current American administration cutting funding of many women’s health programs, not only in the USA, but worldwide. How can individuals and organizations help counteract the destructive consequences of this?
Kristen: On every subject matter these days, whether it’s gun safety, whether it’s the environment, whatever is it – everyone is united in this urgency to focus on the November elections, so we can potentially take back the House and Congress. It’s like a fox in the hen house situation when it comes to who Trump is putting in charge of the government agencies: the global gag order happened almost immediately, that was Tom Price, the guy who was fired for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on flying around on jets… The reality of it is that for specific things like that, we won’t be able to reverse it until we change the administration. Now, when the Republicans control every arm of government, we can’t even bring policy to the table.
Sexy Beast works specifically with Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, and although Planned Parenthood has a national office, it is divided into state branches because the state is a very important entity in America. That has created a lot of problems for some branches; there’s for example only one Planned Parenthood branch that provides abortion in Mississippi. That’s the hot button issue when it comes to Planned Parenthood - people aren’t getting angry about pap smears or cancer screenings, it’s the abortion conversation that has inflamed the whole cultural conversation around this. Even if it’s a federal protected women’s right to have access to abortion, states are doing everything they can to limit that access. All these right wing think-tanks will test out, on a state level, legislation that makes it impossible to get an abortion after x amount of weeks, or hold places that offer abortion to emergency room standards. There are a lot of different battlegrounds on this issue, and we’re focusing on the one in our community, which is Los Angeles.
What people can do is to look at what’s happening in their state. Planned Parenthood Los Angeles provides a beautiful vision of what health care for families; teens, women and men, can look like if allowed to flourish across the country. Their mission is to provide expert, affordable care to people as soon as they need it, wherever they need it. We’re trying to push for the future of Planned Parenthood – the laws of California are just more liberal than in most of the other states - but I’d say that figuring out where your state stands and which actors in your state are trying to push trough these retrograde decisions on Planned Parenthood and other women’s healthcare providers, I’d say that’s a great place to start, because that’s where you can have the most impact.
“Grassroots activism is the way of the future”
Tera: It’s about what you can do for your community, that’s why we staying in the Los Angeles area, because that’s our community. To Kristen’s point: we’re in a very good place in Los Angeles, we’re in a very good place in this blue state, but we talk about community because if I was in Alabama for example, and I had the same heart and the same active mind that I have here, I would focus on my community there and what’s important. We’re talking about how we can fix the problem - voting is the number one focus. It’s about rising up with the community. Right now, we’re seeing it with the marching in the streets to protest the gun laws. It’s a big task to look at the global aspect of the government failing us, but if you start by paying attention to your neighbors and what’s going on around you, and you start being more kind and more supportive, it all expands from there. The other part of that is building up a community that feels safe, creating an environment where you can go out and be active and support the people around you. From there, if every community pays attention, it does spread – globally!
On that note: I’m reading a book right now that’s called “Why Women Will Save the Planet,” and in the essays in that book, several prominent female leaders emphasize collaboration as a means to achieve great things. The connection you guys have made between the arts and Planned Parenthood is a great example - do you have any advice to other people who want to make a difference, but don’t know where to start?
Tera: Find people and reach out! I mean, the way we came together was very organic, but we also don’t say no to meetings and to people. We’re so fortunate that people reach out to us a lot now - never feel like you can say no to people or stop learning, because that’s how collaboration naturally happens. I also think it’s important to support people who are on a level you were at maybe 10 years ago and work with them, because that’s how you empower other women to find their voice.
Kirsten: What the three of us have connected with through this process is that it gives us creative and mental stimulation in our jobs. It’s about taking you passion and what you’re good at and applying it so it has meaning. If you do something for a brand, you can have the satisfaction of a job well done, but if you can take that set of skills and find a cause to donate it to… I’m not even talking on a huge scale - I mean, we’ve turned this essentially into our job, - but you don’t have to do that, you can work on a smaller, local level. Graphic designers, for example: if you look at any politician on a local level, you know they need a graphic designer. If you just take a minute and look around, letting your cause and skill set guide you, you can immediately find somewhere to contribute. That’s how you end up meeting people that have the same values and passions as you do, and that’s where the magic really happens.