Zady Lady: Meet Accidental Icon Lyn Slater
The #zadylady interview series highlights some of the brilliant and accomplished members of the Zady community. Submit your own on Instagram—tag us @zady and include the hashtag #ZADYLADY for a chance to be featured on Zady’s Instagram or Chronicle.
There’s nothing accidental about Lyn Slater’s ascent to the top of the style blogging game. Lyn shares her personal style and designer picks on her blog Accidental Icon, as well as her popular Instagram account. She’s caught the eye of fashion lovers and insiders alike for her powerful, minimal aesthetic. With her command of an outfit, you’d think Lyn is a fashion industry veteran, but her chosen career is in social work, which she teaches as a professor at Fordham University.
We were thrilled to have Lyn school us on her work and considered approach to style, and how powerful fashion can be, from street style to the court room.
Your web audience knows you as the force behind the fashion blog Accidental Icon, but you are also a professor of law and child welfare at Fordham University. Tell us a bit more about your area of study, and how you began working in the field.
My first master’s degree was in Criminal Justice. I started my career working with what at the time were referred to as female juvenile delinquents. That experience was during the mid ‘70s, and was concurrent with society’s discovery of child abuse, sexual abuse and domestic violence. Being in a 24 hour a day secure facility, I got to know these girls in a very different way than if I had started my career just seeing them an hour a week. I heard horrible stories of their trauma, and began to feel very frustrated with how the criminal justice department was dealing with these problems. During that time, I came into contact with a child psychiatrist who was a pioneer of residential treatment, focused on providing a therapeutic environment rather than punitive. I became very interested in this work, because many times the girls I worked with were put in the facility for running away from abusive situations, and were reenacting traumas from abuse. That led me to pursue social work.
I’ve pretty much always worked with women and girls, specifically in the child abuse/domestic violence world. I also gravitated to social work because of the flexibility of the degree. You’re trained to look at problems, their causes and solutions, at an individual, group, societal, and political level. That offered me the best group of tools to face the issues for these women and girls, and be part of changing that picture for them. As part of that process, I often worked in the court and with lawyers. At one point, I was part of a legal organization that worked with children. I was the director of a very large sexual abuse project there. I thought, If I am an extraordinary social worker and work with extraordinary lawyers, together we can make great things happen. That led me to get hired by Fordham to develop an interdisciplinary program in social work and law. At that point I got my Ph.D. because I wanted to learn the research to support my advocacy.
Like you, so many people who love fashion don’t work in the industry. How have you managed to reconcile your career and your interest in fashion throughout your life?
For me, fashion and what I wear is profoundly part of my identity. I very much believe that identity is fluid, and can change throughout your lifetime as you transact with different environments. In the mental health profession and in the law, people make assumptions based on what you wear, through court reports or psych assessments. The first sentence of these documents is usually some description of clothing, as if that communicates something important that we need to base a very serious judgment on. So I realized very early on that what you wear is very powerful. It has enormous power to oppress, but also has very productive power.
I’ve always been very performative in how I use clothing. It really is one of the methods that I use to tell a story about myself. I’ve always been a little rebellious, and my clothes are always a little step over, which in turn makes my look very unique in terms of personal style. I went to all Catholic schools growing up, and had to wear uniforms. I really tried to make my uniform look different, but the challenge was also following the rules. We couldn’t wear jewelry but could wear religious metals, so I had a collection of religious pins and necklaces and pendants, and would use them to create my own identity on my uniform. No one could tell me to take off that pin of Mary!
I’ve brought that approach into my work with clients. There was often tension between how the lawyer would want the client to look in court, and how the client would want to look. I brought my love of fashion into social work, and would ask the client, “What do you want the judge to think about you when you go in there?” And also “What might you wear to help the judge think that?” They were then able to put together something that they felt comfortable and confident in. If, like many people, I had said “you need to wear a suit,” my clients could feel anxious and uncomfortable, and their behavior could be negatively misinterpreted in court. I truly believe, and there is science to back it up, that clothing can clearly impact your internal space, your brain and how you feel about yourself. It’s happened to me personally, and I’ve seen it happen to so many of the women and girls I work with.
It’s an interesting narrative to build when you start wearing sustainable clothing. What does that say about you? How does it make you feel to wear something completely natural versus when you’re wearing something that’s not? It would be interesting to see how this impacts a person’s feeling of authenticity.
“What I love about Zady is first of all, the minimalist look of the clothes, and that they’re timeless. And then when you click, you find this amazing story about where they came from. It goes so perfectly with the women who follow my blog, who want to think about clothes.”
You’ve talked about how society makes older people invisible, and how a strong sense of style is an antidote to that. How does this inform your style, which is often minimal but always incredibly striking?
In terms of being visible, I actually never talk about aging on my blog or other platforms. I use my clothing as a way to convey to everyone how I feel about aging. I have this line that I follow. Because I am still a professional, and I work in a professional world that in many ways is still corporate, I have to be taken seriously. I can’t be wearing costumes that are over the top. I’ve had to challenge myself to stand out but be taken seriously.
My first strategy is to wear black and white. Ninety nine percent of my clothes are recycled. Even the designer clothes I wear are consignment or vintage. I might wear a black asymmetrical Comme des Garçons shirt with rips, paired with a tailored white blouse. People associate black and white with clergy and judge robes; they make the judgment that you’re serious. I want to walk in a room and have people think “no one in this room looks like her, but we can’t say she looks inappropriate.” I also think because I do dress in a minimal way, I use my hair, my signature huge earrings, sunglasses, dark lip and grey hair to add an element of boldness. So I can up it, and still meet that line that I need to meet.
How do you combat the culture of throwaway clothing purchases while still celebrating fashion on your blog?
I think it has to do with the fact that a vast majority of my clothing is recycled. I have also been very picky, and I can’t even tell you how many things I have turned down. I have two standards: first, would I wear this in my real life, and second, I need to know all the details about how the item was made. I often support emerging designers, because they are coming up in a new culture where they are automatically thinking about sustainability. So I really do reject a lot of products and then I wear pieces over and over again on my blog, wear the same shoes and glasses. My look is usually done in a pretty thrifty way, through recycling, through how I style things.
I generally look at clothes as something that will add to a collection I will have forever. I don’t shop for a season; instead I might invest in an expensive piece that might be a signature, and then I’ll style around it with something much less expensive. You can wear an expensive item with something less expensive. That’s what I love about fashion, that some of those boundaries are breaking. Unfortunately, people do that with H&M, but you can go into consignment shops and vintage shops instead! You can get some beautiful stuff, and that’s really how I do it. I do a lot more showing then telling, and I believe sometimes that’s more powerful. If I want to engage my students, I don’t lecture them. I’ve taken some of those same approaches that I use in the classroom, where I have to engage and inspire young people and get them excited to learn, and transferred that to my social media.
Your grandmother’s love of dress influenced your own interest in fashion. What is it like being a grandmother yourself now?
It’s interesting, because I am so aware of how my grandmother influenced me - how important she was and how much I adored her - that I think about that every time I’m with my granddaughter. I am really fortunate, I have an extraordinary relationship with my daughter, and I’ve made sure that I’ve seen my granddaughter every week since the day she was born. I want to be this exciting presence in her life. My daughter is stylish but not into fashion like I am. I’m thinking maybe it skips a generation, because my granddaughter is already showing signs of loving clothes and dressing up. When I was young, I would watch my grandmother get dressed, which for her was an hour long ritual. It was cleansing her face, putting on makeup, her hose, putting her outfit on and making sure her hair was fine – the whole ritual of it. My mother had six children, so really she was slapping some water on her face and getting dressed for the day. Mothers are so busy! Especially now, so many moms work; they’re taking care of business. Grandmothers can be the ones that bring in the fantasy. Not that moms can’t, but I just think there is a special connection there with grandmothers.
My daughter said that there is no way my granddaughter could just call me “grandma,” and instead she should call me “Coco.” And she does! I’ll get off the train and my granddaughter will run out to me calling “Coco, Coco!” And the other day my daughter sent me a funny picture of the two of them coming home in the car, my granddaughter in back, my daughter in the front, both wearing sunglasses, with the caption “Sunglasses styled by Accidental Icon.”
You are a style icon to so many people. Who are your style icons?
That’s a hard question! Patti Smith, Ann Demeulemeester, PJ Harvey, Rei Kawakubo. I think they’re my style Icons because their style is very much about their identity and who they are. Minimalist but so cool. They have a particular kind of thoughtful style—I really like that look of a thinking women.
One of the things about my blog that I love, is that I started it for women who wanted to think about fashion on a deeper level. My blog audience is different from my social media audience. My blog audience consists of a smaller but consistent group of women who are about 40 to 70 and live in international and urban environments. For them, it’s not enough if I just say “look at this new designer.” They want to know the designer’s story, and how they made the clothes. And then they ask the question, does the designer’s work match me and the person I want to be? They are always experimenting and want to have these kinds of conversations. Many of them are professional women. I love reading their comments because they’re so smart.
What is your most treasured piece of clothing?
Right now, I’ve been having a love affair with silk. I’ve been wearing silk pieces a lot! It’s so comfortable and natural. Silk in dress form is even better. But I expect that when it gets cold, I’m going to want my black leather motorcycle jacket.
You recently posted about how you think more deeply about the products you put on your body and their origins. How did this desire come about, and what advice do you have for others who want to accomplish the same while retaining their sense of style?
I guess I’ve been on a journey as I’ve gotten older, of really thinking much more about the environment, about health and wellness. I think particularly because of my work around trauma, which is very focused on the body. It makes you aware of the impact the environment can have on your body and brain. The Columbia School of Public Health did a study recently showing that certain pesticides used in public housing products caused developmental delays in those children. Our first instinct is to blame parents for those delays, but it was the environment that really played that role. I started to see the impact of environment on physical well being, and think more deeply about what I’m eating, what I put on my skin. Even about the sun: when I was growing up you put baby oil on and burnt to a crisp. It’s the ongoing realization of how powerful environment is, and how it can impact your brain and body and what’s inside of you. I’ve noticed differences in how I feel when I eat organic food versus processed food. It’s an ongoing journey.
Lyn Slater of Accidental Icon was photographed in New York City by Calvin Lom.