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Cruelty Free Fashion + Body Image: A Conversation with Cristina Palesi

Trigger warning: this article discusses eating disorders.

On an August afternoon, I met with fashion journalist, designer, entrepreneur, and body image life coach Cristina Palesi to discuss vegan fashion and her body image message. We first met during a fashion show in 2022, where we instantly bonded over our similar fashion choice for that evening, and even further when discovering we were both vegan and involved in mental wellness. We knew we had to make a collaboration piece, and after months of travels and scheduling mismatches, we finally set up an interview in South Beach, Florida– at a vegan restaurant, of course.

I loved this conversation and how profound it turned. Cristina has an important message on body image I believe can really help people who are struggling in this area. She also shares some inspiring ideas on cruelty free fashion and style. Coming back to her roots, she gives us a glimpse of her life, work, struggles, spirituality, and inspiration. I really enjoyed this interview, and I hope you do too.

M- Thank you for being here! Could you tell me a bit about your career in fashion and how you arrived to cruelty free fashion in particular?

CP- I basically was born vegan. So, for me, it was not really a transformation–it was automatic. I always respected animals, and I always felt very close to nature. I felt a natural connection to trees. My mom, she loves flowers. We have a garden in Italy, where we always planted flowers. For me, plants and the environment were part of my family. It was something only to respect.

I started my career in journalism writing for New Age magazine back then. I was studying, and then I worked for the Italian television RAI, and the editor told me, “Hey, you're back from LA, there are a lot of interviews to do. You speak English better than us; would you like to start coming in the magazine and helping us?" I was already studying communication and got a degree, So I said OK. At the beginning, they don't pay you. Then, I became assistant editor and it's no coincidence that the first magazine was New Age. Then, Boston called me and said they opened a new magazine after us. Everything I wrote about would be about the planet, the environment... they would send me to places like India and Nepal, and I was like 24.

So, it wasn't like I chose it; it's like the universe chose me for this work for me, without me even knowing what I was looking for. I just happened to be there because the director of production was opening this magazine with another editor and publisher. I just happened to be there, but I don't believe in fate or destiny.

And now I'm still doing journalism, with more energy than ever, and still eating vegan all the time. Despite some people saying I was supposed to die, I ended up doing things. Some people my age say, "without fish or meat, your brain won't work". This was a huge demonstration of what is possible when you listen to yourself.

I was attracted to fashion because my mom has always been very creative, very extravagant; she wasn't the typical lady in the eighties. I think I got that from her.

This is my mom, a beautiful, classy lady. She wore bold colors, like Pucci. She likes sophistication, and at the same time, quality. She inspired me. Now, I bring my mom to fashion week anywhere. She's 82, and she looks great.

We travelled around the world, with my dad, and she always wore flowers and dressed natural. So, I think I was born with a mother who knows about style and loves nature. So, for me, this style was innate, in my DNA, because I got it from her.

I decided to use cruelty free and organic fashion because I respect animals. And my mantra is "you must be the change you want to see the world". I always say that.

Something that breaks my heart is when animals are exploited to make leather or food, to show off richness. No, people need to understand that animals are not here for that, and we all come from the animal kingdom. We don't understand that that there is no separation. We are all one. We are animals, too. Some people say, "If you aren't gonna eat meat, someone else is". I don't care. We started from one. Don't do to others what you don't want done to you. That's what the Bible says. "You know what? We'll kill an animal and make a bag with her skin" A bag? I don't think so. To me, that should be of the biggest concern.

M- What do you think fashion should represent?

CP- You can be created with fashion. You can express freedom. Fashion is also a way to socialize. It's a Latin term, "modus", which means "rule". It could also be a way to identify yourself.

I believe in color therapy. Fashion can change your mood: if you're in a good mood, you dress with color, and if you're in a bad mood, you think, "Oh, I'm gonna wear some color because I'm down today". When I wear pink and look at myself in the mirror, I automatically feel better.

Fashion is a way to put all your energy in a positive way, like an artist puts it on the fabric. A piece can express sensuality, femininity, and at the same time, comfort. It doesn't need to be like "You can't move, you can't open your legs". And at the same time, I like imperfection. It doesn't need to be perfect.

M- Would you like to tell me about your travels to India and the fashion project these travels inspired?

CP- I went to India for a spiritual trip, and while I was there, I realized they have amazing, embroidered fabrics. It served as a platform for designing more accessible and exclusive pieces rather than the pieces like I did in Italy.

It's important for me that people also feel that it's okay to be imperfect, coming from a background where I almost die in pursue of a perfect body. The reason why I chose kaftans mostly is because I want people of all sizes to feel comfortable. It is like eastern meets western, because I took my inspiration from India and Morocco, which is the eastern world that I was always attracted to as a child and used to travel to with my dad.

I liked the colors I saw in India and Thailand. In Italy and France, it's all black, black, black, black, skinny, black, winter; and I finally saw color, and realized my style was there. Then I thought "I wanna do that. I want to put a touch of color". So now, that was a catalyst for me to be freer. Fashion equals freedom. Fashion equals "we are not a body; we are inside a body".

A lot of people are like, "I wanna buy black because it makes me look skinny". No. Do you like black? Just follow your heart. Don't do the dress because you look skinny. Ask yourself, what do you really like?

What I want to do is help people feel better with their body image. And my line is very in sync with that concept because it's really eastern meets western, we all are one. I want people of all sizes to wear the piece and feel free.

M- Would you like to share about your spirituality and how it impacted your career?

CP- Oh, we'll talk forever. As I mentioned, I started at a young age as a journalist for a spiritual magazine in music. I was invited to meet and interview Deepak Chopra and the Dalai Lama. So, I was obliged to study metaphysics, energy–things that at the time, were kind of "what is that?", very unknown to me.

I started to really be in the spiritual path, which sometimes led me to isolation, meditation, spending time by myself, even though I'm very social.

And it saved me because wisdom, meditation, introspection, writing, gratitude, journaling, and talking with people who are spiritually advanced, is life changing. Like in Milan, there were a lot of materialistic people, it was very difficult at the time. So, I needed to isolate myself. I read a lot of books. Like, I have a closet of books. Seriously. I don't know how many, but I have more books than clothes. I believe reading is something that is fundamental. It is fundamental, I insist. Traveling too. I'm spiritual and I believe it's a lifestyle. It's not just one hour of yoga, you go home, and you forget about it. For me, being vegan, teaching yoga, doing life coaching, makes me feel useful and at service–because we are here as service.

I believe in God very much because I'm a miracle. Not necessarily in a religion, but I believe in God, in that he used me as a pencil. I've been praying to Him when I was in time of the deepest food disorder, when I could not work out, I was hospitalized, I was even prohibited to go for a walk because I could fall and die in the clinic. To be told at 16 years old: "here, you have three days of life," was a big awakening call for me to realize to go deep inside. I was in a limbo, either you start eating again, and stop being obsessed about body image, or you're really gonna go. At the end, I went and came back, thank God. But I made this promise to God in my understanding when I was in that obscurity or light, whatever you wanna call it, on the other side, in the near-death experience, that said "you can use this to help people with your testimony that the God within you, whatever you wanna call it, is powerful, and nothing is impossible... You're gonna go and show yourself, the world, that you can make it". It's the mind, the faith, the positivity.

So, my dream was coming to America and discovering a new land, even if I had a good job in Milan. I left everything because I knew that I got this vision that I needed to come to America to help people love themselves, accept themselves. Until you don't accept yourself, you can wear any Chanel, anything you want. Organic, not organic, sophisticated... It's not gonna be the same. You have to be confident; you have to be comfortable in yourself. Then, you can wear a $1 outfit and feel great. You need to really believe in that. Not for fashion. Because today my suggestion to all these new designers is, with all due respect, don't do it just because you think it is now in fashion and you're gonna make money. This is my advice: follow your heart, follow your dreams. No matter what, don't let excuses, or money, or your parents, or competition bring you down.

M- You talked a bit about the issue of eating disorders and body image. Would you like to delve deeper into this? Also, you mentioned that until you accept yourself, fashion doesn't even matter. How did you get to accept yourself after such a struggle? What would you suggest to someone who is going through this?

CP- Talking to people that have been there is the number one. Of course, also studying. I studied psychology, life coaching, and got a lot of certifications. We tend to believe people that have been there more. Because also it's about perfectionism. Mostly, if you look at the statistics, they're very intelligent people with high sensitivity and intelligence. So, they are not stupid people. Sometimes the eating disorder happened because your parents divorced. Or a boyfriend left you. So, you know, sometimes it may start because of a trauma. The important thing is reach out talk, don't hide, don't be ashamed. I call it the cancer of the soul because it's not only a mental illness, like people think. It's a combination of spiritual, emotional, and physical factors. So, it's a combination: reach out, talk to people that have been there. And believe in yourself. Don't give up. Don't compare yourself to others. Don't look at social media­– because of all these filter re-touches, everybody feels insecure about their body.

There is a process of forgiving yourself, because eating disorders could be feeling guilty. It could be trying to be good children, or feeling guilty because that guy left you. It could be fear of abandonment.

Work on accepting yourself. I started waking up in the morning and saying "I love you, Cristina. I love you." Embrace yourself like you are your best friend. Because at the end of the day, there is one thing for sure: you're gonna go in the coffin alone, with God. But you aren't going to bring the people who judge you. At the end of the day, you have to really love and embrace yourself. Every day I wake up, I say "thank you, God", because I went to sleep and woke up. So really don't take life for granted and do your best, rather than focusing on your body.

Just focus on what you can do, on how can you use your intelligence, on how you can help with your creative skills.

We all have a gift. Find out what is your gift: singing, sewing, creating, painting. Just go ahead and risk it, with fear. Risk it with fear. That's my suggestion. To me, the faith in God is a plus that helps me to believe that somebody loves me and I'm worth it to live. I have a lot to give. And now I see a blessing in what I went through because when I connect with somebody, sometimes the mother calls me crying saying "after you talked to my daughter, she started to read and get better, I don't know what you did in one day, the doctor didn't do in five years".

I was given three days to live. My dad asked me what my dream was and when I said coming to America, he got me on a plane, even when everyone said I was going to die. "She'll come better than ever", he said. And I did. My dad is my inspiration: he believed in me. Do you know what it means for a father to put you on a flight and say, "she will come back better than ever. I believe in her"?That was everything to me. That is also one of the things that I suggest for eating disorders: to find somebody, especially parents, to keep you from giving up. Parents: instead of "what did you eat today?" just try saying, "how do you feel today?”, and try to really give courage.

I knew deep inside I was going to survive. But today, I know that if you don't tackle it on time, especially after a certain age, I saw a lot of people die. So, for me, this is a mission. I know for sure I want to help people through my book eventually, to go on tour, and through the life coaching that I'm doing specializing in addiction.

I lost the best years. The only way that I'm going to feel that I don't regret those years is when I connect to somebody in a way that is useful, and my testimony of the same God and the same power helps. The Cristina, the Maria, the Maggie within you, the same that healed me, can heal you. So, if I can do it, you can do it. That's what I'm looking for now, more than anything else. Now, whatever is left, I'm on a path, so it's now or never. And that's why right now I want to focus on that. And in parallel doing fashion based on the idea that no matter what, no matter where you are, you are not a body.

M- How do you think the fashion industry has contributed to this issue?

CP- I'm happy that this fashion week in Miami, even if everybody in Milan criticizes when I show them the pictures, they were finally choosing people that are not just the skinny stereotype. I'm happy, because the fashion industry should use more universal sizes, not just zero, because otherwise that makes you think "I'm not like the stereotype". Fashion and the filters often contribute in a negative way because they make you feel that you're always not good enough or not skinny enough, or not normal. I hope everybody started to believe we are not a body, but we are inside a body, we are spiritual beings and we have much more to offer than a body.

We are spiritual beings and we have much more to offer than a body.

M- Thank you for sharing. You have been working on some things. Would you like to share a bit about them?

CP- I'm not superstitious, like a lot of people, who don't say anything until it's happening. I'm working on a book, which is work in progress, because I'm always busy between travels.

I'm working on the Frida jewelry collection because it's been kind of successful, and also working on something new that is gonna be a surprise. It has to do with fashion. And made in Italy, still. I still stick to my country because there is not much made in Italy left. So eventually, God will and tailor will, it will be happening. And then we'll see what the universe and God have in storage. I'm going with the flow, but it's definitely gonna be something with quality, originality, comfort, and a touch of elegance.

For more information on Cristina Palesi's designs and coaching, visit her website.

Article written by Maggie Stilman. Vria Moda.


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