It’s easy to preach self-love — but in reality, we tend to be our own worst critics. That’s why we partnered with Clear Eyes, the #1 selling eye drop brand, to celebrate the shining moments in life when we can see ourselves most clearly. Ahead, meet one woman who embodies that very ethos.
In Lisa Sun’s office, there are six living, sentient human beings, and 16 mannequins. The space — one room in an industrial building in New York’s Garment District, wedged between a deli and a storefront that specializes in metal snaps — operates as both a factory and headquarters for her clothing label, Gravitas.
Unlike most luxury apparel lines, Gravitas clothing comes in sizes 0 to 26W — hence the surplus of mannequins. But check the label on any one of the brand’s latest pieces, and you won’t find a number. Instead, you’ll find a word beginning with any one of the letters in GRAVITAS. “The number means nothing. Numerical sizes are just a scale, and I was tired of beating myself up over which number fit me,” she says. “It sounds way better to say, ‘I’m between an ace and an inspiration,’ so we just got rid of the numbers.”
These prose labels — what Lisa calls “life labels” — make no distinction between what is traditionally “plus-sized” and what’s not. “Growing up,” Lisa explains, “I’d be shopping with my friends and we would look at handbags and jewelry together, then they’d go on shopping on the 4th floor — but because I was a size 18-20, I’d get sent up to the 8th floor to find clothes that fit me. I hated that.”
Rather than continue to find herself relegated to the boonies of department stores, Lisa engineered a solution of her own: an on-trend line of professional, size-inclusive apparel with shapewear built in. And fortunately, with 11 years in high-stakes business consulting behind her, she was no stranger to the nature of manning a startup. “When I got my start in consulting, I was 22, and I weighed almost 300 pounds,” she tells me. “I sat down for my first professional review, and my boss looked at me and said: ‘Lisa comes across as young and overly enthusiastic at times. She should seek to have more gravitas.’”
Not knowing what, exactly, gravitas referred to, Lisa looked it up: dignity, importance, and depth of substance. “I was like, I don’t have any of that, I’m 22. So I went back and asked her how I could get gravitas,” she pauses to laugh — it’s clear that she’s told this story before, halting for emphasis in all the right places. “My boss said, ‘Go buy a new dress, wear big jewelry, get great shoes. I will teach you how to be a great consultant, but every morning, you have to wake up in your own body, and you have to like yourself. And I cannot teach you to like yourself.’”
This was surprising — Lisa had so often been told that a sense of self could not possibly be derived from exterior factors. But she began to understand something: Great clothing, while perhaps not essential in its own right, was a vehicle of self-reflection — a means of changing the way she looked at herself.
Over the following decade, Lisa moved up steadily within that same consulting firm, the “gravitas” comment quietly urging her forward. And once she’d reached what felt to her like a professional threshold, she decided to take some time off. “I saved up and took a whole year to travel all over the world,” she tells me. “If you have the means, it’s really such an important thing to do.”
Her globe-trot came to its final stop in Taiwan, where she spent one month with her parents. “My mom is like the leader of the tiger moms, so the first thing she said to me was, ‘When will you get a job?’” Lisa says, shifting into an exaggerated imitation of her mother’s Taiwanese accent. “I told her how much money I’d saved and about the sorts of things I might possibly want to do, and she said, ‘Oh Lisa, go bet on yourself.’”
Sure enough, the next morning, Lisa awoke to emails from family friends and lawyers claiming Mrs. Sun had reached out, and they were happy to help Lisa launch a company back in New York. “I came downstairs and was like, ‘Mom, what did you do?!’” She laughs. “My mom was like, ‘I started you a company. Now go bet on yourself.’”
That was October 12, 2012. Lisa knows because she still has the emails. She reads them every now and then. On her laptop, she pulls one up from the depths of her inbox to show me, by way of proof.
Another relic she still has on hand: a patent with a shiny government seal glued to the front, still stored in its protective envelope, delineating the terms of Gravitas’ official utility patent on “Garments Including Shapewear.”
The first line of dresses, which set the precedent for all that’s followed, came with slips designed to work the way spandex undergarments might but styled to custom-fit the clothing items they were sewn directly into. “They really work,” a woman working quietly at the opposite end of the table tells me, glancing up from her laptop — one of the four employees dispersed amongst the sea of fabric. She looks to be in her early 20s, and she’s wearing a silk scarf, designed by Lisa, tied around her head in a bow. “[Wearing Gravitas] was the first time I had a pencil skirt that actually looked good on me. I wore this stuff to all of my first job interviews. I was offered so many opportunities, it was crazy.”
Lisa explains that this young woman — Julietta — now a full-time employee at Gravitas, is precisely the sort of customer they’re looking for. She also says that Julietta’s mother was a mentor of hers in the consulting world.
“I’ve actually never told you this,” Lisa says, looking over at Julietta, “But when I first was emailing with your mother in 2014, she wrote to me and said, ‘You have to promise to give my daughter a body-positive experience.’ I think I did — I think that’s why she stood behind the company.”
Beyond Julietta’s, there’s no shortage of transformational stories available from Lisa’s customers. Enthusiastically, she shows me email after email. She pulls paper letters out of drawers, all creased enough to indicate they’ve been opened and re-opened on several occasions since their arrival. One comes from a woman who needed a dress to wear to her son’s graduation, her husband having left her just weeks ago. For the first time, she’d have to face him again — so she wore Gravitas. Another comes from a woman who bought a Gravitas dress for her mother, who worked as a caretaker for her terminally ill husband for five years before he passed away. It was the dress she wore to the funeral. A third comes from a woman who recently ran to be the youngest-ever judge in an L.A. county municipal court — and won. In the photos she sent, her son slides her judge’s robe over the shoulders of her Gravitas dress in the midst of her swearing-in ceremony.
Lisa says she has spent “thousands of hours” in dressing rooms with other women, helping them find clothing that will “catalyze confidence,” in the parlance of the company's tagline. “I mean, it’s amazing what happens when you’re semi-naked with someone in a fitting room,” she says. “But here’s the thing: Most women over the age of 12 walk out of dressing rooms hating themselves. Every woman will tell me she doesn’t like her arms, she doesn’t like her butt, she’ll give me a long list of things. My job is not to have you fit into a dress, it’s to find a dress that fits you. And after we spend some time together with my clothes, everyone comes out being like, ‘Oh my god! Look at my butt! Is this dress magic?’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m just helping you see the best parts of yourself.’”
Lisa knows that there are times when the act of getting dressed feels a little something like an exercise in self-loathing — a welcome opportunity to pelt yourself with grievances directed at your own flesh. “I always say you have to pay yourself a compliment before you can receive one,” she says. “So when I’m in the fitting room, I typically ask these women what their superpower is. Obviously we’re human, so I just mean the thing in their real lives that they feel utterly confident in.” She pauses to look at me. “It really works. I’ll prove it. What’s your superpower?”
Ill-prepared to offer up answers in the midst of an interview I’m meant to be conducting, I freeze.
“I’m a good listener?”
Lisa beams and claps her hands together. “You are a good listener!” she exclaims. “I suppose you have to be in order to do your job, but I can tell it comes naturally. You have amazing active listening skills. Truly!”
For whatever reason, this is one of the most exceptional compliments I have ever received. Lisa’s enthusiasm has the desired effect: While she speaks, I think to myself, Wow, I’m an incredible goddamn listener. I am the best listener. It’s not hard to imagine why this tactic has worked for her in many a fitting room.
“Oh wait, while you’re here,” she exclaims, jumping up from the table, “Do you want to see a jumpsuit you can pee in?”
Her energy is contagious — she’s like the PR-agent-cum-best-friend most of us merely dream of. She seems like the sort of woman who might moonlight as a motivational speaker — who can code and French braid and perhaps also install your air conditioner. But ambition aside, Lisa’s real superpower is evident: She has an extraordinary way of reflecting women back to themselves, always in the most flattering light.
“I’m like the body positive version of a skinny mirror,” she says, demonstrating the seamless easy-pee flaps in a black jumpsuit she’s located on a standing rack. “But all I’m doing is telling women the truth when they most need to hear it.”
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