March 8 marked a momentums day for women all across the world. This day we celebrate the progress women have made, against all social currents and odds, throughout the last hundred of years till now. While we think it is 100% necessary to celebrate the fruits of all waves of feminism, it is important to not lose sight of the long journey ahead of us, in search for fairness, justice and equality. To celebrate this we are highlighting some amazing women in Hong Kong. This week we’re honoured to be introducing Frédérique Gilain — a two-time breast cancer fighter as well as a brilliantly stylish Chief Legal Officer.
I am a lawyer and I have been working in Paris, Tokyo, London and Hong Kong for the past 30 years. I grew up in a French middle-class family in the country, where success was indexed on school grades. Happiness, fulfilment and creativity were not ignored but were not coming first. I am also a wife, a mother of two, a friend, an art and fashion lover, and a cancer survivor.
There is an expression in French, that refers to things having to be done in good and due form. When I was a little girl, I misheard or misunderstood it for things having to be done in good uniform. It was a strong belief of mine that looking the part was already half the job. In my 7-year old mind, I was associating “uniform” with some extravagant costumes not with a one-size fit all outfit that identifies you. I had a very clear desire to dress for the part, not to conform but to exist and express myself. I see and use fashion as a way to express myself. We all know that clothes do not make the man or the woman, but it is a starting point. Your style says something about you and how you want to be perceived, it’s a big part of our non-verbal communication: you can lie, you can hide, you can act, you can pretend, you can intrigue, but at the end of the day, as for everything else, it has to be genuine, it has to be you, it can certainly be an enhanced version of you. You may get a little help in the confidence zone but the way I think about fashion, is not in terms of trends, but what I like and the great pleasure I find in wearing clothes in a certain way that is my way, my style if you want, not for people to compliment me (although this is nice too) but for me to feel whole, to feel alive and unique. In short, this is part of the full package of who I am.
In the workplace, I have always been a bit of a rebel when it comes to the dress code, dressing a bit less conventional, more fashionable, more designers than uniforms. Over the years, I heard a lot of comments and critics and had to reassure people that wearing leather pants does not make you a reckless person, that not wearing a navy suit with court shoes does not make you “casual” in the way you approach your job and responsibilities. But more importantly, I have also come to realise that, as a senior female leader, presenting myself slightly differently gave my teams and co-workers the strength to bring themselves to work fully and to express themselves fearlessly, using whatever channel, to the fullest. How could we be innovative, make things happen if we were all expected to think in the same way and say the same things? If you think or are told that you have to conform, body and mind, then what is left to diversity and progress? If you have to bend yourself, restrict your thoughts and deliver what you think is expected from you, then there is very little room left to creativity and to make your mark. There are obviously many ways to inspire and empower people, what I am talking about is just an example, this is one of the tools in my toolbox, not the only one but one that is very natural to me.
I had breast cancer twice in my mid-40s and underwent the full spectrum of treatments, from surgery to chemo and radiotherapy. I want to say that every cancer journey is different and I can only talk about my own experience. It was not easy, far from that, but, somewhat, I consider myself lucky as I kept a very positive outlook and saw the glass half full most of the time throughout the treatments, which was a huge strength when it came to fighting this battle.
Among other things, staying stylish, being creative with my looks, putting makeup on and getting dressed every day, helped me play a more active role in that battle. It gave me energy, strength, freedom and confidence. I was learning to live in this new body of mine, to treat it well, to accept it and to love it too (which is quite a task, believe me!). I was not trying to hide the fact that I was undergoing treatments, how could I? I simply needed to do it on my own terms and in my own style. To build the inner strengths I needed. I very quickly realised that every time I was going to the hospital or to my doctor’s clinic, the other patients would look at me when I walked in, some would shake their heads as a sign of disapproval, some would smile, some would talk to the person accompanying them and stare at me at the same time. I had cancer, I was not cancer and I was not going to let it define me. Cancer was never part of my life plan, so I chose the way to live with it, to live through it as it was the only thing I could influence. My oncologist once asked me, disapprovingly, where I was going “dressed like that” just after receiving my chemo. I was guilty of frivolity, wasting my time and my precious energy on unimportant and irrelevant things. The same things that were exactly what I needed to feel alive, to keep my dignity, my femininity, to bring some lightness to incredibly stressful circumstances, to get out of the rhythm imposed by the disease and the treatments and to continue to have a social life, all of which were essential to me.
When it comes to social interactions, cancer is a pretty scary thing, some people tend to pity you and they sometimes also fear for themselves realising that, indeed, we are all mere mortals. I want to think that my “lightness” helped deal with the pathos, the drama, the fear. I was the same old me with fake boobs, a shiny bald head and a huge battle to win, I was busy fighting something nasty, but I did not want any anyone to pity or patronise me. I was determined not to let the disease isolate me, physically nor psychologically, I was no less of a woman. Injecting a good dose of frivolity in my life at that time gave me daily boosts of morale and confidence and helped me move forward. It enabled me to stay connected with myself and with others. In other words, it kept me connected with my life.
I joined a support group in Hong Kong (Cancer Connect Hong Kong), it was fantastic to meet women who had gone through or were going through “the same thing”, we shared a lot of laughter and emotions too, the conversations were very direct and I felt a strong sense of community and kindness that was incredibly powerful. I also got to connect with other sick women through social media. Very quickly in the support group and on Instagram people started asking me advice about turbans, hats, and style generally. That’s how I started an Instagram account whilst I was undergoing treatments, I called it “cancerfashionalistic”, it was very important for me to put those 2 words, cancer and fashion, together. I did not want to “talk” about cancer like in a blog or to give “advice”, I just wanted to share my “looks of the day”, from the simplest to the craziest ones, and (at my modest level) spread a positive message using a universal language: images, a smile (as much as possible!) and a good dose of humour. I was not particularly comfortable with the idea of exposing myself in that way but I guess cancer makes you jump out of your comfort zone and in the circumstances I was willing to do it. Because it made me happy, it gave me confidence, it took my focus away from the disease, I was basically thumbing my nose at it, I was having fun doing this with and in spite of cancer. It was also a great way to keep in touch with my close friends, including those who live miles away. The fact that they saw me every day, that I was coming to them, made communication easier, it gave them strength too. We could spare the small talks, there was no elephant in the room, they could remain natural and we could enjoy the simple pleasure of discussing and sharing.
Now let’s be clear: I’m no superwoman (although I might actually have some superpowers). I had ups and downs, there were days where I was exhausted, weak, sometimes I felt I had enough, but during all these months of treatments, I wanted others to see and understand that I was not only a sick person. I had cancer — this was a fact and it was part of my life at that moment, I did not stop being me, my life did not stop. At the time I received the diagnosis. I was not brave, I had no choice, I fought to win with humour and creativity and, to these days, I continue (as much as possible) to live life as I want, as I like, as pleases me, to enjoy it to the fullest, in style!
|Gucci | S||Celine | FR 34||Hermès | EU 38||Celine|
Read Kayla’s, a keen LGBT activist and founder of Basics for Basics, story here.
Read Olivia’s, founder of LUÜNA naturals, views on fighting the paradigm of ‘normality’ in sexes here.