"Dare To Compete, Mrs. Clinton, Dare To Compete"

Photo: Courtesy of Sofia Totti Bernardin.
Hillary Clinton got the push she needed to enter politics from a 17-year-old woman.

In 1999, Clinton was a guest speaker at a New York screening of a HBO documentary about female athletes. There, she was introduced by a high school student named Sofia Totti.

In the wake of her husband's impeachment the previous year, Clinton was at a crossroads, deciding whether or not to join the race for U.S. Senate in New York. As Totti finished her introductory speech, she shook the first lady's hand, leaned in, and said, "Dare to compete, Mrs. Clinton, dare to compete."

Clinton has reflected on that moment in her autobiography and in recent interviews, saying Totti's bold statement was what finally convinced her to run.

"Her comment caught me off guard, so much so that I left the event and began to think: Could I be afraid to do something I had urged countless other women to do?" she said in her autobiography.

So, what became of the young woman who "dared" Clinton to become a leader?
After working for Vogue in New York and Paris, Totti, now Sofia Bernardin, started her own advertising agency, specializing in connecting luxury brands with the growing Asian market. As a 28-year-old executive, she put her degree in international relations to good use, helping clients navigate tricky cultural differences and find their footing in China, India, and Japan.

In 2013, Bernardin and her partner Sabrina Marshall launched RESEE, a thoughtfully curated site that aims to make vintage clothing more accessible worldwide. The two women set out to reframe the way vintage clothing is seen and sold, and to reintroduce unique pieces into an e-commerce landscape saturated with homogeneity.

Refinery29 caught up with Bernardin, who spoke to us from her home in Paris about that fateful moment with Clinton, the challenges facing women leaders, and her vision for vintage.

Can you tell me a little bit about the moment you met Hillary Clinton and what was going through your mind when you introduced her?
"At the time, everybody was talking about whether or not Hillary was going to run, so when I was introducing her, I wrapped up my speech saying, 'We're so honored to have with us a tennis champion, an Olympic gymnast, and hopefully, a runner.'

"Hillary came up and as we shook hands, I told her to 'dare to compete.' I was quite a shy teenager, so it even surprises me that I said that. It didn't come from being really impassioned about politics, it was more that you could see she was so ambitious and dedicated and had such vision, but something was holding her back.

"No matter who you are, sometimes you need that push, you need to hear 'just do it.' I told her 'dare to compete,' which I did not make up — it was actually the title of the film that HBO was screening, but I took the opportunity to tell her that now it was her turn."
Photo: Courtesy of Sofia Totti Bernardin.
Was it something you were intending on saying to her all along?
"Not at all! It was very last minute. I had worked my 'hopefully a runner' line into my speech, so that was all prepared, but when she came up and I looked in her eyes, I saw a leader. I saw somebody that I could admire and somebody who would be a role model for me and other women and I just couldn't hold back. I had to tell her, 'We need you, we need more people like you.' That's what motivated me to tell her that."

Was politics often a topic of conversation around the dinner table while you were growing up?
"Yes, in different ways, politics was a big part of my upbringing. My mother's family is from Cuba and my grandfather was very politically involved. He was part of this community of liberals and he left Cuba right before the revolution, hoping that Fidel's time in power would be short, which, of course, it was not.

"My father is an anthropologist and, growing up, I was convinced he was Indiana Jones. Thanks to my parents, my brother and I grew up being very aware of what was going on in the world. Growing up in New York was also a big part of that.

"I grew up in the West Village in the '80s. My friends' parents were struggling artists living in Soho. It was a very special time to live there. There was this whole bohemian vibe and a mix of economic classes; there was definitely a sense of camaraderie that I really valued in my upbringing."

Back then, did you have a sense of what field you wanted to "compete" in yourself? Did you know you wanted to go into fashion?
"I always loved fashion; it was a great passion of mine. I also loved international relations, less for the politics of it and more for the understanding of different cultures, the way people work and relate to one another. I found all of that really fascinating. No matter what field I entered, I always knew that I wanted to be a leader and motivate and inspire people."

What inspired you to start you own advertising agency?
"After university, I worked at Vogue in New York, which was fantastic. Every day I wake up, the first things that go through my mind are things I learned at Vogue. I carry that with me and I always will. It was the best school: it was challenging, directional, creative.

"Some time after I had moved to the Paris office, a client told me that while America was a great market for them, they had just opened 20 shops in China. I wondered if there was anybody based in Europe who was ready to take these luxury brands to China and educate them on the trends among Chinese consumers.

"I started my own agency, working with all of Condé Nast Asia and managing about 13 titles. I positioned myself as a consultant to these luxury houses that didn't necessarily have offices in Asia and didn't really know what was going on — I was their foot soldier out there.

"That's where my love of international relations helped, because you have to be very diplomatic. Working there, there are certain codes you have to follow, which you have to learn very quickly."

Were there any challenges and surprises that you encountered in that endeavor or in your current role?
"I was working in many different territories, each with a different way of operating. My biggest challenge was really learning how to maneuver these territories and be mindful of their respective cultures and working methods.

"In China, a lot of the top-level executives are women. It was really inspiring seeing these women who have families, children, and have lived through the Cultural Revolution. They were older — in their 50s or so — and very steely and strong. It was really interesting to see that.

"In France, you see a lot of women in the workforce who have their first child and transition into these traditional roles that society has mapped out. I feel it myself as a woman who's trying to run her own business, who has a family and two small children; there is less support for women who want to continue working. There's definitely a shift happening, but it's still going to take some time."

How did you come up with the idea for RESEE?
"My good friend, Sabrina Marshall, and I were having lunch in Paris in 2011, and we were talking about great pieces from past collections that we hadn't had the opportunity to buy at the time, either because we didn't have any money or they sold too quickly.

"We thought about how great it would be if, instead of having to sift through eBay for hours, there was a site that curated a collection of beautiful pieces from the past, whether from the '70s, '90s, or even just the last few seasons. We launched RESEE in 2013. It's been a very exciting ride — and it's just the beginning."

What role did you envision for RESEE?
"There are so many great e-tail sites now, but they have a lot of the same product. Vintage is a great way to differentiate yourself. It could be through something really simple, like a little Lavalier blouse from the '70s that costs nothing but adds a touch that you don't find today.

"We both come from fashion backgrounds (me from Vogue and Sabrina from Self Service) and we didn't just want to sell second-hand Dior at a cheap price, we wanted to do something that paid tribute to designers and fashion houses.

"We wanted to educate people about past great collections like Raf Simons' first season at Dior, Nicolas Ghesquière's tenure at Balenciaga, showing people the themes they were working on. We wanted to capture those unique moments in fashion where a great artist came in and gave his or her interpretation of a house — we give you the opportunity to own a piece of that again.

"We also differentiate ourselves from brick-and-mortar vintage stores, where you walk in and it's really 100% hardcore vintage. We take the approach that you can add these items to your wardrobe and make them modern. On RESEE, we never style head-to-toe vintage looks — we'll take a great piece and style it with something from today.

"People have a lot of preconceived notions about vintage, but it doesn't have to be some really quirky thing that doesn't fit with your personality."

Do you ever plan to move back to the U.S.?
"There are a lot of really exciting things that are happening with RESEE. The U.S. accounts for 40% of all our sales right now, so it's an important market for us. We want to make sure that we offer our clients the best service that we can, and I think that eventually, in order to do that, we will have some presence in America. Hopefully, of course, Hillary will be our president by then."

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.This story has been updated to reflect that Sofia now goes by Sofia Bernardin, not Sofia Totti Bernardin.

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