When the end came, it was faster than a $25 spoon falling from a reclaimed wooden table on to a flagstone floor.
On Wednesday, just as Blake Lively announced via Vogue that Preserve, her lifestyle website which promoted and sold the products of artisans, would be no more, the website itself seemed to have been removed from the world. In its place sat a sad broken link page, reading: “Origin is unreachable.”
A similar sad, mysterious feeling summed up a little of what surfing Preserve could feel like. And it was also odd, because Vogue said the site was amid a “very deep and very inviting sale, to prepare for its October 9th closure,” which either seemed to have come early, or Preserve was having a nervous breakdown of its own. Possibly wrapped in a $400 shirt.
And then Preserve was back up, restored again: sure enough, some things were 50 percent off. And some were not—for instance, the pillows that are now obsessing me, broken down descriptively as they are into “spring,” “summer,” “autumn,” and “winter.”
The only visible differences between the pillows were the creatures on them, and so I wondered what it would be like to behold your “summer pillow,” with a light butterfly design on it, and then worry—in November—looking at that “summer pillow” and thinking, “I really should have got the ‘autumn pillow’ with the slightly darker butterfly on it.”
What will my friends think? Will my seasonally inappropriate soft furnishings be judged? Will I be judged for my seasonally inappropriate soft furnishings?
I guess this is what celebrity lifestyle guru sites do to the vulnerable brain: make you worry you need a whole set of seasonally appropriate pillows so you can be a whole person and be seen in public.
I looked for things not to buy. Under the heading “Stories” I looked for—y’know—“stories,” then hit promisingly the word “Culture,” thinking, “Wey-hey, maybe there’s something here by Don DeLillo.”
But no. There was a playlist of songs, and an instruction to “amp it up.”
Each song came with a product to buy, like a tree swing (another thing I lack—lost cause that I am). The swing is the recommended object to buy alongside Sticky Fingers’ song “Kiss The Breeze.”
This is apparently what the image of the swing and song should elicit in combination: “Swing solo to the rhythm of this indie rock/reggae fusion. Something about the melody makes life feel simple and carefree (need we say breezy?). Maybe the band’s laid-back Aussie mentality is rubbing off on us.”
And so on.
Oddly, beneath this “essay” is the one Lively wrote for Preserve’s launch last year, promising that the site would contain “people, stories, essays, videos and goods which hopefully inspire your home, your style and your tongue. There’s expensive stuff. Inexpensive stuff. And everything in between.
“But their value is up to you. We may romanticize it, calling it treasure. What we’re really saying is, we see worth on every level.”
This may have been written from someone’s very genuine heart—Lively herself is photographed above it, blond hair glistening in sunlight, writing intensely in a notebook; the Carrie Bradshaw of Making The Best You.
But the bottom line is cruder: as well as “worth on every level,” so Lively and her team would also want to see “profit.”
Preserve was not loved much—never at any nearby café table did you hear, “Oh, Preserve is amazing, so witty and brilliantly curated”—and it certainly didn’t offer the same mode of laughs that Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s site, at least used to guarantee, until it went all sensible and started giving us lists of top five face creams.
Just what was Preserve all about, especially that weird fashion spread last autumn, which harkened, misty-eyed, back to the “antebellum” South, a time of coy-eyed belles we were told, rather than an era of appalling racism and racial oppression?
There was nothing “romantic” about this period if you were black, poor, and a slave. And what the antebellum South had to do with a fashion shoot featuring models in leopard print miniskirts is anyone’s guess.
But celebrities do not occupy our stratosphere, and certainly the oxygen gets even thinner when they reinvent themselves as lifestyle gurus.
When they do this, whatever common sense they had is channeled into somehow convincing themselves that selling really expensive things is of great spiritual service to the human race.
In her Vogue farewell interview, Lively said: “We have an incredible team of people who do beautiful work, but we launched the site before it was ready, and it never caught up to its original mission: It’s not making a difference in people’s lives, whether superficially or in a meaningful way.”
Gosh, what a difference a year makes in the psychology of a lifestyle guru: the spoken-out-loud notion that the superficial matters as much as the meaningful on a site like Preserve—superficiality was not on the guest list at launch time last year.
Lively herself claimed in Vogue’s excellent interview that she herself felt trapped by being a celebrity guru.
The whole reason she started Preserve was, she said, “not just to fluff myself, like, ‘I’m a celebrity! People will care what I have to say!’ It was so never meant to be that, and that kind of became the crutch because it was already up and already running, and it’s hard to build a brand when you’re running full steam ahead—how do you catch up?”
How indeed? But Lively must know the strange hall of mirrors she occupies: the site only got the publicity it did, and perhaps the funding, because it was she, famous Blake Lively, at its apex. In her head, her celebrity identity wasn’t the nucleus of Preserve, but in harsh reality it was. It was its reason for being.
It’s fascinating Lively doesn’t recognize the brand power of celebrity, and that that is the basis of Preserve.
Lively makes shuttering her business sound positively Pollyanna-ish.
“I never thought I would have the bravery to actually do that, to take the site dark and to say, ‘You know what? I haven’t created something that is as true and impactful as I know it can and will be. And I’m not going to continue to chase my tail and continue to put a product out there that we, as a team, are not proud of.’”
The real question there, is what did Lively think she was starting? What does “true and impactful” mean? Did she hope this was going to be a site of cost-free social empowerment? Did it end up being a shop, when she wanted everyone in a circle chanting to be their best selves?
Is “true and impactful” another way of saying: “We didn’t make as much money as we wanted?”
Last year, when Preserve opened for business—and despite Lively’s insistence it was so much more, it was a business—we were encouraged to buy berry salt, $68 T-shirts, and those $25 spoons.
This was not about fleecing those with more money than sense. This had a higher purpose, you awful cynics. “Our goal has always been to touch millennials through storytelling, and the idea is to create a shoppable lifestyle,” Lively told Vogue. “And that’s not to say to turn everything into commerce, but to make things easier: This is a thing that I created with my own two hands and this is how you can do it, or this is something that I found on my adventures and travels and this is how you can have it. It’s about creating a level of ease for the people who identify with us.”
This slice of Lively-isms is richly befuddling. I hate to break it to her, but Target is also selling a “shoppable lifestyle.” Anywhere with a cash register is. Just because you sell the expensive cups, saucers, and shirt-dresses of artisans doesn’t make your “vision” that different to H&M. You are supporting small producers, yes, but your bottom line is H&M’s: a healthy profit.
Sure, the fact it isn’t mass-produced, and curated by people who like to look at individually designed cups, saucers, and shirt-dresses all day, makes it a little more niche. But people who drone on about their “adventures,” and where they found this divine little dress while talking to a peasant on the side of the road in Madras on that day full of weird coincidences, are usually the world’s most punchable dining companions.
The level of opaqueness enshrined in “It’s about creating a level of ease for the people who identify with us” is both insurmountable and insufferable.
Like any good modern celebrity, Lively knows her critics before she’s bothered putting her shiny hair above the parapet. In one efficient swoop in her Vogue interview, she scorns the Debbie Downers, and threatens us with more Brand Lively.
If artisans didn’t work out, so what? Her vision will be ours, just you wait and see.
“I know what it’ll look like, what I’m facing publicly, that people are just going to have a heyday with this. But it’s so much worse to continue to put something out there—to ask my team to put something out there—that isn’t the best we can do,” she said.
“I’m going to take this hit, and the only way I can prove all the negative reactions wrong is to come back with a plan that will rock people. And I have that plan. And I’m so excited about it, and that’s what gave me the courage to do this, to say, ‘You know what, I’m going to give myself one more shot at this, and I really have to do it as well as I can do it this time.’ And that is the only thing that will impact people. And that’s what I’m doing. And I’m totally terrified out of my mind!”
She’s listening to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” “on a loop,” apparently, which goes to show how self-indulgent and self-regarding she is.
This is a song that advocates shaking off all the naysayers around you, all the critics, anyone who would rain on your parade—when arguably, with one business that hasn't worked out and another one you’re about to set up which you want to prosper, this is precisely the moment to accept all the criticism you can take to make your new business venture as strong and sustaining as possible.
Lively, however, has her victim/heroine storyline circle all worked out, forecasting she will look like a “jerk” with the closure of Preserve, then a “hero” with the launch of the new site, then a villain again when everyone turns against that.
“I mean, champagne problems—thank God these are the things I get to complain about,” she said.
By making her business travails into a breezy, postmodern celebrity parlor game, Lively is not looking in a sober way at what her or her site’s problems are.
Like most celebrities, she conflates critics with haters—and up goes the therapy-speak shield.
“I’ve finally summoned the strength to take on whatever anybody says because I know I’m going to come back with something stronger,” Lively says.
“I’m proud of it and I can take it, because I am a much harder critic on me than any nasty gossip rag. And that’s a good thing and a bad thing, but I just want to make myself and my family proud. And this time around, I really think I’ve done that.”
That’s a lovely homily, but what Lively should do is take a sober look at her cash bottom line—realize it wasn’t just “nasty gossip rags” who didn’t like Preserve, but, more critically, consumers.
The Hollywood self-dramatization arc of so many celebrities dictates—as Lively sketches in Vogue—a period of being down and embattled, then a triumphant rebound. The more sensible, if less dramatic, thing to say would be: “Yes, Preserve had its faults. We had to close it. I’m going to try and build something better that consumers will like. I guess we’ll see.”
Making oneself and one’s family proud is super, and a dinky homily to put on a new project, but the reality is that one’s pride in this context is brutally behoven to the whims and buying habits of strangers whose custom you want.
Whatever Blake Lively does next, good luck to her—genuinely. I do hope she has a really good, boring financial adviser in a modestly priced suit sitting next to her. He or she would be worth more than a trillion overpriced spoons.