Hannah Benak, President of PR firm Black Benak and founder of fashion blog Looks and Merit, exudes style and confidence. This style maven, believing beauty and brains go hand in hand, is passionate about empowering women to dream big and achieve their own personal goals. To see more of Hannah’s keen sense of style, look for her home which will be featured in our July/August issue.
Tell us about how Looks and Merit came to be and what’s behind the name.
I consider Looks & Merit to be the lemonade made from sour lemons. The short story is that, through experiences I’ve had in the workplace (my real job = my public relations firm, Black Benak) I was compelled to not only give myself a creative outlet, but to have one that would inspire other women to feel confident about being perceived as pretty and also being intelligent. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive. Feeling confident about yourself, your abilities and your outfits makes you MORE capable, I would argue. You can read the full story behind the name on the About page of looksandmerit.com.
What do you love most about your work?
With Black Benak: it’s definitely the people we have the privilege of working with that makes the job so great. I learn something important from these entrepreneurs and executives every day.
With Looks and Merit: I feel like a lot of people look at clothes and fashion as frivolous and unimportant. But I feel very strongly that if those same people, especially women, looked at the big moments in their lives… the big life events, the times that defined them, whatever it was… they would remember what they were wearing, or remember how empowered they felt by feeling great about their outfits. On numerous occasions, strangers that follow Looks and Merit have come up to me and said, “you help me feel like a cool mom” or, “oh man, I feel so much more confident about my work wardrobe now” and that makes it all worth it. It’s very outside of my comfort zone to snap a photo of my outfit of the day and post it like I think I’m the most fashionable person on earth. I have major insecurities about it. Because OF COURSE I’m not the most fashionable or the best dressed person out there! But what I’ve found is that my personal style can help other people discover theirs or empower their day and it’s really inspiring, and definitely why I’ve kept going with the blog/Instagram and love it so much.
What keeps you inspired on a day-to-day basis?
My inspiration definitely comes from checking in on fashion websites like Who What Wear, street style photographers on Instagram and, of course, following my favorite Influencers and designers to see what’s happening with fashion all over the world. I discovered this woman in France that hand sews the most beautiful sheer silk tops and sells maybe three at a time on Instagram every month or so. Those people and the women who wear/appreciate that kind of fashion are my biggest sources of inspiration.
What are your favorite Birmingham haunts?
I will pause fashion talk ANY day to talk food! Right now, I’m addicted to the raw oysters and the “Absolutely” frozen cocktail at Automatic Seafood – so good. And I’d say, for me, it’s hard to beat dinner at Chez Fon Fon…. escargot followed by steak frites and a slice of the coconut cake. Now that I’m thinking about it, I wonder how much butter I consume in that one meal? Oh well, #worthit. Other faves: You can frequently find me at Ovenbird, I love having lunch at el Barrio, Paper Doll is my go-to drink spot, I love a Saturday afternoon at Back Forty, I think the po-boys at Rougaroux are awesome and I’m a Gianmarco’s fan for life as well.
What is your best piece of advice?
Work hard, never say “that’s not my job” and always stay true to yourself – but trust your gut and make a leap when an opportunity presents itself that would force you out of your comfort zone. There always seems to be something amazing waiting on the other side of those uncomfortable moments.
My favorite quote: “In breaking away from the familiar and the expected, you’ll be forced and privileged to face greater challenges, learn harder lessons, and really get to know yourself.” -Kelly Cutrone, If You Have to Cry, Go Outside
Side note on personal style: I get really frustrated feeling like I see the same style, same cheap Amazon finds, same headbands, handbags, whatever the “of the moment trend/item is” on Instagram over and over. I run in the opposite direction. My style is always evolving based on trends and updates but there’s a reason there are things in my closet that are 10 years old that are still completely in style. So, my account isn’t just about making people think they always have to have something new. I’m trying to encourage people to splurge on the appropriate items (that handbag they’ve been eyeing for years, a great trench coat, etc.) and look to fast fashion/affordable retailers for the trendy pieces that won’t be in style next season. If you follow that method, the important items in your closet will be there to stay, can be styled with just about anything and will be loved for years to come.
Who has been the biggest inspiration in your life and your work?
My biggest inspirations are my family members – both of my parents, my siblings, especially my sister, and my husband. All of these people have impacted me in different ways but there are a few things in common: they’ve all shown me (not told me) how to work hard, to always be improving, to be respectful but not a pushover, and to put the important things in life first.
Describe your perfect day.
This question is impossible for me to answer! My perfect day could be popping into boutiques in New York City, hunting for an antique piece for our house in Savannah, or roaming around just about anywhere in Paris. I would say the closest thing that comes to mind was in Italy a few years ago. Matt and I spent the day on a boat taking in the beauty of the Tyrrhenian Sea off the coast of Capri… it really was perfect.
What does an ideal relaxing weekend look like for you?
With a B-U-S-Y 10-month-old on our hands, we aren’t doing much relaxing on the weekends. But if I were dreaming up a relaxing weekend, first on my list would be enjoying a latte, immediately heading to a spa for the day and catching up on some reading. I’ve been trying to read this one novel for over a month now (see below).
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
I mean I shop entirely too much, duh.
What are you currently reading or listening to that you find inspiring?
Typically, when I’m reading (or listening to a podcast), it’s to learn something to better myself. My top podcast right now is “Influencer Business” by Trove. The people who run it are brilliant and bring on excellent guests who are top-notch businesspeople. I learn something invaluable each episode whether it’s about managing people or about making Looks & Merit better. I also have really enjoyed some of the episodes of the podcast Work Party. When I was in college, before I moved to NYC for the summer to intern at ELLE Magazine, I read Kelly Cutrone’s epic book, If You Have to Cry, Go Outside. I think legitimately every female should read that book. It toughened me up and put things into perspective, yet totally inspired me. I love to read for fun and have been trying to read Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers for over a month but keep getting interrupted hah… anything she writes (Big Little Lies, The Husband’s Secret) is fabulous, though. I really enjoyed Joan Juliet Buck (the only American to ever be at the helm of Vogue Paris as editor in chief)’s memoir, called The Price of Illusion. About a year ago I read The Devil Wear Prada’s sequel novel, When Life Gives you Lululemons by Laurel Weisberger, and it was laugh out loud funny and so well-written.
What’s the best piece of advice you have ever been given, and who gave it to you?
The first thing that comes to mind is something my husband (who is also an entrepreneur, attorney, and by far one of the smartest and most hard-working and thorough people I have ever come in contact with) told me years ago while we were still dating and I was in a tumultuous work situation. Matt said to “stay even” because there were always going to be days with incredible highs and even more days with terrible lows and that you really don’t need to be swayed by either. If you keep your head down and keep thinking big picture, you aren’t constantly on this emotional roller coaster that’s dependent on your work day… you’re always looking forward and are able to appreciate the good things, learn from the bad things and maintain your composure all the while.