Interview with Birmingham Home & Garden Magazine

It was such an HONOR to do this interview for Birmingham Home & Garden Magazine! I’ve copied and pasted the first items from the Q&A below but you can read the full interview here.

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.

Hannah Benak