Category: Lifestyle

Big Sonia: I’m Still Here


She was 15 at the time, her fondness for books, nature and painting leaving her ill-equipped for the horrific events about to engulf her, a fate “difficult, if not impossible, for a normal person to understand,” she said repeatedly.

But for Ms. Warshawski, 92, the past remains vitally present. Three years ago, about to be evicted from the tailoring and dressmaking shop founded by her husband, a fellow survivor who died in 1990, she briefly considered retirement. Yet it wasn’t long before she discovered a renewed sense of purpose in telling her tale.

Her recollections are graphic and often unsparing. “You saw people dying, you picked up their rations,” she said the other day. Still raw are her memories of the so-called selections, in which prisoners pulled aside for labor were methodically parted from those destined for death.

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Ms. Warshawski in New York City. Credit Todd Soliday

“At Auschwitz-Birkenau, it was Mengele, I think, who did the selections,” she said. “I still remember him with his white gloves and little stick pointing this one to the left — we knew what that meant — and this one to the right.”

More than once she narrowly evaded death. Concealed inside a mound of discarded prisoners’ clothes during one of the selections, she held her breath as guards probed with their rifles. An SS man poked his bayonet into the mound where she hid. “He almost touched me,” she said, exhaling mightily. “Afterward it was quiet. I crept out, put on my little clothes and went back to my barrack.”

Several girls who tried to escape were hanged in retaliation. Ms. Warshawski, who was forced to watch, remembers their exhortations. “‘Never forget, take revenge,’” she said. “This was their last breath.”

But revenge isn’t her style. Not that she is a saint. “I cannot forgive,” she says more than once in the film. “I leave that to a higher power.”

Her message is rather one of uplift and empathy. “I feel it is important to talk about love and healing,” she said.

What comes through during her frequent visits to schools and prisons is a resilience fused with humor and maternal warmth. Her talks bring tears to the eyes of her listeners, some of them toughened male inmates, others high school students who have lived through traumatic events of their own.

In the film, Grace Lamar, 14, recounts the story of her grandfather, gunned down in his home. She didn’t witness the event but doubts that she could have mustered Ms. Warshawski’s fortitude.

Her voice breaking, she tells Ms. Warshawski: “You have the wisdom of a 40-year-old when you’re 15.”

Ms. Warshawski’s compulsion to testify took on weight in the turbulent aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, and it carries fresh urgency in the wake of a spate of recent tragedies: mass shootings and terror attacks. “Politics, I don’t want to go into that,” she said.

“But it’s a terrible hate what’s going on now. I hope that my speaking is a way of starting to repair the world, to change the direction for us.”

For Leah Warshawski, Ms. Warshawski’s granddaughter, who made the film with Todd Soliday, completing the project — which took six years — carried a different sort of urgency. “We realized that within our lifetime, all of the survivors would be gone,” she said. “How would those stories be passed to the next generation?”

To capture the film’s more harrowing episodes, the filmmakers, now married, turned to animation. “We wanted to be specific to Sonia’s story, rather than using stock footage, which would have been very difficult to watch,” Mr. Soliday said.

The filmmakers trained their lens tirelessly on their unabashedly flamboyant subject, a woman who wears her hair in a corona of dark natural curls, favors scarlet lipstick and cannot bring herself to abandon the wildcat patterns that are her trademark.

“Leopard,” she said, “it never goes out of style.”

Her predilection, Mr. Soliday pointed out, is a little more complicated: “Leopard spots are meant to be camouflage, but with Sonia, it signals, ‘I’m here.’”

Some things have changed since the film was first screened in Napa, Calif., last year. Making its wider debut on Friday, it offers no hint of the upbeat events that would follow. This year John’s Tailoring reopened in a more spacious, light-filled location.

“I call it the sunroom,” Ms. Warshawski said. “I have a lot of plants. I have two dressing rooms,” an important addition, she said, since most of her customers have followed her there.

The space, as she described it, is a vibrant work in progress, leaving room to spare for the tassels, trimmings, giddy artworks and Old World-style furnishings that have accompanied her over the years.

She is in no particular hurry to crowd it with trinkets or complete the décor, she said. “I begin it like a flower that’s still closed,” she said. “And now, with the daylight, it’s opening.”

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With…Anne Wojcicki: The Doyenne of DNA Says: Just Chillax With Your Ex


And here is where genetics saved the genetics entrepreneur. Her father, Stanley, fled Poland in 1949 when he was 12 with his mother when the Communists took over. Her mother, Esther, was the daughter of impoverished Orthodox Russian Jews who immigrated to New York in the ’20s.

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Ms. Wojcicki and Sergey Brin, her husband at the time, attended a 23andMe “spit party” in New York in 2008. “For me, it doesn’t matter if we’re married or not,” she says. “We have children.” Credit Donald Bowers/Getty Images

The Wojcickis grew into Silicon Valley royalty. It’s the sort of family, Anne jokes, where “you’re only a viable fetus once you have your Ph.D.” Stanley is the former chairman of the Stanford physics department and an emeritus professor. Esther, whose family just wanted her to marry a nice Jewish man and have children, became valedictorian of her high school and got a scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley. She is a journalism teacher so beloved at Palo Alto High School that her former student James Franco made a video paean to her.

Besides Anne, there are two older daughters, Susan, who was Google employee No. 18 and is now the C.E.O. of YouTube, and Janet, an epidemiologist, medical anthropologist, associate professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine and a Fulbright scholar.

“My mom is utterly the believer, like she can get anything done,” says Anne Wojcicki, also known as Baby Woj, now 44. “She had a real fighter mentality growing up, and I feel that was how we were raised. We’re all super-comfortable in controversy. My mom’s like, ‘Listen, a lot of really bad stuff happened in my life. You either let that control you or you make the rest of your life great.’ Her little brother died when she was little. You don’t let a bad experience hold you back, otherwise you spend the rest of your life ruined by that experience. So it doesn’t matter what happened today. Make it better tomorrow.”

Ms. Wojcicki used that philosophy to claw her way out of her dark hole.

“It was a bad year,” she says, sitting in her small glass office in her “uniform” of Lululemon shorts and shirt and “company-issued” jacket. She laughs ruefully. “I’m pretty optimistic. But we’d occasionally sit around and be like, ‘Wow, it’s really, it’s been really bad.’ Some of my friends and I bought these baseball hats that have these little unicorns attached to them. That was kind of our ‘We’re going to wear these hats and just kind of believe in the potential of what can come.’” Funnily enough, she grasped at the magical creature as a symbol of hope before it caught on as a popular Silicon Valley term for a billion-dollar start-up, which 23AndMe became in 2015.

“In some ways, when you have that many bad things happen, it’s a sense of disbelief,” she says. “This was one of those situations where there’s two aspects. A divorce and the F.D.A. There was no workaround in either. So it was one of the first times in my life where you have to accept, you have to actually change. Like, I need to come up with a different way of approaching both of these relationships.”

Mr. Brin is fortunate that Ms. Wojcicki is not the vengeful type. Once they learned, from his spit test, that he has a rare genetic mutation that increases the risk for Parkinson’s disease, she bought the patent on a gene variant that could protect people who have that Parkinson’s-related mutation.

As Vanessa Grigoriadis wrote in Vanity Fair, the love triangle that ended Ms. Wojcicki’s marriage was analyzed in different ways in Silicon Valley. To some, “it’s about the danger inherent in data sets, when the data includes too much information about one’s mortality. If Brin had never learned about his Parkinson’s risk, he might never have had what a friend of the couple’s characterizes as an emotional crisis and strayed from his wife. (But had Wojcicki not helped him discover his risk for contracting the disease, he might not have enacted the healthy lifestyle choices that may prolong his life.)”

Ms. Wojcicki says that after the separation, she felt like she had entered another dimension, comparing it to stepping through Harry Potter’s Platform 9¾. “It’s a crazy world and you never knew it existed until you enter it,” she says. She tried reading a book about divorce but stopped when she got to a story of a divorced man whose ex-wife came over and chopped up his new girlfriend’s underwear.

“I was like, ‘I never want to be one of those people,’” she says. “I never want to be angry. For me, it’s a lot of work. I can be angry for 24 hours and then I’m just like, ‘Well, let’s just be friends.’”

It is a sentiment echoed by her mother.

“My theory is that you’re only hurting yourself when you’re angry and revengeful,” Esther Wojcicki says. “I was mad at Sergey for what he did. But I don’t carry grudges. He’s the father of my grandchildren. He was not such a good dad when the kids were babies. But he’s a very good dad now. He made his own life difficult, unfortunately. I can still be civil to him. Why not? What’s in it for me being nasty?”

Anne Wojcicki, who saw so much “Wolf of Wall Street” behavior and had so many “We’ll talk about it after the lap dance” conversations when she was a Wall Street biotech analyst for a decade that she thought she might never want to get married, still speaks fondly of her oddball courtship with Mr. Brin. He would leave her voice mail messages in Morse code or notes about where to meet him in Braille.

“And I’d be like, ‘Ugh, can’t you just tell me where to go?’” she recalls. “But it was fun. I feel like you need to balance each other in relationships. Somebody can be totally insane, and then somebody has to buy food and pay rent.”

She says their swimsuit wedding “was fun because I’m not a hair-and-makeup person. And so I was like, ‘Look, there’s no hair and makeup because I’m swimming.’”

She lights up when she reminisces about “the beauty and fun of hanging out” with “the little team” of Mr. Brin and his Google co-founder, Larry Page.

“They genuinely see the world in a different way, and that’s what’s fun,” she says. “Like, the sky is not blue. It’s some other shade.”

As an example, she describes the time she and Mr. Brin had to take their children to the passport office. After 10 minutes in line, Mr. Brin was able to give the teller a redesign for the office for better traffic flow.

‘What’s an A-Rod?’

Ms. Wojcicki has a big house near Mr. Brin’s big house in Los Altos — where she also owns a children’s cafe and an arcade — and they see a lot of each other. “For me, it doesn’t matter if we’re married or not,” she says. “We have children.”

Like others in Silicon Valley obsessed with living forever, she takes the long view: “If we’re going to live to 150 years, the reality that you’re going to be with one person for 100 years is low. And so you have to find a way that we can have relationships with people and preserve what’s positive.”

She says she wants to be a model for how to deal with controversy and disappointment to her son and daughter.

“I get really sad when I meet people who have conflict in their family,” she says. “Like people who hate their parents or don’t like a sibling or have an acrimonious divorce. Life is just too short.”

One of the friends who helped her through that period was Ivanka Trump, though their relationship has grown more complicated.

“She was super-supportive when I got divorced and had all kinds of issues,” says Ms. Wojcicki, who was a big Hillary Clinton booster. “Do I agree with all the things that are happening politically? No. But as a person, the way she treated me, I have a lot of respect for that. And I consider her a friend.”

Two years ago, through friends, Ms. Wojcicki met a strapping man who represented every woman’s dream of how you one-up an ex, especially a Silicon Valley nerd.

“Do you know anything about baseball?” Ms. Wojcicki asked her friend Michael Specter, a New Yorker staff writer.

“I know how many innings there are, which is more than you know,” he replied.

“I think I’m starting to date a baseball player,” she said. Mr. Specter assumed she meant a lawyer who played baseball on the weekends.

“His name is Alex Rodriguez,” she said. “I think he plays for the Yankees.”

Mr. Specter explained to the woman who had never attended a professional baseball game that her new suitor was one of the 10 best baseball players who ever lived.

“When I started dating Alex,” Ms. Wojcicki says, “my mom was like, ‘What’s an A-Rod?’ I was like, ‘Mom, that’s his name.’”

Being a math wiz, Ms. Wojcicki proceeded to learn every stat. When Mr. Rodriguez saw her watching a YouTube show called “Physics Girl” and asked her what it was, she told him, “It’s like the YES Network but for physics.”

The two enjoyed their cultural-collision romance, once Ms. Wojcicki installed TV sets in her house so A-Rod could watch baseball.

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Ms. Wojcicki on the rooftop terrace at the 23andMe headquarters. Credit Peter Prato for The New York Times

“I didn’t realize that you need special channels to watch sports games,” she says. “Alex is a really sweet guy. He’s a smart guy. He’s a good person. Alex lives in this world of cash-flow businesses, and Silicon Valley lives in this world of the potential of the future. So it was actually kind of a really fun conversation. Alex was really into car dealerships, and I was like, ‘We’re all about self-driving cars. Nobody’s going to buy a car. You want to buy a car dealership? I’m going to short your car dealership.’”

At the Met Ball in 2016, in a move described by Vanity Fair as “head-spinningly civilized,” the couple arrived in the same car as Mr. Brin and the woman he is now living with, Nicole Shanahan, the founder and C.E.O. of ClearAccessIP.

Ms. Wojcicki was carrying a specially designed clutch made from gene chips, the same ones her company runs DNA saliva samples on.

Eventually different coasts and parenting obligations pulled her and Mr. Rodriguez apart.

“I liked A-Rod, he was a very nice man,” Esther Wojcicki told me. “He came from a Hispanic family. We liked them, they were very sweet. He seemed to be genuinely in love with Anne. But I right away figured out this was a mismatch. He had no academic background. We couldn’t have an intellectual conversation about anything. His main interest in life was something that none of us had ever focused on, which was baseball. He could park himself in front of a TV and watch baseball for 10 hours a day. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to go on the yacht with Anne because the TV might not be working. I wish J-Lo all the luck in the world.

“We couldn’t go anywhere with him. If we went to Target to look for clothes for the kids, all of a sudden we’d be looking around and people would be saying, ‘We just want a selfie with A-Rod.’ He can’t walk across Central Park. He has to take a cab. That will work better with J-Lo because she’s like, ‘Take a picture of me anytime.’” (The evidence can be seen on the current cover of Vanity Fair, in which an entwined J-Rod gaze longingly into Mario Testino’s lens, and in an inside spread with him pulling up her dress to reveal a crystal-encrusted Tom Ford thong.)

Mr. Specter teases Ms. Wojcicki: “You’ll be the answer to an S.A.T. question: ‘Which woman who dated Alex Rodriguez is not like the others? Kate Hudson, Madonna, J-Lo or Anne Wojcicki.’”

Ms. Wojcicki admits that next time, “I’d really love to date someone who’s really simple and not famous. My life is already pretty complicated.”

Laundry on Fridays

Her mother raised the Wojcicki girls to be skeptical of anything too flashy or polished and to remember that it’s just as easy to wear a jacket in the house as it is to turn up the heat.

Even now that she owns a billion-dollar company, Ms. Wojcicki remains frugal and says repeatedly that she does not like “froufrou things.”

“Fancy cars and houses and the right dress,” she says dismissively. “It’s not a top priority. This is why I’m lucky to have Susan.”

Of her sister, she says, “Susan went to the Oscars with me last year and literally at 4 o’clock in the afternoon — you’re supposed to be ready at 5 — she’s like, ‘I’m in Macy’s. I found a dress on sale.’ And I’m like, ‘Susan, you kill me.’”

She still rides her bike to work every day — even in the rain — shops at Payless shoes (but also sometimes indulges in Louboutin) and cuts her children’s hair herself.

“That’s actually kind of a disagreement between me and Sergey,” she says. “He doesn’t think I do a very good job. And my poor son is very sweet, so he’ll be like, ‘No, Mommy, I love it.’”

She makes an effort to keep her children’s lives from slipping into the “insanity” of megawealth.

“I have people who clean the house three days a week,” she says. “And I just told them to stop doing laundry on Fridays because my kids need to learn how to do laundry on Fridays. It’s so easy to be like, ‘I don’t have to do laundry again. I don’t have to cook again.’ But then you’re not normal. I have a new rule lately. I just don’t go out on weekdays. If I’m raising kids, I need to be focused on helping implement that normalcy.”

Sometimes she lets them wear their clothes to bed because it saves time in the morning. “The other thing I used to do, when we’d travel in the summers, because I don’t like to pack a lot,” she says, “and so I’d have the kids bathe in their clothes and then they change into something else. And then their clothes are clean for the next day. Versus the hotel laundry, which is so expensive.”

She’s focused for now on her children, her new Bengal cats and her company, which has more than three million customers and its own drug-development program. It started selling kits in CVS and Target, got the F.D.A.’s permission to resume giving consumers health reports on 10 conditions, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and the $99 ancestry kit won a spot as one of “Oprah’s favorite things” this year, with Oprah calling it “The Ultimate Selfie.” Fast Company portrayed Ms. Wojcicki as the Comeback Kid of tech.

She realized that she had a treasure trove of DNA data and began teaming with Genentech and Procter & Gamble, which started mining it to make breakthroughs in Parkinson’s, depression and skin care.

In many ways, her struggle with the F.D.A. was a microcosm of the increasingly tense battle between hidebound regulatory agencies and freewheeling tech companies.

Although some people thought Ms. Wojcicki would have to sell her company, she healed the breach with the F.D.A. the same way she healed the breach with Mr. Brin. She did not huff away and seethe and backbite. She “put one foot ahead of the other,” as her mother advises, hired the best regulatory experts and found a respectful new configuration for the relationship.

“We were not communicating in the right way,” she says of the period the F.D.A. felt it was being ignored. “We were not showing Silicon Valley arrogance. We just were running around with our shoes on in a Japanese house. We were not a cultural fit and we weren’t expressing what we were trying to do in the right way.

“Some companies are trying to circumvent the regulators. We weren’t. We just got caught in the cross hairs. We clearly pissed them off. It took us a long time to generate a lot of data to prove that our intentions actually were right. But I feel like we’re doing the right thing in terms of proving that the customer is capable of getting this information on their own.

“I see it from the F.D.A. perspective. It’s a new product. It’s genetics. It’s direct to consumer. It caused anxiety. So, you know, the onus was on us.”

She had to explain to her team: “Listen, when you go to the D.M.V., you don’t argue about the vision test. You don’t say, ‘Oh, I just had a vision test. I don’t need to do the vision test.’ Like, you just do it. The F.D.A. is in charge of public safety, and I have a respect for the job that they have to do. And we’re just going to do the job that they’re asking us to do.”

I ask her if Harvey Weinstein, an early investor, is still involved.

“Once an investor, always an investor. It’s like ‘Hotel California,’” she says. “He has always been supportive of the company and of me, but he clearly has behavior that you can’t possibly condone. You recognize that people can have two different worlds. So it’s disappointing.”

She said that her best mentors have been Arianna Huffington and Diane von Furstenberg. “They are the two people who are just like, ‘I want to support women. I want to support you doing awesome things. I believe in you. You can do it.’”

I tell her that I am too scared to take her spit test. I don’t want to know if my father wasn’t my father, or if I’m German and not Irish, or if the future holds some hideous disease.

“Genetics is like your cholesterol test,” she says. “So your cholesterol test is going to tell you if you have high cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease. But it’s not saying you’re going to die immediately from heart disease or even die at all from heart disease. It’s just saying you have a risk factor. And so genetics is similar. It’s saying you have a risk factor. So the beauty to me of genetics is, it’s always a story of hope.”

RELATED: Maureen Dowd plays Confirm or Deny with Anne Wojcicki.

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For the First Family of Pleasure Products, Toys Are Us


On a day of scorching heat and dry Santa Ana winds gusting over the mountains, the two of us sat in an air-conditioned office at the Doc Johnson headquarters in North Hollywood. Bearded and muscled, Mr. Braverman was clad in Acne jeans, a Buck Mason shirt and a pair of pink Common Products sneakers. Behind his desk a wall of bookshelves held the sports trophies he collects, among them signed Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Wilt Chamberlain basketballs.

If Mr. Braverman conforms less to a cliché of how a businessman whose company produces Palm Pals and Legendary John Holmes dildos might look than to that of a young venture capitalist, that is partly because pleasure products have become mainstream enough for Los Angeles Magazine to call Doc Johnson “the Procter & Gamble of sex toys.”

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Silicone casts of pleasure products await quality control inspection. Credit Graham Walzer for The New York Times

There is a certain accuracy in the characterization, since almost 75 percent of Doc Johnson products are manufactured in one of seven structures scattered across a sprawling 250,000-square-foot compound, and a “Made in America” emblem is a central element of the Doc Johnson marketing strategy.

Here, in the industrial eastern part of the San Fernando Valley, hundreds of workers sculpture, mold, paint, pack and ship the 75,000 products Doc Johnson manufactures weekly. Here, employees in white coats and surgical caps blend six tons of raw material every day, pouring dildos and using air guns to pop each one out of its mold. Here, brass plaques hung in a lobby commemorate employment milestones by generations of mostly Hispanic employees who have raised families on wages earned fabricating devices like Doc Johnson’s best-selling Sasha Grey Masturbator, a lifelike reproduction of the genitals of Ms. Grey, a onetime pornographic star, molded in a casting room on site.

“We now look at what we’re doing as being about creating an experience, like entertainment,” Mr. Braverman said, adding that his company’s trademarked new Kink by Doc Johnson line of products — rubber sheets, dog collars and assorted fetish gizmos — “is really killing it.”

If historically “there was not a lot of brand loyalty and brand awareness” in the sex toy industry, as Mr. Braverman said, that is quickly being modified as manufacturers adapt to an increasingly savvy and fast-growing consumer base.

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Anjani Siddhartha, a product artist, makes a mold out of clay. Credit Graham Walzer for The New York Times

“The adult novelty sector is booming,” said Lynn Comella, associate professor of sexuality and gender studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and author of the newly published “Vibrator Nation.” After studying the industry for close to two decades, Professor Comella observed a notable shift in the scale and nature of the business after the financial crisis of 2008.

“Suddenly porn sales weren’t what they had been,” she said. Piracy and proliferating free online pornographic sites decimated an industry long considered recession-proof. Yet by 2009, at seminars held during the annual Adult Novelty Manufacturers Expo — where, as Forbes noted, retailers connect with “the latest lubes, vibrators and RealDolls” — Ms. Comella found herself attending panels that resembled first-wave-feminist consciousness-raising sessions.

“They were literally called ‘What Do Women Want?’’’ she said. It seemed, she said, that everyone, from chief executives to buyers for sex toy stores, was eager to discuss how to recalibrate a business that, as Ron Braverman explained, “had gone from being 100 percent male dominated — male manufacturers, male bookstore owners, men going to select the product and bring it home — to being an absolutely female-oriented consumer product.”

As abrupt as the shift seemed at the time, its origins were not altogether surprising. In her book, Ms. Comella argues that, absent the early feminist sex educators and entrepreneurs behind such enlightened sex toy shops as Good Vibrations in San Francisco, success would have been less probable for a mainstream manufacturer like Doc Johnson, whose products are now sold by 7,500 brick-and-mortar stores throughout the United States, on sex-oriented sites like PinkCherry and Lovehoney, and, increasingly, by mass-market retailers.

Unwittingly or not, the “feminist trend of educating women about their bodies, about their clitorises, about vibrators as a tool of self-empowerment,” Ms. Camella said, ultimately benefited the sex toy business by altering cultural perceptions of it and initiating its migration from XXX bookshops to Walmart, Amazon and Target.

Certainly it is hard to imagine that, without the sex-positive credos advanced by female proprietors of early sex toy shops like Good Vibrations, Eve’s Garden and Babeland, Charlotte York’s famous Rabbit episode in Season 1 of “Sex and the City” would have become part of the cultural conversation, let alone “Toyz,” Missy Elliott’s ribald 2012 paean to self-sufficiency, or Abbi Abrams, a character on “Broad City,” and her celebrated strap-on.

The success of a “Broad City” plotline involving anal penetration of a more-than-willing male partner by the character portrayed by the show’s co-creator Abbi Jacobson would ultimately inspire Comedy Central, which broadcasts the show, to introduce its own line of plugs and gadgets, most notably, perhaps, a Pegasus Pegging Kit.

And it underscored an observation made recently by Susan Colvin, a former college instructor turned sex toy manufacturer. “The younger generation doesn’t have as many hang-ups as ours did,” said Ms. Colvin, whose California-based CalExotics was founded in the 1970s and was responsible for introducing early innovations like vibrators in Easter egg colors, a notion first put forward by Ms. Colvin’s all-female development team.

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A Doc Johnson employee fills copper molds with silicone. Credit Graham Walzer for The New York Times

“It used to be, ‘Gee, I’m a man, why would you need any of that?’” Ms. Colvin said. “Now it’s the woman doing the consuming, and it’s not so intimidating for a partner when she introduces a toy into a relationship.”

As seemingly everywhere else in the culture, it is a millennial generation that is leading the charge in mainstream acceptance of a business few still associate with its back-alley beginnings.

“Sometimes even people in the industry for decades don’t realize how accepted sex toys now are,” said Erica Braverman, the marketing director at Doc Johnson.

As an example, Ms. Braverman cited the pop-up Doc Johnson sponsored last month at the Think Tank gallery in Downtown Los Angeles in collaboration with the artist Whitney Bell. Dildos glowed under black light in a V.I.P. room as D.J.s spun from a set list of modish 1990s tunes. After ogling a prototype sex toy vending machine that will soon be sent on a multicity cross-country tour, the hundreds of guests who started lining up at 7 p.m. struck selfie poses against a backdrop tailor-made for Instagram. Some carried props depicting peach or eggplant emojis, or signs that read, “My Name Ain’t Baby” and “Matriarchy Now.’’

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In October, Doc Johnson teamed up with the artist Whitney Bell to unveil its traveling sex toy vending machine, the Pop Up Pleasure Machine, at an exhibit in Los Angeles. Credit Left: via Whitney Bell; Right: Star Foreman

Hung from a wire grid on the ceiling were 200 Doc Johnson penis replicas ranging in size from the statistical average of under six inches to dildos of Brobdingnagian scale. “I’m 29, and it’s pretty amazing to me how far feminism has come, that it’s considered cool now for women to take control of their own pleasure and fun,” Ms. Braverman said.

Just six years separate the two Braverman siblings, and yet one grew up unaware of what the family business was, while the other went to college knowing that full, freaky disclosure was just a Google search away.

“When I went to college and told people I’m in the family business, no one blinked an eye in a negative way,” Ms. Braverman said. “It was more like, ‘OMG, what about Christmas? My birthday is coming up. What am I going to get?’”

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The Look: What War Can’t Destroy


In South Sudan, street photography is essentially illegal. It is another casualty of the civil war. Young, fit, twitchy soldiers are everywhere, ready to crack down on anyone who pulls out a camera. No reasons are ever given and no laws are on the books specifically banning photography, but security services across the country have arrested photographers and roughed them up for taking even the most innocent pictures, like a shot of women baking bread.

It wasn’t always like this, but in the four years since the war broke out, scattering millions of people and unleashing unspeakable horrors, the South Sudanese government has become incredibly suspicious. In a country that has ripped itself apart by internecine conflict, anyone can be the enemy.

Stepping off a plane in Juba, the capital, you feel this tight-shouldered tension immediately. Sara Hylton, a Canadian documentary photographer who came here on assignment in August, had anticipated the hostility. What surprised her was the city’s bold style.

Togune, a Juba resident, wears a T-shirt that features his favorite Ugandan musician, Diamond.CreditSara Hylton for The New York Times
Basketball is a popular sport in South Sudan. Some players have advanced to the N.B.A., while others are content with pickup.CreditSara Hylton for The New York Times
Nadia Tushabe, the owner of Galaxy salon in Juba, styles Hariet Aroma’s hair.CreditSara Hylton for The New York Times

Amid all the shot-up buildings, fear and danger, she was struck by the great pride many South Sudanese take in how they look. She saw women in bright print dresses and chunky brass jewelry; some wore purple hair extensions. Men sported bleached dreads and sharply cut suits. There was a fearless sense of style that the war had not managed to kill off.

It wasn’t easy for Ms. Hylton to capture it because she couldn’t take pictures in public. She had to work off the streets, in safe spaces, in people’s homes, their backyards, their tiny, tidy shops. Sometimes, Ms. Hylton found, the nicer the space, the sadder the experience. Many South Sudanese carry their trauma quietly, and ​those who were trying to will away all the brutality and destruction around them seemed the most vulnerable. They were emotionally exposed in a place where so many dreams have been crushed.

Young women in the United Nations Protection of Civilians site in Juba after church. More than 38,000 people are seeking shelter in the camp because of widespread insecurity across South Sudan.CreditSara Hylton for The New York Times
Crazy Fox, a popular musician, in a part of Juba he calls Jamaica. It is where he finds peace and inspiration.CreditSara Hylton for The New York Times
Beret, 9 and Aya, 8, at an orphanage in Juba where they are cared for and receive an education.CreditSara Hylton for The New York Times
“The fashion industry is very young,” said Juana, a 24-year-old designer. “We don’t have something distinguishing us.” She believes that style is “not just clothes, it shows unity.”CreditSara Hylton for The New York Times

Winnie, who runs a small boutique that sells dresses, purses and one or two paintings, seemed to be swimming upstream. The war has sunk Juba’s economy, and for the two hours Ms. Hylton spent in Winnie’s immaculate shop, where so much thought had been invested into every detail, not a single customer walked in.

“If I was living in this environment, I would have given up,” Ms. Hylton said. “That was the biggest surprise — that people here hadn’t given up, there was still so much hope.”

But there was also still so much sadness. It wasn’t always obvious, but it was there. As Ms. Hylton said: When you interview people, they often put on a brave face and tell you what you want to hear. But when you take out a camera and ask someone to stare into the lens, it’s different. An honesty is revealed. She especially felt this when making a portrait of Wokil, a comedian.

“His posture was very cool, he was trying to be very cool,” she said. “But you could tell he lived through some of the worst stuff.”

“Loss, I recognized loss,” she said. “It was in his gaze.”

Wokil, 21, a comedian.CreditSara Hylton for The New York Times
Manasseh Mathiang is part of the artist collective Anataban, which means “I am tired” in Arabic. The group uses theater, music, graffiti, poetry and other art forms to foster discussions about social justice, activism and peace. CreditSara Hylton for The New York Times
Members of the Legion of Mary, an international Catholic organization, outside St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Juba.CreditSara Hylton for The New York Times
Winnie, a fashion designer, inside her boutique in Juba.CreditSara Hylton for The New York Times
Madite, a musician with the artist collective Anataban, poses for a portrait before a performance aimed at spreading the message of peace.CreditSara Hylton for The New York Times

Just about everyone Ms. Hylton approached in Juba (she stayed away from soldiers) was willing to be photographed, including a group of young men playing basketball behind a primary school. If South Sudan has anything, it has height; the Dinka and the Nuer, South Sudan’s two largest ethnic groups, are considered among the tallest people on Earth. And basketball is the sport here, maybe even a ticket out. The former N.B.A. player Manute Bol, who died in 2010, grew up herding cattle in South Sudan and then made millions. Most of it he gave away, to South Sudanese rebels fighting for freedom.

For as long as anyone can remember, life in South Sudan has revolved around war. That’s as true today as ever. The endless military checkpoints across Juba and the marauding soldiers who prowl around every neighborhood make it impossible to go out at night.

So young South Sudanese have found a way to do what young people do the world over, just slightly differently. They pack into dark buildings during the bright, hot hours to groove to hip-hop and rap. These places are called “day clubs” (as opposed to nightclubs), and they allow Juba’s youth to hang out, meet strangers, dance, drink and forget for a moment what lies outside the club’s doors.

Crazy Fox, a popular dancehall artist, fled South Sudan for Uganda as a refugee. But after four years, he was “tired of running” and recently came home.

Silva, 24, and Eric, 20, wearing clothing made from traditional African textiles.CreditSara Hylton for The New York Times
A barbershop in the bustling market area of Suk Libya. CreditSara Hylton for The New York Times

But home for the South Sudanese is a place they themselves broke. South Sudan is the world’s newest country, having won its hard-fought independence from Sudan in 2011. Two years later, a political dispute between Dinka and Nuer leaders in Juba blew up into a full-scale military conflict between Dinka and Nuer across the country.

The war keeps spreading, engulfing other ethnic groups and new areas. It has killed more than 50,000 people, destroyed oil wells, farms, schools and hospitals, and sucked in countless children as child soldiers and then spat them out dead or mutilated. Many people fear what is ahead. It is etched in faces all across Juba.

Still, as death goes on, life goes on. Routine is a refuge, and many South Sudanese are trying to reclaim their lives. Ms. Hylton spent hours in barbershops and in salons where hair extensions hung on the walls like tools at a hardware shop.

“When you come to Galaxy salon, we can change you,” said the owner, Nadia Tushabe, with more than a touch of pride.

A mother and her daughter sit on a motorcycle while listening to a sermon outside of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Juba. CreditSara Hylton for The New York Times

It may be hard to believe that a country where the per capita income is around three dollars a day, where three quarters of adults can’t read and a 15-year-old girl has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than she does of finishing primary school, has any fashion or beauty industry at all. But it beats on, fragilely, in packed little houses and tin-walled kiosks lit by a single bulb.

“We don’t have something distinguishing us,” said Juana, a fashion designer. Her patterns are intensely colorful, and she hopes fashion can bridge the poisonous divides between ethnic groups.

Akuja de Garang is, after the model Alex Wek, one of the best-known names in South Sudanese fashion. Large brass jewelry and black nail polish are her signatures. Before the war, she used to organize fashion shows.

“Culturally people take pride in how they look,” she said.

War or not, the South Sudanese are like anyone else.

They want to look good.


Jeffrey Gettleman was, until recently, The Times’s East Africa bureau chief. He writes more about style and conflict in his new memoir, “Love, Africa.”

Open Thread: Open Thread: This Week in Style News


And speaking of a different perspective, here’s a tidbit from the NYT conference that changed mine. Bill McDonough, an architect and the co-author of Cradle to Cradle, a book about the circular economy, was talking about the word “sustainability,” and pointed out that it was a weirdly unexciting term to use for a hugely positive initiative. What would you think, he observed, if you asked someone how their marriage was, and they answered, “sustainable”?

Bet you’d think what I thought: We need a new word.

(He also pointed out that we put a man on the moon before we figured out that wheels on suitcases were a good idea, but that’s a whole other discussion.)

If you want to check out more on the conference, where speakers included Stella McCartney and Antoine Arnault, you can watch all the discussions here. Otherwise, back at the home front, enjoy the story of Barbie’s new hijab; an analysis of the memorial T-shirt; and a look at Louise Linton, Treasury Secretary spouse, and all her leather. Have a great Thanksgiving, and talk to you when we all recover!

The Story Behind the Image

The Beauty of Subtly Mismatched Earrings: Four singular sets that aren’t exactly identical.

Your Style Questions, Answered

Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.

Q: I am a woman in my 60s, and have maintained my figure and my interest in fashion. I have to have a serious work wardrobe, casual attire, clothes for nights out and a few cocktail dresses. I want to stay current but at this age require a more elegant style. The elegance I have down, I think, but I don’t want bland and boring. Is there a list of what we should definitely stay away from at this age? — Jacqueline, New York

A: I definitely have a list of what to stay away from, but it’s not age-related. I would make the same recommendations to someone in their 30s and someone in their 60s. For me, the Don’ts (remember that page in Glamour?) have more to do with signaling adulthood and autonomy than any specific number.

So, in no particular order, my top five items to which one should Just Say No:

1. Bloomers. Amelia Bloomer was indubitably a great pioneer, but at this stage these blouson shorts generally call to mind children’s wear or Shakespearian costume, and neither is good for everyday adult dressing. Indeed, I generally stay away from all kinds of shorts unless used for athletic endeavors or hiking on the weekend in hot places.

2. Onesies. Similar reason. These are for babies. Let the babies have them.

3. Hobble skirts. You know: the straight cuts that angle inward at the knee or ankle and trap the legs so the only way to walk is with mincing, tiny steps. No woman should be hampered in her stride by these (see Amelia Bloomer).

4. Kitten heels. The name says it all.

5. Mules. Ditto. Also, if your shoes flap, it is very hard to be taken seriously. And the naked heel is maybe everyone’s worst body part.

Finally, an extra tip: stay away from anything with an obvious temporal association: Michael Jackson gloves, “Desperately Seeking Susan” lace, Elvis glitter. It’s the fashion equivalent of carbon dating. — VANESSA FRIEDMAN

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