Rachel Fleit, co-founder and chief creative officer of luxury brand Honor, found herself the center of attention at a recent work event. For someone with alopecia universalis — the most extreme form of hair loss on the entire body — that’s not exactly something new. But the fact that it didn’t bother her absolutely was.
“I walked through the dinner in this beautiful Honor dress. I was aware of all these heads turning to look at me,” said Fleit, 33. “In my mind, it’s like I know they’re looking at me and it’s totally OK and it’s kind of fun. This is who I am. I’m the bald girl in the neon peach dress. It’s not exactly what you see in the magazine, but that’s just who I am.”
Fleit blames a lack of awareness about her condition for the reaction people sometimes have when they see a bald woman. Born in New York City and raised on Long Island, she began to lose the small amount of hair she had when she was 18 months old. During her early years, Fleit said she was “a pretty well-adjusted and happy bald kid.” When she started at public school for kindergarten, her parents figured that if she wore a wig it would be a tool to help her better adjust with the new kids.
“I began this sort of journey of my trying to keep this whole thing secret,” Fleit recalled. “I wore a different wig every year. I would wear the wig in the swimming pool and put goggles on so it wouldn’t fall off. I wore the wig when I played soccer.”
She said she didn’t do certain activities because she was afraid the wig would fall off.
“My big fear was that they would find out I had no hair and they wouldn’t want to be my friend and they would think that they could catch this,” she said, adding that kids were actually aware but because they were friends and it was clear she didn’t want to discuss it, no one made fun of her. “I developed keen social skills and had a lot of allies.”
When she was 16, Fleit got involved in high-school theater. Some of the gay friends she made there came out, and that inspired her to be open about being bald. It was a slow process: It took a few years before she stopped wearing the wig as a sophomore at Ithaca College and took up wearing bandanas and turbans. She finally realized, “It doesn’t matter how everyone else feels. This is my life, this is who I am and I have no hair.”
But over time, even her accessories didn’t feel right. About the time she started Honor in 2009, she opted to go bald. “This all didn’t magically happen. I didn’t wake up one day and say, ‘I’m OK with who I am.’ It took years and years and years of undoing layers and layers and layers of how I feel about myself.”
Fleit studied theater management and production in college, then produced films before a chance New York run-in with high school friend Giovanna Randall set her on a new path.
“It was sort of serendipitous” she said, adding that Randall was the girl with the cool vintage makeup case who made her own prom dress with her mother. “She just always had a very sort of impeccable sense of style.”
So when her reconnected friend asked her to help form a fashion company five years ago, Fleit figured it was another venue for her to use her producing skills. Honor, known for its feminine and ladylike dramatic styles, is a favorite of celebrities like Zosia Mamet from “Girls,” Oprah Winfrey, Jessica Alba, Taylor Swift and Shailene Woodley. The company now employs more than 20 people and sells clothing online, in stores around the world and from its showroom in Manhattan’s meatpacking district.
As co-founder and chief creative officer, Fleit is in charge of all of the brand’s creative content, producing runway shows, photo shoots and marketing films for the collections while overseeing marketing efforts.
“I really believe that everything in my life that I’ve done prepared me for this moment,” she said, adding, “it’s very much in line with where my roots are. I’m making movies again all the time, producing photo shoots all the time and runway shows twice a year. It’s like a musical, it’s just a different cast and much shorter — like the shortest, most thrilling musical you ever get to do.”
But being a part of the image-conscious fashion world was an adjustment.
“I really was keenly aware of my alopecia when I first embarked on this journey with Honor,” Fleit said. “There were all these years being ‘OK’ with my hairlessness. There was this moment five years ago when I started to go to more fashion events and I really noticed more people looking at me. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t bad. It’s just there was an awareness that I don’t have any hair.”
She was accustomed to people not understanding alopecia — a lack of knowledge about the condition often prompts others to ask if she has cancer. But working in fashion presented another challenge.
“This is such an image-obsessed culture in general,” Fleit said. “We are the image makers. I think sometimes I feel — not to be completely self-centered — but seeing a bald woman really confronts something deep inside a person. For whatever reason that is, so much of your femininity is defined by your hair. I’ve done a lot of work around that, finding my own femininity, developing my sense of myself as a woman without this thing that is defining.”
But times like the dinner she attended are no longer awkward. “I’m really comfortable. This is just it. I can now sort of move through those instances with a lot more grace and a lot more ease and a lot more comfort in my own skin.”
Fleit said learning to accept herself was a personal experience that took a long time. “I’m not some sort of martyr for the bald women of the world,” she said, adding that she “grieves” for the little girl who for years taped a wig to her head even on hot summer days.
“It’s sad for me,” she said. “I’m grateful for the life I have today ... I’ve been given this sack of skin that I’m in. It just happens to have no hair.”