The Gentlewomen Series: Grace Astari Italiaander

The Gentlewomen Series is an ode to women who we look up to and have shown incredible strength during these unprecedented times. They are partners, professionals, breadwinners and mothers. They are also now teachers, psychologists, and homemakers. All achieved with the uttermost kindness, gentleness and grace.
Grace is a global tastemaker, to say the least. From food, travel, arts, books to 100-year-old spirits brands she is quite the expert. But her true specialty? Creating a sense of escapism.
As the Creative Lead and Innovation Marketing Manager at Diageo, Grace Astari Italiaander has more than a decade of experience leading brand growth and creative innovation across APAC, China, and the US.
"My goal is to uncover what people really want – the deep underlying human motivation that makes someone seek out a product in their life - and the narrative, aesthetic and culture that compels wonder and interest." Along with her incredible team of innovators, brand specialists, master distillers and archivists, they are able to break the barriers of intimidation for a luxury product, carry the heritage of 100-year-old brands and transform them for the modern day. 
It is not only for others does she create a sense and space of escapism. During this pandemic, she has unlocked her own happiness by moving closer to nature. From early mornings, she immersed in research from reports to books and found ways to travel through cooking at night with her partner and puppies. Her creativity ranges beyond the normalcy and her work will forever be known for transporting people to their imaginary spaces. 
Grace Astari Italiaander Quotes
Grace Astari Italiaander photographed by Jaegen Tan for The Gentlewomen Series

Grace with her Great Taste of the World 

What have you learned about yourself during this pandemic?
There was a deeply seated fear and dread that I think we all faced during the pandemic – for me, it was asphyxiating. The worry and fear that I would not be able to protect my family drained me. The pandemic became this metaphor for the world you wanted to control but never could, and the more that you tried, the more it would slip shamelessly between your fingers.

I learned instead how to lean into myself. To be grateful for small joys and the silence to reflect – and truthfully, to love that silence. Pre-pandemic, I was constantly thinking about the next thing, constantly planning for the next trip. I was travelling so much and keeping tabs on what was hot in culture, what was percolating in the scene between bars, restaurants and fashion. It was exciting and tiring.

Today, my energy is a lot less reactive. I am more grounded. I don’t feel the need to perform, or to be constantly seeking. I’ve discovered this rather maternal energy that has been an anchor. I have returned to a kind of childhood wonder – reveling in simple things like being lost in books, staring at the sky for hours, playing on the piano without really know how – it makes for a brighter, joyful existence.

What is life like for you right now?
Work is a dominant part of my life, so it’s important that it’s fulfilling. For me, work expresses I show up in the world, how I express my values, where I channel my creativity and vision. I have started a ritual where I wake up before dawn, sometimes 4 or 5 am, so I have more uninterrupted time to myself, to hear my brain think, write, exercise. I’m usually ready to go at 8 am.

At night, mealtime is the ultimate entertainment. Food is one of my biggest passions that I share with my partner, Niki – there is so much culture and storytelling that is expressed in cuisine. Niki and I take turns scheduling meal plans for the week where we try out different cookbooks and pick from the great chefs and masters. Last night, we had mentaiko kimchi udon pasta from a Korean chef in Chicago. Cooking has been an amazing way for us to explore and learn (and travel) through flavor.

What are your 2020 high and lows?
Low: I was supposed to get married – now that’s postponed until God knows when.

High: All that internal growth – I’ve embraced and accepted who I am through 2020 and I am a stronger person because of it. I know my barriers, I know my gifts (we all have gifts) and I don’t try to overextend myself as much. You can’t be everything to everybody. Accepting that comes with immense internal freedom.

How do you design your life for happiness during a pandemic?
I’ve just moved homes to be closer to nature – that has been a key unlock to feeling happiness. I see the sun, sky and ocean every day. With our demanding careers, nature can be the ultimate escape and takes off the edge. There’s huge mental health and spiritual benefits from feeling the flow of something greater than yourself. Plus: having a few puppies that needs a lot of walks force me to leave my desk.

Grace Astari Italiaander

What does being a gentle woman mean to you?
A gentle woman knows herself – she wields the power of empathy and grace to spark magic in the world around her, big or small.

Who is your role model? Why?
I really look up to Tracee Ellis Ross – she’s the daughter of Diana Ross, an actress, writer, producer, director, and business owner. She is absolutely hilarious. She has an incredible fashion sense and is an outspoken activist – intelligent without being self-righteous. This past year particularly, her vulnerability and joy showed me how to be definitively driven without losing a sense of play. That’s a page from her book, I’d like to keep.

If you were to go on a vacation right now, where would you go? Why?
I would love to return to Mexico. I’ve always been drawn to Mexican culture since I was a child. A few years ago, took sabbatical and tried to find a way to learn about Mezcal, an incredible spirit like tequila made from agave but cooked underground with wood fire. There are 200 types of agave, so like wine, it’s so diverse in flavor – and the ancestral methods of distilling give this rich smokiness, caramelization and character. I was in a tiny truck with two men I barely knew, driving across Oaxaca tasting pulque, mezcal and moonshine from home to home. Every bottle had a story of the land and community it was born from.

I often dream of going back to Mexico and being lost in its culture. A friend of mine from Singapore, Prashant Ashoka, who is a wildly talented photographer built a stunning glass house in the dry, desert mountains of San Miguel de Allende called ‘Casa Etérea.’ The structure seamlessly blurs into its natural habitat, reflecting the stars above. Completely isolated. A mysticism comes alive.

How would you describe your own personal style?
My personal style is pretty eclectic. My colleagues say that I always look so dressed up, but I think I wear the same thing every day (laughs). I tend to gravitate towards bohemian and utilitarian looks – all about contrasts. I love fluidity in dresses from Johanna Ortiz, Ulla Johnson and Roksanda, as well as the structured timelessness of Dion Lee or Victoria Beckham. Design that is elegant, but allows you to move. As for jewellery, the more storied the ethos, the more magnetic it is. Indonesian jewellery designer, Mahija has a beautiful organic tension between soft and strong. Truthfully, I wear jeans on the daily, since I need to be comfortable to create.

What is your ideal “me time” session? How do you unwind after a hectic day?
Music provides an instant lift and changes your emotions immediately. I listen to Classical and The Smiths when I’m writing. Anderson Paak, old school soul and trip-hop are my go-to's for unwinding, dining, and G&Ts on the balcony. Music creates the distance between the stress of the day and the moment to belong to.

Pay it forward: Instagram accounts and people who have inspired you.

  • @beckypaskin is a talented journalist with serious chops when it comes to spirits – definitely worth a follow. Working in the world of spirits, whisky in particular, I know how diverse and inclusive my industry is – but somehow many still assume it’s a “man’s job”. I work with incredible female Innovators and Masters of Malts. 
  • @iniarchibong is a dear friend and visionary designer – he can craft magic out of stone.
  • @thishumidhouse has such a unique and sculptural take to floral artistry – from using coconuts and cut fruit, to foraging locally for bouquets and installations. 
  • @salehebembury 's personal story really struck a chord with me – I think he’s one of the most exciting footwear designers right now.
  • Nobody is funnier than @davidshrigley (ok, except for maybe Larry David)

Designing a Sense of Escapism

How does a creative lead/ brand strategist at Diageo begin to envision a product and bring it to life?
Diageo is one of the world’s largest distributors of spirits in the world, and the largest producer of Scotch whisky. I hold a rare role within the business, which is the conceptualization of brands, products and partnerships across all spirits – whether it be gin, vodka, highly aged whisky or new to world liquids, yet to exist.

The biggest responsibility I feel I carry is respecting the heritage that drives a lot of our 100-year-old brands. Innovation carries on those legacies, transforming them for modern day. How can I recast a brand with new meaning? How do I take people on a journey that sparks fantasy and desire? How do I break the barriers of intimidation for a luxury product, and make it the most delicious experience?

I spend my mornings immersed in research, reading everything from research reports to books about cutting edge sail boat design to ‘The Worlds Great, Rare and Almost Forgotten Vegetables’. There is inspiration in everything. My goal is to uncover what people really want – the deep underlying human motivation that makes someone seek out a product in their life - and the narrative, aesthetic and culture that compels wonder and interest. I work with an incredible team of innovators in Singapore and brand specialists in London and Amsterdam, and master distillers and archivists in Scotland who are amongst some of the most experienced in the industry. I also work with different markets who might have different perceptions and barriers about our brands, like Scotch in China or Vodka in Vietnam, so cultural fluidity in our concepts are paramount.

Grace Astari Italiaander Quotes

How did your upbringing have a direct impact at your current and past roles?I grew up in a very creative household. My parents started one of Indonesia’s first branding agencies called nuage branding – they worked across industries like oil and gas, banking, real estate, and created the logo for Mulia, BPMIGAS, and DOKU which you might still see today. I grew up in their photo and design studios. They were passionate art collectors, and my fondest memories were scouting for new artists with them. They always met with the artist to learn more about their vision, or anthropologists to understand more about the cultural context for ethnographic artwork. They used own strengths in design to spotlight the creative community, through self-funded calendars and exhibitions, to allow more people to see how powerful the Indonesian creative community is.

How has your messaging changed to your customers’ needs during the pandemic?
I don’t think our messaging has changed, but we no longer take it for granted that people will simply discover our products. The pandemic has highlighted the fact that consumers don’t just want to consume products – they want to consume experiences. Escapism, hobbies and passions and a desire to learn are big drivers in those experiences.

How do you begin to understand the different markets from APAC to the US before introducing a brand?
Read. I start with the usual suspects – category and consumer reports that show growth drivers and dissatisfactions. This provides my focus points and some initial themes that I can build on creatively. I then find the most influential and relevant people that intuitively fit my brand, the culture or occasions I’m trying to target. I love following chefs because they command flavors and ingredients like no other – but I also love following artisanal ice cream brands for this very reason. (Hello: Black Pepper Molasses Vanilla Ice Cream, yum.) Journalists, designers, musicians and photographers give me the best insight to global culture – they are the most vocal and reactive. I read local news, blogs, Reddit. The rabbit-hole is real. I follow 7,500 handles on Instagram.

What would you hope for people to remember your legacy to the creative industry?
I’d like to be known for the way my creativity makes people feel - whether it’s the small, every day interactions in the workplace or the final realization of a product born to life. I’d like to be remembered for sparking a playful rediscovery, for wild cross-pollinated ideas, for creative solutions that are intuitive and meaningful. I’d like to be known for transporting people to their imaginary spaces.

*This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


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