How Refinery29’s Piera Gelardi and Christene Barberich Built Their Creative Partnership to Last

After 20 years as collaborators, the duo doesn't plan on slowing down

Barberich attributes their decadeslong partnership to trust and the prioritization of the brand 'ahead of any personal agenda.' Erin Yamagata
Headshot of Stephanie Paterik

When Refinery29 turned 10, its founders had an idea for an epic birthday celebration: partner with artists, brands and nonprofits to bring the publication to life in 29Rooms. About 10,000 people came to that first event, but more astounding was its social reach: one out of every six Instagram users saw it. Four years later, 29Rooms is a juggernaut that has expanded to five cities, set trends in experiential marketing and cemented Refinery29 as a progressive media brand, in both content and business strategy. 

Co-founders and longtime creative partners Piera Gelardi and Christene Barberich are major forces behind the event’s success, and they’re among Adweek’s Creative 100—the most inspiring and innovative people in marketing and media in 2019. Their partnership began 20 years ago at design and fashion magazine CITY, where Barberich was the editor and Gelardi was a photo intern. Now Refinery’s editor in chief and executive creative director, respectively, the duo spoke with Adweek about how they spark creativity in themselves, each another and their staff.

Adweek: How would you describe your creative partnership? When did it begin, how has it evolved, what is the dynamic like?
Christene Barberich: Piera and I have worked together in varying creative capacities for nearly 20 years … I can’t believe it when I say that! We met in the late ’90s when I was the editor of a very special local design and fashion magazine called CITY, and Piera worked in the photo department as an intern. I think the most important and special aspect of our partnership is our admiration and curiosity for each other’s skill sets, and our respective disciplines have really rubbed off on each other as a result; Piera is a wonderful writer now and I’m super passionate about photography and graphic design. If I had to sum it up, I think our creative partnership works because we trust each other and mutually put Refinery29 as a brand ahead of any other personal agenda.

Piera Gelardi: Over the years, our partnership has taken many forms—from the early days where we handcrafted every project together, to now, where, by necessity, we often divide and conquer. As we grow the brand and the business, our respect and shared purpose keep us connected and help us to co-pilot. Ever since we first landed in career cahoots, we’ve always complemented one another creatively and made each other better. No matter what I am working on or where I am in life, Christene will forever be my sounding board and the person I know will add that extra sheen to make an idea truly dazzling.

Why do you think 29Rooms took off the way it did?
Gelardi: I think 29Rooms really struck a chord with people because it helped them to tap into the creativity within themselves. So many events place you into the role of spectator, and 29Rooms puts the audience at the heart of this wondrous, interactive world where they can touch, hear, smell, taste, create and truly be the experience. It opens people up in this beautiful way, and our fans constantly tell us they feel transformed after coming through 29Rooms.

We also saw the event amplified hugely by our fans who use it as a stage to express themselves and share their stories on social. So, even though the first year only had 10,000 physical guests, one in six Instagram users saw content from 29Rooms. People went through 29Rooms and did fashion shoots, shot music videos, took engagement photos, and used the content they captured to talk about everything from body image to LGBTQ+ rights to encouraging their followers to vote. It’s truly a living, breathing expression of the topics we cover on Refinery29, but where the fans become the authors of the content.

29Rooms set a benchmark for experiential marketing and inspired myriad imitators.
Dianna McDougall

@stephpaterik Stephanie Paterik is the executive editor of Adweek, where she leads the editorial staff and strategy.