Everyone who works in fashion gets asked the question, “Is it just like The Devil Wears Prada?” And everyone who works in fashion will roll their eyes and curse Meryl Streep’s finest ever cinematic performance, before they tell you, “No. FFS, no.”
They’re not lying BUT…
While the book and film exaggerate a lot, a fashion magazine is still an intense place to work.
Little-known fact about me: I was once one of those people. You wouldn’t think it because I don’t fit the stereotype or dress like I work(ed) in fashion. In fact, thinking about trends and trying to put an outfit together brings me out in a cold sweat. For the past year, I have stuck to a plain-Jane uniform of jeans and a baggy jumper that does f-all for my figure but makes me feel safe.
But on my CV, squeezed between the TV credits, are eight months spent at British Vogue.
To put it bluntly, those eight months were a cluster-f**k of anxiety and weirdness that I buried deep in my psyche, to deal with when I can afford the therapy.
But tonight, after reading fashion site Man Repeller for the first time in years and discovering this amazingly frank interview with ex-fashion director Lucinda Chambers, I felt strong enough to re-live my experience. In fact, I loved Lucinda’s words so much, I’m going to include meaningful quotes from her in this blog post. You’re welcome.
Another great thing to come out of this over-sharing, is a forgotten list of mad shit my Vogue colleagues said and did while I was there. Here are my faves:
The British Vogue staff….
On food – “There really is just nothing worse than a bad canapé!”
On department store Selfridges – “Eugh. It’s so Debenhams.”
To a colleague – “Bye darling, so wonderful to see you, drinkypoos soon, bye darling. MWAH!”
On that same colleague – “Christ she’s such a bore. Don’t you just want to punch her in the face?”
On food again – “I heard she microwaves her eggs.”
On high-street stores – “River Island? God help us all.”
On being late – “So sorry, I read my watch wrong. There are no numbers – only rhinestones!”
Other weird things that happened regularly include seeing an assistant put on heels just to walk to the bathroom and finding Primark labels (the fabric in-seem ones) cut off and flushed down the toilet in shame.
But was it like The Devil Wears Prada? No. The above is more of a reflection on classism in the UK than anything.
The truth is this. The assistants were stressed off their tits but nice enough. Getting in a lift with Editor in Chief Alexandra Schulman was at most a little awkward, but never scary. You would get a critical head-to-toe glance when you walked into the office, but that’s just the post-modern-Instagram-age we live in, babe. And there was one evil bitch who decided to make my life hell, but every office has one of those, right?
Reading Lucinda Chambers’s interview brought it all flooding back and I think, finally, it’s time to lay my Vogue ghosts to rest.
Why / how did I end up at the fashion bible? I’m still not entirely sure. I remember finishing an internship at Disney and there being absolutely zero TV work available. I saw an ad on Facebook for a “production assistant” in fashion media and thought, why not? I’ve always loved fashion and my guilty-pleasure was Project Runway. At one point, I even wanted to be a fashion designer. So, although it hadn’t been part of the plan, I applied. And then, suddenly, I was at an interview in London’s Vogue House and being offered the job.
“In fashion people take you on your own estimation of yourself. If you radiate confidence the industry will believe in what you project. If you appear vulnerable you won’t be seen as a winner.” – Lucinda Chambers
(That’s one of those meaningful quotes I promised you.)
I can’t look back on the experience without a shudder of anxiety. It was a fishbowl of archaic systems, flamboyant egos and unspoken rules – I spent the first few weeks just completely baffled. My first London Fashion Week was an incredible and eye-opening experience that I genuinely enjoyed. As I said, I loved fashion then; the creativity of the designers was mind-blowing. And a particular highlight was almost hitting Bradley Cooper with a boom mic as he walked out with Anna Wintour. I kinda wish I had, just so they’d acknowledged my existence.
For a moment, I thought I’d made an excellent career move. But then my manager fell out with the Editor in Chief (over creative differences, obviously), and quit. I got shunted into another department and it became quite clear I’d been tarred with the same brush as my boss. No matter how hard I tried, nobody wanted to be associated with me.
“You’re not allowed to fail in fashion – especially in this age of social media, when everything is about leading a successful, amazing life. Nobody today is allowed to fail, instead the prospect causes anxiety and terror. But why can’t we celebrate failure?” – Lucinda Chambers
I felt judged and trapped in a place that didn’t want. Everybody else was confident and cutthroat, in a way that was impressive and inspiring. I wished I could be so self-assured but that’s just not me. Instead of coming out of my shell and having my own Devil Wears Prada transformation montage, I retreated into myself and searched hopelessly for another job.
To cut a long story short, the rest of my time at Vogue was hell. I cannot put all the blame on the magazine for that – my personal life was rocky too – but feeling so isolated made me dread Mondays like nothing ever had or has since.
More than anything, this knock in the early days of my career severely hurt my confidence. Yes, we’re talking violin-worthy levels of sympathy here – Bach’s 3rd symphony, please.
One of the people I really admired was fashion director Lucinda Chambers. She was part of the institution, almost as much as Alex herself, and she had a no-nonsense way of speaking that you didn’t need to dissect for backhanded compliments. But despite this outward “no f***s to give” attitude, something Lucinda said at fashion week really struck a chord with me.
When asked if her thirty+ years at the magazine gave her a better insight into the next trends, Lucinda walked away from camera, saying, “I don’t want to answer that. I’m not some old battle-axe.”
I realised that Vogue’s own fashion director sometimes felt as out of place and insecure as I did.
This year, Lucinda Chambers was unceremoniously fired, after thirty-six years of loyalty. Her interview in Vestoj is uniquely candid about her time at the magazine and I strongly urge you to read it.
“Most people who leave Vogue end up feeling that they’re lesser than, and the fact is that you’re never bigger than the company you work for.” – Lucinda Chambers
I have always looked back at my time at Vogue as a failure but Lucinda’s candour has made me rethink it. I let the experience hurt my self-confidence and taint my love for fashion. I’ve managed to re-build a belief in my abilities and am always working on growing a thicker skin. But my joy for shopping and clothes has not recovered to the thrift-shopping and vintage bonanza heyday of my youth. While I enjoy dressing up for special occasions, the memory of having a panic attack because I did not know what to wear to the office is still fresh enough to stop me making too much effort on the daily.
After seeing behind the glossy front, I have not picked up a fashion magazine since I walked out of Vogue House. I even stopped reading fashion blogs because I was so distrustful of the fashion machine. But this week an article by a British journalist on Twitter called me back to Man Repeller, blog-turned-online magazine and now a fashion bible in its own right.
Reading the frank and hilarious articles and seeing its host of writers dressing exactly how they want, reminded me how f***ing great fashion is. When I read of Lucinda’s dismissal I was filled with indignant rage on her behalf and determined to take back my love for clothes.
“There are very few fashion magazines that make you feel empowered. Most leave you totally anxiety-ridden.” – Lucinda Chambers
Turning my back on fashion was the mistake. I forgot its ability to empower and inspire when I needed it the most – that I would lose sight of that in the hub of British fashion speaks volumes about the environment. No More, I tell you. In the name of Lucinda Chambers, Badass Battle-axe and f**kless truth-teller, I’m diving back into my closet. Take me to a thrift store!
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