All the recent publicity surrounding the firing several months ago of Lucinda Chambers from her post as Fashion Director at British Vogue (and more recently, the firing of Deputy Editor Emily Sheffield), has brought back memories of a day (many moons ago). Been there, done that! I had what I thought was a very secure position as Senior Market Editor at Harper’s Bazaar. It was a job I loved and I had been there for about two decades. Anthony T. Mazzola, the Editor-in-Chief since 1972, was basically the only Editor-in-Chief I would ever come to know. When I was hired as an assistant fashion editor to Rachel Crespin in 1971, Nancy White was still at the helm but was soon to retire. James Brady was next, but he didn’t last too long.
As is the case within the hallowed walls of publishing, (especially where drops in circulation and ad revenue is concerned) there had been continuous speculation with regards to Tony’s tenure there, with ongoing rumors about various and sundry high ranking people who had been approached and interviewed for his job (Liz Tilberis and Suzy Menkes among them). It was during the course of a staff meeting on December 11, 1991 that Tony announced that he would be stepping down (he said he wanted to pursue “other things” and would relinquish his post to become a consultant to the Hearst Corporation and to edit the 125th Anniversary Special Edition). He said he would remain at the helm for other two or three months (until a successor could be found).
Finally, in 1992, “ending what was perhaps the longest-running rumor in the fashion industry”, in the words of the late the New York Times reporter Woody Hochswender (“Media Business; Editor Quits at Harper’s Bazaar”, December 12, 1991), there was a formal announcement that Liz Tilberis would in fact take on the position as Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar. In what seemed like a proverbial ‘Dog and Pony Show’, she was brought up to the Bazaar offices (back then, we were located at 1700 Broadway) to quickly meet the staff. And I mean quickly: she briefly stopped into each editors’ office to introduce herself. At the time, we were repeatedly reassured by top brass (I can’t recall who exactly), that our jobs were safe and the Tilberis era would be defined by a smooth transition. Yeah, right. And if you believe that, I have a bridge I would like to sell you.
Not too soon after that, (and once again, it’s so long ago I can’t recall the exact timeline), the telephones began ringing in each senior editors office and we were summoned to report to human resources at what seemed like half hour intervals. By the end of the day, almost every editor with a senior title had been told their jobs were terminated. You know the ending of “The Godfather”, when Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) “settles his score” with the heads of all the 5 ‘families’? This was fashion’s version of that: a veritable blood bath lol!
While I wasn’t happy about this (why would I be?), I couldn’t take it personally because I never really got to meet, know, or work with Liz Tilberis (though I did bump into her from time to time as she lived down the block from me). Intellectually, I understood that someone being paid well into the 7 figures to ‘re-do’ a major magazine, would naturally want to bring in their own ‘dream team’ and thus, would need to sweep the slate clean and start fresh with his or her own staff. As they say, “A new broom sweeps clean”. This is precisely what has gone down at British Vogue with the replacement of longtime Editor-in-Chief Alexandra Shulman (the longest serving in their history) with Edward Enninful (the announcement came in April). I know it’s hard, and a rude awakening, but you get over it and you do get on with your life. It might even be a blessing in disguise.
Being fired certainly didn’t hurt Anna Wintour. Look where she ended up.
While some of the negative comments Lucinda directed at the fashion industry and magazines that went viral were valid, mostly, they seemed to be her way of getting revenge and a case of sour grapes. I had to laugh when I read what she said about that “cheesy” June cover on Alexa Chung, where she used a “stupid Michael Kors T-Shirt” which was “crap”. As a market editor, I always had to be mindful of using designs from companies that were big advertisers (they were on what was called a ‘must list’). But you can’t honestly tell me that it’s difficult to find something decent designed by Michael Kors to use for a Vogue editorial. Gosh, with some of the companies I had to use (they shall remain nameless), it was truly a challenge, but that was part of the job, and I looked at it as a creative challenge.
As for her contention that magazines are irrelevant and overly trend driven? I don’t just blame magazines, but so called fashion ‘experts’ who constantly talk about one thing or another being ‘on trend’. You know the ones; they go on TV and tell the audience that ‘yellow’ is on trend, or ‘leopard’, or ‘snakeskin’ (as though they are only on trend right now lol!) The focus should be on what’s timelessly good, what’s great. I remember when Mirabella Magazine (which was geared for smart stylish women) had an ongoing feature which they aptly called ‘Just Great’, featuring fabulous pieces that simply transcended trends. There should be more of that sort of thing. And there should be more stories on really great, affordable fashion.
As for the relevancy of fashion magazines, and their ridiculously high priced items? Well, sure it would be nice to thumb through a magazine and be able to find something on a page that is under $1000. Usually it’s just a belt or a t shirt; for many high ticket items with heart attack inducing astronomical price tags, they don’t even print the price but rather say, ‘Price upon request’. And anyway, does that mean you won’t go into a museum to look at the art, because you can’t afford to buy any of it? Not that I’m necessarily comparing fashion to art (though in some cases I could).
Photo: Getty Images
As for the notion that magazines bully and cajole their readers into buying: does Lucinda really believe that women are so pathetic, insecure, and impressionable that unless they look like one of the Hadid sisters and have the spending allowance of First Lady Melania Trump or Amal Clooney, they are destined for a life of despair? That’s insulting, plus things have really changed since the editor began her career some 36 years ago. We are at a time when it’s all about the celebration of imperfections, individuality and uniqueness, and the acceptance of who we are: warts and all. Women are less harsh on themselves these days and they understand that they don’t have to live up to a preconceived notion of who they should be. More and more editorials reflect this.
But please, give credit where credit is due. Most smart women are using magazines as a tool or reference point. Rather than buying everything they see, it’s a way to perhaps be inspired and then move things around in your own closet, or find similar pieces at less expensive price points. As a longtime fashion editor, I am and always have been highly visual and I still consider myself to be a ‘magazine person’. And I pretty much read them all: fashion magazines, home décor magazines, travel magazines, news magazines, etc. While I do get most of my information on the Internet like everyone else these days, it’s not the most relaxing thing to be constantly hunched over a computer or looking at an IPhone. There’s something relaxing about actually sitting down with a stack of good reads, even though some are admittedly better, more inspiring, and more informative than others.
If there’s one lesson I learned from 21 years as a fashion magazine editor, it’s that inspiration is all around, and sometimes, it comes from unsuspecting places. If I find just one thing that piques my interest, if I get one great styling trick, find a resource I didn’t know before, or learn something new, I consider it a worthwhile read.
– Marilyn Kirschner