In and Out of Fashion
“…we never do nothing nice and easy; we always do it nice and rough”* ~ Tina Turner
My rise to the top of Canada’s fashion publishing food chain surprised everyone, including me. It was during the era of the “glamazon editrice” — statuesque minxes with coiffed hair, designer wardrobes, Jimmy Choos, and complicated coffee orders (“Non-fat latte, two packets organic brown sugar. Stat!”) That ain’t me, babe. Yet, one day, the fortune cookie cracked open: “Congratulations, you’re the editor-in-chief of ELLE magazine.”
It was a dream job but, as the late Karl Lagerfeld, creative director of Chanel once told me, “Nightmares are dreams too.”
Launching a brand, especially an international one, is a full plate followed by seconds and thirds. Because ELLE was posh, everyone assumed there were pots of money for staff, photo shoots, and limos. Alas, our owners were not the open-handed, expense-accounting-loving, Condé Nast, but a tight-fisted French-Canadian outfit. Like a trophy wife with a tightwad husband, our small team had to cleverly make the magazine look swanky and rich on an anorexic budget.
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, would have been very proud of me in those days. I leaned in like crazy. This was a plum job and I would not mess it up. In addition to editing the magazine and writing a number of features every month, I beat the drum for ELLE at advertiser events, travel junkets, and conferences. I even managed to co-star in two seasons of the reality tv-series Project Runway, and ghost write a book, Fabulous Fakes, about couture jewelry. Lean, lean, lean, in, in, in. Until…
One time on a vacation in Cozumel, Mexico, I grabbed a kayak off the beach and went exploring. It was a glorious day, clear blue sky, calm waters. You can see where this going. As I drifted out, I noticed cute, little wavelets. I paddled some more. As the waves grew bigger and more menacing, I turned back to shore, furiously paddling against a strong wind. (Note to self: No more solo kayak trips.)
By 2010, waves were building on the job, too. The global recession two years earlier had put a fright in advertisers. ELLE’s ad sales were holding up but other brands in the company’s roster had precipitous drops in revenue. The company had no Plan B other than sheer panic and layoffs. People you’d see in the hallway or kitchenette, were suddenly gone. Meanwhile, two senior staff, my trusted deputies, were each facing personal problems that put them out of commission— a sick husband and dying mother over here and a bout of shingles and a philandering husband over there.
Around the same time, my husband and I felt compelled to rescue a skinny stray cat we found living under a pile of old newspapers in our neighbour’s yard. I am allergic to cats but a soft touch for animals. We brought her in. She thrived under our roof while I developed serious respiratory problems. It’s hard to lean in when you can’t breathe.
And, as the double-splash of brandy on the Cherries Jubilee before the match strikes, the company hired two men in very senior positions, each flagrantly unsuitable. One, a middle-aged refugee from the advertising industry, introduced himself: “I’m really looking forward to learning all about the magazine industry!” The other, the founder’s son, interned under my publisher, a seasoned industry executive, for a spell, until one day she, too, vanished. Despite the magazine’s ongoing success, there was no protection.
The day I sashayed away, I remember taking the bus home in the early afternoon, noticing the soft spring light streaming down the aisle and the ease of finding a seat. At that moment, I felt relief. The truth was, I was tired. I was tired of pretending I was well when I wasn’t. I was tired of solving everyone’s little problems, all-day, every day. I was tired of the ceaseless pace and the utter absence of appreciation. I was tired of always having to do more with less.
Leaning out implies self-determination. Was I pushed or did I jump? A few months before the summoning, I dreamt I was working on an advertorial supplement. (An advertorial is a hybrid product that reads like editorial content but is really on behalf of an advertiser.) In this dream, I had to swirl, with bare fingers, piles of shit into graceful shapes. Out of habit, I leaned into this task like the good worker bee I was. Between swirls, I methodically dipped my fingers in a bottle of perfume before moving to the next mound. The job disgusted me but I persevered. Does one need to be a Viennese psychoanalyst to interpret this dream? I don’t think so.
After the immediate relief of being free came the panic. I was on the cusp of fifty and burnt to a thin crisp.
The magazine industry, like many others, was in turmoil as publishers tried to figure out how to monetize digital content and compete with social media influencers and real-time news. Even in good times, only the lucky few manage to grow old in fashion publishing. Clearly, I would not be among that group.
Occasionally, some former colleagues would invite me to lunch and, in an attempt to boost my morale, make comments like, “I can’t wait to see what you’ll do next!” That makes two of us, I thought. Leaning out created a painful vacuum. Too young to retire, too old to be hired. In interviews, I could tell my age was the deciding factor. No longer a young-ish woman “with potential”, I was now a wise elder with no currency.
During this period, I felt very low. At some point I even wondered if I had hallucinated being editor-in-chief of ELLE. My experience was more of a liability than an asset. Whenever I tried to branch out into other industries, the patronizing response was, “Oh, but you secretly love fashion!”
Enough punishment. Eventually I took matters into my own hands and decided to pursue my interest in investing by getting credentialed. (Also, a part of me wanted to distance myself as far as I could from fashion.) Perhaps I could work as a financial writer, I wondered? Dear Reader, I did indeed become a financial writer and editor putting my writing skills in the service of women (and men) who wanted to become financially empowered. It’s worked out pretty well although I now have to buy my own lipstick.
My spirit, which had leaned out for a spell, leaned back into my body. I toppled from one platform and built another.
I lost one tribe and found others. I traded workaholism for meaningful work. I leaned out— so I could lean in.
I call this “Five Alive” and it’s how I rebuilt my resilience:
Don’t take it personally. Avoid getting stuck in rehashing the past. People let you down. You let yourself down. Let it go. Release the hurt with love and move on. (You’ll have to practice this. Trust me.)
Of course your life is important but the world’s a big place so check your ego. As a wise friend once told me, “You are the Universe, experiencing itself as Rita.” Contemplate this or just check Google Maps.
Be a hitchhiker. Don’t worry about making the perfect next move, just stick your thumb out. I threw a lot of different things against the wall until something stuck.
Feed your heart. You have the gift of time. Now’s your chance to try something that calls to you.
Makeover Magic. All that stuff from your past life—work drag, hairstyle, mindset, frenemies? New ball, new game, new closet.
Rita Silvan is a Toronto-based writer and content strategist and the founder of Ellesworth Communications. She is the former editor-in-chief of ELLE Canada, S/Style&Fashion, and Golden Girl Finance. Her work appears in national newspapers and magazines. Rita is a Chartered Investment Manager with a keen interest in women’s financial empowerment. She has appeared on BNN Bloomberg, CBC Newsworld, The Marilyn Dennis Show, Breakfast Television, and Project Runway Canada. To sign up for her weekly newsletter, visit ellesworth.ca.