A clap back heard 'round the globe nearly broke twitter this week when longtime British Vogue fashion director Lucinda Chambers gave a candid interview to fashion journal Vestoj, in which she disclosed not only the sordid details of her firing, ("A month and a half ago I was fired from Vogue. It took them three minutes to do it.") but also a scorched-earth undressing (pun intended?) of the fashion industry. At first glance, this might seem like something relevant only to the most granular of niches, but I actually think there's a lot of sage wisdom to be gleaned from Chambers' account.
A few key takeaways:
Later I was having lunch with an old friend who had just been fired from Sotheby’s. She said to me, ‘Lucinda, will you please stop telling people that you’ve been fired.’ I asked her why – it’s nothing I’m ashamed of. She told me, ‘If you keep talking about it, then that becomes the story. The story should be that you’ve had the most incredible career for over thirty years. The story shouldn’t be that you’ve been fired. Don’t muck up the story.’ But I don’t want to be that person. I don’t want to be the person who puts on a brave face and tells everyone, ‘Oh, I decided to leave the company,’ when everyone knows you were really fired.
Chambers had an extremely respectable tenure at a prestige publication, and despite the opportunity to politely gloss over the circumstances of her departure, she instead chose to make no qualms about the fact that she was flat-out fired. And she's right, after all. Her career is nothing to be ashamed of. We all fail, sometimes spectacularly -- even the mightiest and most flawless of us. In creative fields, where work is so personal, there is often a great deal of our own personal identity and validation tied up in what we produce, which leads to even deeper shame when we have a difficult client, a business deal turns sideways, or our projects are poorly received. Often, the inclination to outrun our mistakes smothers the desire to lean into our fear and face it. Her lack of spin on the whole thing is refreshing.
The lesson: We'd all do better to be vocal and relate about professional failures instead of sweeping them under the rug in shame.
The CEO at the time asked my advice about Paulo and I told him, ‘Paulo is great, but you have to know that he won’t turn the brand around for you in a season or even two. You’ve got to give him time, and surround him by the right people.’ ‘Absolutely, absolutely,’ he said. ‘I’ll do that.’ Three seasons later Paulo was out. They didn’t give him time, and he never got his people. I felt so sad for Paulo. If you want good results, you have to support people. You don’t get the best out of anyone by making them feel insecure or nervous. Ultimately, that way of treating people is only about control. If you make someone feel nervous, you’ve got them. But in my view, you’ve got them in the wrong way. You’ve got them in a state of anxiety.
Isn't this the ultimate and most perplexing truth about hiring quality creative talent? Lots of people want to throw money at great chefs, makers, movers and shakers... but how many understand the kind of support creatives truly need to excel? So often, piling on loads of tedious minutiae ultimately divorces said talent from his or her intended role as a thought leader by sheer act of fatigue.
The lesson: don't bother hiring a high-level creative unless you also have the intention and capability to give that person the support infrastructure that they need.
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? After all, it helps us grow and develop. I’m not ashamed of what happened to me.
I like media that entertains me, inspires me, educates me, shares resources, makes me think, or provides a service. I do not like media that incites anxiety and comparison, celebrates vanity, compels me to obsess, exists only to speak negatively, acts as a gathering place for terrible people, or otherwise serves no productive use. Yet we cycle forward with our thoughtfully-curated feeds, ever the provisioners of good taste and perfection, the editors of our own lives. "Authenticity" has become such a nauseating buzzword it's lost all meaning. Everything is overthought to the point of total uselessness. For those who make a living posting photos of your outfits, more power to you, there is real money in that. For those of you posting your outfits after making your poor boyfriend take 998427373219321 photos so you can add that perfect filter and your friends will leave you nice comments about how hot you are, please unplug the internet, because you are the problem. I assure you that Stephanie does not *literally* think you are #goals. Get back to me when your dog does something funny, though. He only asks for boops and pats, not double-taps.
The lesson: stop trying so hard.
The June cover with Alexa Chung in a stupid Michael Kors T-shirt is crap. He’s a big advertiser so I knew why I had to do it. I knew it was cheesy when I was doing it, and I did it anyway. Ok, whatever. But there were others… There were others that were great.
Speaking of authenticity, maybe quit getting angry with magazines and influencers when you find out their opinion is basically purchased. We all gotta feed the beast sometimes. The art is in being able to find a point of view within those parameters that serve both the bottom line and the consumer. That delicate balance is what makes a great editor, blogger, tastemaker, influencer, whatever you want to call that person you lurk on social media. You know, that person who actually is #goals. In order to provide you their services, they themselves are in service to an advertiser, brand, sponsor, VC dude and/or all the other whoevers writing checks. Content is an expensive thing to produce that is consumed very quickly, so sometimes to the person making it for you, that means a cheesy Alexa Chung cover on a slow month or sucking it up and writing about Kim Kardashian.
The lesson: very few professional creatives are given total freedom and limitless capital. Sometimes you'll feel like a sell-out. Deal with it. Those moments are a small price to pay for the resources to otherwise make truly great things.
In fashion people take you on your own estimation of yourself – that’s just a given. You can walk into a room feeling pumped up and confident, and if you radiate that the industry will believe in what you project. If, on the other hand, you appear vulnerable you won’t be seen as a winner.
Forget creative fields, this is true in every human interaction since the beginning of time, isn't it?
The lesson: Confidence is sexy. Radiate it. If you believe in you, others will too.
Nobody can stay relevant for a lifetime – you always have peaks and troughs. The problem is that people are greedy. They think, ‘It worked then, we’ve got to make it work now.’ But fashion is an alchemy: it’s the right person at the right company at the right time. Creativity is a really hard thing to quantify and harness.
I would go a step further than Chambers and say that all professional creative endeavors are an alchemy; a palatable, potable cocktail that says something interesting but goes down easy. Sometimes, striking that balance takes a lot of tries. And even when you do finally find it, it never lasts. Great talent will ebb and flow through your company, just as your own career will experience bursts of exciting growth followed by a case of the doldrums. And who's to say what makes a great creative hire when talent and culture are so subjective?
The lesson: always follow your instincts. Seek great creativity in unexpected places (for this, I actually love social media), and don't expect it to apply for the job. Develop an eye for people, not only established but emerging talent, then nurture and sustain those relationships to build a great culture over time.
There are very few fashion magazines that make you feel empowered. Most leave you totally anxiety-ridden, for not having the right kind of dinner party, setting the table in the right kind of way or meeting the right kind of people... It’s a shame that magazines have lost the authority they once had. They’ve stopped being useful. In fashion we are always trying to make people buy something they don’t need. We don’t need any more bags, shirts or shoes. So we cajole, bully or encourage people into continue buying. I know glossy magazines are meant to be aspirational, but why not be both useful and aspirational? That’s the kind of fashion magazine I’d like to see.
Honestly, couldn't this be said for social media, as well? We are outraged and exhausted, bleating out battle cries for transparency but also a dedicated legion of head-burying swipers, Snappers and double-tappers. We feel so overwhelmed by the litany of information available that mindlessness is what ultimately feels most useful. Creative fields have had to continue to bend to this short attention span and mental laziness, some segueing from the delicate balance of ethically mixing advertorial and editorial to an indiscernible blend of churn and burn sponsored content. Creativity is ultimately the elevation of the useful, right? We must wear clothes, but fashion makes them fun. We must learn to read, but literature expands our minds. We must eat, but great food is visceral. We seek shelter, but filling it with art and beauty gives our surroundings joy. These choices should empower us, because ultimately they are expressions of self. Instead, they are exhausting us.
The lesson: let aspirational media help hone your eye and find your point of view, but don't take it as gospel, and stop comparing yourself along the way. (But before anything else, be useful.)