The internet all but exploded this week when Vestoj, an academic journal about fashion, published a salacious interview with Lucinda Chambers, former British Vogue Fashion Director (the post has since been taken down — twice — and is currently unavailable on Vestoj‘s website, but true to 2017’s form, screenshots abound). Chambers didn’t waste any time getting to her point: “I was fired from Vogue. It took them three minutes to do it.” In those two short sentences, she revealed multitudes: not only does she admit to being fired (a rare confession in fashion media, where shuffling from publication to publication is quite common, making it beneficial to keep quiet about a dismissal, lest it hurt your chances of being hired elsewhere), but she also pointed a finger at British Vogue (Vogue! of all places) for handling her ousting poorly. As she said, “It took them three minutes to do it.” Chambers worked at British Vogue for 36 years, and spent 25 of those as Fashion Director.
Just last week, I compiled a series of interviews with four fashion industry veterans who weighed in on the accuracy of The Devil Wears Prada’s fashion industry stereotypes. They very generously answered my questions honestly, which meant their responses weren’t all positive. I changed the names of all four people in the article to protect their anonymity, even the three who had left the industry years ago. I knew that anonymity would be a condition for anyone agreeing to speak with me for a plethora of reasons — personal, professional and legal.
That’s why Lucinda Chambers’ tell-all is so provoking — jarring, even: she’s standing behind it, 100% out in the open. “There’s too much smoke and mirrors in the industry as it is,” she says. “Any anyway, I didn’t leave. I was fired.” Fired. It’s a word fraught with so much anxiety, despite how common an experience it is. Even Anna Wintour once admitted to being fired from Harper’s Bazaar at the start of her career — but she didn’t say so until years later. We rarely admit to being fired immediately after it’s happened, when the wound is still fresh and you’re navigating the world with wide eyes like a newborn, untethered from the lifeline of the career you were building, not to mention your source of income.
The brazen immediacy of her honesty, and her willingness to reveal the details around her exit, makes the rest of the interview all the more explosive. Because if she’s willing to fall on her own sword, she must really be telling the truth, right? She has nothing to lose, and the story she tells is illuminating, especially in the context of an an industry as mythical as print fashion media.
“Fashion can chew you up and spit you out,” she says. As an example, she cites the ousting of a designer she worked under at Marni, Paulo Melim Andersson:
“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.”
Anxiety is a common thread throughout the interview. “You’re not allowed to fail in fashion,” she says. “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.”
The most startling revelation, to me at least, was her honesty around the impact big advertisers could have on the creative process: “Oh I know [my shoots] weren’t all good – some were crappy. 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.”
I mean, whoa. That’s quite a takedown — and a believable one, too, because she’s taking herself down with it.
I was also fascinated by Chambers’ commentary on how, in fashion, a projection of confidence is more important than confidence itself. “In fashion, people take you on your own estimation of yourself,” she says. “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.”
I think this general assessment of the importance of conveying confidence could be applicable to any industry, but Chambers goes on to discuss an aspect of it that does seem particularly endemic to fashion:
“When I was on maternity leave, Vogue employed a new fashion editor. When I met with my editor after having had my baby, she told me about her. She said, ‘Oh Lucinda, I’ve employed someone and she looked fantastic. She was wearing a red velvet dress and a pair of Wellington boots to the interview.’ This was twenty years ago. She went on, ‘She’s never done a shoot before. But she’s absolutely beautiful and so confident. I just fell in love with the way she looked.’ And I went, ‘Ok, ok. Let’s give her a go.’ She was a terrible stylist. Just terrible. But in fashion you can go far if you look fantastic and confident.”
Fashion is an industry grounded in aesthetics. That’s not to say that being smart, creative, thoughtful and a good leader aren’t important in fashion, as in almost any other industry, but what she’s saying is that “looks” can carry you to a unique degree.
Chambers also picks apart one of the most infamous and obvious indicators of hierarchy in fashion: fashion show seating. “Fashion shows are all about expectation and anxiety,” she says. “We’re all on display. It’s theatre. I’m fifty-seven and I know that when the shows come around in September I will feel vulnerable. Will I still get a ticket? Where will I sit?”
I’ll admit I found it comforting that after 36 years in the business, she still felt like a small fish when fashion week rolled around. That’s certainly how I felt at my first fashion week this past February, but I assumed it was because I was a newbie. I suppose this anxiety stems from fashion’s blessing and curse: cloaked in a certain mystique, it can be an incubator for vulnerability. Vulnerability isn’t a bad thing — it’s a more ubiquitous human trait than cheek dimples, when you think about it — but it can be terrifying when it seems like you’re the only one experiencing it. I’m grateful Lucinda Chambers shouted her vulnerability into the void. Because, honestly, why can’t we celebrate failure when someone is standing on the other side, cupping their hands around their mouth and saying it’s all going to be okay?