My Afternoon With Mary Alice

17th December, 2014

This fall, Interview Magazine invited female trailblazers, legendary statement makers ~ like Rachel Roy, Misty Copeland and Gretchen Mol ~ to partner in conversation with likeminded young women over a glass of La Crema wine. It’s a project that celebrates the power and importance of women supporting women, and I was thrilled to pick up the baton and participate in the series, to sit down over brunch (and a crisp Pinot Gris) this past Sunday and interview the woman who has been the truest mentor of my life: fashion icon, expert, and bon vivant Mary Alice Stephenson.

I met Mary Alice when my own career was still very young. I was just into my second season designing for Naeem Khan and she came on board as the collection’s stylist. She was the most fascinating person I’d ever met, this 6 foot tall exclamation point of positivity and big ideas. She’d arrive for fittings floating in furs and dripping in beading, roll in and just shake everything up: the necklines, the hemlines, my way of seeing the world. She showed me what it was to be a powerful, glamorous woman, how to be a boss and to do it with joyfulness and grace. She was totally egalitarian, making as much space for my ideas and opinions as anyone else’s. And so she helped me find my own voice, trust my own instincts. She showed me what it means to be a stylist, and a great one at that. She always made it fun, and of all the lessons she’s given me over the years, that’s the most important.

She’s a busy lady, between raising a 9-year-old son, consulting for Fortune 500 companies and spearheading Glam4Good, a philanthropic movement that ignites positive social change through style by harnessing the healing power, joy and attention that fashion brings ~ providing life changing makeovers, dramatic giveaways and transformative fashion experiences for everyday heroes and people in need.

For the past 8 years, our friendship has fueled me creatively and inspired me professionally. I look up to her, admire her, really love her, and am so proud to get to share her with you today. MAS2
Kelly: You know, I don’t know a lot about your career trajectory until the point that I met you. Obviously I’ve followed your career closely since then, but I’d love to really understand how you got to where you are now.

Mary Alice: Ok so, when I was 15 years old, living in Birmingham, Michigan, I told my mom I was going to be the Fashion Director of Harper’s Bazaar. My dad was a doctor, my mom was an art curator, no one really knew anything about fashion, but I was obsessed with fashion magazines and imagery. I was fascinated. I wanted to not go to college and come to New York; my father said absolutely not. So I came here as soon as I graduated, like the day after. And I just did what I had to do to make ends meet. Then one day I got a call to come in and interview at Conde Nast, and the next thing I know I’m sitting across from Anna Wintour.

I’ll never forget, she crossed her arms ~ she had the big glasses on, everything. I was oversized  compared to Anna. I wore heels, and you know I’m 6ft tall! So I was like 6’4″, very curvy, my hair was all over the place. But she apparently liked me, and working at Vogue was my first job in fashion.

What was that experience like?

It was phenomenal. Just to be around people with such great taste ~ like Carylne Cerf, Phyllis Posnick, Grace Coddington and Tonne Goodman ~ was incredible as a young woman. My first photoshoot was Phyllis Posnick and Irving Penn! It was Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell, and they looked incredible. I mean, some of the great shoots, I witnessed. I saw these amazing editors work and I had so much respect for them.

What an amazing training ground.

So I paid my dues; I spent almost 6 years assisting. And then I was hired away from Vogue by Liz Tilberis at Harper’s Bazaar. I worked there and I started to do my own stuff for the front of book pages for Bazaar and I also assisted a great editor there named Sarajane Hoare, and a couple times Tonne Goodman.

What I loved about Harper’s Bazaar during that time ~ Paul Cavaco was the Fashion Director and Liz was the Editor In Chief ~ was that it was a joyful fashion. The spirit  of what we were doing and the beauty  of what we were surrounded by was inspiring to all the senior editors, and so the place was so alive, it was so much fun. It was a very different environment than Vogue, which was more stiff and more buttoned-up. Harper’s Bazaar under Liz Tilberis was fashion at its happiest. It was so joyful.

Yeah, whenever you hear Paul Cavaco talk about those times it’s always with such glee.

Unbelievable, right! And I think that’s the kind of environment that I thrive in. I feel we are so lucky to be doing what we’re doing. Yes, we all work so hard, and the industry’s changed so much, but basically we are creating things that empower women, that make people feel good, feel inspired. And to be on location, with models, shooting beautiful clothes ~ in St Barth’s or Morocco or whatever it is ~ you’re lucky. You’re so, so lucky. It should  be joyful!

You can work hard, and do great work, and still be empowered and happy in that experience.

It’s amazing how many people are missing that point, and that’s one thing I’ve always really admired about you; I’ve never seen you not joyful, and loving it, and exuding gratitude.

Not so much anymore, but there was a certain generation of women for whom it was very hard to achieve a high level of success ~ because women in that time were still kept down in so many ways. And so to really be so successful as editors at that level, they had to really fight. And the work is so grueling and a lot of sacrifices were made. And so with that comes an intensity and I respect that. But I also think that there was a lot of backstabbing, a lot of gossip and nastiness and that is why sometimes fashion gets a bad rap.

It’s a tough business, so it brings out a tough side of people.

Right, and that’s okay. You cannot survive in this business without the ability to go there. But that doesn’t mean you have to go there in a nasty way. Nothing looks good on a bitch. I don’t care who you are!

(laughing) Yeah, that’s not a good look.

I have tough days, and I’m struggling as a single mom to take care of my son and do good in the world and run my company, just like everyone does. It’s really difficult. Somedays I think, how can I keep doing this? But at the same time I also know how lucky I am, especially working on Glam4Good and seeing so many people who don’t have luck.

So, tell me a little bit about that, about how you transitioned from a very traditional fashion editor role to what you’re doing now.

Well, after Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar I became my own editor at Allure. Polly Mellon hired me and I was doing covers and shooting beauty stories at Allure. And then I went to Marie Claire and I was the Fashion Director at Marie Claire and that was an incredible experience. And then I went back to Harper’s Bazaar and was the Fashion Director at Harper’s Bazaar. So there’s a lot of years in there! And the best thing about that time period for me was getting to work with such incredible people and travel all over the world and tell stories with fashion.

And you’ve worked with all the greats.

Yes, I’ve worked with Richard Avedon, Peter Lindbergh, Patrick Demarchelier, Inez and Vinoodh, Terry Richardson…

It’s a very tough business to break into, and to get to the top is nearly impossible.

A lot of times when people want to come intern with me, they think you have to just look cute and you’ll succeed in fashion. But really you have to be so good  at so many  different things. I’ve hired a lot of people who weren’t the most fashionable, didn’t have innate style ~ but neither did I when I started in the business! I wasn’t the most stylish girl in Michigan. I had no idea! But I had heart, and I had a passion for fashion. Without that, I couldn’t have achieved anything. I came here not knowing a soul out of college. So often I’ll hire girls that aren’t the best dressed, but that are the most dedicated, the most courageous, the most hard-working, the smartest. Because the fashion stuff, you can learn.

Right now I’m succeeding because it’s a time when you’ve got to wear a lot of hats. I always did that, and it’s helpful to me now in my career because actual styling is very challenging these days, financially. It’s not the business it once was. And when I first started doing media, everyone kind of pooh-poohed it, but because I started doing it at a very young age in fashion and was a spokesperson it significantly helped my career. Because as a stylist the truth is you make very little money. And the women that are styling now, doing the big campaigns, they’re pretty much the same women that have been doing them for a very long time.

I think for me after being in that magazine world for so long with so much emphasis on things looking pretty, I actually wanted to get away from that a little bit. So I resigned (I was I think 38 or 37) from Harper’s Bazaar as Fashion Director, because I just felt I wasn’t using my passion to make a difference in the world. People were shocked that that’s what I did, but I did. And I’ve had a great relationship with Harper’s Bazaar and done some great covers for them after that.

Yeah, you continued to contribute to them after. Because I think that’s when I met you, you had just left but were still contributing.

For me, if fashion’s not connected with joy or empowerment, it’s less meaningful. I mean, give me a model any day, I love that. I love that.  You know I do. But I also ~ you know like Tuesday, I’m working with this veteran, a Wounded Warrior who’s won two Purple Hearts. She’s had femininity stripped away from her. She has been in an Air Force uniform for a very, very long time, and she hasn’t been able to show her sensuality or her femininity. And so to be able to witness that moment where she really sees herself as a woman and to help her feel glamorous and beautiful again: that to me is my journey now, and I know that. That’s me at my best and how I’m serving the world.

And so I could have stayed at a magazine, and maybe I’ll go back one day as an Editor In Chief, but for me right now I know in my journey I need to be serving people somehow. And that’s where Glam4Good was born.

And besides starting Glam4Good, for 16 years you’ve been the Fashion Ambassador for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

It started when I was doing a photoshoot in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was at the airport with my crew and it was filled with cheerleaders, ages 5 to 25. There were hundreds of them. I was like, what is going on?! And I love this idea of like, happenings. So I went to go see what this movement was about and they formed a tunnel and all these cheerleaders started going, Karen (clap clap), Karen.  And there was a six-year-old girl with not a stitch of hair and the biggest smile on her face. And her parents were behind her, tears in their eyes, and it was Make-A-Wish, and they were sending Karen to cheerleading camp. And I was just blown away.

We all have these moments. And I know my ability in life is that I’ve always been able to make pretty much anything happen. It’s just my gift; when I put my mind to something I do it. And I knew that I could create experiences in fashion, I just knew it. So I reached out to Make-A-Wish, and for many, many years it has been my balancer. Whenever I would do the consulting things and the shoots for the European Vogues, I would also do a Make-A-Wish, and it was just always the great equalizer for me.

I can literally understand the healing power of fashion because I’ve witnessed it. Like literally, I know the healing power of a sequin. I’ve seen girls drop away their crutches, get out of their wheelchairs, girls that were very, very sick. I’ve had a father tell me that that experience, that wish, that fashion, that day  gave him six more months with his daughter.

In our business we’re so focused on fashion, fashion, fashion. Looking cool, and blogging, and selfies and posting it ~ which is okay, because it’s a business ~ but for many people that are not connected to our industry, fashion can be very scary, very degrading, very materialistic. So, when you actually have the ability to see how it can be quite the opposite as well: empowering, inspiring, when you work with people that have been abused, or with Make-A-Wish kids, or with veterans or breast cancer survivors, and you understand that you’re literally giving them their self-esteem back, it is life changing.

At the end of the day, how have you used what you’ve created around you ~ the people that you know, your passion, the tools that you have ~ how have you used that to uplift others, to make a difference? Everyone wants to be validated. And we’re in a situation now where it’s a ‘look at me’ generation, the millennials, look at me, look at me. But what about validating somebody else? I mean, you’re on Instagram, you’re getting all your likes, getting your followers. It’s not about how many followers you have, it’s how you are a leader.

Beautifully said. So how long ago did you officially found Glam4Good?

About two years ago, and it was just because I was doing these things so much and I was doing a fashion seminar at Lincoln Center with Disney. I was working with kids who had gone through a really, really hard time and it just came out of my mouth: are you ready to glam for good?!  And they all started screaming yes,  and tweeting it and hashtagging it. And I was like ooh,  Glam4Good!

Like, there’s something there!

Yeah! I recently met with Bette Midler about doing something with Glam4Good and she goes, “Goddammit why didn’t I think of that name?!” She was so funny.

But it just started organically. What’s so exciting is that right now, we are in the age of empathy. So people responded, but I think people can see authenticity. A lot of brands say they’re doing good and making a difference and they’re not. And so we launched about 2 years ago and we have a partnership with Huffington Post and we live on HuffPo Style and AOL and we have some really exciting things coming up in the new year. And it’s really been my passion project; it’s the little engine that could. I don’t have funding, it’s a little passion project that’s getting bigger and bigger.

I never mention this but I was given by the United Nations a Fashion Innovator Award last year for Glam4Good. That was really important for me because sometimes you have to step away from what you think  you need to actually find out what you really  need. And so, I had to kind of step away from the world of high fashion a bit ~ and I had a lot of experiences with that ~ to really understand what my purpose is. And I may still go back and I may still run a magazine, but at the end of the day I know I’m doing something with my personal intention and power and talent, in the right direction.

And you’re managing it while still consulting and running that business.

Right. Still doing a lot of styling, doing TV, spokesperson stuff. I just did a show that’s airing January 2nd with People Magazine and TLC, and it’s a really incredible, empowering special with Glam4Good and two women.

For me, being able to talk to and affect the masses now is interesting. I just did a great thing with Target which was really fun. I love that. I love actually being in a room of unfashionable people, and seeing them excited about how fashion can make them feel.

To be an ambassador for the fashion world in a way, to let people know it can be a really safe, special, empowering place.

Right.

So how did you get connected to Michelle Obama?

I was asked to be a moderator for her first fashion education seminar, and it was really amazing to see how these kids were so excited by the people who were there speaking, like Maria Cornejo, Phillip Lim, Reed Krakoff, Karen Craig and Georgina Chapman from Marchesa, Alexis Bittar, Lela Rose, Thom Browne. There was a great setup at the White House and the kids would go through each different seminar. It was all kids who had worked really, really hard and were really interested in fashion but would usually never have the chance to be interacting with that level of the industry. So it was really a great experience.

Alexis Bittar and I took the train down together, and we’re sitting there going like, oh my god, our lives!  We’re both from nowhere, neither of us had connections or knew anyone in fashion. We both have very different stories but it really goes to show you that if you believe in yourself through the ups and downs and you have vision and hard work and dedication, you can really achieve anything. So we were like, woah, we’re going to speak at the White House! This is so cool!  

TOTALLY.

I was just there last night for a Christmas party and Alexis had designed in the Vermeil Room these, have you seen them, they’re really beautiful you would love-

Yes, I think I saw on your Instagram, the tree that he did? It was amazing!

There’s two of them and Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s famous picture is right there and it’s beautiful and you, loving jewelry like I love jewelry… One of the reasons I think we totally connected is you and I, we’re both jewelry girls.

Yep. Guilty.

Anyway, I’m so obsessed and so is he obviously. And it was just great to see all that jewelry in the White House. It was really fun.

It always is with you!
MaryAlice7
CLICK HERE to explore more of Interview Magazine + La Crema’s program to encourage female mentorship
CLICK HERE to follow Mary Alice Stephenson and all things Glam4Good

PHOTOGRAPHY by Reid Rolls

  • You girls look so cute! 🙂

    Shall We Sasa

  • Oh my God. This!!!! —> “And we’re in a situation now where it’s a ‘look at me’ generation, the millennials, look at me, look at me. But what about validating somebody else? I mean, you’re on Instagram, you’re getting all your likes, getting your followers. It’s not about how many followers you have, it’s how you are a leader.”

    We need more people with that attitude!

    LDNBLOGGERSTEA | CHAMPAGNE TEA AT THE LANCASTER

  • Grace

    What a lovely interview and what an amazing mentor! Also Kelly, your pants are amazing in this shoot.

  • Nico

    Looks like it’s been an amazing afternon!

    lb-lc fashion blog

  • Emily

    Looks like a great time!

    Emily

    http://adorableandaffordable.weebly.com

  • Royal Wang

    It is so blessed that some fashion-lover actually did what she planed to do, and also you need luck, a lot of lucks, i mean , i started to subscribe fashion magazines even more early my age than she is but i do find my chance or need to say chance does not like me? I am not so sure. Anna Winter is a icon still remember her Vogue cover 1988 oh yeah, so creative and like a revolution of editing.

    Your friend looked so retro chic and i am glad for you to have her around which may inspires you on styling a lot. This interview is good fit for your readers who wants know how fashion insiders works and their thoughts. Thanks a lot

    http://www.fashionculturediary.blogspot.it/

  • Her fur headwrap is amazing!

    http://tostylewithlove.com/

    Daphne

TheGlamourai is a webzine produced by Kelly Framel, a multi-media creative director based in downtown New York (but constantly bouncing around the world). Part fashion blog, part glossy mag, part fantasy travel portal, it's your ultimate online destination for stylish daydreams. Tune in for inspirational editorials, beauty tutorials, outfit ideas, DIYs, jet-set travel tips and more!
ALL MATERIAL © 2017 The Glamourai