When Lauren Chan joined Glamour as a fashion writer in 2015, she was thrilled to be writing feature stories and attending market appointments. After three years at the magazine, she had worked her way up to fashion features editor, but underneath the veneer of her dream job lay an uncomfortable truth.
“I was surrounded by straight-size peers who were actually able to wear the designer clothing we were all reporting on,” she says. As her frustration with the lack of high-end plus-size clothing options continued to simmer, Chan decided to leave Glamour at the end of 2017 to launch Henning, a plus-size line of stylish staples that includes oversize blazers, slinky slip skirts and soft knit bodycon dresses. (Prices are in the contemporary range: a cashmere jumper goes for $249, leggings for $269.)
At the time, Glossier founder Emily Weiss was already well on her way to parlaying her editorial background into a billion-dollar beauty brand, but the number of editors who had dropped out of publishing to design clothes or beauty products remained negligible. (Betsey Johnson and Vera Wang, who held editor titles at Mademoiselle and Vogue respectively, are notable exceptions.) An investor once remarked to Chan that she was learning to build an aeroplane at the same time she was flying it.
But the trickle of journalists and editors leaving the industry to form their own brands has now become a steady gush. The same year Chan launched Henning, former British Vogue editor Lucinda Chambers established the colourful, eccentric Colville Official alongside former Marni design director Molly Molloy. In the past two years, Coveteur co-founder Erin Kleinberg debuted Sidia, a line of work-from-home-friendly kaftans; Canadian fashion journalist Anya Georgijevic introduced luxe “slow fashion” line Anushka Studio, and former Vogue writer/editor Jane Herman released jumpsuit brand The Only Jane. This summer, Isabel Wilkinson, the former digital director of T: The New York Times Style Magazine, launched Attersee, a relaxed line of elegant basics that resembles a slightly less austere version of The Row, and Kristen Bateman, a fashion journalist for Vogue and the New York Times, introduced Dollchunk, a kitschy-cute line of plastic jewellery.
“When you’re an editor and an entrepreneur, you’re in this constant phase of market research,” says Kleinberg. “Editors are really like investigative journalists who are able to identify what is missing in the zeitgeist. It’s their job to listen to feedback, dig into what readers want, what they don’t want.”
After leaving The Coveteur, she went on to found branding agency Métier Creative, which counts Ouai Haircare, Playboy and Disney among its clients. With Sidia, Kleinberg fully intends to create a modern-day global heritage brand — her role models are Canadian megabrands Canada Goose, Lululemon and Mejuri. Early sales paint a promising picture. All of Sidia’s major product launches have sold out within a week, and the return customer rate is at 40 per cent. “It’s about creating a legacy,” she says.
Fashion journalism has a much stronger visual component than other beats, so perhaps it’s no surprise that many of its practitioners possess other forms of creativity that require a different outlet to express. As an editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Wilkinson’s biggest thrill involved sharing stories that transported readers to a different realm. “At Attersee, it’s a remarkably similar idea, though the medium is different,” she says.
There’s also the matter of building a business. The once-glamorous publishing industry has unquestionably lost its lustre and the relatively meagre salaries, once bolstered by perks such as car services and clothing budgets, have remained flat for decades.
Starting a brand offers the chance to not just out-earn one’s previous career but reclaim social capital. “There’s a certain sexiness and allure that comes with being a successful start-up founder,” says Susanna Kislenko, a researcher at Saïd Business School at University of Oxford. “We give founders an elevated status in society as a whole. In a way, it makes sense to me that people who are experts at crafting stories and narratives would be drawn to creating an outward-facing brand.”
Already having a public-facing career can be a major advantage when it comes to building a brand. Many of these journalists have a built-in audience that they can convert into customers. “Literally 100 per cent of my sales are coming directly from my Instagram and TikTok, where I’ve built a following based on my work,” says Bateman. Chan agrees that her time as an editor gave her the credibility she needed to build a brand. “Our first customers were folks who had been reading my pages in Glamour. I would go as far as to say the success of the business is largely predicated on the fact that I had the opportunity to be a public-facing fashion editor whose content focused on plus-size fashion.”
While parlaying one’s public platform into a successful brand may be a balm to the low salaries in publishing, it’s a risk for those without family money backing the venture. “I’m trying to get comfortable with the idea of being in the red,” says Kleinberg. “Running businesses in the past I’ve always been laser focused on profitability, but the whole idea [with Sidia] is to grow and scale.” Georgijevic, who is self-funded, made back 80 per cent of her initial investment after releasing her first collection and expects to break even next year.
There may not be a singular factor driving editors to put down the red pen and pick up the pinking shears, but it helps that the barriers to entry for starting an apparel company have never been lower. “You can hire someone who’s really talented at digital marketing and create your customer base that way,” says Chan. “It’s much easier to get started.”
Fashion itself has also become fragmented to the point where the large, overarching trends that once shaped the way people dress have been replaced by micro trends (low-rise trousers) and niche aesthetic subcultures (“cottagecore”). Even the smallest of brands can succeed if they’re able to connect with an audience that appreciates them. And the more niche a brand is, the more loyal its customers are likely to be.
As saturated as the marketplace is, it seems there’s always room for something more.
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