Friday, April 01, 2016

New York Fashion Cool-Aid ®

An Evening with Glam4Good's Mary Alice Stephenson

Mary Alice Stephenson
All photos: Laurel Marcus
Click images for full size views

From a young, fashion obsessed girl growing up in Birmingham, Michigan who had big plans, to a grown woman (6 ft tall and gorgeous!), who realized those dreams and went on to accomplish something of even greater worth: this is the story of Mary Alice Stephenson. Her career path and the organization she ultimately founded, Glam4Good, which gives women in extenuating circumstances a chance to experience joy through fashion, has been chronicled quite a bit however there's nothing like hearing about it from the source. Last evening at the Fashion Group International #NextGen event, she encapsulated her fascinating story -- "An Inspired Career in Fashion"-- taking on the difficult task of crunching 25 years into less than an hour. Judging by the spellbound audience at Space 530 including many young people looking to her for guidance, (the "young'uns," she called them), mission accomplished.

MaryAnne Grisz introducing Mary Alice

"Your work is to discover your work then, with all of your heart, give yourself to it" was the first quote (attributed to Buddha), that she used to illustrate how one must follow their passion. For her 15-year- old-self it was a career in fashion; more specifically she wanted to be Fashion Director at Harper's Bazaar. "The only person that has to believe in your dreams is you. If you don't, nobody else will," she told herself after finishing college and moving to New York, where her bed was a mattress on the floor in a shared living room.


A Joseph Campbell quote guided her next: "Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls." She took a job at House Beautiful which encompassed advertising and many other things just to be in the realm of the world of magazines. When a job as an assistant to Anna Wintour at Vogue opened up she put on her "purple Tahari jacket with the massive shoulder pads and palazzo pants," a look she admits was ill advised. "Doesn't being scared let you know you are on to something important?" became her mantra. She tried to find humor by envisioning Ms. Wintour as a dog with a bobbed wig (now known as 8lb Pooch on her Instagram). "I went in with confidence and knowledge," and of course, nailed it "I had been preparing for that interview since I was 15 years old."

Next came a stint as an assistant to Liz Tilberis at Harper's Bazaar in which Stephenson believed her actions spoke louder than words. "I worked my butt off--in advertising, public speaking, I learned about everything," she said. After that she became an associate producer for the Isaac Mizrahi film "Unzipped." One day a call came from the legendary Polly Mellen, the famous fashion editor of Allure, who wanted to interview Stephenson for a job.

After waiting for three hours while hearing Ms. Mellen from the next room "screaming at the top of her lungs" with various directives to underlings, Mary Alice decided to "act like you're worth it." She got up and left. Isaac cringed upon hearing the story, however it panned out in the end.  "Mary Alice Stephenson! No one walks out on Polly Mellen," came the booming voice at the other end of the phone. "You've got balls, kid! You're hired!" Although I've never heard Polly Mellen's voice, Stephenson certainly gives it some character in her impersonation.

Mary Alice with FGI director Margaret Hayes

Following that adventure, Stephenson worked as Senior Fashion Editor at Marie Claire for Carlyne Cerf whose Instagram she advises everyone to follow. Cerf was all about the accessories, yet, when Stephenson was given a bathing suit shoot she used only cowboy hats. "This is merde!" was the French woman's feedback. The takeaway according to Stephenson: "You need to learn how to turn shit into gold" and most importantly, give people what they ask for. Stephenson eventually became Fashion Director of Marie Claire, at which time she had an epiphany. Her "A-Ha" moment occurred at the Albuquerque airport where she witnessed an unusual spectacle: cheerleaders of all sizes and shapes complete with pom-poms, had created a tunnel and were doing a cheer "Kar-en, Kar-en, Kar-en." A six year old bald girl walked through the tunnel, smiling ear to ear; her parents in tears behind her. Stephenson had just witnessed the Make-A-Wish foundation sending Karen off to cheerleading camp. Mary Alice immediately became a volunteer for fashion wishes at Make-A-Wish Foundation .


At the age of 35, Stephenson realized her childhood dream and became Fashion Director at Harper's Bazaar under Glenda Bailey. "I said yes to everything and learned everything." Her valuable lesson from that time: "At the end of the day, everyone just wants to feel validated, make people feel heard and that they matter." Now that she had reached what she thought would be the pinnacle of her career, somehow it wasn't enough. At 39 she decided that she was too wrapped up in her career at the risk of her personal happiness/goals, which included having a child. She also felt that "styling actresses wasn't really helping to serve." Resigning from her dream job ("everyone thought I was crazy"), she started Glam4Good and eventually had a son (he's now 10). "Sometimes you have to let go of what you want, to find out what you truly need," was a quote that resonated courtesy of Oprah.

Stephenson started "bringing fashion into dark places such as homeless shelters" as she had found a purpose. She called on all of her old contacts in fashion: designers, beauty brands, jewelry companies, etc. to donate things that didn't sell, to her cause. One day while doing one of her initiatives, she yelled out "Let's Glam4Good" and it stuck. She wasn't sure that it was a "cool" name but Bette Midler overheard her talking about it at the hairdresser and gave her blessing. "That's one hell of a name," said the Divine Miss M.


Stephenson extols "the healing power of a sequin," styling women who are victims of abuse, homeless, veterans and wounded warriors "as if she were styling J.Lo or Halle Berry." She admits that "beauty and fashion are not the most important things but when you feel you look good you can handle other things better." She says it is an honor to be able to empower women with fashion and jewelry and even caters to their kids since many mother's will not allow themselves to be pampered if they are worried about their offspring. "Let people see your truth" meaning that you should ask if you need help which she does in requests on social media. She gets responses from many heavy hitters in the industry such as Dior Beauty, MAC, Estee Lauder. Stephenson gets donations from major designers such as Valentino, Armani, and others, yet admits that often the younger girls prefer what comes from Prom.com.

Young girl in the Naeem Khan dress on the runway.

You may have seen an image that recently went viral of Naeem Khan's runway show. It featured a young girl in a red Naeem Khan dress who walked the runway with the models. Tough stuff to watch with dry eyes and many here in the room were admittedly fighting back tears. Stephenson and Dee Hilfiger were invited to co-host an event in Italy, (the two women had to prepare the room for the fashion show there by scrubbing the floors!) but it was worth it since the event was with none other than Michelle Obama.  "She, for me, is a real icon," added Stephenson.


Advising the young'uns in the room to listen to their inner compass when choosing a career path, Mary Alice Stephenson told them "Your spirit is the most important navigational force you will ever have" and it is "time to be proud of doing good."  As well as doing her regular (paying) work of serving as various brand's ambassadors such as Coach, and some styling and speaking engagements, Stephenson is now starting a foundation for Glam4Good, hoping to develop product with Stella and Dot, as well as taking to social media often with hashtags such as #stylethatmatters #strongisthenewpretty, in conjunction with photographer Kate T. Parker. She is also a single mother -- whew! when does she sleep?!?

To do all that she does, hard working volunteers are always needed and several of her young, eager staff was in attendance last night. After the Q & A, a long line formed of women of all ages, to ask Mary Alice for advice on education, career paths, and to thank her for, to paraphrase Bette Midler, "one hell of an inspirational evening."





- Laurel Marcus

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