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Not everyone bounces back after a very public firing, but Kim France—former editor-in-chief of Lucky—didn't just recover, she completely revitalized her career by taking on the web.
The magazine veteran came from gigs at Sassy, New York Magazine, Spin, and Elle before Condé Nast tapped her as founding editor of its new shopping magazine in 2000. And after a decade at the helm, France was let go (her successor, Brandon Holley, was unceremoniously dismissed a few years later). Instead of taking another job in an industry the Texas native had become disenchanted with, she launched her own venture. Her blog, Girls of a Certain Age, debuted in 2011 and amassed an impressive following from the get-go. France now writes about everything from fashion to feminism to home décor.
Of course, going from a high-powered position at a major corporation to running a site out of your living room doesn't come without its own set of challenges. Racked caught up with France to find out about what she learned from being (and then suddenly not being) an EIC and why she no longer takes pleasure in reading fashion magazines.
What did you do before you started Lucky?
My first job in New York was at a publication called Seven Days, which was edited by a very young Adam Moss. From there I went to Sassy, then to Elle, where I edited the entertainment coverage. After that I went to New York Magazine, where I also edited entertainment and some longer features and did some writing. When my boss got fired at New York, I decided to be a full-time freelance writer, and then I got a book contract. It was during that period that the Lucky opportunity came up.
What was your vision for Lucky in the beginning?
The whole idea was to have a magazine that puts the reader entirely first. My thought was that I'm a magazine world insider, I should feel empowered, but these images still intimidate me and I'm not happy at the end of reading a fashion magazine. It's a bummer experience; you don't feel good about yourself. But what if there was a fashion magazine where people actually were happy at the end, where when you opened up the page, you saw things that you actually could afford, that were made in your size, and that were available in stores? At the time, it was something that just wasn't done that much. Some magazines focused on having shopping pages that were accessible, but nobody did it throughout the entire magazine.
What happened at the end of your time there? Tell me about getting let go.
I think editors have time limits at magazines. It was probably my time, and I don't have a problem with that. Eleven years is a long time in the life of an editor-in-chief at a magazine. I feel pretty at peace with that.
Were you bitter about it when it happened?
Speaking really honestly about this, the day I was fired was a tough day. I had the usual host of bad feelings that you have, but I was also very clear, even in the very first hour it happened, that it was not a bad thing for me. During that period of time, I was suffering from daily migraines. I believe very strongly in mind-body connection, and I had a really strong feeling that stress I was feeling at work was not helping this. I had a feeling that walking away from this job or being kicked out the door was going to help, so I knew from the very beginning it was for the best, even though I was like, "Oh my god." I closed on an apartment three weeks before I was fired! And I was fired on Rosh HaShanah, on the Jewish New Year. It's not like I was without resentment over that. But at the same time, I saw family that night and there was nobody in my family who thought it was a bad thing.
How do you not hold any grudges?
I think I would have reacted differently if I were younger. There are certain aspects of me getting fired that I can think about still and get angry. I hate to sound like I'm being Zen Mistress Kim, but in the past ten years of my life, I really have learned a lot about the corrosive power of anger. It's a useful thing to learn as it pertains to work because some people get so worked up about things and it gets in the way of doing your job. I just had to put it out of my head. There are things that made me really angry and I just let them go. I can still get angry about them—it doesn't mean they don't still make me really angry if I think about them—but I try not to go there.
How did you recover right after you left?
Recover is a good word because that's exactly what I felt like I was doing. I had no desire to do much of anything. I hung out. I picked my nephews up at school. I had just moved into this gorgeous apartment in the West Village, so I decided I might as well enjoy it. After working for some 20 years in Midtown every single day, being able to live my days in the West Village and take the dog out for a long walk in the middle of the day was just fantastic. It was a revelation to get to live a different way in the city, and I feel like I worked very hard for the opportunity to just completely shut off that year. I loved it. Some people would go absolutely nuts if they didn't turn around and do something else, but it worked for me.
So why did you start Girls of a Certain Age after that?
I was thinking about everything I wanted to express, and I wanted to do something I could create myself. Also, over the course of being a magazine editor or a magazine writer, there were times where I had a fantastic story idea, but it would only be a five sentence story. At the beginning, the blog was just something for me to play with. I was like, "I'll try this thing and see how it goes." At first it was a private thing that I did and then I invited more and more friends to look at it. I was really anxious because even though I had been a writer for years, the first few posts I wrote were really awful.
What was the initial concept of the site?
I knew pretty much that it was going be style for women in their forties who didn't feel like they had defaulted to mom jeans yet.
Was it hard to build an audience?
I was fortunate early on in that there was a built-in curiosity about what I was going to be doing next. If you've been a Condé Nast editor-in-chief, there's a built-in curiosity in that little universe. So when I decided to take the blog public, I got in touch with a Women's Wear media reporter I knew and gave them the exclusive. Refinery wrote a piece the next day, and the [New York Times] Style section did a piece six weeks later. That sort of transformed everything. Now it all comes down to who links to you. The women at Go Fug Yourself link me every once in a while and they alone are responsible for five percent of my readership.
What's the lifestyle difference, going from being a Condé editor to a home-bound blogger?
The two things could not be more different. The only thing I continue to really miss is the beauty closet. I miss the free beauty products because I spend so much on them now! The car and driver were amazing, but toward the end of my time at Lucky, we were cutting so much of our budget that I had pretty much cut that out entirely anyway. Flying in the front of the plane was a delight. The clothing allowance was amazing. But I knew that there would be a day when it was all going to go away. I think that a lot of people who become Condé Nast editors have their caps set on it, but for me it was never a goal. Getting all that stuff was just like, "This is hysterical, this is fantastic!" And it was. It was an incredible kick to have all of it, but then it all got taken away in one day. They don't give you one thing that can't be taken away immediately.
The only way to describe it is that I was so relieved to have myself to myself again. When you're representing a brand that big, you have to be so careful about what you say and what you tweet and who you may offend and who gets credited in the magazine and how many credits they get. It's only getting worse; advertisers are getting more and more powerful as the industry continues to get more difficult. It's such a strained way to live. Doing the blog is a totally different thing. If I want to write about a brand that I think is overpriced, I can say that and not worry. I could never say that when I was the editor of Lucky. It was a revelation to be able to do that.
How do you decide what to cover?
I have a no Kardashian rule! It's what hits my gut, it's what feels like it's in my universe. I know that sounds really vague, but to me, as it goes through my system of pulleys and levers in my brain, it gets really specific—the same way that Lucky when you looked at it was really specific. Selfishly, it's what I want—it's the stuff that's cute and that I want. I don't put anything in that I don't like. There've been a handful of times when I've done a post but my gut wasn't there, so I ended up taking the post down.
How do you monetize your site?
I have advertisers, which I do through Federated, but I make a lot more money doing my affiliate deals through RewardStyle. I'm beginning to do quite well doing that. Am I making what I used to make? I'll never make what I used to make! But I'm beginning to make what I would call a living.
How long did it take you to get to the point where you felt comfortable financially?
It's taken a few years, but I also saved money. This is the most important lesson: No matter how small your paycheck is, put some of it away every single two weeks so that you have money to fall back on. I saved and saved because I knew that job was not going to last forever. For editors-in-chief, unless you're Anna, there's a sell-by date. You will be fired. It's how their careers end. I knew eventually that would be my fate, and the fact that I saved money is what allowed the blog to flourish and turn into itself without worrying about monetizing it before it made sense to.
There's a feeling that blogging, particularly personal style blogging, has gotten out of control with all the free gifting and blurry advertorial lines. How do you feel about it?
I think it's a shame because these bloggers doing it are very young and their audience is very young. They didn't grow up with magazines, so they don't know there's even such a thing as church and state! They have no way of knowing that there's something with more discrimination out there. I try to be really rigorous, but it's not like people are showering me with stuff the way they're showering the bloggers who take pictures of themselves in outfits. But yes, I think it's hugely problematic and I'm glad that people are paying attention to it. It's not only problematic from an ethical point of view, it's uncreative.
Do you think there's a fair model where sponsorship and credible editorial coexist?
Bloggers have to decide for themselves that they're going to do it in a way that has integrity and that offers something rich for their readers. It just confuses me because I look at something like The Blonde Salad and everything is sponsored. And I know her numbers are massive! Maybe it just doesn't matter to these readers, but I have to believe there's a whole lot of other people who do care about an experience with a different level of integrity. I'm not saying that you can't do what she does with sponsors with integrity—god knows, for a very long time at Lucky, I had to please a lot of masters and we did our best. It's not the same, but it's similar.
What are your favorite sites?
I definitely read Go Fug Yourself every day. I go to New York Magazine every day. Sometimes if I'm in the mood for a little junky junk, I'll go to Daily Mail. I definitely go to Racked for my shopping news! I don't look at a lot of other style bloggers because they're so young, so many of them have no point of relevance for me.
Are there any fashion magazines you like to read?
Other than British Vogue, no. I just feel like I stayed at the sausage factory for too long. I look at some of them when I go get my hair done, and I just feel like I lived it and I know it backward and forward. I think some of them are very good and I think others are not so good, but it's not an especially pleasurable experience for me to look through them anymore. I think that part of it is that the magazine reading experience isn't as rich because resources aren't going into magazines. They're not spending as much to make magazines wonderful anymore and a lot of the talent has left.
What are pointers you would give to someone looking to start their own site?
Post every day and keep things positive. I think that I can have an edge, but I'm not bitchy. It's really important to not get bitchy and not get negative. I think that's an easy hole to fall into when you're writing, and if you do it, then your commenters get that way and it's a nasty little circle. Be nice. Cultivate your community, write back to them, talk to them, really don't take them for granted. I'm really grateful for my community.
What about advice in terms of work ethic?
I just spoke to a couple of classes that a friend of mine teaches at FIT, and I talked about starting out in magazines. When people would ask me to do whatever dumb things needed to get done, like maybe it was typing rejection letters or making returns, I would have such attitude about it sometimes. But it wasn't like they were giving me these stupid things to do because they thought that was all I was capable of. They were giving me these stupid things to do because the stupid things were the things that needed to get done! I saw that a lot when I was at Lucky, where these assistants or entry-level people had tremendous attitude about things and thought they were too good to do the work. Then I met people who would just do whatever we asked them to do with a smile and they were the ones who got ahead. That's a really big one that I like to stress because I think it's important with this generation of kids who are in their twenties now. So many of them have seen people in their twenties get ahead so quickly that the expectation is that it'll happen to them too—and it's not how the magazine world works.
Later on, one of the main things I found was that so many of the crises that came up at work were a result of people thinking that other people weren't listening to them, that they weren't being heard. Making people feel like they're being heard is incredibly important. Also, a really big one is just not turning into an asshole. Seriously, because when you go to a publication where you suddenly have all the perks in the world and an assistant who does your bidding and a clothing allowance and a car and driver and you get first class travel everywhere, it's really easy to turn into a really unpleasant person. It happens almost invariably. I think there are people out there who might disagree, but I would say the thing I'm proudest of is I did not become an insufferable asshole. If you're going to go be a really big deal somewhere, just try to remain decent.
· Girls of a Certain Age [Kim's Blog]
· Reformation's Yael Aflalo on Sustainable Fashion and Starting Over [Racked]
· How The Skimm Became Oprah's Must-Read Newsletter [Racked]
· Racked's Ladies Who Launch series