The Fabulous Girl’s Guide to Editing
Fashion magazine editor-in-chief Ceri Marsh shows that good manners still go a long way
You know Ceri Marsh, the Fabulous Girl, don’t you? She’s smart, funny and well mannered. She’s also incredibly stylish, of course – definitely the one you’d invite over to help spice up your wardrobe. If she’s otherwise occupied, you can always flip through the magazine she edits to decide what to wear on that all-important first date.
You’ll be in good hands – Marsh is the one who co-wrote (with Kim Izzo) the manual of Canadian style. The 2001 bestseller, The Fabulous Girl’s Guide to Decorum, displayed a quality she’d later hone at Fashionmagazine, one that might make her the odd woman out in her field: the gentle fashion editor. Far from being aggressive, Marsh is the queen of nice.
But even queens like the current Fashion editor-in-chief can have humble beginnings – what’s a future gentle fashion dictator to do but toil at Cinderella jobs dreaming of something better? In true Fabulous Girl fashion, she remains confident and realizes that working as a receptionist and a waitress are mere Jill-Job pit stops on the road to future fabulousness.
And regents like Marsh must also sometimes endure their own ill-conceived career choices, such as spending four years on higher education in the wrong major. Marsh left York University’s film program with the wrong impression – that school wasn’t something to be enjoyed – unaware of the possibility of loving what one does for a living.
Then, several years after university, Marsh gave journalism a try. She began freelance writing for publications such as Toronto Life, Saturday Night, Report on Business and Flare. Her break came in 1999, when she substituted for Globe and Mail fashion editor Leanne Delap, who had gone on maternity leave.
Delap was then named editor-in-chief of Fashion magazine, and she brought Marsh along with her to take on the newly created job position of fashion news director in 2000. Marsh juggled the full-time editing gig with co-writing her Globe etiquette column. “It allowed me to see how much I can accomplish,” she says now. “I’m not afraid of deadlines or a lot of work.”
She and Izzo then completed their style bible (a second book, The Fabulous Girl’s Guide to Grace Under Pressure, followed in 2004). Aside from the first book’s considerable success – spending thirteen weeks on the Globe‘s bestseller list, appearing in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Glamour, Allure, InStyle andBritish Vogue, among others, and securing Marsh a guest spot on The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Today Show – the advice it dispensed has helped not only readers but also its co-author in her current role as editor-in-chief at Fashion, to which she was appointed following Delap’s departure.
Marsh was tested early. “What would the reader of Fashion be like under your direction?” Giorgina Bigioni, vice-president and group publisher of St. Joseph Media, asked Marsh in August 2003, the day she was interviewed for the top position.
“She would be like me,” Marsh replied.
Like competitors Elle Canada and Flare, Fashion caters to Canadian women between the ages of 18 and 49. But features editor Viia Beaumanis says Fashion doesn’t talk down to readers. “We don’t have articles like how to drop ten pounds or how to get kissed,” she says, “as if women can barely think of anything else. We have art, culture, books, travel, design articles, life – we give you things to read.”
A recent issue, for instance, contained a feature called, “When in Paris (or London, or New York), Shop Like the Designers Do,” plus a long report on the history of wearing black. Also, instead of running a visually driven page of the latest handbags, the story discussed purses and bags dating back to 1987, showing how the purpose of bags has changed over the past two decades.
Marsh brought in a new art director, Antony Smith, in 2005 because she wanted to refresh the look ofFashion and reflect current design taste. Chief of copy and health editor Wing Sze Tang says Fashion used to be more conservative before Marsh, but it is now more international and fresh, with more original content and journalism.
The progression is natural. Fashion used to be known as Toronto Fashion, and the magazine concentrated on the local scene of its namesake. Now the “Toronto Shops” section has grown into “Fashion Shops” and includes items of interest from major cities across the country. The features section has also undergone a change. Insights on glamorous getaways and stylish items to buy have replaced past advice columns and quizzes like “What the Stars Reveal About Your Sex Life.”
Staff members say Marsh’s leadership includes more cohesive planning, more lead-time continuity and an improvement in the look. “She tweaks it, she tweaks it and she tweaks it,” says Beaumanis. And the Fabulous Girl attitude has helped her maintain a positive and harmonious work environment, according to Marsh. “It’s made me a considerate manager,” she says. “But, to be sure, you’d have to ask my co-workers.”
When describing her boss, the words “beautifully mannered” and “fair” come to Beaumanis’s mind. Tang concurs, saying Marsh can be disarming because of how easygoing she is for someone in her position. “She’s a very diplomatic editor.”
Diplomatic, yet one who’s not averse to risk. Fashion was once down-to-earth and simple, yet the October 2005 issue contained two pages of female models cross-dressed in tuxedos. The cover images are livelier as well – Claire Danes almost jumped off the October cover, wearing a soft, angelic, silk tulle empire gown by designer Oscar de la Renta.
Slipped under a half-flap, though, came a little controversy. Danes appeared again, this time with an advertisement in tow. “Pantene bought that flap,” says Marsh, who doesn’t think cozying up to a shampoo advertiser on the cover is such a big deal. And, in general, she thinks readers aren’t automatically allergic to advertising. “Many readers of all kinds of magazines enjoy looking at and reading advertising – it definitely adds to the magazine as a whole.”
Another advertising flap was included with the cover of the next issue, December 2005, this time paid for by Bioré. The intermingling of cover star with advertiser could be interpreted as an interruption of editorial flow and it could cause critics to wonder about the magazine putting stress on its fragile relationship of trust with readers, but Bigioni thinks it’s a non-issue. The publisher describes Marsh’s baby as “a fashion magazine and a shopping magazine all in one.”
As well as knowing where to draw the line between editorial and advertising pressure, Marsh knows how to withstand stress from clients. Delap recalls that when they worked together Marsh had this special ability to “switch into polite mode” when dealing with clients. The former editor-in-chief says Marsh would vow: “I’ll polite them out.” It’s a great skill, Delap says, and exactly the kind survival instinct a Fabulous Girl needs in the cutthroat world of fashion magazines.
We tend to expect ruthlessness from those at the top of the fashion industry. Bonnie Fuller, for example, editorial director of American Media Inc. and author of the recently published guide to success for women,The Joys of Much Too Much, in shamelessly embracing sex, fashion, gossip and celebrities, has been accused of betraying women. And Flare editor Lisa Tant’s Barbie-doll image is said to belie her inner GI Joe.
For Beaumanis, though, Marsh demands only that you be equally fabulous. “Ceri has high standards,” she says. “You don’t get away with anything half-assed.”
Marsh says she likes to arrive early and leave late – as late as 11 P.M. when closing an issue. She’s been married to Ben Rahn for just under a year but says they both work a lot. “I don’t really believe in balance, to be honest,” she says. “I love my job and spend a lot of time doing it.”
“Marsh doesn’t expect you to do more than she does,” Beaumanis says.
Which leaves one obvious question – doesn’t Ceri Marsh have any weaknesses?
Beaumanis answers like a true Fabulous Girl:
“She’s my boss and she doesn’t have any.”
Shireen Khimani was the Columns Editor for the Spring 2006 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.