Mary Alice Stephenson

Posted by stephan | June 5th, 2011

Mary Alice Stephenson is on the pulse of fashion’s new direction; as a stylist, television commentator, spokesperson and consultant, she bridges the gap between the red carpet, editorial pages, fashion television and social media all while carving out her own unique path. With the growing need for chic perspectives outside the realm of fashion, Mary Alice has found a way to infuse her passion for beauty and fashion through work for companies as diverse as Harper’s Bazaar, Estee Lauder, Intel, Sally Hansen, Warner Brothers, Amazon, Talbots and USA Networks and as a commentator seen on CNN, Good Morning America, Oprah and The Early Show just to name a few. MDC catches up with the in demand glamour girl and multi-tasker to discuss the industry, the future and what it is like to navigate the delicate balance between high and low-end fashion in a world obsessed with style.
Mary Alice Stephenson

A models.com interview by Janelle Okwodu

Cover photo: Mary Alice Stephenson with Karolina Kurkova,
backstage at Alexander Wang’s F/W11
photo by Betty Sze for models.com

Harper’s Bazaar photos courtesy of Mary-Alice Stephenson

MDC: How did you get your start?

Mary Alice: I grew up in Michigan, I didn’t know anyone in the fashion business; when I was 15 I had this little Harper’s Bazaar purse and I said, “I’m going to be the fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar.” Lucky for me, I had a mother and father who taught me anything was possible and supported my dreams. I started as a magazine baby; my career began at 22 working at Vogue then it was off to Allure. I went from there to being fashion director at Marie Claire, then fashion director at Harper’s Bazaar and I’m still a contributing fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, so I really paid my dues at magazines on all levels. It was such an honor working for great editors like Glenda Bailey, Anna Wintour, Polly Mellen, Liz Tilberis and Linda Wells and I essentially grew up in the fashion business with these women as my mentors, but after 15 years working for magazines I sensed that the dynamic in fashion was changing. I wanted to do other things too and after all that time it just wasn’t quite enough for me somehow, so I stayed on as a contributor at Harper’s Bazaar, and started my own company.

MDC: Now what does consulting entail, exactly, because I know you do a lot of consulting.

Mary Alice: Consulting encompasses so many aspects of fashion, on any given day I could be styling a photo shoot, working with a young designer, getting an actress ready for the red carpet or acting as spokesperson for a major brand.

This job gives me a chance to do so many different things all with fashion and beauty at all levels of pop culture; I am working more and more with such a wide variety companies. For example, I just signed a contract with Amazon which is very exciting and involves a lot of social media and creating on-line content. Last year I consulted for USA Networks on the style direction of the stars on many of their hit shows which was extremely rewarding. I just signed with Sally Hansen as their Style Advisor and will act as a spokesperson for them in the media and an ambassador for them to the fashion community. I’ve also been doing a lot of TV and speaking engagements across the country for women of all ages, so as you can see, literally every day is different for me, but it all has one thing in common…style!


Harper’s Bazaar


Harper’s Bazaar Feb 2002 cover / Gisele Bundchen

MDC: What makes the job exciting for you?

Mary Alice: I think it’s the balance of everything that makes it so much more interesting and challenging, and also seeing how I can utilize my career in fashion and beauty to help people feel good about themselves in such a positive way. I feel I’ve been successful by creating a niche, I am one of the few “style experts” or editors who has been lucky enough to experience and maintain a presence in all levels within the echelon of fashion and beauty and that makes me very unique. So no matter if I’m behind-the-scenes or in front of the camera, commentating, consulting, editing or acting as a spokesperson, it is all in the mix and I’m proud of that and I’ve worked really hard to be able to earn the right to do it all.

MDC: What have you learned from working with real women?

Mary Alice: When you really get out of our high-fashion bubble and go into the real world, you understand how much women want, need and love the world of fashion when it is brought to them in a trusted way that makes sense in their lives. When I go speak in cities like Boston, Chicago, Detroit, women love the glamour and the fantasy of the fashion life I have led but it’s that I can curate that world for them that makes it more even exciting to them. There is so much information and so many options out there and women don’t have time to sift through it all. I do and convey what products they need to know about and how to work it into their busy lives. They don’t just want the ‘everything is fabulous you look gorgeous darling’ take on it all. They want someone to tell them when something does not look good, when it isn’t worth their time and money and what they should invest and indulge in….they want the real deal, someone they can trust and believe in. The truth is that when you are working with real women they have all gone through the highs and lows of life. It is inspiring to dress a real woman because I can really see how fashion can be a momentary reprieve from the difficult things in their lives. It feels good to help someone gain their self-esteem back with fashion after going through an illness or tough time in their lives. Fashion should have a happy, feel good affect not the opposite. Although I adore working with models, have had many beautiful experiences with many of them, it is real women that make fashion a soulful endeavor for me.

MDC: Do you think the future of fashion is really more of a career like yours where you bridge the gap between high-fashion and mass market?

Mary Alice: It is hard to tell right now, because there used to be such a formula: you assisted at a magazine, paid your dues that way and gradually worked your way up to become an editor. That is still an OK way to do it, but I’ve seen so many bloggers and fashion personalities with very little experience coming out and doing videos, and next thing you know they’re sitting front-row. I do think this is a time where you have to break the rules and put an individual stamp on what you create in order to get noticed.

The millennials, which are all the younger kids coming up, they don’t want what someone else has created and they would much rather create their own idea of style. It’s much more of a super-choosy way of seeing things and they individualize everything from how they read, how they listen to music, how they see films, etc. There is a real DIY vibe and that has extended into the way they do their jobs. But the problem lies in the fact that if every third person is a “fashion expert/editor” where does the the integrity and authenticity lie? I do think that someone has more of a chance to be successful in the industry and they have a point of view, voice and following that emotionally connects with what they are selling or preaching!

MDC: Do you have advice for those young people just starting out?

Mary Alice: Be prepared to work. I achieved my dream of being a fashion director by the age of 35 because I put my career first and made a lot of personal sacrifices. A lot of people want to work in fashion because they think it’s all glamour and parties and fun: they have no idea! You can achieve great things in this industry, but you have to be constantly focused on the goal and be prepared to work all hours and give 100 percent. Sometimes we get interns wobbling into my studio in their platform Zara or H&M shoes…they can barely walk and it’s like “honey, go get your tennis shoes on and put that mini dress back in the bag. Get your jeans and t-shirt cause it’s not time to look pretty and do nothing, it’s time to work!”

MDC: Why do you think major corporations are so intrigued with fashion right now?

Mary Alice: Well, I think they have always been: look at Target, or that sort of retail model. Corporations have been successfully engaging with fashion for years, first it was the car companies getting involved in fashion week and then the technology companies. When that subsided with the recession, it left a lot designers struggling because often times these mass brands were the ones supporting them financially. Things became much more competitive with capsule collections and every one was vying to get that money. With the current youth-quake and the economic recovery, the money is coming back now and companies are even more eager to invest in fashion.

I think the way fashion is viewed has changed, it is taken more seriously now by women of a certain age and career status. They no longer have to play down their femininity to be taken seriously. Fashion that was once seen as frivolous to some women is now much more important to them. They seem to understand now more than ever before that you can be glamorous, you can have an individual flare, while still retaining your authority. They finally are getting that fashion can be embraced at all ages and sizes and that as a woman you can take chances, be your most feminine, indulge in fashion and play with the way you look and yet still be viewed as serious, powerful and intelligent.

MDC : Now when you’re working with an actress for a red carpet event like the Academy Awards, what is the process then?

Mary Alice: What I do for the red carpet is very strategic. When I work with an actress and their publicist, it is not about just about finding a pretty dress, for me there is a specific strategy to aligning the right brand with the right actress at the right time. Some girls become famous for the fashion they wear, rather than the movies they are in: being connected to the right brands and fashion events can help your career.

You also have to deal with the worst-dressed lists and commentary from bloggers when you’re dressing an actress. I tell a lot of the girls not to read the blogs if they’re going to make an outrageous style statement and have real style on the carpet you will get a lot of flack. Most of the time the most avant-garde, cool looks and labels are the things that get picked apart the most. If an outfit is really fashion-forward it gets torn apart, but if it’s pretty and simple, then everyone loves it and it becomes a “best-dressed” moment when in reality it is not all that great or fashion forward. People tend to like their fashion bland and predictable on the red carpet. Real risk takers must undergo ridicule to wear ground breaking fashion. It’s a thrill when a client wants to wear something because they love it and don’t care what people will say.

I was featured in a great documentary called “The Red Carpet Issue” that airs on The Sundance Channel, and it followed me around as we talked through the red carpet process. They also went to the house of Chanel, went into the world of Dior with actress Marion Cotillard, etc. It is an incredible film everyone should see and it speaks the truth about the about red carpet racket and how difficult it can be for stylists and actresses.

Personally, it’s very rewarding be able to have all of the tools and knowledge to make people look and feel their best when they hit the red carpet. There is this misconception we create the unattainable for real women and that what happens on the red carpet can never be achieved in real life. This is not true and when I speak to women I let them know that most of the actresses I’ve worked with have flaws just like they do and that with three hours, my tips and tricks and team, we can make any one of them look like a superstar too!

MDC: Tell us a bit about your charity work with Make-a-Wish.

Mary Alice: When I resigned from Harper’s Bazaar it was because I had achieved that dream, and I felt I was not using my bliss and personal power to make a difference in people’s lives. I was creating fashion imagery every day at one of the most important fashion magazines in the world, I got to travel, go to all the shows and live that lifestyle. It was fabulous, but all of a sudden I was 38 and it just hit me that this wasn’t enough. What allowed me to really keep my spirit intact and maintain a balance in my life was taking my passion for the industry and harnessing it to organizations like The Make-A-Wish Foundation, Freearts NYC, and Get Reel With Your Dreams and to be able to really use my talent and connections to help change lives.

As the Fashion Ambassador for MAW, I organize, produce and grant fashion wishes for kids that have suffered life threatening illnesses. When you experience the power of a wish it changes your life. I now have had the honor to grant wishes for the last 8 years and it is a very important part of my life and something I believe I was meant to do. The fashion community has really shown great support for MAW and all of my wishes have had so many designers, models, and celebrities contribute to making these wishes spectacular. I have been so inspired by the models who have come to support my wishes without ever asking for anything in return. Superstars like Brooke Shields, Gisele, Liya Kebede, Karolina Kurkova, Hilary Rhoda, Chanel Iman, Michelle Buswell, Tiuu, Catherine McNeil, Abbey Lee, Lisa Cant, Rie and many more, have all helped over the years. Many of them love the experience because truthfully, if models, or anyone in this business can’t find outlets to share all the positive things about the industry or use what they have learned to help or inspire, then this business becomes very shallow, hollow and unhealthy fast. There are too many devastating things in life. When it comes to fashion I like it happy!

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11 Comments

  1. Dan Nielsen says:

    So cute. I love this interview.

    DESPERATELY SEAKING FEEDBACK BY SOMEONE WHO KNOWS SOMETHING ABOUT FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY:
    http://fsudk.blogspot.com/

  2. Keanii Scherzinger says:

    I Love You! you an inspiration and motivation to go reach towards my goal.

    God Bless

  3. jeremys says:

    She’s done a fabulous job styling Joan Smalls for Estee Lauder

  4. Blair says:

    Such an inspiration. I totally agree that fashion isn’t easy, and many people have a misconception of the work that goes on. Although, the parties are fabulous! Work hard, play harder.

    Btw fashion lovers, check out my blog!
    http://blairnotwaldorf.blogspot.com

    Blair, Not Waldorf

  5. julia says:

    Amazing interview…every fashion intern needs to burn this sentence in their minds forever:
    Sometimes we get interns wobbling into my studio in their platform Zara or H&M shoes…they can barely walk and it’s like “honey, go get your tennis shoes on and put that mini dress back in the bag. Get your jeans and t-shirt cause it’s not time to look pretty and do nothing, it’s time to work!”

  6. Brian Keith Photography says:

    WOW !

  7. Richard Haffar says:

    great éditorial,photo’s & layout.NICE.

  8. Antonio Barros says:
  9. michelle says:

    Love the part about the interns. Fashion industry as a whole especially for models is not all fun and games.

  10. Annabel miceli says:

    I am a second year fashion textile student at London University. I am looking for some experience in the fashion industry, back stage etc at London fashion week etc. If you have any advice please contact me.
    Many thanks

  11. Voyeurism Sucks says:

    an inspiration.

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