It has been said that “necessity is the mother of invention.” For former TV producer Marla Wynne, a single mother in the middle of a writers strike and a recession, reinvention became a necessity. With a decades-long producing career behind her, and a sewing machine and a dream in front of her, she charted a new career course in her 50s. This is the story of her inspiration, determination and the clothing collection that came from it.
Tell us about your evolution from TV producer to fashion designer.
After working for years as a TV producer in LA, I was living and working in France, and decided to return to the States. When I returned, the Writers Guild of America Strike was going on. I knew that the chance of finding a job during the strike was as likely as finding a natural blonde in Beverly Hills. It just was not going to happen. I was 51! I thought: “What else could I do?” And I went for! In retrospect—it was part arrogance that I thought I could do something I knew nothing about, and part ignorance because if I knew how hard it was I don’t know if I would have done it.
Reinvention is not an easy thing, because you’re traversing in territory of the unknown. But I’m attracted to the unknown. So for me it’s been very exciting—but I had so much to learn. When I bought that first sewing machine, I had to learn how to make a pattern; how to thread the machine, and keep the tension right. I had to learn how to finish things. I had to learn what fabrics you can successfully sew together with others and which ones you can’t. There are so many things I didn’t know— I pretty much Googled my entire career as a designer.
What advice would you give to women starting something new?
The first step in making your dream come true is taking a step forward into the unknown; which is really scary for many, many people. You have to be willing to make a fool of yourself. You have to know that you will fail several times before you succeed.
Do your homework. Ask for help. It is amazing; if you turn to complete strangers, they will help you.
It’s also about being vulnerable, which is not something I was good at. But you have to be. The other really key thing is knowing what you don’t know, which is always going to be much greater than what you do know. And then starting to explore, and learn, and plan.
Be willing to fail, be willing to fall…and have the determination to get up again when you do.
How did your friendships factor into your reinvention?
When I told people I was going to start a clothing collection, their first reaction was that I was out of my mind. My friends thought I was nuts! But then I made sketches, and showed them what I could do. And they started to lean in. Bit by bit, they would try on the clothes. Bit by bit, they would tell a friend who would tell a friend. And people were like, “You should meet so-and-so.” And before you know it, people were rooting for me to succeed. They’ve been my cheering section.
You are a single mom of two kids. How did you juggle it all when starting your new business?
In the early days, when I was a producer, I was making a lot of money. I had full-time, live-in help. I had a husband. As things changed in my life, I juggled by being not as good a mother as I would have liked to be, not as good a daughter as I would have liked to be, not as good a friend as I would have liked to be.
When I first started the collection, my son was 12 and my daughter was 14. I As a single mom, I was fighting for survival. I tried to keep their lives as normal as possible. I didn’t know how I was going to put them through school—their college funds were gone. I learned to make meatloaf on Monday that was marinara by Friday. I rented out a room and that became my grocery money. I had to pay the mortgage. I had to pay for their lessons. Looking back, I was a hot mess. So the truth is, I didn’t juggle it all that well. Balls fell on the floor…I squished a few. I knew that if I didn’t succeed at this business, I wouldn’t be able to give my kids the lives I wanted.
Your son was also diagnosed with cancer at this time. Tell us about that experience.
It was Thanksgiving, about seven years ago, just as the business was really starting to take off. I had a house full of people, and I got a call from my son (he was in school in Holland). He wasn’t feeling well and had gone to the doctor’s—he told me he had Stage 3 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
I didn’t want to ruin everyone’s Thanksgiving, so somehow I kept it together while I served turkey. And when everyone left, I sat my daughter down and explained to her what was going on. Through the kindness and support of my friends, within 10 days I packed up my life and was in Amsterdam putting up a Christmas tree.
My job was to make every day the best day of his life, because it could’ve been his last. And, that’s how we operated. It was the first time in his life I was home every day. My job was: chemo (and the horrible aftermath) get him ready, get him back to school—repeat. We knew we were going to win somehow, and yet both of us were scared we were going to lose. The way we look at life now and treat each other is so different. It gave me a lot of humility. I didn’t have a lot of that. Cancer teaches you how vulnerable you are. It teaches you what’s important and who’s important. It teaches you to live every day of your life.
You sewed pieces yourself in your garage when you first started…what is your favorite part about creating a garment?
I really enjoy having something in my head that becomes a design, and waiting to see if I get it right. Sometimes I get it wrong, but when I get it right—that’s very satisfying. There’s nothing like that end result, when the execution is exactly what you envisioned.
Who is your muse?
My mother has been my muse—a woman who wore hand-me-down clothes but managed to always look her best. I have never seen my mother not look beautiful.
What was the inspiration behind your Chico’s collection?
My inspiration is the modern woman who is busy, engaged and involved. For my collections, I use clothing like a French woman uses a scarf. The clothes float over you and embrace you in a very fluid way—they move when you move. This collection is soft, flowy and moves wherever real women go. As we get older, our bodies change—there is a natural evolution as your body loses estrogen. It’s all about flow on top and fit on the bottom.
What is chic to you?
Chic is a state of mind. It means that you shine, not the clothes—they are there to bring out your inner beauty.