After 10 years and 20 issues, Worn Fashion Journal, the proudly Canadian alternative fashion magazine, is ending its remarkable run. I last worked there some years ago, but I half-expected it to hum along in the background forever, its famous retro-dance issue launch parties marking the arrival of every spring and fall.
When I was a green journalism student, I was interviewed for an internship at Wornby Serah-Marie McMahon, its founding editor.
“Are you allergic to cats?” she asked.
The magazine at that time was put together in her third-floor apartment in an old house in Parkdale. After the winding wooden staircase you were greeted by pictures of Wonder Woman and Elizabeth Taylor, piles of books and magazines (from glossy Condé Nast to obscure photocopied ’zines) and her husband Ted’s vinyl record collection. Three black and white cats made themselves at home.
“Yes, I’m allergic,” I admitted, “But I’ll take a pill if I have to.” I had to be a part ofWorn, even if it meant medicating.
Worn was about all the things I love in fashion and none of the things I don’t. Rather than pushing the latest trends and judging people by those standards, Worn was about clothing as personal, historical and cultural stories. Instead of puff pieces about the latest “It” bag, Worn gave us articles on button collecting, kaffiyeh scarves, flight attendant uniforms, and leather-clad “psychobillies.” While most fashion mags are beholden to advertisers for revenue, Worn was largely reader-funded. And, because its articles weren’t time-sensitive and thus “out of style” almost immediately, Worn’s back issues were always of interest and available on the website.
I was Worn’s first male intern. Everyone at Worn was called a “Wornette” — a title Serah-Marie came up with (presumably with Motown girl groups in mind.) After some discussion, we decided I could be a Wornette despite my XY chromosomes. As she rationalized: “After all, people refer to women as guys all the time …” When you joined the Worn team you didn’t just work at a magazine — you were part of a movement.
Serah-Marie founded it through sheer force of personality. While studying Fine Arts at Concordia University in Montreal, she realized she loved fashion but was disappointed in Canadian style magazines that seemed determined to become second-rate American ones. After absorbing a slew of books on DIY culture, she decided to stop complaining and actually Do It Herself. She would start a magazine and change the industry from the inside.
The magazine was a side-project when she was at university (“I could use their photocopiers,” she says.) But Worn soon dominated her life. It followed her to Toronto, but she left a dedicated outpost of Wornettes in Montreal. By the time I came on board, there were several generations who had moved up through and beyond the magazine, but stayed around as Wornettes in reserve. While I can’t list all the people who built Worn over the years, it would have gotten nowhere without Serah-Marie’s friend, the velvet-voiced Gwendolen Stegelmann, who acted as a columnist, editor, model and all-round muse.
Since Serah-Marie had no background in journalism, she brought to the risky enterprise a “What the heck, let’s try it anyway!” attitude, stressing that we were all learning together as we went. In turn she taught the younger generation about feminism through Sassy magazine and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
We had monthly meetings, in summer on Serah-Marie’s crowded front porch. Our parties to launch each issue drew revellers of many ages, backgrounds, styles and dancing abilities. Ted, a DJ, spun classic pop into the small hours. Our Heart Break Karaoke fundraisers on Valentine’s Day always turned into open mic nights for those compelled to express their unresolved issues with their exes.
A lot of hard work was involved, but when we had to carry back-breaking cartons of old issues up and down stairs or construct hundreds of little tin buttons to slip into envelopes for subscribers, we could always sigh and say, “Just like at Vogue …”
Some Wornettes were heartbroken when we found out the party was over. But I know we’ll keep the lessons we learned on Serah-Marie’s porch with us as we reluctantly enter the real world. Worn asked us to dream big. There will never be anything quite like it.
I remember the final lines of the Irish film The Commitments, delivered to the manager of a soul band that fell apart before it had a chance:
“The success of the band was irrelevant. You raised their expectations of life, you lifted their horizons. Sure, we could have been famous … but that would have been predictable. This way it’s poetry.”