An open letter to everyone who thinks they’re failing

Editor-in-chief Phoebe Watt reflects on the relaunch of FashioNZ

It’s an odd way to celebrate the beginning of something, talking about failure. The truth is though, failure – cataclysmic, soul-destroying, mettle-testing, near insurmountable failure – is intrinsic to this story. Without it, this new era of FashioNZ wouldn’t be upon us, and I would not be writing about it.

When FashioNZ went into liquidation in early 2023, 25 years of earnest fashion reporting hung in the balance. Its archive of some 7,500 articles quantified its contribution to Aotearoa’s fashion media landscape – a small and mighty group of titles that together have launched our greatest fashion and beauty exports, made household names of kitchen table entrepreneurs and ushered in a new guard of creatives representing an ever more diverse cross-section of our multicultural little archipelago at the bottom of the world.

Of all the core values that were highlighted in the tranche of handover documents I received upon taking editorial charge of FashioNZ in June, its commitment to inclusivity was number one. As an editor, my role can be distilled down to one occupation – showcasing the best. It is not my job to champion the underdog. However, a reliable constant of my career is that the best tend to be the ones with something to prove. Rarely have I met a creator or a business leader or someone ostensibly successful who hasn’t been up against it. Failure breaks you, and it makes you.

My personal experience with failure began in my infancy when, at two months old, I was diagnosed with the genetic, life-shortening lung disease Cystic Fibrosis. The tip-off in medical terms was my “failure to thrive”. For some people, there is nothing more motivating than being underestimated. I am one of these people. From a young age, my desire to overachieve was pathological. My dream was to be the editor of a fashion magazine, and I was 26 when I saw my name at the top of a masthead for the first time. Something that others worked their whole lives to achieve had taken me about 18 months from my first day as an intern. 

As my professional wins mounted, I hid the extent to which my health was declining. A relatively unremarkable day for me might have involved being draped in one million dollars worth of Van Cleef and Arpels diamonds while the portable infuser in my handbag trickled intravenous antibiotics directly into my bloodstream. I have gotten off a phone interview with Reese Witherspoon and signaled for a colleague to drive me to the emergency room, coughing blood into a tissue as subtly as I could while I gathered my things. I’ve lost count of the print deadlines I’ve managed from a hospital bed, putting on a flattering filter and propping myself up against a blank wall for video calls with Rolex and Louis Vuitton.

I could keep playing this game for only so long, and as my lung function spiralled, so too did everything I had worked for. In a few short years I lost jobs that I loved. I fell out of love with the work and the people who sustained me. I hit what I thought was my rock bottom, and then had the floor fall out from underneath me again. At a certain point you assume that the only way is up, and it’s horrifying to find out you were wrong about that, too.

One year ago, I was self harming in my then-office with a knife I’d casually retrieved from the staff kitchen, deep in a mental health crisis I was too far gone to realise was even happening. Six months ago, I was days away from receiving my first dose of a breakthrough Cystic Fibrosis treatment that would almost certainly save my life, and all I wanted was to die. I was 33 years old. I weighed 37kgs. I couldn’t carry a basket of washing, or have a conversation without gasping for air. I was at my physical and mental nadir and I couldn’t remember what joy felt like. All I felt was failure. 

Then, thanks to said breakthrough treatment, I gradually got better. Over a series of weeks my lung function was restored by degrees. My appetite returned and, no longer in a state of complete malnutrition, I had enough energy to walk around the mall. Then the block. Then a few more blocks. In May, I white-knuckled my way through a two-hour ballet class – something I haven’t had the capacity to do since I was 15. The next morning I woke up with a cold that ordinarily would have landed me in hospital for a fortnight, and I got over it in five days with zero medical intervention. 

It was shortly after this that I received a call from my friend and colleague Murray Bevan. He had bought FashioNZ, and wanted my help in establishing an editorial structure and a content strategy that would move it into the future. He knew I did not want to be its editor, having already asked and been given a resounding ‘no’. I’d been clear in my reasoning. I was scared of failing. Totally bereft of self-belief, I felt I had let so many people down of late that one more – and a good friend at that – would be too much to bear. 

But something changed in that boardroom two days later, as we picked over the ashes of FashioNZ and discussed what it would take for it to be resurrected, and what a sustainable path forward would look like. I saw before us something that had battled difficult circumstances, fought hard and ultimately failed and that, crucially for me, was underestimated. Failure, in a way, fortifies you against failure. With nothing but potential ahead of it, FashioNZ had nothing to lose, and nor did I. My job as editor would be to examine its past, regroup in the present and, with renewed purpose, forge on. 

The new FashioNZ will be a celebration of pretty things. Of extraordinary people. Of impeccable design and unbridled creativity and you will read stories on here that will probably make you feel a little bit bad about yourself for achieving comparatively little. My hope is that when that feeling surfaces, you consider the almost indisputable fact that this person would not have achieved what they did, had they not failed miserably at something else. 

Not every article will justify a person’s success with a list of their personal struggles. Failure or struggle or calamity is not a prerequisite to success, nor does it automatically make for interesting reading. But I can personally guarantee that everyone featured on FashioNZ under my editorship knows what it is to fail. I am not asking you to be uplifted or inspired by their stories; I am asking you to be curious, be generous, and to return as often as you like with that spirit of curiosity and generosity in your heart.

One final thought as I sign off this first of many musings to come: you can be proud of something, like hitting publish on a backlog of stories pulled together in six weeks by some of the fashion and beauty industry’s most revered voices, and still feel like you could’ve done more. For me, the failure in this scenario isn’t what didn’t meet the deadline, it’s the impulse to discount the positives in favour of a few negatives. 

This impulse is something I am working on weekly as I process the perceived failures of my life in therapy. The idea, I have learned, is not to eschew all self-doubt. A healthy level of self-doubt suggests ambition and a desire to improve, while an absence of self-doubt (and, indeed, failure) suggests someone a little too familiar with their own comfort zone. Ambition is important, as is taking a moment to celebrate our successes, and those of the people around us. But if you think you’re failing? Well, you’ll always be in good company here.

If you, or a loved one, is struggling with mental health, free call 0800 543 354 or text 4357 to talk to a trained counsellor at Lifeline.