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Friday, March 21, 2014

I’ve been so troubled by the suicide of designer L’Wren Scott that I’ve been tongue-tied for days. Also, I didn’t know her; I don’t even know anyone who knew her; and I don’t want to presume to know anything about her state of mind. However, other people have no such qualms and some general misconceptions about both business and depression that I’ve seen in news coverage and public commentary have been nagging at me so much that I have to say something.

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Photo from Mick Jagger’s tribute to Scott.

I’ve disliked the naive and disparaging way in which some people have written about Scott’s business success or lack thereof, as well as any perceived contrast between her personal lifestyle and professional bottom line. I started my career at a business-news wire service where I’d have to find the most meaningful numbers in a corporate-earnings report and publish a headline in a matter of seconds.  I’d say I’m pretty good at that stuff and, because I haven’t seen Scott’s balance sheet, I’m leery of the reports about her company’s losses and debts. But let’s suppose it’s true that she was $6 million in debt. When that figure came out, my immediate reaction was, “Hey, girl! Not bad!” Lots of start-up companies of all types lose money for years. (I always tell people that if they can’t bear to lose any money, they shouldn’t start a business.) Scott opened her company in 2006 — she was well within the “10 years to be an overnight success” start-up range. Sure, she had celebrity friends wearing her clothes, but, as I’ve pointed out before, fame doesn’t equal fortune. Fashion is a tough fucking business and many emerging designers go through the same thing — better-known industry names like Zac Posen among them.

Losing money isn’t necessarily a sign of long-term failure in any industry. Huge public companies post giant losses all the time. Twitter is a good example. In the last quarter of 2013, the company reported a net loss of over half a billion dollars. Like a lot of big companies, Twitter reports adjusted earnings that are supposed to more accurately reflect its operations by excluding things like one-time writedowns. (When companies play that kind of accounting game, it’s often the adjusted number that the stock market is going to react to and that’s why I said I had to look for the “most meaningful numbers” at my old job rather than “net profit or loss.”)  According to the adjusted report, Twitter made $10 million in the fourth quarter of 2013. For the year ended Dec. 31, 2013, Twitter lost over $645 million. Even the adjusted report showed a loss of over $34 million. What did Twitter’s chief executive officer, Dick Costolo, say about this? “Twitter finished a great year with our strongest financial quarter to date.” (That would be the strongest quarter since Twitter launched in 2006 — the same year Scott started her business.)   Are any of you avid Twitter users saying, “God! Twitter is the most stupid idea EVER!” because of this?  And what the market cared about was Twitter’s potential for growth, not the bottom line. There is a lot more to understanding any business, big or small, than one number.

Also, I resent anyone saying that Scott was some kind of fraud because she used Instagram to share attractive pictures of her enjoying a luxurious lifestyle that her boyfriend, Mick Jagger, was happy to pay for. In fact, I’ve always been irked by the general criticism that people are editing themselves to show their best sides on social media. Of course, you edit yourself! We edited ourselves before social media! If the person who delivered your mail pre-Facebook asked, “How are you?” did you reveal the darkest part of your soul, your business worries, your family problems, or point out your giant pimple or new wrinkle? I hope not, because no one is obligated to go around like a raw wound, exposing personal agonies to the entire world. When it comes to business, you’re a fool if you don’t create an aura of success. You’ve got to show confidence in yourself if you want others to have confidence in you, so I strongly advise any of you entrepreneurs to fake it till you make it. And if you don’t make it, fake it right up until the day that you go out of business. Fashion writer Cathy Horyn, who wrote one of the most thoughtful tributes to Scott, said she learned that Scott did plan to close her business this week. A business closure is no reason to look down on an entrepreneur. It sucks for the person doing it, obviously. No one enjoys a setback. But it happens all the time, to a lot of people … and to a lot of successful people, sometimes multiple times. As Arianna Huffington has said, “Failure is not the opposite of success.”  It’s part of success.


This illustration nails it. Click for my original post.

Unfortunately, all of these points are impossible to comprehend if you’re depressed. I’ve seen comments that L’Wren Scott had nothing to be depressed about, but depression is a disease that, like diabetes or cancer, doesn’t distinguish between rich and poor, famous and totally unknown.  If you’re depressed, you don’t have delusions and hallucinations like you do with schizophrenia but, more and more, I realize how much depressed people are out of touch with reality. The depressed person is sure his or her every action is catastrophic, and equally sure that everyone else is effortlessly achieving perfection.  I speak from my own personal experience and the experiences of those near and dear to me.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people cry to me, sincerely meaning it, “If I don’t do XYZ, this is THE END for me!” and I’ve said it a thousand times myself. The one time that stands out most in my memory was in 2009 or so. I’d muddled through the death of my business partner in 2006, then restarted and renamed my business right in time for the global economy to collapse in 2008, followed by the tripling of gold prices. I was bawling to a therapist that I couldn’t close my business, I just COULDN’T, because my whole life would be RUINED.  (I was always saying such things when nothing particularly bad was happening, so anything objectively wrong pushed me to the edge.) The doctor asked, “Really? Would it mean your whole life was a failure? Would you think someone else’s life was worthless if she or he closed a business?” I grudgingly had to admit — not on the spot but a few weeks later — that I wouldn’t judge anyone else so negatively. In fact, I knew and admired people who had closed more than one business. And then the doctor got me to admit that if I had to close the business, that I would be sad and disappointed and then … I would do something else.  No one was shutting out other options except me. It might have been the first time in my life I realized that my mind was playing tricks on me. Depression was more than a bad mood; it was about seeing patterns, making connections and reaching conclusions that weren’t true.

There were plenty of times that logic wouldn’t make any impression on me, but, for some reason, it did then. Now I always resort to logic when I’m trying to convince someone to get treated for their depression. I’m very big on treatment. I vote for it early and often. Depressed people resist it because they’re so sure they’re seeing the truth, and how can you treat the truth? Plus there’s the concept that we should all be able to use willpower and “snap out of it.” I know that type of thinking, so when I hear people talking illogically about themselves, I try to convince them that their “truth” is a lie told by a disease, and diseases can be treated.  Speaking of truth and treatment, in 1993, a psychiatrist named Peter D. Kramer wrote Listening to Prozac, which questioned whether Prozac — approved for treatment of depression in 1987 — changed people’s legitimate, true characters in a trivial, “cosmetic” way.  He worried it was some kind of performance-enhancing drug for the personality, used by folks who want to get ahead at work, for instance, by becoming medically more gregarious. That’s the kind of pejorative, “you’re doing it the easy way” attitude that scares genuinely depressed people away from appropriate treatment to this day. A patient who finds the right antidepressant (it’s not the same medication for everyone, nor does everyone need medication) will learn that it’s the sick, depressed thoughts that are false, obscuring the true personality the way clouds hide the sun. The sun is still there, you know. It’s a tragedy when depression convinces someone that the light is gone forever.

If everything seems dark, click here for The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

 UPDATED AT 1 PM, MARCH 21, TO ADD: A spokesman for L’Wren Scott’s company told WWD the reports about financial condition of Scott’s business are “highly misleading and inaccurate” and that the company is “fully able to meet … liabilities and pay all suppliers and customers.”

In a statement, the spokesman said:

“Ms. Scott was considering a re-structure of her global business. The L’Wren Scott business consists of a wholesale business of ready-to-wear women’s wear, a bespoke Couture business for private clients, a licensing business, Ms. Scott’s globally recognized work as a fashion consultant and stylist and her collaborations such as her recent collection for Banana Republic.”

The statement went on to point out that this was a young company:

“Her business overall was only seven years old and although some areas of the business had not yet reached their potential other parts of her business were proving successful. As a private business, details of income and turnover are not publicly disclosed, however it can be said that the long-term prospects for the business were encouraging.”

The link to WWD’s full story here, but WWD is subscription-only.

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20 Responses to “RIP, L’Wren Scott”

  1. annemarie says:

    You know, I thought about you when I read about Scott’s suicide, and I was hoping that you would post something. This was brilliant– thanks.

    It’s also annoying that she’s being continuously billed as someone’s girlfriend.

    • WendyB says:

      The GF thing didn’t bother me as much as it did a lot of people — even though being identified like that was (a) one of my biggest fears in life and (b) a fear that came true because to a lot of people I’m “the wife of.” Jagger’s so extraordinarily famous, you can probably go to Antarctica, say, “Mick Jagger’s GF is dead!” and all the penguins will say, “OMG!” It’s just a fact that he’s at an exceptional level of fame. If the boyfriend had been an accountant, or some random TV actor only known in the U.S., her status would have been emphasized, but then, honestly, the story wouldn’t have been as newsworthy. I see this issue as being about extreme fame, not sexism, though obviously I think that anyone who identified her ONLY as Mick Jagger’s GF and didn’t mention her job AT ALL was an idiot.

      I also think the person who tweeted that identifying Scott as the GF “set women back 100 years” is an idiot. Really? Calling L’Wren Scott Mick Jagger’s GF put us back before the vote, the pill and Roe v Wade? LMFAO.

      • annemarie says:

        Get outta here! Someone really tweeted that? The asshole.

        No, I agree about the extreme fame of Jagger etc etc. You are right. It’s just that I had heard of her before I read that she was going out with Mick Jagger. So when she died, I really did think it was weird– knee-kerk feminism aside– that the headlines were not “Famous Deisgner dies..” but “Mick Jagger’s girlfriend…”

      • WendyB says:

        If I were writing the headline, I would have gone with something like “Designer L’Wren Scott, GF of Mick Jagger, Dies.” Put who she was first and then provide the fact that would make it newsworthy to the vast majority of people.

        Anyone who JUST wrote “GF of Mick Jagger Dies” is foolish. Even an initial, breaking-news headline on a wire service should be better than that.

  2. K-Line says:

    Wendy: Thank you for this post. It’s so insightful on so many levels. I’m not given to depression (though I was likely clinically depressed during my pertussis illness in 2011-12 – if only as a drug reaction to Prednisone. Mind you, there’s a point to be made that almost dying of a preventable childhood disease is apt to depress one, regardless of drug reactions.) but I do suffer with OCD/anxiety (since childhood) and it is very hard to manage sometimes. People with OCD also think they’re seeing the truth in every compulsive, bizarre mental loop and behaviour they enact, but it’s a disease talking. So, while I’m horrified by Ms. Scott’s suicide, I can totally understand how she, like most people who kill themselves, was in the grip of something far outside the realm of “level headed thinking”.

    I do wish that people could see the decline in themselves, the change as they go under the waves of mental disorder. Lord knows, when I was at my worst phase (when my child was young), I was SO opposed to going on medication. When finally my doctor convinced me that it was the only path, I was stunned by the immediate change in my brain chemistry. Honestly (and I know that OCD is statistically easier to treat with drugs than depression) within 2 days my brain was an entirely new place to live.

    I thank the universe every day that I listened to that doctor.

    • WendyB says:

      It’s a tough part of mental illness that it makes you think you don’t need the medication that will help! And then it can be hard to keep people on the meds because “I’m all better now!” When it’s your brain that’s talking to you, you tend to believe it.

      Glad you listened to the doctor.

      I’m amazed your pertussis started in 2011, seems like yesterday!

  3. K-Line says:

    Oh, and on one other note – I’ve been with my entrepreneurial husband (tech sector) for 20 years. In that time he has started and closed more businesses than I can remember. Really. One of them has survived the entire time and, at this point, could be considered to be quite successful. My point is, I know how different it looks on the outside and how much a business owner earns his or her success. And so-called failure. That’s why I’m a civil servant. 🙂

    • WendyB says:

      Ha ha, right? Seeing it up close can convince you it’s not the way to go.

      My father is a software entrepreneur too. I must have gotten my habit of working all night from him.

  4. Lisa says:

    This was a very insightful read, Wendy. Thanks.

    Cathy Horyn’s tribute was lovely, but the part that resonated most was how Horyn advised a burnt-out Scott to walk away, and instead Scott “dug in.” I’ve been guilty of that so many times in the past and it’s come up as a point of discussion now with my current manager. Sometimes it does take that objective third-person perspective to make you see that you’re your own harshest critic.

  5. Nancy Revy says:

    Great post Wendy, in fact one of your best ever.
    L’Wren Scott was a amazing talent.
    I agree entirely with your assessment of how successful businesses are evaluated and I’m sad to see that so many uninformed comments have been published on so many websites.

  6. L’Wren Scott’s passing shocked and saddened me, too, dear Wendy…as it always does when I hear of the suicide of someone that I “know” (I’m using the term very loosely here.) To all outward appearances, she was leading what many of us might call a dream life – companion of a rock legend, designer to the stars – and yet she struggled (invisibly, it seems) with a depression so severe that she felt she couldn’t go on.
    Life can be a difficult journey: for some people, this is probably true most of the time; and for the “luckier” few, it’s still likely to be the case some of the time. The “success” illustration could be used to describe the path of life in general, I think; but that anyone should feel so terribly lost that they would choose to end their own life…this is nothing else but heartbreaking.


  7. stacy says:

    Thank you for posting this, it’s truly very sad. I know first-hand that fashion is a tough business, though I can’t speak for what it feels like to be at her level. In my eyes, she was a huge success and I imagine that most people who knew OF her, but didn’t know her personally, would assume the same. Success shouldn’t be measured by income or sales. I’m sure it was extremely difficult for her to be losing money and to feel under-appreciated for her talent (and over-appreciated for being Mick’s GF) but, as you point out, it can take 10 yrs to be an “overnight” success. Does that mean if she hung on for another year and a half her problems would be solved? No, but it certainly puts things into perspective. Clearly, she was not able to see that perspective or to think rationally — she must have been suffering from severe depression. I wish she would have sought help, but I’m not sure she even realized she needed help. She must have been putting up such a facade. I think she seemed like the type of person who thought it was all her fault and that she should be able to figure things out on her own. She put so much pressure on herself and set impossible standards. So beautiful, so talented. So sad.

  8. Mardel says:

    Thank you for a wonderful post with a lot of good points that need to be said, and repeated often. Fashion isn’t easy. Starting a business sure isn’t easy and I admire people who take it on. Sometimes it seems too many people are too eager to jump on tearing things down. I’ve always agreed with that Ariana Huffington line, “failure is not the opposite of success” actually never trying is the opposite of success. Depression is another story though and depression can drag down irregardless of whether you have everything or nothing. It saddens me every time depression claims another victim.

  9. Denise says:

    Wendy, this is so lovely and so true. Yours and Horyn’s are the most insightful, honest and loving tributes. Thank you, too, for that illustration: perfection!