Marilyn Wilson never thought that, at the age of 50, her life would take a sharp turn in the direction of fashion. “It didn’t come easy, the writing didn’t come easy,” says Wilson, now 62. “I had to fight and I’m still fighting every inch of the way.”
Wilson recounts her improbable journey during a break at Vancouver Fashion Week in March. She certainly looks the part amongst the dressed-to-impress crowd, wearing high heels, a narrow skirt, a loud printed top and an abundance of accessories.
“They were all purchased over a 10-year period, at different times,” says Wilson over the din of the crowd. “I know the designer, I know why I bought it, I know every piece I’m wearing.”
Throughout her dozen years in fashion, Wilson has gathered a collection of funky pieces, which she wears for big events like VFW. In everyday life, she dresses simply in effortless combinations and clean colours.
“Day-to-day, it’s yoga pants and comfy tops and flannel shirts, but my good clothes are taken care of because they cost me so much,” says Wilson. “I had to give up a lot to buy them, so I treat them well.” An asymmetric haircut with clear geometric lines and a contrasting highlight complements her style, while her glasses, which she changes depending on her mood, range from barely noticeable to large and dramatic frames.
It took Wilson over half a lifetime to realize her passion and fight her way into the industry. Raised in a strict home environment—her father was a Christian minister in a tiny town in South Dakota—Wilson says she never thought about fashion as a young girl. She describes her style then simply as “cheap.” When she was growing up, Wilson had to be the example for other kids to follow, which was not always pleasant.
“I was not allowed to go to the movie theatre [on Saturday] with the kids from school, because somebody might see me go to the movies and think it was OK to go see a porno,” recalls Wilson. “Literally, I was told that.”
Originally she planned on becoming a counsellor, but living in San Diego in early 1980 she stopped working on her master’s degree in counselling and drug abuse after realizing how daunting the profession could be. She took on various office jobs and ended up in Seattle, where mutual friends introduced her to her future husband, a Canadian. They moved to Vancouver a couple weeks after their marriage in late 1984.
The couple had three kids in three and a half years, and because daycare was unaffordable for them, Wilson stayed at home raising her children. “When they finally didn’t need me, I’d been out of the workforce for 15 years. Nobody wanted me,” Wilson says.
In 2006, she found a Craigslist ad from a fashion and lifestyle magazine from New York. She sent three story ideas off, two were accepted—and so began her career as a fashion writer. Wilson recalls feeling goosebumps during her very first interview for a story on an Indigenous designer. She knew, then and there, that interviewing was her passion.
“Then I had to learn to write—and no, it wasn’t as easy as I thought,” she adds. “There is a style and a format, then a rhythm. It’s not like turning in a high school term paper. There were a lot of tears and a lot of self-doubt.”
She submitted the stories, but the magazine folded without printing them or paying her. After months of desperation, she went back to Craigslist and found an ad for a photographer who wanted to start a magazine about fashion. They would become co-founders of an online magazine, which they named Fame’d, and Wilson once again had the opportunity to do what she loved.
In those early days of going to fashion events, resources were limited. “I had no money. My shoes came from Payless. My clothes were from Zellers and Costco and I had some from Value Village. My husband cut my hair,” recalls Wilson. “I was so happy to be out of the house and so happy to be challenged mentally again. I was so excited, but I had no idea how out of place I was, and how little I knew.”
With tears in her eyes, she remembers the time she came to interview RozeMerie Cuevas, the designer of JAC by Jacqueline Conoir, in her showroom in Vancouver. Cuevas specialized in high-end feminine suits, designed for women in the workforce. Wilson walked into her showroom, saw the beautiful, expensive clothes all around her and wanted to run.
Wilson says she’s thankful to Cuevas, who walked in and did not comment on what she was wearing, but looked her in the eyes instead and told a story about her first fashion show—when she, too, felt out of place. “She gave me permission to be where I was, starting out,” Wilson says. “It was OK to be in this place at this moment, just doing the best I could.”
Vladimir Markovich, who was chief creative director and co-founder of B.C. Fashion Week, first met Wilson when she interviewed him for a profile. “She was very curious,” Markovich recalls. “Genuinely, very interested about where I was from and my life.”
While the creative union with the photographer didn’t last—Fame’d folded after four and a half years—Wilson’s reputation within the industry had been cemented. Still, it hasn’t always been easy being “the older blogger.”
“There are more older people out now, but when I started hanging around the fashion world, I was it,” says Wilson, emphatically. “I was like everybody’s mother.”
Fellow writer Randi Winter recalls ending up next to Wilson at a fashion show in 2013. They soon became friends and have been appearing together at many fashion events since then.
“It’s not easy when you’re older,” says Winter. “Often people tend to pass over you and not count you as current because you’re older, and that’s not true.”
As for Marilyn Wilson, who wrote her first book, Life Outside the Box: The Extraordinary Journeys of 10 Unique Individuals, at age 59, she has fully managed to reinvent herself. And she’s loving every minute of it: “The best part of my story is that it’s never too late.”
Story by Violetta Kryak
Photos by Violetta Kryak