Jessie Webster
Garance Doré
Aug 29, 2017 @ 9:00 am

I never imagined that one day I would be sitting front row at one of the most anticipated fashion shows, Chanel, in the Grand Palais in Paris, surrounded by celebrities and wondering how I got there.

Well, actually, I know how: I was one of the most respected fashion influencers in the world. A New York Times writer had called me “the guardian of all styles.” Together with a few of my contemporaries, I had made online fashion noble. I received a CFDA Award, presented to me by Pharrell Williams. He said I was a visionary, and everybody applauded.

Yet something still felt wrong. Uncomfortable. When I used to whisper to my fashion friends, “You know, I don’t really like going to fashion shows,” they would remind me that people would kill for my spot. So I kept telling myself I was lucky. Until one day …

I grew up on a small French island, Corsica. My parents were young immigrants with a knack for making life beautiful. My dad came from a family of talented Italian chefs, and my mom, freshly arrived from Algeria, knew how to make life joyful, interesting, and pretty even without a franc in her pocket. My sister, brother, and I grew up in the seaside restaurant our parents had made so popular that guests included Gianni Agnelli, Brigitte Bardot, and every ’90s top model you could think of.

Corsica is wild, untouched, and beautiful. Ajaccio, the town I grew up in, was as sunny and sleepy as any village on the French Riviera or the Italian Riviera dei Fiori, with slow, warm winters and hot, busy summers far from front rows.

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But not entirely. There was one street in Ajaccio, with beautiful cafés reflecting the town’s old grandeur, that would become animated as night fell. People would dress up, get out of their houses, and “come to town.” It was not so much about who you were but about how you looked and what you had. There’s a famous saying in Corsica: “She parades in her Mercedes, but at home she eats potatoes!”

You would be sitting en terrasse, drinking rosé, chatting, and looking or being looked at. Judging and feeling judged. This tiny society was exciting, fun, and cruel, and I was very ambivalent about it.

I hated the emphasis on shiny things: cars, jewelry, clothes, anything that would announce, “I’m the most important person in town.” I didn’t have enough money to buy shiny things and not enough body confidence to play beach babe—and truth be told, I was not so interested. But there was no alternative. It was play along or be alone.

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Many times I tried to take part. Sometimes I would even have a good day, feel accepted and have fun and think I was getting the hang of it, but most times it left me feeling empty and lonely. For years I just felt as if I didn't belong.

As soon as I turned 17, I left and started exploring the world. If you’d met me then, you would have thought I was the most social person ever. I’m always curious about people. I love making new friends and sharing my stories. But the story of not belonging kept repeating itself.

I moved to Aix-en-Provence and then to Marseille. I became a joyful person. I fell in love. I made friends, some of whom I’m still very close with. I worked in movies and music and traveled as much as I could. While no place ever felt like my own, I learned how to be at home anywhere.

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I was 31 when I started a blog and found myself at the forefront of a fashion revolution. My blog, with photos, illustrations, and personal accounts, crystallized a generation’s need for fresh storytelling about fashion. It became extremely popular, and I was part of what shaped the fashion industry today. In the process, I became important—and got invited to shows.

That’s how I wound up sitting in that front row, feeling that excruciating ambivalence I’d felt on the terraces of the cafés in Ajaccio 20 years earlier—wanting to be part of the beautiful crowd but feeling out of place.

People had come to me for a new perspective on fashion, and here I was, feeling trapped in a world with established rules and few alternatives. A lot of it was about status—where you were sitting, whom you were talking to, which designers had deemed you important enough to lend their latest designs (if you were skinny enough to fit into the size 0 clothes they sent). Me, I was never good at playing important or detached. And I didn't want to be that skinny or dress up like a “fashion person.”

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But after a month of Fashion Week, the doubts started to creep in: Should I go on a popcorn-and-cigarettes diet as some of my fashion friends did? Should I play the game and put on black glasses and pretend I’m so important that I don’t recognize anybody? I remembered what I’d been told: You’ve worked so hard for it, don’t let it go. There are people waiting in line for your seat.

So I kept smiling for the cameras, trying to ignore the growing pain in my chest. It got to the point that I would think about the shows with such anxiety that I was afraid I’d lost my love for style and beauty.

I remember very precisely one day, taking my sister to a fashion show. A publicist friend had granted me the Major Favor of letting her in. When the show ended, I asked her, “So, how much did you love all that excitement?” And she told me, “Are you crazy? I hated it! Who are these people, and who do they think they are? It was awful. I don’t know how you do it.”

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I remember being so mad at her. At that time I was still trying to convince myself that I was where everybody wanted to be. And I kept going.

Until it happened. I was in Paris, in my beautiful apartment, all dressed and made up and ready to go to a Chloé show. I sat on my bed to lace my very, very high heels. That’s when I started crying. The tears started small, and I tried to stop them and save my makeup. Then came the spasms and the loud cries. My face was ruined. I lay on the bed, trying to breathe. At a loss, I called Emily in New York, who had been working with me forever and knew me by heart. She said, “That’s enough; you’ve pushed enough. You don’t need to go to this fashion show—or any fashion show ever. Undress, get in bed, and rest.”

That’s the day I realized I was totally burned out, and I vowed never to force myself to fit in again. I decided to find my true passion again and leave my front-row spot to someone on my team who would “kill for it” and enjoy all of it.

Slowly, fashion started to change, and the relevance of runway shows started to be questioned. I saw that change as an opportunity to keep exploring new ways of doing things.

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At Atelier Doré, which went from a blog to a company with a staff of 12, we express our love for fashion with photos of real women wearing real clothes. Some come from the runway, which I still love (albeit from a distance—my team now goes to fashion shows), and some come from the thrift store. We tell stories in our own way, changing our point of view as the world changes. We find inspiration everywhere.

We are confident that we bring something different. We’re doing well, and we feel true again.

Life is about joy, about finding what’s real for you, and then about finding people who share that vision. Don’t listen to what people tell you is “cool.” Follow the vibe you feel deep down—it will never steer you wrong.

Maybe I’ll never find anywhere I truly fit in. Maybe that’s what makes me who I am. Maybe I’m just made to be unfitting, unbelonging—and free.

To read more stories like this, pick up the September issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download now.

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