Baby-boomer, Marla Wynne’s rise from out-of-work TV producer to hugely-successful fashion designer has been told and retold as a courageous Baby-Boomer reinvention story. It often sounds like Marla grabbed a sewing machine, pitched her creations to an investor and voila, a new line of clothing was born.
But the truth was a lot more complicated and the path to success more twisted than that, as I learned when I interviewed Marla for Out-of-Work to Making Money, 21 Comeback Stories Every Job Hunter Should Hear. Here is a fuller version of her entrepreneurial journey.
The story starts with Marla Wynne’s (Ginsburg) career in the entertainment industry ending when the writer’s strike began in 2007. Marla had been an Executive Producer of TV shows, Highlander, La Femme Nikita and “a bunch of shows you never heard of”
As Marla watched real estate values tank and her investments plummet, she tried to hide from her kids, age fifteen and twelve, just how bad the situation was.
She knew she needed a new game plan. “I always combined business with creativity,” Marla said. “I didn’t set out, oh, I want to be a designer. I set out thinking, my kids want to eat and go to college. I better figure this out.”
“I looked in the marketplace and I decided that there really weren’t that many brands in the marketplace for women my age. I knew the world of fashion and I knew that I wasn’t going to be a John Galliano, but really felt I could bring something to that woman who is forty-five — fifty plus, that was affordable and fabulous, and represented my taste and my sensibility. Because people, for as long as I could remember, people always loved the way I dressed.”
Marla bought a sewing machine, set it up in the garage and “cobbled together a collection”. She wrote a business plan for designing, producing and selling her line of clothes and took both clothes and the plan to an investor. He agreed to invest.
“I brought him clothes that I had made in my garage and he told me, ‘Now I need to see what you can do with a real factory and what you’re made of.’ He had factories in Peru and he said, ‘I’m going to fly you to Peru, give you ten days on the ground, and see what you can come back with.’ Now talk about Project Runway. I didn’t have fabric; I didn’t have anything. I went to a shop in LA and I bought a bunch of fabric and packed it in my suitcase. They have knitting factories and I came back ten days later with a collection, and that became the collection that HSN bought and a more elevated version that Nordstrom bought. That was the end of ‘07.”
Enter 2008, stock prices dropped and the investor told Marla he was pulling out of the deal. At this point there were $250,000 in purchase orders from Nordstrom and HSN, but the factories in Peru belonged to the investor, so there was no way to fulfil those orders. Further complicating things, the purchase orders were in the investor’s name. Marla knew that if those orders, the first orders for a clothing line with her name on it, weren’t delivered her new career as a fashion designer would be over before it began. Rather than packing up her office or confronting the investor, she chose to walk out of the offices with all purchase orders in hand.
Next, she found a factory in Los Angeles that could produce the clothing. But the factory was fully booked and would have to work tons of overtime to make the clothing, so Marla negotiated with the factory owner. All of the revenue for the clothing would go directly to the factory. To ensure the quality of what was produced, Marla supervised the shifts that created her clothing, even sleeping on factory floors. The clothes were delivered on time to HSN and Nordstrom.
Marla said the experience taught her that her investing partner was a bad partner and a bad man. “You don’t do that,” Marla said. “You make a deal and you fulfill it. He was a bad man. He taught me early on, before I got too far down the road with him, that he was a bad man. I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I’ve worked all these months and I’m not even going to get paid for what’s getting delivered.”
At home Marla was spending money that had been saved over many years. She decided she had to sell her house and recalls calling her agent one day in tears and saying that soon they’d all be living out of the trunk of her car.
“I sold a $2.2 million house on a short sale for $900,000,” said Marla. “That was painful. But I wasn’t going to go bankrupt. I wasn’t going to do that. I owed people money and I paid the bank back. I paid off every credit card. I paid Amex, Visa, the cleaning lady, the pool guy, every single person I owed.”
“My agent said, ‘Hey, there’s a company in Montreal that might be right for you, they came to us looking for a celebrity.’ I’m not a celebrity. I know celebrities. ‘I think you should go meet with them.’ I thought I’ve never been to Montreal, so I’ll go. I ended up selling my little whatever was left of my company to them in order to be their creative director. I didn’t even know what a creative director in fashion did, but I moved up to Montreal, displaced my kids, sold my house, did what I had to.”
Marla was in Montreal for 4 years. She said she learned a lot including how people can make a mess of production and how that damages a brand. She could see that the HSN part of the business should be profitable, but the manufacturing company was not delivering. HSN approached her directly about the issue.
“HSN came to me and said, ‘We think you could be really successful here, but these guys are not delivering for you. They’re missing deadlines and we won’t work with them. We have some manufacturers that we’d like to recommend to you in New York if you’d be willing to license the brand.’
I started commuting to New York to meet with manufacturers. Now I’m somebody who had jobs where I flew in private planes. In order for me at that time to afford to come here and look for a new manufacturer, I used to take the overnight Greyhound bus from Montreal to New York, which got into Port Authority at six-thirty — seven o’clock in the morning, but of course the manufacturer didn’t open until ten. I would sit at the Starbucks around the corner until they opened up and I would work all day, and I would get back on that bus and go home. It was horrible. It was not fun. It’s the middle of winter and at the Canadian border they make everyone get off the bus. Then you’ve got to go through customs, and then there are not enough places to sit. The bathrooms are stinky. The food is horrible. People couldn’t have been nicer, but I was a private plane girl, riding that Greyhound. That was a wake-up call.”
I was a private plane girl, riding that Greyhound. That was a wake-up call.
Marla continued this ordeal for about six months during which time she bought back her company from the Montreal company, found and made a deal with one of the NYC manufacturers. She had no financial resources to even consider moving to New York, so she continued commuting by Greyhound and “couch-surfing.” She licensed her brand to HSN. She would own the trademarks. HSN would get a percent of everything that was sold, so she would have no cash outlay. But production and sales required time.
“I needed to gear up again,” Marla said. “I literally went off air for six months. I just kept getting beat up, because it was up to them; they wanted to retool, to get the block down, to figure out what we’re doing, to get the samples out. I’m just going back and forth on this damn Greyhound bus.”
While Marla was determined to do whatever it took, friends intervened.
“My best friend from college, whose couch I crashed on a lot finally said to me,
‘You look like hell. This is going to kill you. Whatever it takes, we will pay for you to move to New York and get an apartment.’
My first apartment in New York, my friend and her husband, both incredibly successful people, literally had to sign my lease. I’m somebody who owned a really beautiful house. And my mommy and daddy had to sign my lease. I couldn’t even sign a lease.”
Marla, grateful and determined to repay the kindness, moved to New York. Almost immediately after arriving, she received devastating news. Her son, in school in Holland, had stage three cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“No one knew,” said Marla. “I moved to Amsterdam for seven months to take care of him. I slept on a couch half my size and just came to the U.S. for shows.”
Her son recovered and Marla was able to return to New York full-time and focus on making the MarlaWynne Collection a success.
Her sales grew every year. Two years after “Mommy and Daddy signed her lease”, her income allowed her to move to a beautiful, more spacious apartment on the Upper West Side.
“I’m only in the past two years breathing,” said Marla. “I was eight years of holding my breath and waiting for it to implode. Every time you hit a speed bump, when you don’t have a lot to fall on, a bump feels like a mountain.”
“A lot can happen in a few years,” Marla continued. “You can lose everything and you can get it all back.”
Since Marla bought her company back, MarlaWynne Collections has grown exponentially. In 2018, apparel, jewelry and totes designed by Marla generated in excess of $2.6 million in global licensing revenues. Her distribution and sales have continued to expand in 2019, and now include QVC in Italy and Japan.
“There have been two or three people along the way,” Marla said. “Four,” she corrects herself, “who I would not have gotten here without. As this company grows, they have been and will continue to be thanked far beyond what they ever would have expected from the money they lent me, or the couches they let me sleep on, or the work they did for me while my son was sick. Nobody gets here on their own. Nobody does it by themselves. The minute you forget that you had people who loved you get you through it, then you lose your humanity and you don’t deserve to win. People help you. Let them. Let them help you. And then thank them by helping the next guy, pay it forward.”
This story is an adaption of the chapter, Riding Greyhound, Marla Wynne’s story as told to Anne Emerick from Out-of-Work to Making Money, 21 Comeback Stories Every Job Hunter Should Hear.