Alice Cavanagh on the importance of curiosity

Alice Cavanagh is a freelance writer, consultant, and the editor of Miss Vogue Australia. Based in Paris, she is also a contributing editor to Vogue Australia and has written for British Vogue, WSJ Magazine, The Daily Beast among many others. We chatted over Skype in late November and she opened my eyes to the world of freelance journalism.

  Alice Cavanagh & Edwina McCann, Editor of Vogue Australia   image: mpa

Alice Cavanagh & Edwina McCann, Editor of Vogue Australia image: mpa

What did you want to be when you grew up?
From a very young age I wanted to be a writer or a journalist. My mum was a librarian and she always bought me books so reading was my favorite thing to do. I read through most of my childhood and was always daydreaming. Also, it's a bit embarrassing, but I loved Lois Lane from Superman and thought journalism would be really cool because of her. 

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Diana Vreeland, Joan Didion, Oscar Wilde, Hillary Clinton and Lena Dunham.

What single book had the greatest impact on you?
It’s too hard to pick one… but I find myself returning to Joan Didion more often than not. 
 
When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
I'm usually in bed by 11.30pm and I wake up at 8am. It's changed since I moved from Australia to France as I've adjusted to the European way of life.
 
What is your favorite time of the working week?
I really love Monday morning because I love getting prepped for the week. I love sorting out what's going to be happening and writing out a list of priorities. 

I also really love Friday afternoon. I work from home so it's not the office vibe, but because I work within the Australian time zone, by the time it comes to Friday I have no more emails coming in to deal with. So Friday for me is a writing day. It means that I can do things that don't involve administration. I can sit down and write a feature article in four hours, where it might normally take me two days.
 
Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
It's always been fashion and it's always involved communication on some level. It definitely wasn't always journalism. I started off working in communications for a group of fashion boutiques in Australia called Belinda and The Corner Shop. I was offered that job because I wrote a few stories for the indie fashion publication Oyster Magazine (which I later ended up editing) when I was 19 and basically my boss had seen those articles and asked me to start writing their press releases. That soon turned into a communications job, which was great because I had always loved fashion as well as writing. 

The writing became more and more interesting to me and I started writing for Vogue Australia. I was very young and very lucky to work closely with an editor there who took me under her wing and let me write lots of personal pieces and profiles. I think I had a voice but I definitely don't think I was the most proficient writer then, not from a technical point of view, as I was only 21 but I had a certain tone that she thought could develop. 

Then I started freelancing for a lot of other people and eventually decided to go back to university and do a postgraduate degree in creative writing. It was mainly to give me more confidence and the groundwork to pursue full time writing.

After I graduated I became the Editor of Oyster Magazine, which was my first job in-house at a publication. It was such a small magazine, which meant I was lucky to have a start in the industry in such a senior position. I was there for three years and whilst I was there I moved to Paris and worked remotely. 

Moving was a defining career moment for me because working in fashion and being here has given me the most amazing access to ideas and inspiration. This is such a hub for the industry. The exposure allows me to go to exhibitions and fashion shows and see everything first hand. Being in Paris has also enabled me to build contacts in other countries and become a Paris-based correspondent.

After Oyster I stayed in Paris but started writing for Vogue again. I'm now a contributing editor to Vogue Australia and I also edit their Miss Vogue publication.
 
What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your industry?
I don't feel like I've had that many obstacles. Maybe that's my age, I don't know. I guess it would be moving to another country and setting up here without contacts. But in reality (and quite surprisingly) it was quite an easy thing to do. Obviously there were elements that were difficult like personal life and language barriers. But moving here has been a great benefit to my career. In the end I feel very fortunate that it didn't turn out to be as challenging as it could have been.
 
What motivates you?
Curiosity. That's what I really like about my career. I get to interview people all the time, and learn about their lives. I think I'm very curious about other people’s lives, how they feel, what they think and why things happen in a certain way. Research is big part of my job. Being curious really helps with that because I enjoy the research process and I love spending days and days reading up on a subject. It feels like I’m constantly continuing my education. 

I’m definitely motivated by a sense of personal achievement and intellectual growth – if I've challenged myself or done something I haven't done before and it's been met with satisfaction or some level of success.
 
What advice would you give to your children at the start of their career?
I feel really lucky in that I've been able to make a career out of something I love doing and would have done as a hobby anyway. My advice would be if you're sincerely passionate about something, think about how that could translate into a career. 
 
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
On a personal level it's moving overseas to Paris. It's something I appreciate every day because it's something I always wanted to do. I actually never thought I'd do it. I think it's something a lot of people want to do. But you say it flippantly because it's just one of those things, like running a marathon, but you never get around to doing it. 

There’s a huge sense of achievement that comes with working in publishing. In editing a magazine, when an issue comes out and you have a finished product in your hand, it's hugely satisfying. It's wonderful to feel a part of a team and that you've created something through group effort.
 
What do you believe has been the key to your success?
I think so much of it comes down to people in my career that have helped along the way. There are a few names over the years that I really reflect on now, how much they helped. I wouldn't use the word ‘mentor’ because it wasn't as literal as that, but it was definitely people who went out on a limb or helped me segue in a different direction. I think you can't understate the importance of other people influencing where you end up. I feel so fortunate.

I would also say that I have a really strong work ethic. Almost like a do-gooder. It's a personal work ethic because I'm a freelancer so I'm not really doing it for one boss, but I really am relentless with my tasks. I don't do anything else until that task is done. I become obsessed with it. I never miss a deadline. I'm a very disciplined worker. 

Freelance can be hard for a lot of people, but I'm highly motivated. That's something that's come with age because I definitely wasn't like this at school!
 
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Not to be afraid to ask for help. Not to assume that people think you know everything and that everything is okay. I think that comes from being curious. So if I've been given a task and I’m not completely happy with it, I'm very happy to go back and ask for clarification and guidance. I'm not intimidated by that. I don't believe in pretending that you've got something sorted if you don't because it's always better to be strategic about something you need clarified or help with.

What do you believe are the personality traits of great leaders?
They have to be so good at communicating. They need to be empathetic. They have to understand how people work and the challenges involved in certain work and to be good judges of character. 

They must be extremely professional. I think in fashion a lot of people get into management roles because they're exceptional in a creative sense but they are definitely not great managers. That creates huge problems and it's really difficult working with those people. They have unrealistic expectations of how certain situations should play out and problems arise. When you meet someone who is more traditionally trained in management it's a blessing.
 
Who do you turn to when the going gets tough?
My dad. He comes from a much more traditional career background than me. He's a solicitor so he has quite a pragmatic way of approaching business, which often can't be applied to my industry, but it's good to think about the blueprint that he has and try to apply that framework to my career. 

More often than not, he's likely to be strict with my parameters, what's acceptable and what isn't. I think in fashion people get away with a lot and you hear stories of people working for free or interning for years. I've never ever done anything unpaid and I've never had to. I feel really lucky. Perhaps that's my generation, but I think that's also my dad's influence. He’s always helped with practical advice.
 
What's next?
So many things. I want to get into teaching. That's in the works because I have a lot of young people asking me all the time about fashion and how they get into this business. 

I'm also really interested in the business side of fashion as well. I think the structure of how it all works, as well as identity, branding, and marketing is so fascinating. 

At some point I would really like to write a book, but I feel like perhaps that's another flippant thing that lots of people say; so we’ll see.

I really want to evolve all the time and improve my writing. I constantly need to have the impression that I have a new challenge and I'm striving towards that. I'm not a complacent person at all. I'm highly motivated and ambitious in the sense that I feel unsettled if I'm too settled.


As told to Caroline Hugall over Skype on Monday 10th November 2014. Alice lives and works in Paris.