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Write On Ottawa: #Setlife is a bittersweet glimpse into the fashion industry

By Eric Murphy on June 12, 2015

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to work as a fashion stylist?  A model?  A magazine photographer?  If this burning curiosity sounds familiar track down a copy of #Setlife, and let local stylist and magazine editor Christopher Massardo bring you to the frontlines.

Fully titled The Funny, Horrible and (Possibly) True Stories of #Setlife, Massardo’s collection brings together 13 local, scandalous and funny short stories.  Unfortunately, as a whole, the collection is only partially successful.

#Setlife’s back cover promises both laughter and cringing, but I found myself leaning towards the latter for the first 30 pages. The book’s early stories all deal with over-the-top personalities, like a diva who banishes her stylists from the building when she gets a little camera shy.  At best, these first pieces read like someone complaining about a weird day at work, and at worst, they seem mean, even petty.  One story, “Oh honey.  They’re saying when you work with me…” does little more than tease an “iffy” photographer for taking pride in his work.

Although I found these aspects off-putting, #Setlife really picks up steam in its second half.  In “Bucket List,” Massardo gets to outfit one of his favorite models and details a photo shoot all the way through, from choosing outfits to picking up the magazine at the store.  After seven stories about big egos, corruption and workplace harassment, reading such an upbeat piece felt like stepping out onto a sunny patio after a week of storms.  A few other pieces were surprisingly touching, such as the self-explanatory “Dumped on set.”

As fascinating as these stories are, it’s a shame that they’re buried so late in the book.  If I’d been reading #Setlife for fun, and not for a review, I probably would have given up on it after the third story and missed out on the ones I really liked.  Still though, by the end of the book I felt much more curious about the Ottawa fashion scene than I was before picking it up.  Working in the industry seems like clearing a minefield, where a single slip, like asking for water or not smiling enough, can ruin your career.

Another major issue throughout the book is the anonymity #Setlife uses to protect its characters.  I absolutely understand that Massardo couldn’t release some names, especially considering the way he talks about certain people, but keeping virtually everyone nameless put a wall between me and the characters.  For example, Massardo never names the model he loved working with in “Bucket List,” even though he only says nice things about her.  If he could name some of the characters, or at least the magazines they worked for, the book would feel much more engaging and authentic.

All of the co-authors stay anonymous as well, and given my earlier career/minefield analogy, I can understand why.  Massardo never mentions which stories are from his perspective, and which are from others’.  That means I started reading every story assuming it was him writing it, and only realized it wasn’t him halfway through, when the narrator said they were a photographer, or answered to the name Robbie.

This doesn’t mean I think the authors should use their full names.  Going by a first name or pseudonym like “the model” with a brief bio would be enough to erase all confusion, and the book would be better for it.

Despite all of these criticisms, #Setlife has a lot of good things going for it.  Aside from a couple typos, the writing is a breeze to read, and I devoured all 98 pages of it in one afternoon.  If you’re interested in Ottawa fashion, or just really like reading about horrible agents and models getting their comeuppance, Massardo’s book was written for you.

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