Vanessa Holden: The Woman Behind Martha Stewart, West Elm & Soul Safari


Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance. 

Having held roles such as Editor in Chief at lifestyle bible Martha Stewart Living, Senior Vice President at homeware mecca West Elm, and founder of recently launched creative collective community Soul Safari – Vanessa Holden’s resume doesn’t have much spare room. 

This Sydney native made New York City her permanent home after relocating in 2004 to be the Creative Director of Real Simple magazine.

Next on the agenda for Holden is Soul Safari – a platform whose mission is mission to create a space where people can get together around the world in an active, creative environment that has an emphasis on sustainable and ethical work.

Photos via Soul Safari.

You have had a very impressive career, working across many respected brands and in various roles. Could you take us on a brief timeline of your career to date?

I started my career in Australia, freelancing as a designer at various publications such as Follow Me, Dolly and Girlfriend – I was always a big magazine fan! When I transitioned to working in the art department at Vogue Entertaining and Vogue Living; it was my first foray in to working in lifestyle. It was a fantastic experience, early in my career, that gave me a great outward lens on the world, and introduced me to a world of collaborators and storytelling. I then moved to Marie Claire Australia, which is where I met Donna Hay – she was the food editor there at the time. Donna and I worked closely on her cookbooks together, and then launched Donna Hay Magazine – we developed and grew the Donna Hay brand together for five or six years. In 2004, I was approached by Real Simple Magazine to come on board as their Creative Director, based out of New York. They were one of the biggest women’s magazines in the US at the time, and were beginning to extend the brand into multiple channels – into online, books, television, product, international editions, etc, to deliver a true “omnichannel” experience beyond the pages of the magazine. That requires a really unique, but broad skill set, and the multi-tasking, multi-channel nature of working in Australia had set a strong foundation for building out a brand in multiple dimensions. I left Real Simple at the end of 2007 and consulted for a few years, and in 2008 took the leap back into magazines, straight in to the EIC role at Martha Stewart Weddings, and about 18 months later I was appointed EIC of Martha Stewart Living. Working with Martha and the extraordinary team there was a remarkable gift and a dream come true – evolving the brand as the publishing industry was shifting quickly (with the introduction of digital issues for example, as well as continuing multi-channel development with partners). In 2010 I was approached by West Elm – at that time there were about 30 stores, and they now have over 100 internationally. It was my first transition in to multi-channel retail – and an extraordinary opportunity to tell and influence the story of what home is and can be. It’s been an exciting ride!

Did you fall in love with NYC as soon as you moved?

Absolutely! I’d been to New York maybe four times for one or two week stints before I moved here permanently. When we moved here we only really knew a couple of people – it was very exciting. Last week was our 13 year anniversary living here – it’s changed so much, and I guess we have with it – it’s truly become our home.

There’s a stigma that many creative industries are a dying breed – do you think there’s a future for some of the industries you’ve been at the forefront of? Print magazines, for example.

Significant change was already in motion when we moved here in ‘04 – in many ways it was the driver that brought us here. Publishers and editors in all categories were aggressively pursuing building out branded extensions of their print properties, and that continues as newsstand and digital audiences diminish. In 2004, print brand sites were already significant - which Australia lagged a little behind on – by ‘07, with the introduction of the iPhone and then the iPad swiftly afterward, digital focus and development drove radical change. The ‘08 Global Financial Crisis had a direct and immediate effect on publishing - advertising dollars transitioned swiftly online, budgets were slashed – it was the perfect storm, and the drift to digital continues across the industry. There are still exciting opportunities on editorial brands, they just look very different, and require a broader, more flexible and responsive posture and willingness to experiment with new approaches.

That said, no question I definitely think that print will always have a place in people’s media mix – excitingly in a more personal, tactile and niche way. Individuality breeds independence – I always look to the example of Japan for this – their newsstands are fantastically eclectic and diverse, there’s truly a publication for everyone.

What was the motivation behind Soul Safari? Where do you hope to take it?

As change across all industries, but especially creative industries, accelerated over the last couple of years, I became aware of friends and peers feeling powerless, or felt they lacked control over their work and career – the idea that things were changing so quickly that they just had to hang on and ride it out. I have never felt that way – for me, instability always breeds new kinds of opportunities – you just have to be there open to new possibilities with the right frame of mind, to see them and take them. I wanted to create an environment where people could come together and create a future for themselves. 

As more of us are choosing to freelance, or permalance, explore new areas of interest or build our own businesses, there needs to be a place to tap back into creativity, find yourself surrounded by supportive people, and activate the impact that creative work can have in the world. Soul Safari is that place for people to reconnect with their creative potential, to meet like-minded people who share their passions to collaborate with, and create work together that does good in the world. It's a lot of fuel and a little bit of school for creative entrepreneurs.

Your job requires constant innovation. What are you most inspired by?

I’m excited by how much change is afoot globally, and how it’s informing a return to community, collaboration and self-expression – how easy it is to connect with like-minded people close to home or far away to bring new, better ideas to life. To work together to solve big problems, create new solutions and outcomes. I’ve been in this space long enough to see that people never run out of amazing ideas, especially if they work together. Embracing diversity, inclusivity and eclecticsm have the potential to create completely new ways of being in the world – there’s endless inspiration everywhere you look.

Do you believe that creativity is something that you can teach, or is it fundamentally innate?

I think every single person in the world is creative. Making things is what makes us human – whether that’s a meal, or a drawing or an object, a journal entry or telling a story. Unfortunately, people are often told that they’re “good” or “bad at art”, and then resign themselves to “not being creative”. The truth is there are infinite ways to be creative – creativity is simply looking at the world and finding ways to present it back differently. It’s not just about art. The perfect example is people who love cooking – they’re fantastically creative people!

Does your Australian background inform any of your work? How does it differ from being in the US?

I think so, yes. Starting out my career in Australia on very small teams, we were always multi-tasking – very much an attitude of jumping in and figuring out what needed to be done to get it done. Learning on the job. There’s a pragmatism coupled with optimism in that that I think is uniquely Australian. And, I do think growing up in Australia meant I was always looking outward – it creates a kind of inquisitiveness and curiosity - an explorer’s mindset. I’ve found there’re very few barriers to moving far and fast if you’re willing to jump in, are confident that you can work it out, will work hard to make it happen, and will reach out if you need help – that’s served me well.

When I first moved to NYC, I was surprised at how different the work environments were —I found the US a lot more formal, corporate and layered, while Australia is definitely more laid back, unrestrained and flat. Each is just as effective in it’s on way – just very different in the day-to-day, and definitely requiring different professional muscles.

Do you have advice for young creatives who may be looking to branch out and do their own thing?

I think it’s most important to be as clear as possible about what it is what you want to do, and then find people to support you along the way – the people who really understand who you are, your vision and want you to succeed. Find those people, turn them into your coaches, cheerleaders and champions, and they’ll make all the difference.