- By Diane Gilman
You may not know me, but you might be familiar with my jeans. Not to brag, but they’re the top-selling item on the Home Shopping Network, and I created them specifically for women over 40.
To some people, the most fascinating aspect of my story is my dramatic success as a fashion designer. But personally, I’m most proud of the fact that today, in my 60s and after a lifetime of struggles, I am finally attaining everything I ever dreamed of — professionally, personally and even romantically.
To call my early life traumatic is a huge understatement. I grew up with a violent, abusive father and a cold, unprotecting mother. But I overcame my demons and have made it my mission to help others to follow their dreams. That’s what inspired me to write my first book, Good Jeans: 10 Simple Truths About Feeling Great, Staying Sexy and Aging Agelessly — the desire to teach people how they can not only reinvent themselves, but maximize their fulfillment and happiness at any age.
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I sometimes describe my childhood as “growing up Addams Family in a Leave It to Beaver world” — long on abuse, but short on love. I left home as a teenager and never looked back. I made my way in the world with my fashion-design skills, and the things that happened to me along the way read like a romance novel.
In the 1960s I went from being a small-time “hippie designer” to making outrageous denim costumes for Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and other top rockers. I migrated from California to New York City in the ’70s and opened a little boutique. One sunny afternoon my entire inventory was bought out by a single customer: Cher.
A number of years later, struggling to make ends meet, I was working at Bloomingdale's by day and waitressing at Max's Kansas City by night. One day at the store, the fashion director made a surprise appearance and laid a number of demands on us. As I scrambled to respond, I purposefully mentioned that I was also a designer. Kindly, she agreed to see my clothes. I nearly killed myself hand-cutting and sewing a small collection, which I presented to her a month later.
She was so blown away that she summoned the design director at the then-popular Abraham & Straus department store. They gave me $100,000 of orders and even paid to have them fabricated. In 1989 my business peaked and my spring sportswear collection, particularly the cabal blouse, was in the window of every major department store in New York.
For all the glamour of that world, however, I didn’t make a lot of money until the mid-’90s, when I was in my late 40s. Tele-retailing giant HSN asked if I would be interested in designing a line just for them and then appear on TV to sell it. I happened to be embroiled in a terrible lawsuit with a Chinese conglomerate that promised to make me rich if I signed away my name to them. I had, and as a result, my business was hamstrung.
Here I was: a designer who'd given away rights to her own name and couldn't legally sell her clothes in stores. And I was hemhorraging what little money I had in the lawsuit. Even though tele-retailing was a relatively new game (and hardly a career aspiration), I felt I had no choice but to say yes to HSN.
It wasn’t smooth sailing out of the gate. Just as I came on air, my soul mate of 18 years, Jim, received a diagnosis of terminal prostate and liver cancer. I was barely 50 when he died; I refer to the next 10 years of my life as my “lost decade.” The suffocating grief sent me into a deep depression and I gained 60 pounds. I couldn’t focus on my designs and it brought my business to an all-time low.
Somewhere around 57, I finally lost the weight through a serious commitment to exercise and diet. That was great, but then I needed a new wardrobe. The washable silk I sold on TV wasn’t right because those designs were meant to hide a mature figure. I wanted to flaunt my new silhouette and get my sexy back.
I tried to think of one fashion item that would exemplify ageless sex appeal. I decided it was a perfect-fitting jean. I shopped everywhere but found only baggy mom-jeans or ridiculously youthful low riders. Appropriate tops were easy to find, but a proper bottom for a body like mine was impossible.
Out of utter frustration, I designed a line of jeans that would flatter my figure. And I knew if this made me happy, it would likely appeal to millions of women. I approached HSN — and they loved it.
Within a year, I owned the marketplace. Now, in 2013, we are projected to sell $120 million worth of DG2 jeans on HSN. For me, the money and recognition are wonderful, of course, but I’m also thrilled that my personal rejuvenation has gone hand-in-hand with my professional one. I didn’t realize it was a cardinal rule of reinvention at the time, but I simply used my personal experience and needs to start a niche business. I not only made the brand, I was the brand.
And then, magic happened. As impossible as it would have seemed 17 years earlier, I met another wonderful man. I had loved Jim, but the man I warmly call Attila is my true romantic partner. Today, seven years later, we are still madly in love.
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Bottom line: You need to believe in yourself and trust in your ability to create your own reality. Here are the three golden rules I’ve learned along the way for jump-starting the second half of life.
1. Don’t treat your career as “business as usual.” You’ve paid your dues. Act 2 is born out of your own deep yearnings. Many midlifers become entrepreneurs to avoid battling the corporate job market, where “younger and cheaper is better” is the motto and ageism, sadly, is rampant. I think niche-oriented products that grow out of a personal passion will hook your interest most. I followed my gut, acting on the belief that what worked for me would work for millions of others. While it’s important to be practical, you also need to let your heart have a say in your decision-making process.
2. Throw out the old dating rules. Midlife romance can be like trying to do the tango without ever taking a lesson. Most of us have had no guidance or role models, so too often we treat Act 2 relationships as if things haven’t changed since we were young adults. Yet almost everything has. For starters, we’re no longer looking for the father of our future children. We know ourselves and our desires (and intolerances) so much better, plus we have reached a mature understanding that we don’t need a mate to feel whole or “legitimate.”
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While Attila is 14 years my junior, I am not a cougar. (Jim was a decade older than me.) I wasn’t seeking a younger man, but that’s what my energy pulled in. And it’s perfect for me since I have a young spirit. I am experiencing the wildest romance of my lifetime. I believe it finally happened because I worked so hard to keep my heart open to the possibility of love and not close myself off like many midlifers do.
The most important thing — no matter how doubtful, fearful or insecure you are — is to be truthful with yourself. So many of us of a certain age shut ourselves down and convince ourselves that we no longer want or need sex, fun, companionship or romance. We have to release limiting beliefs and decide anew what we do or don’t want then map out a path to get there. Don’t sit around waiting for love to find you; be proactive. Sign up for an Internet dating site or join a singles adventure travel club or whatever group appeals to you.
3. Get in shape for what’s next. You’ll need an infusion of energy and self-esteem to spark your reinvention. For me it started with losing as much of that extra weight as possible. As you know, diet or exercise alone aren’t enough. You need to make some shifts on both fronts simultaneously. The nice thing is this helps deepen your body-mind connection, which includes learning to listen, feel and react authentically.
When I was 60 pounds heavier, I was always exhausted and sluggish. I had disconnected my mind from my body and bought into the myth that this was just how you feel in middle age. Then I got back into working out and learned that joint-pounding exercises weren’t appropriate for me anymore. I did my research and found fusion workouts, a blend of gentle yoga with core- and weight-strengthening moves. These are great ways to build muscle, strength and flexibility, burn fat and increase your self-confidence and self-esteem.
My last piece of advice is the most important. Refocus your reality and reset — not lower — your expectations. When it comes to exercise, don’t aim for a rock-solid six-pack or Madonna’s arms. Don’t confuse a sense of success with a certain number in your bank account or gauge true love by how it looks. Relish everything you’ve learned and accomplished and use those talents to further your development. The more open you are to different possibilities, the more positive results you’ll achieve.