How Fashionista’s Leah Chernikoff Made It In Fashion

“I never was that fashion nerd growing up. Now I am, sure, but I didn’t start out that way.”

Francio De Holanda; Vogue Brazil

In this “How I Made It in Fashion” series, BuzzFeed Fashion asks the industry’s most successful members how they got to where they are. This week, Leah Chernikoff, editorial director at Fashionista.com, talks about adapting to the digital news world, sitting opposite Rihanna at her first fashion show, and why she’s “still a tabloid girl at heart.” (It’s not just because she guilt-reads the Daily Mail, because we all do that.)

I would say that I kind of fell into [the industry] — I didn’t grow up subscribing to Vogue or dreaming about working in fashion. I had no idea what I wanted to do! I was an English lit major in college, though; I went to Bowdoin, a small liberal arts school in Maine. It’s a great school but it doesn’t put you on a track unless you really know you’re going to go into, say, finance or medicine. People always ask if I majored in journalism and at Bowdoin that’s not even an option. But I liked writing; I always knew that.

After college I went into nonprofit education. I had done this internship I liked and I got offered a position in New York, so I went for it. But three years into my job there I was still an assistant, and I wasn’t doing a lot of work that I felt really engaged in. [So, at first] I decided that I’d study for the LSAT because, you know, going to law school felt the responsible thing to do. My mom is a labor lawyer and she was like, “Yep, that’s an idea that will work.”

I was spending a lot of time reading the internet during the day, though — this was 2004, when sites like Gawker were at its prime for me — and I would listen to NPR all the time too. [A lot of the stories I liked] were produced by this company called StoryCorps that I thought sounded really cool. I was hating my LSAT studies, and I was dating a guy at Columbia Law School at the time and he was miserable there too and I remember he just said, “If you feel like you want to switch gears and do anything new, just try it.” So I looked into StoryCorps, and it turned almost all of their employees had [studied at] the Salt Institute, which runs a documentary program in Portland, Maine. It’s a semester-long course where you focus on radio, photography, or non-fiction writing — you just pick a story and take an anthropological approach to it. I got a scholarship for the program and I really liked it. I interned at Portland Monthly magazine at the same time. It’s an interesting publication, you know, but I got some clips. That’s the most important thing.

So I got back to New York after finishing my semester at Salt and [friends of mine] had some friends who worked in journalism. They knew some people at the New York Daily News, and one was a gossip reporter who had been headhunted to be the executive editor at this new Bauer Media tabloid glossy called Cocktail. It was supposed to be like Cosmo, but maybe trashier. They hired me too — I moved back to New York and got a job in journalism right away, which was awesome… but then the magazine folded two weeks after I started. Before it even officially launched. It was a disaster. I got a daytime job that didn’t require me to focus that much — and I just pitched, hustled, and tried to connect with anyone I could.

I felt I had good contacts at the Daily News so I just kept sending them ideas until something stuck. When a piece finally did, the process went well and from that I got more and more assignments. Eventually they brought me in to work full time as a freelancer, and then I got hired as an editorial assistant in the features department. In under a year I was promoted to features reporter and I stayed there for another three years total.

But [by that point] there were a lot of rounds of layoffs happening at the News and I had a really tough boss. I encourage people to Google Orla Healy and you’ll see what I mean. I learned a lot from her; she really did make me a fantastic reporter — but she was also really tough. I was covering fashion as part of my features beat, and it was probably one of my favourite things to write about. So I saw that Britt Aboutaleb had left Fashionista – which was one of the sites I read for fashion ideas — and I applied for the job going. I interviewed a bunch of times but hadn’t heard back; so I figured I was one of the finalists and just put in for a buyout from the News. I got the job at Fashionista just hours afterward. It just worked out.

It was scary, you know, but it was a combination of things getting really tough at the paper and me realizing I needed to survive in digital media. When Twitter started up, for example, I was like, “Ugh I really don’t want to have to do this.” But then you stop and look at it and realize that, actually, it’s going to be incredibly helpful; I felt I couldn’t ignore this side of the industry. I would get most of my features ideas for the paper from little local blogs in New York. It was all about little stories I could connect the dots with. Obviously these start-ups were doing really good work. I figured, “Why not?!” I had come to a place where I felt like I could figure this online stuff out. It was a blessing, and what I’ve learned here at Fashionista about how to be part of an online media outlet has been really invaluable.

My first real day at the Daily News was actually also the first day of New York Fashion Week. They didn’t know what to do with me because I hadn’t been trained, so my bosses were like, “Oh we’re just going to send you to shows.” I showed up to BCBG Max Azria at the tents — this is back when shows were at Bryant Park — and that show always had the two rows of seats back to back in the center of the runway. Of course the Daily News is a big outlet so that’s where my editor was seated, or where I was seated with her ticket. I found myself front row at a major fashion row sitting across from Rihanna and all these massive stars and I’m just thinking to myself, “What am I doing? I am not supposed to be here.” It was really cool, though I’m sure I was wearing something embarrassing.

I was definitely dazzled by it all – sadly that’s faded a little bit. [Fashion week] is one of those things where, once you’ve been through it enough times, it loses its luster. Some things are always exciting though, like, you know, a Marc Jacobs show. Also I get to go to Paris Fashion Week now with Fashionista. There I always get the feeling like, you know, “Does someone know I’m here?!” But the shows in New York have gotten to be a real circus — something like 350 total in eight days, and at Fashionista we try to cover all of them. It’s a lot more to juggle and of course now there’s street style to deal with too.

I don’t know how we do it. Every time the schedule rolls around it’s like, “Here we go again.” We pull in a lot of good freelancers and make sure to have a battle plan lined-up: someone to deal with incoming copy and someone to deal with image galleries. There are five of us here full time, and we don’t have a photo department or a tech department or a copy editor; it’s just us doing all that. We just try to divide and conquer, but every season it freaks me out.

It’s gotten a lot better every season in terms of access [to fashion shows] but we really have to work hard on that — to make sure people know who we are at Fashionista and that we’re reputable. I think Paris is the slowest to get that. Some brands there understand our position, but some fashion houses don’t care. Fashion likes print, so you still come up against some [anti-digital] sentiments. I think, though, that at some point soon we’ll reach a point where the digital news industry is seen as being on par with print. At Fashionista we’re digital only and I think that works in our favor. You know, there are still some print publications whose websites clearly only get, say, secondary attention, and their web content is treated without much care or attention. “Oh, we can just dump this online,” you know, that sort of attitude.

Chernikoff in a Vogue Italia webvertorial.

I think my training at the Daily News helped me a lot. I’m a tabloid girl at heart — I know the power of a good headline and I think I have a good sense of news — what people want to hear about, what’s going to stick with them. And I’ve learned how we have to maintain a good balance of stories – if you’re going to just read Fashionista to get your news, which would be great, we have to make sure to cover everything. It probably sounds crazy to people outside of the industry that you can fill a site with fashion news every day, but it’s actually pretty easy. There’s so much floating around on the web, and since I’ve been at Fashionista it’s been something that we emphasize more and more — you reach out to confirm everything. Sometimes it’s a judgement call, and you worry if you wait for a comment or a confirmation that you’ll lose the scoop, but you have to trust that you have enough really good sources.

We were the first place to report that Lady Gaga’s perfume was supposed to smell like blood and semen. It turned out, would you believe it, to be true — or at least that was the intention behind it. So that was huge for us. I like to make sure that if you’re a hardcore fashionista or if just have a passing interest — maybe you’re more into the pop culture side of things — that you’ll find something on the site every day. I hope it’s accessible, because I never was that fashion nerd growing up. Now I am. I like to think I have become someone who knows a lot about the fashion industry, but I didn’t start that way. Hopefully even my mom could read Fashionista and find something that interests her.

I hope we keep expanding [at Fashionista] — I can’t speak to what our CEO has in mind obviously but I feel there’s definitely pressure to get bigger. And I think we do that by continuing to keep a balance between hitting the big stories and finding more original content. That mix is so important — we want people to come here to get something they can’t get anywhere else. We have to be offering something that no one else is. We’re making a push to focus on the careers aspect of the industry. We’ve always had a section for jobs, which sat on the site sort of hidden for a while, but we realized a lot of big companies list with us. I think a lot of our readers are in the industry or want to be in the industry and there’s always that interest in how other people worked it out. There’s so many career options, and we want to show off the breadth.

Someone I really admire is [Cosmopolitan editor] Joanna Coles. I respect she came from a tabloid background, especially as a woman. You know, [in a tabloid newsroom] there are often a lot of men yelling at you and if you can tough it through that then I think it really says something about you. I remember this one story that became national news for a day or so: Marie Claire’s website, back when she was still editor of Marie Claire, had published this piece that was basically this chick writing about how she was disgusted by [the CBS sitcom] Mike & Molly. I was at an event and Joanna Coles was there too, so I stopped her to ask her about it. I think she was caught off guard, but on the other hand she seemed to respect me for having the gumption to approach her. I had the only quote that she gave out on record about that incident. The Associated Press and everyone else had to pick up my story, which I felt great about. And you do come up against people who think that fashion is frivolous and fluffy and dumb — so the fact that there are a lot of really smart women [like Coles] working in the industry means a lot to me.

I would just say, if you’re getting started in the business, to hustle and to be humble at the same time. Be willing to work hard, to always do your research, and don’t ever show up to a place or pitch a piece without knowing why you’re doing it or why it’s interesting. You have to be aggressive – I get so many emails a day that if someone is pitching me they might have to do it a few times before I realize it’s in my inbox. But stay grounded. It’s great to be ambitious but you have to remember that you don’t know as much as the person you’re trying to work for and that’s why you’re trying to work for them. It’s important to keep that in mind.

I’m a crazy person who watches their RSS feed late at night because I know Womens Wear Daily headlines show up around midnight. As much as I would like to break more stories, when you’re up against WWD, I mean, that’s the trade paper so anything big is going to happen there. First thing in the morning I’ll look at British news sources, obviously, because their news cycle is in full swing. I’ll check the tabloids — The New York Post and the Daily News and, yes, the Daily Mail — and then for fashion news I’ll jump to the Fashion Spot and LiveJournal communities, where [the posters] are just on it more than I ever will be.

So I clearly haven’t figured out how to switch off. I feel like I just have to go on vacation where I don’t have internet access. I went to Nicaragua on vacation last year and it was the best thing I could have done because I literally couldn’t get online even if I tried. It was the only way. I feel like that’s the new travel story, if it hasn’t been written already — the best places to go where you’re absolutely cut off. I mean, you need some means of being contacted in an emergency I suppose but, you know, not hear any fashion news.

—As told to Alex Rees.

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