BuzzFeed Fashion’s “How I Made It in Fashion” series takes an in-depth look at the careers of fashion’s most successful players. In this latest dispatch, InStyle editor-in-chief Ariel Foxman discusses the (not so) exciting world of soy sauce book publishing, shadowing Cher, and one word InStyle is always happy to embody.
Spoiler: it’s the word POWERFUL.
From a fashion standpoint I would say I was always very interested in clothing. But I wouldn’t say I understood it. I grew up in New Jersey, a very suburban upbringing and I was first and foremost interested in celebrity magazines. [My school] held a Scholastic book sale a couple of times a year and as a child I would save my pennies, nickels and dimes and bring them in —you were supposed to buy books but there was always an option buying something called Dynamite magazine. It had a poster inside; it was my entry-level drug to the culture of super 70s glossy magazines. Of course by the time the magazine arrived the stars weren’t even famous anymore but I didn’t even care. I loved it.
I always used to run to the mailbox on a Saturday, which is when we could get People magazine, and I just loved the images. I could understand on some level, a very unsophisticated level, that I was looking at something highly produced — these photos weren’t just snapshots. They were definitely put together by a team of creative people who had a particular vision in mind. That process was very appealing to me.
When I moved into my college years I was very sure that I wanted to be in magazines. But I was conflicted though by this pressure I felt — “is the magazine industry going to feel legitimate enough for my parents?” In general, I would say I questioned whether magazines, which [at the time] were disposable and somewhat frivolous, were a serious enough business for somebody who was going to receive a college education at Harvard. [There] I studied English and American literature and I just remembered thinking, “how am I going to reconcile this with wanting to move to New York and work at a glossy magazine?”
One summer [during college] I interned at SPIN magazine — this was during the ’90s, the height of grunge. SPIN was a very exciting place to work, and it’s where I got hooked on the idea of magazines as both a reflection and arbiter its audience’s fashion and style. It’s telling the readers, “this is what you should be thinking next” but it’s also learning from the audience — what they think is relevant and what they’re excited about. I found that sort of ‘crossroad threshold’ so fascinating.
When I moved to New York [after college] I took a job in book publishing. I thought it would be easier to get a job in books that it would be in magazines, and that my parents would be happy — they’d think [my education] was money and time well spent. I started working at an imprint at Random House, on a whole bunch of non-fiction categories. It was fun… but it was very slow. I was working on a book on the miracle of soy. Soy! It was before people knew about what was then being reported as soy’s health benefits — this was the book that was going to break that open. I just remember thinking “oh dear.” “How am I going to make this exciting for me?”
I wore lavender Hush Puppies to the office, because Hush Puppies were so big then. Someone stopped in the corridor once and said “oh, you and your fashion.” So, you know, I though, “ugh, this is too square for me and I don’t even like soy. I have to get out of here.” Now Random House had just poached Karen Rinaldi, an editor from Details magazine, to bring on interesting new writers for the imprint. I latched myself on to her and asked her what I should do. She said, “honestly, you need to get out of here as soon as possible. You’ll die here.” She happened to know that Joe Dolce, the editor of Details, was looking for an assistant and suggested I apply. So I did. And I got an interview. I lived on Seventeenth Street and Seventh Avenue — right across from Barneys. I thought, “I can’t buy a full Prada suit or a tie [for the interview] because he’ll notice straight off,” but I could just afford the Prada belt with the buckle that was like a seatbelt, which was also a big thing at the time. I went in for the interview, we chatted, he hired me. Years later he mentioned to me in a conversation that he hired me because I was wearing a Prada belt and it was like, wow, it worked! And I tell that to people who interview for my assistant. I tell them that story like “I hope you didn’t worry about what you’re wearing because I once went out and bought a designer belt I couldn’t afford.”
My first day at Details was their music issue party. Joe Dolce, my boss, turned to me and said he needed me and another assistant to shadow Cher or Shirley Manson. I could pick one [for myself]. I was terrified, but I went with Shirley Manson. And later in the evening I happened to be in the bathroom with Joe and I said, “this is the best day of my life.” I was this little kid, and I remember that Christmas Joe got me a blue Prada button-down and the matching blue tie. I remember thinking, “what kind of industry am I in where my boss gets me a Prada shirt as a gift?!” It was like a dream, and it wasn’t necessarily about the materialism of it all so much but just about the appreciation of me, and of fine things. Now my parents have always been supportive of my career, but [at that point] if they had said, like, “where is this going?” I would just replied, “give me a few years, OK?” Don’t pull the rug out just yet.
What my parents liked was that at Details I had an opportunity to report and write. For them, it legitimizes the experience. Even today, you know, I’ve been the editor of InStyle for five years now and they understand that but if I write something — recently I did these fashion essays for the Huffington Post and they saw my byline during Fashion Week and they were like “ooh, you didn’t tell us about this!” It was so exciting for them to see my name online, it’s very sweet. It’s like if their child were Alfred Hitchcock and they were only excited if they saw his cameo appearance — the equivalent of that, not that I would consider myself the Hitchcock of magazines of course.
Sitting on a desk outside an editor-in-chief’s office you learn all about relationships with designers, photographers, and clients — and you see the big picture come together. I didn’t really like any one thing more than the other, I just loved that there was this one person who had to keep everyone happy but also make sure their vision [for the magazine] was moving forward. I thought that was amazing — I still do. And it was in that time that I really grew to understood why fashion is so exciting, such an incredibly important industry, and how it influences so much in music and art and urban culture. I really just got hooked. I was at Details for two and a half years. Joe, my boss, had left and here was an influx of new editors. One who came in said to me point-blank that he wanted a female assistant. You know, my name is Ariel and I was told he thought I was a woman — then he met me and said, “oh, you’re not what I expected.” Theoretically, that’s problematic. Period. But I took it in my stride. A lot of people could have gotten up in arms but ultimately, a person should have the people they want working with them and I felt in and of itself that was fair. And it was time to move on. I went to the New Yorker, and worked as an assistant there for an editor named Susan Morrison.
David Remnick had also been a writer under Susan, so when he became the New Yorker’s editor I already had a relationship with him. I saw at the magazine that there were many people whose end goal was just to work there — because it’s so prestigious and it’s such an amazing group of people. You would see assistants in their 30s or 40s who, understandably, were just happy to be there. One day, and now he’s my boss, he said to me “Ariel, please, do me a favor. Don’t stay here and be an assistant forever. Go somewhere else and learn other magazine’s editorial skills. Be something somewhere else. You can always come back.” It just so happened a woman I went to school with worked at InStyle. She told me that the magazine was exploding, that they couldn’t complete editorial pages fast enough. There was a lot of opportunity — the magazine [had experienced] a meteoric rise, it was huge and it had really changed the culture of celebrity fashion. The people there were brilliant and the product was brilliant. The audience was fanatical and engaged. There was a great balance between sophistication and commerciality. I applied and got a job — I first worked here for five and a half years. And it was true, because it was growing so fast I was assistant editor, associate editor, senior associate editor, senior editor. But after five years there I will say I started thinking about what’s next. But when I applied for other jobs, people would say to me, “you know, you seem great, InStyle seems great but you don’t have any features editing experience.” I thought, “this is it, no-one’s going to hire me because we don’t run features longer than 800 words — I am going to be working at InStyle forever and not by choice.” It was weird, people just weren’t understanding how much work went into our stories.
One day I was reading the newspaper — if you recall those things called newspapers — on the subway, which I still take, and I saw an article where the chairman of Condé Nast, Steve Florio, had been interviewed and said that Lucky magazine was doing so well that Condé was going to launch a men’s version. I thought to myself, “now that is a magazine I want to read.” So I called up contacts and asked. I sent [Condé Nast editorial director] James Truman, a letter; an old fashioned letter with my resume in an envelope neatly folded in thirds. I was very persistent. Eventually, I called up a senior human resources contact; I went to see her and she said “Ariel, please, you went to Harvard, you’ve been at the New Yorker, you’re not going to work at this shopping magazine.” But she wasn’t besmirching Lucky. She said I had this great job and a great resume — it reminded me of when non-Jews try to convert and you go for conversion and they reject you three times to make sure you really want it and then they’ll accept you. She was like “honey, you really want to work at a magalog?” And I just said yes, yes, yes —not only because I didn’t know if I wanted to stay at InStyle forever, not only because no one else would hire me, but because it really this seemed like an exciting project.
So I got a call to to submit a proposal for the proposed magazine. I called in sick one day at InStyle, and worked on it for this whole long weekend. I would give it a B-. At the time I thought it was an A+ but in retrospect it was a solid a B-. I had an interview with James Truman and I said just said, “please think of me when you think of this team, I’m happy to work on it in any capacity.” The following week, I got a call saying Mr. Newhouse wants to meet with you. Si Newhouse! He has three proposals from three candidates and [mine] was one of them. I was told that none of the proposals really bowled him over. Everything was very muted, but Mr. Newhouse is such a legend and I had never met him. I was so excited. Instead of playing one lottery ticket, now I was playing ten — the chances were still so slim, I couldn’t get hired at other magazines and now I’m in the running for this position all of a sudden. It seemed so ridiculous. But it was just a very straightforward conversation. We never spoke about the proposal or what the magazine could be. We talked about magazines I liked in the company and about magazines he liked outside. I had no read on it. And a couple of days later James Truman called me at InStyle and said if you’d like the job as editor of this magazine — which we called Cargo — it’s yours.
What an amazing introduction to the world of fashion. I’m not suggesting that men’s fashion editors don’t work hard but if you have to do the women’s [show] calendar at all, to experience the men’s shows first is the way to do it — it’s like training wheels. I did that for seven or eight seasons, and so much of the structure, so many of the people and the PR teams and, of course, many of the designers pop up in the womenswear world too, so it was a really great introduction. And I was a consumer of the product. I wasn’t all of a sudden sitting at shows as a fashion editor and having no relation to the clothing, or no relation to the customer. I knew how this was working practically and directionally, because I got the context. But, I will say, I didn’t go to Parsons, I don’t have a fashion history background so I had to do a lot of self-learning. I’ve now developed my own expertise but I didn’t walk on to the stage and pretend to be the authority that I wasn’t. A lot of my education has developed on the job.
When the magazine closed it was heartbreaking. We were outperforming our goals for the readership, but the ad pie was shrinking and the offerings in competition [with us] were expanding — digital had started happening. I thought to myself, “am I the Tatum O’Neal of publishing?” Not the later, um, issues but, you know, “did I peak too soon? Was Cargo my Paper Moon?” I had become an editor-in-chief at 29 before the [onset of] social media, before I had a following, before there was even such a thing as a following. I created this magazine and then it closed and there was no way to re-engage with people. So it was a very scary time because I wanted so badly to remain creating and translating fashion for a dedicated audience. That’s what gets me up in the morning. Every morning now I’m handed a big red folder of last night’s mail that’s printed out for me. It’s the best thing in the world — letters and people sending in “inspired by InStyle” pictures. That is what I love. When Cargo closed I just felt so unplugged from all that.
I took some time off but I could not relax for a second. It did not even feel like time off. All I know is when I was working I had this fantasy like that if I wasn’t working I would cook all my meals and work out and read all these books… I now know it would never happen. I was just checking my email all the time waiting for something to happen. Fortunately, Martha Nelson, who had become a mentor [to me], hired me back at InStyle as editor-at-large, a position they don’t have any more but I was very fortunate. The idea was for me to just be there at the company, because there were 21 titles and so when an extra pair of hands was needed, that would be me. InStyle was also about to embark on a design refresh, this is 2007-2008 and since I obviously new the brand so well I was asked to work on that. When that came out the InStyle brand really exploded — books, TV, multimedia projects and an international presence. The then-editor Charla Lawhon became the grand editorial director and I was made editor-in-chief of the print magazines. I’ve been here ever since.
The fashion industry has always embraced me and I feel very comfortable [as a part of it]; at InStyle we’re a very vital part of the business, but I think of myself as a content creator. Fashion is just the area where I feel most comfortable — I speak the language, I understand the vocabulary whether it’s visual or verbal. It’s what I love.
InStyle fills a very specific role in the fashion community – we are a brand that celebrates fashion, and illuminates it —literally, we shine a light on the clothing you can’t see in other magazines. We make it exciting and we make it possible for you to take that excitement and act on it. Nobody does that better than us. I speak with the designers and CEO of every fashion house and the word that comes out of everyone’s mouth [to describe InStyle] is “powerful.” And it’s not a power borne out of intimidation, of elitism or of exclusion. Now those are all things that I think are part of the mystique of fashion and we can all leverage them when necessary. But our power comes from equal parts inspiration and information. In the fashion industry in 2013 if you can’t sell a dream, and sell period, then you’re in trouble. And that is why, when someone asks “how did you make it in fashion?” I say that’s my role I’m an arbiter in fashion only when it comes to helping somebody make it clear and exciting and part of their own individual dream. You can’t conduct an opera without an audience.
We always shoot celebrities, not models. And when I came on board I wanted to make sure the magazine was as beautiful as our subjects — if not more so. I love being able to work with the creative team here and the best photographers and the best stylists. We have really moved the needle. It keeps me engaged and excited. And when I go to shows and we sit and think well how are we going to translate this visually. That’s exciting — we sell so many ads and so many copies but we’re always thinking about what to do next. I just hired Eric Wilson from The New York Times; everyone’s saying, like “what a coup, that’s so fantastic,” but still saying in the same breath, “not that InStyle needed the help.” The thing to me is that there’s always something else you can do and Eric will bring a new type of voice [to the magazine] when it comes to helping people understand why fashion is so relevant. We’re #1 and we owe it to our audience — I never want InStyle’s readers to be one step ahead of us in their knowledge of what we’re covering. Why would they keep coming back to us then?
I always tell people who ask that they have to be truly, truly obsessive about their industry, whatever it is. And the other thing I would suggest is if you really love something, you should be on Twitter. You should be very focused on retweeting links about and commenting about that very narrow field and interacting with the people you really respect. It’s a complete democratizer. You can talk to anyone. I have met a lot of people on Twitter — funnily enough, [Paper editorial director] Mickey Boardman, who is one of my best friends now for life, is a person who I met on Twitter. I had met him years ago at the CFDA awards but we became friends properly thanks to Twitter. He’s so funny and we now hang out all the time.
Don’t think if you follow a blog and you can pull off a tricky look and stand outside shows at fashion week that you’re obsessive. You’re just self-involved. Posting pictures of yourself is a nice hobby and you can have a scrapbook but the people who have made money off of that have made money already. And so I think if you really, really want to be a part of the fashion community you have to be educated, you have to understand the history. If you don’t, you won’t know to be in the right place or ask the right questions.
—As told to Alex Rees.