BuzzFeed Fashion’s “How I Made It in Fashion” series takes a look at the rise of the industry’s most successful personalities. Here, VFiles founder Julie Anne Quay talks about working in the thick of the supermodel hey day of the ’90s with Steven Meisel, and fashion’s digital future.
When I talk about fashion, I’m not talking about a random street picture. I’m talking about Meisel, Testino, Sims, Naomi, Christy, Amber, Freja, Pat McGrath — that community of people that really is the fashion community. We talk to each other in pictures. Like, oh my God, I want to do this story, and it’s going to be kind of grungy, kind of Marc Jacobs, but white and mixed with fur. I used to collect magazines — I was paper-hoarding — covers and all that. There’s a whole crowd of people obsessed with fashion and they were collecting paper, but they want to see it on their computer. So the idea of VFiles is to have all this stuff in one place and be able to share it. It’s a place where you could pull those kinds of references.
I was the executive editor of V for five years, and when I had the idea for VFiles [which stands for “Virtual Files”] I went back to V and said, “hey guys I’m going to do this, do you want to be a launch partner, and will you give me content?” We wanted to start the fashion conversation at the right level. So we started by archiving V, Visionnaire, V Man. Street style and personal style blogs are important and have a voice, but I think it’s way more important to see what is really being done in fashion. Fashion is words and ideas and inventions and colors and sometimes black-and-white and sometimes sepia. You need these Meisels and the Inez and Vinoodhs and people that put it all together.
I’m from a print background, so I have respect for print. We didn’t do jpegs and PDFs of pages for VFiles — we actually photographed the pages of every magazine, so you can see the spine, you can see the folds in the pages. And we tagged every image in every single page. It was so much work. Archiving the first batch of magazines took us a month or so. And while we were doing that, we were like, what do we do when we’re waiting?
So we thought let’s make some videos, which is what was missing in fashion and fashion programming. Until pretty recently there had been a West Coast land grab on TV, and so people on the West Coast were saying there’s a $1.6 trillion dollar fashion industry, let’s be part of it. But do you go to L.A. Fashion Week? No — it’s not fashion, it’s not where we go and what we consider fashion to be. So we wanted to put our voice on fashion programming and we started making videos. To be a fly on the wall in a casting is hilarious, so we said let’s do a go-see and film it for VFiles. It’s really funny.
While we were doing all that we were still archiving the images and building the site, getting the tech ready. We realized our office is on Mercer St. in Soho and we had a storefront, so we said we should have a store! And we got some blue tape and we taped out a section on the floor, I hired Zachary Ching from Opening Ceremony and we said, “Can you make that into a store?” We started collaborating with brands that might not be sold in America anymore. Or labels like The Blonds who don’t have a store, they only make concert clothes for Kylie Minogue, Rihanna, etc.
Growing up in Australia, every Friday I would go to the mall with my dad, and I could just clock all the new deliveries. So I would go to the department stores and I could remember which rack had which clothes on them, and I didn’t even know I was doing it.
In college I started working at Esprit in Australia. Esprit used to have this “real people” campaign, so I was in that which was my first real fashion job. I learned everything about retail and branding from them. That was a long time ago and they were really big.
Then I worked at Australian Vogue. You weren’t allowed to work there unless you could type a set number of words. I did tons of stuff there — I was a fashion editor, I did every shit job you can imagine. I know how to tape boxes, I can pack so many shoes in a suitcase you would not believe they would come out, I organized things in chronological order, in alphabetical order, by fabric order — all of that.
I met photographer Kurt Markus and he was shooting Banana Republic and Gap and Perry Ellis and all those big brands. He invited me to America to work with his family for a little bit, so I did that which was great. I ended up coming back to New York — I got married and my husband was doing an MBA.
I was pregnant and covering shows for Australian Vogue when I met Steven Meisel’s assistant. I went to meet Meisel a week after having a baby. I ended up becoming Steven’s studio manager. I managed Steven for six or seven years in New York. And those were the years of Linda, Christy, Naomi. Those were the years of grunge, Madonna, Versace. To me, that was the hey day of fantastic fashion.
I remember my first meeting with Steven. Of course, I had just come from Australia and I just had a baby, and Steven Meisel is God, right? I remember I was wearing black loafers — this is 1993 — black skinny pants, black sweater, black trench. I thought, I can’t go wrong if I just wear that. I remember going in and we sat at this long white table and he sat at the end of the table and I sat at the foot of the table, and there was a lot of table in between us. And he was quiet — he’s a quiet, sensitive person. And being the Aussie, I just talked the whole time. He didn’t really speak that much. I spoke probably nonstop for 20 minutes and I got up and thought, that went really badly. And I remember leaving and Jim Moffat, his agent, met me in the elevator and said, “When do you want to start? We like you.” At that point it was sink or swim.
And I remember the first day Steven asked me to get Linda on the phone. I go, “Linda?” And he goes, “Linda.” And I’m like, “Linda Evangelista?” And he’s like, “Yes.” So it was definitely me being thrown into the absolute center of fashion. But all fashion roads led back to him. They still do and they always will and seriously no one compares — he is the most talented, the most thoughtful, the most intuitive. He’s so talented — Steven’s drawings are amazing! — and it’s because he just he watches and he thinks. In this digital age, people don’t spend enough time looking and absorbing.
We did some crazy jobs. The best ever with him was when we were shooting an American Vogue cover down by the Brooklyn bridge, and the girls were leaning on a rail, and Steven looks at me and says, “Julie Anne, we really don’t like that rail, it has to go.” And I was like, we can’t move that, it’s city property. But I found a guy with a tractor to lift the rail, and we shot Amber and Shalom against the river.
He’s really, really disciplined, Steven. When I was working there, we’d start at 9 and we’d finish at the end of the shoot, which was 6 or 7. Steven is not one of those guys where you get to the shoot and you sit around all day and it gets to be 9 and you haven’t done anything. Steven is really professional. I think that also speaks to the longevity of his career — he works and he stops. It’s interval training.
With Steven we were shooting the cover of Italian Vogue every month, the cover of American Vogue every single month, so that meant you always wanted to see the newest faces. When a girl lands in New York City, I’d tell model agents we have to see her first. This was a fantastic time — the model agents are so amazing, they live for their girls, and they’d say, “I have this great girl she ‘s just come in from Oklahoma,” and she’d come right to our studio. The girls would sit down and talk, and before you know it they’d say, “I just dropped out of high school,” or, “My mom’s calling,” or, “I just got kicked out of my apartment,” or something like that.
It was so much fun meeting all these kids, looking at those faces. You’re looking at a face and a body for a purpose — a model is a living illustration and a living 3D version come to life of how you think something is going to be for a shoot or an image you want to take.
Linda Evangelista is the greatest model. What makes her a great model is that she can do millions of looks and look different in every one but still the same. And that doesn’t make any sense but it does. There’s Linda from the “Freedom” video with George Michael, then there’s crazy Linda in an Anna Sui show, and then there’s elegant Linda where she did a Gucci campaign with Yasmin. You could be on set with Linda and she’d be like, “Why don’t you try the light a little bit further forward?” With Linda it was a two-way street. A great model realizes her body and who she is is part of the creative process. That’s why she was so amazing and still is.
Karlie Kloss is pretty great now. And it’s interesting — to be like Linda was in the 90s, if she was to be really successful and doing that all again now, Linda’s got to have 600,000 Twitter followers. A model now has to be successful in social media. A pretty face is not enough to sell a magazine — you need a good Facebook page. That’s the difference between now and then.
But Naomi — if clothes could speak they would want Naomi to wear them. I love her. I love her. She’s just the best. I don’t know if she still does it, but she always had hot sauce in her bag. We’d be having lunch and she’s literally shaking half a bottle of hot sauce all over her food. She was always fun and always really, really professional. And she cared about the images. This is another difference between a great model and an average model — she cares about what the pictures look like.
Naomi Campbell on Brazilian Vogue? That is the sickest story I’ve seen — it’s all her clothes styled by Carlyne [Cerf De Dudzeele]. It’s the greatest story. Talk about people like Carlyne — she’s timeless. She’s been doing it for so long. She just sent me an email and her signature is something like, “Sent by iCarlyne Five.” So funny.
I had two kids when I was working with Steven, and so then I went to work part-time, so I started doing casting. I did two Marc Jacobs shows — Marc Jacobs and Vuitton which was pretty great. One night we were there until 1 in the morning. It was crazy but it doesn’t have to be like that. Marc would do that and then have the show and everyone’s off for three days, so even though that was a crazy night there was downtime.
And I started doing special projects with Richard Avedon, which really is a whole new world. If you take Meisel’s world and you take what he was doing years and years ago it was fascinating — such a different thing. When Dick was working everyone sat down and had lunch — every single person in the group. The prop stylist, everyone, we’d all sit down and all talk. It was very sophisticated and very genteel. We did campaigns for the Gap and a whole lot of stuff for the New Yorker. We shot the New York Post gossip columnist Liz Smith in a trash can. She’s all of 65 in this beautiful Chanel suit and on her own she just climbs into the bin and 30 seconds later he’s like, “We got it and we’re done.”
After that I did a couple of things with Estee Lauder, finiding hew faces for them, and I did the Vh1 Fashion Awards with Candy Pratts Price and Vogue. And I worked at Japanese Vogue, which was fascinating. Everyone in Japan doesn’t want to see Japanese, they only wanted to see Western stuff. We only wanted to shoot white kabuki makeup and they wanted to girls on farms and girls in the big cities.
I saw [V editor] Steven Gan one time when I was in the airport in Tokyo and he said, “why don’t we talk about V?” I stayed at V until 2008, 2009, and was the executive editor there. VFiles registered its name in 2011, and we launched in 2012. We have over 100,000 fashion media items and they are all good ones.
Everything in fashion has always been, be humble, put your head down, work hard, and great things happen.
—As told to Amy Odell