Style

How Nina Garcia Went From Serving Fashion Editors Drinks To Judging “Project Runway”

The famous fashion editor reveals how she went from toiling in closets to becoming the creative director of Marie Claire.

In BuzzFeed Fashion’s “How I Made It in Fashion” series, insiders reveal how they went from dreaming about fashion to working at the top of the industry. Nina Garcia, the creative director of Marie Claire, discusses her rise from making collages in her childhood bedroom to becoming one of the most famous American fashion personalities of her time.

There was only one track for me from the very beginning. I was obsessed with fashion when I was young. I thought fashion meant fashion design, and I thought I wanted to be a designer at some point. Later I realized I didn’t have the talent to be a designer, but there are so many other things you can do in the industry of fashion; that understanding came after school and after many internships and knowing the industry better.

I lived in South America when I was growing up. I spent hours sketching. I was good at drawing, and I was obsessed with fashion, but I was also obsessed with magazines. Vanidades — which translates to “vanities” — was one of the few magazines we got. I remember I would kind of cut things out — I would cut out the fashions and I would cut out the jewelry and the shoes and the bags and make collages out of what I liked. So in a way I was kind of putting together my mood boards. But it was not until later that I had that aha moment that I was like, I really want to be in magazines, and that came about from an internship.

That pivotal aha moment arrived when I was still in school. I was going to FIT and I was doing a lot of internships, and I got an internship at Perry Ellis — it was 1992-93, and it was Marc [Jacobs]’s grunge collection. I was the intern to the assistant to the assistant, and that was a hot internship. I was in the closet packing things up to send to magazines. They would let me out sometimes to greet the editors and ask them, “Do you want a drink?” It was that contact with the editors that made me feel like, wow, I can’t believe there is a job like this. The editor that made the biggest impression on me was Carlyne Cerf [De Dudzeele]. (I later ended up working with Carlyne while I was the fashion director at Elle.) I remember she came in for an appointment and I loved her energy, and I was just mesmerized by her. I was like, wow, there is a job where you get to appreciate all these designers and all this incredible talent and you can communicate it through fashion magazines.

After Perry Ellis, I got an assistant position at Mirabella when Jade Hobson was there, and that really started it all. It was a great place to work — there were a lot of characters, there were a lot of very talented editors there at the time, so it was a great learning experience.

I came in to assist one of the editors, and then I became a styling assistant. Later I moved to Elle. Again, I started as a fashion assistant and slowly moved into the market, then I became fashion editor in 2000.

I was so passionate about being in the magazine industry even when I first started at Mirabella. I didn’t really care if I was there until midnight, I didn’t care if I had to be in the closet unzipping garment bags — for me the wonder of being able to unzip a garment bag and have a Jean Paul Gaultier, a Dior gown come out, that to me was everything. It was pure joy. It didn’t really matter what I had to do, I just wanted to be there so badly. I wanted it so badly, it didn’t feel like a job. Yes, I was making coffee. Yes, I was making Xerox copies. Yes, I was working in the closet. Yes, I was working on the shoots until midnight. Yes, I was packing and unpacking trunks. But it didn’t matter, because all I wanted to do was breathe the same air as the editors. I would do anything to be at a show.

Mentors are important, absolutely. In this industry it’s important that you have somebody who gives you a chance. I had a mentor — Gilles [Bensimon] — who gave me a chance. Gilles believed in me and gave me a chance when he made me fashion director. It was like sink or swim. He didn’t hold my hand and walk me through it, but he gave me a chance.

I didn’t ask for the fashion director promotion — I frankly didn’t even dream of it — but I was working so hard that I was already doing that job, and he noticed that. He was like, “You know what? Would you want to be a fashion director?” And it was hard, because Gilles was not going to take you by the hand and say, “This is what you do.” It was either sink or swim, but he had to believe in me. And I think in this industry, even with the photographers and the designers, somebody’s got to give them that opportunity. Somebody’s got to believe in them.

You can find a mentor; you have to ask questions, you have to show interest in what the other person is doing. You have to have curiosity — I think that people appreciate that and will want to help you. I know when I see assistants or editors who show that curiosity and show me that they want it so much, naturally I’m going to want to help them. Of course, you have to get over being scared, and you have to ask for help. It’s a reflection of how much you want it. If you want it that much, you’re going to go and fight for it — you’re going to make that move and go talk to that person because you have to get noticed.

You really have to want it — it’s long hours, it’s hard work, it’s not as glamorous as it seems. Even in this position [as creative director of Marie Claire], it’s still not glamorous. I’m still here until late, I still unzip bags, I still look at boards — you’re still working really hard, so you have to have a real love of what you do in order to sustain it.

When Project Runway happened, I had already been a fashion director for five years at Elle. I knew a lot and I felt very confident about what I knew in the market. But the show was completely experimental — the network really didn’t promise you anything, and neither did the magazine. It was like, OK, go try it. It was scary. I thought I had worked so hard to get to that position I was in, and at one point I was like, this might be really bad for my career. But I took the chance, and that is exactly what I think made it so exciting; when you take a chance and it works out, then it just feels very good.

There was nothing like Project Runway at the time. I remember when those producers came in and said, we want to do a show on fashion. I was like, Who is going to be interested? And there have been so many people interested. It was the first of its kind, and I have to say, there’ve been many other shows: Fashion Star, The Fashion Show, Launch My Line, 24 Hour Catwalk. All these other shows have been trying to get there, and Project Runway is still the best show. Will it be there forever? I don’t know, but when you are involved in something that’s starting [a trend] like that, it’s very exciting.

As a fashion editor, I see so much and give so much feedback. I see young designers, I see very seasoned designers — I see it all, and I think that helped me with the show, because when I sit in that chair, I put on an editor hat and I really judge [the contestants] with their peers in the market. I really want to be very frank with them and be very upfront. I look at them like I look at any designer I would be covering for market, and I appreciate them or I try to give them feedback that might help them. I’m not going to mislead them — I’m going to be as frank as I can. I can’t sugarcoat it.

With the show, I had new opportunities. I wrote several books, I’ve done things I never thought I would do. It just opened up different opportunities, not only for me but for many other editors.

I think the show came at such a phenomenal time. It was like the perfect storm — Project Runway happened, Zara and H&M were starting, the internet was picking up. It was like an explosion. And now everybody’s role has changed — not only my role, but every editor’s role has evolved, and the industry has evolved.

People come up and ask me for fashion advice. Flight attendants ask me for fashion advice, I have young girls ask me for professional advice about how to make it in the industry. “I want to be an editor,” “I want to be in fashion” — I do get a lot of that.

My advice to people who want to get into fashion is this: Get into fashion, follow your dreams. If you really are very passionate about it, you’re going to find a way to do it. Meet and network with as many people as you can, make phone calls, knock on doors, don’t give up. Do the internships, be informed, learn as much as you can about what you’re passionate about. Look around you, because fashion is influenced by so many other things — art, movies, literature. Especially for people who want to be designers — be informed, soak it all in, go to museums, and again, be an intern, network, and don’t give up. You have to be very tenacious to make it in this industry.

I think there is great opportunity with what is happening now on the internet with fashion. There are no rules, everything’s changing so quickly. It wouldn’t be fair to tell somebody not to embrace that, because I don’t think that’s the right advice. Of course you have to embrace that — I want to embrace that. But I do think there’s a very big difference between what bloggers do and what editors do. There is very different training involved, there are very different points of view involved. I think bloggers take on a very personal view whereas an editor, through our training, we have more of a service point of view. I’m not sitting here saying, “This is what I think you should buy” or “This is what I wore today, so you should buy it.” I’m speaking to a very broad range of women and ages and backgrounds. I’m really trying to inform them and provide a service, and the bloggers come at it from a more personal point of view. I’ve done this for many, many years. You have to have a sense of history and evolution, and that’s what the editors bring to the table. I’m not saying one is better than the other — it’s very different. Would I say don’t make yourself a blogging sensation if you want to work in fashion? No, but I would say to the young students starting out, definitely look at what’s happening in technology: It’s going to affect you sooner or later. And if you have that skill set right now, you’re going to need it, and thinking that you’re not is not being prepared.

As told to Amy Odell.

Related: See Nina’s recent work in the latest issue of Marie Claire, featuring a photo spread and interview with cover girl Scarlett Johansson. And for more on Project Runway — including Tim Gunn’s tips for making it! — head to MarieClaire.com.

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