Sure, some of these perks still exist today. But as the magazine industry has entered the leaner, faster-paced internet era, a diverse and dynamic class of millennial women has risen to the top of fashion media — and armed with a native understanding the 21st century’s always-online reader, they’re changing what it means to be editor in chief of a fashion magazine. In January, The Washington Post spoke to five of them in a roundtable conversation: Sarah Ball, 38, of WSJ. Magazine; Willa Bennett, 29, of Highsnobiety; Sally Holmes, 37, of InStyle; Nikki Ogunnaike, 38, of Marie Claire; and Lindsay Peoples, 33, of the Cut.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Q: In classic millennial fashion, everyone at this table has had several different jobs. Who here has worked together, or crossed paths professionally?
Lindsay Peoples: [laughing, while all of the women begin to point at one another] This feels like that Spider-Man meme.
Nikki Ogunnaike: Sally and I worked together at Elle, and then Sally was the editor in chief of Marie Claire before I was. Willa and I worked at GQ together, and, tangentially, Sarah was at GQ before that.
Sally Holmes: I worked at the Cut, but before Lindsay worked at the Cut.
Willa Bennett: And I wrote for Teen Vogue when [Lindsay] was running it.
Q: What do you think has changed in fashion journalism now that more and more publications are under millennial leadership?
Ogunnaike: This table is the example of what has changed. Everywhere else I’ve worked has either been run by a White man or a White woman. Marie Claire has been around for 30 years in the U.S., with just one other woman of color at the helm before myself. Fundamentally, fashion journalism has changed because of who’s at the helm influencing who else gets to come in and be at the table.
Peoples: When I think about the magazines I grew up loving — I was a huge Lucky person, I loved Glamour with Cindi [Leive, the former editor in chief] — they felt like they had such a conversation with readers. Then there was a point in time where it felt like magazines were just stuck in being aspirational, telling people what was cool, telling people what to wear. The voice just sounded to me like it was on a pedestal.
A lot of the publications that people identify with now are more communal. It sounds like your friends. We talk about at the Cut: We want to be the thing you share in your group chats, because we want to be that community. We’re not trying to preach or be judgmental; we just want to have a conversation.
Bennett: When I used to look at [people working in] fashion, I was like, there is no path to get there, at all. Now it’s way more attainable: You follow us on Instagram, you see us on TikTok, you see us behind the scenes. Editors, when I was growing up, I wouldn’t even dream to know anything about their life. So I feel like it’s our responsibility to keep making sure young people are getting through the door and that we’re elevating their voices.
Ogunnaike: The path thing is really important. There’s that idea that governed fashion media before: that there were checkpoints you had to hit along the way. “You have to work in this closet, and you have to work for this creative director, and you have to work for this stylist.” You have to have been, frankly, verbally abused, possibly physically abused.
Ball: There was this “I paid my dues, so you have to pay yours” [idea] that has historically informed a lot of fashion media, and we’ve all had circuitous and totally different paths to our roles. Certainly I don’t come from a super-traditional fashion background. I had never worked for a fashion magazine before GQ. Like Willa said, it’s now more about, what do you have to say? And how can you engage the reader for your brand, rather than, have you served your time?
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Q: Do millennials and younger consumers read fashion journalism differently than other prior generations, or do they have different expectations of it?
Holmes: There’s an expectation of transparency. It’s not acceptable to do a shoot with a White model with a White photographer with a White designer. That’s just not acceptable. And I don’t know if in prior generations those questions were even asked.
Ogunnaike: They’re more demanding, they’re more vocal and they’re not as deferent. You go down a rabbit hole online and somebody is like, “That’s what that editor is wearing? That’s how they dress?” And you’re like, “But I liked that outfit!” [laughs] People look at millennial editors and they see their peers, so they’re very comfortable delivering feedback.
Peoples: The visibility, when people are able to see us and we can be more approachable, is great. But also then people don’t realize how hard it can be.
Ogunnaike: Yeah. This job is bigger than it’s ever been before. Prior generations, they had a bit of the internet, they had a bit of social media, but they also could still get away with being like, “I don’t know social media.” That generation of editor in chiefs got to be like, “Those little ‘digi’-gals, we don’t know what’s going on over there.” Now, we have to know everything. It’s print, it’s the websites.
Ogunnaike: TikTok, Instagram.
Ogunnaike: Twitch. All of the things. Reading [former Vanity Fair and The New Yorker editor] Tina Brown’s memoir was so fab because I was like, “Ohhh, you just got to give parties and also edit amazing, amazing content.” There was no, “Oh, I have to be an influencer and I have to post from this show and run off somewhere else and then check in on the video and — oh, my Slack’s dinging.” None of that. You got to be so focused on the 12 print issues you were putting out a year and the parties.
Ball: And it’s not the way it used to be in the Tina Brown era where you had a publisher who jumped on all the grenades for you, so you could just sit back in a chair with a red pencil and then go to a party. We are constantly bombarded with CEO levels of information that you have [to use] to make a business call, whether or not you thought you were going to be in a position to make a business call. Or a marketing call, an editorial call, a creative call, a social media call.
[When reached for comment, Brown wrote to The Post in an email that while she was indeed able to spend much more time focusing on the quality of writing and photography, “I took over failing magazines and spent a great deal of time on strategy with advertising and subscribers. Social entertaining was always event marketing for the advertisers! Difference today is [[the]] whole industry desperately seeking a business model to survive, burdening the editors with crazy levels of noneditorial stress!”]
Q: You mentioned readers want transparency; they want to know about the sustainability and the ethics behind the products they’re buying. But valuable fashion journalism also necessarily involves designers giving publications access, and nowadays many publications survive financially on advertising dollars and partnerships with brands. How do you handle it when all those objectives are at odds with one another?
Ball: We’re bombarded all the time by companies, people, flacks, representatives who want us to cover certain things, but you have to be ruthless. There’s an expectation, especially if you come from a digital background or a higher-volume-content background, that you’ll just do anything. “Just throw something up.” “Here’s a quick hit, promote this thing.” And that’s just not how it works. If you lose your point of view, that’s all you have. You can’t have this job if you aren’t really good at artfully, elegantly saying no to people that you then have to go have a cocktail with.
Peoples: As I’ve gotten more comfortable in this role, I’ve just really wanted to focus on the work being respected. I genuinely am not thinking, “I want these people to like me.” And I don’t say that as shade.
There’s a Toni Morrison piece in the New Yorker that I keep on my desktop, about her ideas around work. One of them is, “Your real life is with us, your family.” That basically, these people aren’t your family.
Holmes: There are certain designers that we at InStyle choose to shoot and uplift and highlight, and then there are others we don’t shoot as a policy because that’s not something that we want to put in front of our readers or align ourselves with. There are some brands and advertisers that we’ve said no to because it is more important for the audience to feel like I want their trust.
I want that relationship to continue. There are other advertisers. We have great partners that we love to work with. We don’t need a flash-in-the-pan moment that will then hurt our relationship with those readers or make people question our integrity.
Ball: Brand heat is what advertisers are buying. They’re buying a cool brand that’s resonant, close to its audience, hitting its stride. And if you were to say, “Okay, I’m going to do all spon-con [sponsored content], all native ads, all rinse-and-repeat press releases that have no point of view,” you would have no brand heat. So what you’re protecting isn’t just your own ethics and integrity, but also what you’re here to do and build.
Bennett: Something that’s exciting about the younger generations is they sniff that out and are vocal about it, which is a great challenge for all of us.
It’s Vogue’s world after all
Q: Across all of media, jobs are more demanding while budgets are smaller than they used to be. And as EICs, you’re doing a lot less gala hosting and a lot more hunching over monthly traffic numbers than your predecessors, plus your readers can now tell you directly that they don’t like your outfit. This job isn’t as glamorous as it used to be. So what keeps you here, doing it?
Holmes: I have to say, it’s so much fun. And —
Ogunnaike: And it’s still kind of glamorous.
Holmes: Right. I’m sitting here in a Prada skirt! [laughs] It’s still glam, and it’s still fun. We just did our Golden Globes coverage last Sunday, and I don’t know how many editors-in-chief are still in the team Slack on an awards-show night saying, “Let’s cover this!” but I was. I wrote a story. I was like, this is fun. So I get to do that stuff, and go to a dinner and sit next to Nikki, and go to Fashion Week. There’s not a lot to complain about.
Bennett: For me, the ability to inspire young people is just such a gift. I mean, I looked up to Nikki so much when we worked together. When Nikki complimented something I wrote, I would be like, “I could be a writer!” For one of our September covers, I found someone on TikTok and he wrote his first cover story. I followed him on Instagram at the end and he posted his cover and wrote, like, “From my NYU dorm room …” [laughs]
So that’s why I do it. I think about my two teen sisters at home; they read all of these magazines. Putting someone on the cover really changes it for them. It changes how they think about themselves, how they think about their lives. It matters.
Peoples: A lot of it, for me, is purpose-driven. When you’re a Black woman in this industry, your experiences are just very different, so I always felt like it didn’t really matter to me the title — it was more so a vehicle for the kind of stories that I wanted to get out there. I always felt like — whether it was this job, or Black in Fashion Council, anything — how do I use this responsibility wisely? How do I be a ladder for other women of color?
I do feel, though, like you really have to be hungry to do this work and not just for the attention around it. Because when you’re coming at it from the angle of “I just want to be famous” or “I just want to get these likes,” it’s just never a good idea.
Ball: Lindsay’s exactly right. When these jobs were fortified with, let’s say, 100 times the perks, there was a “tear each other down” mentality, the famous Condé Nast “don’t talk in the elevator” [mentality], because we were all in competition with each other and somebody might hear your idea. This industry has gotten small, and if you were in it for the town car, you’re not going to get joy out of the day-to-day. So you have to be in it for way more than the car.
And because it’s gotten smaller, you would be so stupid to root for anybody to fail. You can feel competitive; we can be like, “Oh, we wanted that cover!” But to root for each other to fail, I think that comes from a time and place in the industry when it was maybe too lavish. And maybe it was about the wrong things.
Ogunnaike: When we all started working, it was 2007, 2008. That was kind of the beginning of the end of the magazines as we knew it. We saw that last bit of the golden age. The lights were coming on.
So if you came in during that time and you’ve lasted this long, you love it. There’s no other reason. You love it. You believe in it. You eat, sleep, breathe it because you saw what it could have been and you knew you weren’t going to get that moving forward, but you stuck around. You stayed the course.
Ball: And to Willa’s point, every single one of us has been in an ideas meeting where we have heard an overfunded and unwise idea [come from high up], or seen the whole [attitude], like Nikki said, of [adopts posh accent] “I choose not to care about video. That’s a fad.” You see it enough that, when you get your own chance to have a crack at it, you want to A, be way more deferential to your younger peers and staff and to hear what they have to say, and B, not take it for granted. You can’t get too jaded, because that’s when change happens. And you won’t be ready.
Q: It sounds like you all genuinely enjoy being in the trenches with your staff. Nobody here would rather have the old ivory-tower version of this job, the town-car version of this job, is what I’m hearing.
Ogunnaike: I mean, I would like a town car. [laughs]
Peoples: I just don’t think anybody would’ve hired me in that era. I really don’t.
Ogunnaike: That’s a good point. A Black woman who looks like me, with my haircut, would probably not have been hired in the ’90s to be an editor in chief. So yeah, I’m extremely thankful for this landscape now, because I get a chance.
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