NEW YORK, United States — It’s hard to miss Kate Lanphear. With her razor-sharp platinum locks and androgynous, punked out look, inspired by Catholic iconography, skateboarding and Norwegian metal bands, the American Elle style director is a fashion world fixture.
Not only is she perched in a top spot at one of America’s largest fashion publications, but she has also become a favourite of the roving corps of street-style photographers who document her every outfit, making Lanphear one of a handful of fashion industry insiders who have the kind of rabid online following typically reserved for Hollywood starlets.
In print, her name is rarely far from the word “cult.” But her entry to the industry and subsequent rise to fashion fame was anything but easy, the notoriously press-shy Lanphear told BoF.
Lanphear grew up in a conservative Irish Catholic family in rural Virginia, far away from the world’s fashion capitals. Her first introduction to the language of style was from her Aunt Bunny and her godmother, Auntie Esther, whose meticulously coordinated and polished sense of dress stood out against the bland landscape of her childhood. “It was that attention to detail,” she explained. “Because it was the mountains of Virginia you really didn’t need to dress up for anything, so this constant attention to how you present yourself — I was fascinated by that.”
As her interest in style grew, Lanphear turned to magazines as her only point of access to a fashion world that, at the time, was so distant from her. “I was a little bit obsessive about magazines and had started collecting them, because I’d never seen anything like them,” she recalled. “I never imagined that there would be a job. I thought you were either a model or a photographer. I hadn’t yet put two and two together and realized that there was a whole masthead full of people working behind the scenes.”
Lanphear studied journalism in college, a decision her father accepted only because she was able to convince him that it was a “fast track to law school.” But when she graduated, she found the fashion world she dreamt of was closed to her. “I didn’t know anyone, no doors were open for me,” she said. “I couldn’t even get an internship anywhere.”
Undeterred, she decided to try her luck in London, eager to be a part of a vital fashion scene that was giving rise to iconic magazines like The Face and i-D and brilliant young designers like Alexander McQueen. “It was a great time to be there,” Lanphear recalled. “There was a lot going on creatively. It was having a big moment, as it’s having now.”
But in those early years, making ends meet was a constant struggle. “I ended up living in a hostel, sharing a room with seven guys in bunk beds,” she said. “I was the only girl in the room. I would clean the disgusting hostel through the night. My roommates taught me how to hustle pool. You would drink beer for free and buy a loaf of bread and peanut butter and eat that for a whole week.” It was a rough and unglamorous period, though Lanphear doesn’t regret a minute of it. “I’m glad I did it. I don’t think I could go through it again. But it was an amazing time. I would go to work for a magazine during the day and then work through the night so they would let me live in the hostel.”
But Lanphear soon left London for Sydney. “A boy, it’s always a boy,” she laughed, explaining her decision to move. In Australia, she took any fashion job she could find, while working as a bartender to pay the rent, but ultimately secured work in Australia’s publishing industry, first at Australian Vogue and then at Australian Harper’s Bazaar. It was a period of terrific growth and learning for Lanphear.
“The staff were so small that if you put your hand up you were allowed to do anything,” she said. “I had no experience, but before I knew it, I was styling the cover with amazing people. You’re allowed to execute your own ideas, because it’s so small. It’s really like Fashion Editor 101. I became really well versed in budgets and how to do production because you’re doing everything yourself.”
“You don’t specialise, you’re not like a sunglasses editor,” she said, comparing her experience in Australia to what’s it’s like to climb the ranks in much larger markets like the United States. “You know you have to do everything. I think this is one of the most amazing ways to get your foot in the door, because whatever opportunity comes up next, you’ve at least had some experience.”
But when Lanphear returned Stateside, the wide body of knowledge she had absorbed in Australia proved to be both an asset and a liability. “The great thing about the American market is that the amount of material we see and the amount the Americans do is exhaustive,” she said. “There are so many jobs to keep the machine going. So luckily when I was really, really struggling, when a job came up, I could say, yeah I’ve done that before.” But her chameleon-like nature was also confusing to a culture that emphasised well-defined job descriptions. “It’s also a strange beast, because when I first came back HR people were like, so we don’t really understand, were you a stylist, were you a…?” she explained. “So I was like, I do everything; I was sort of a tough fit at the same time,” said Lanphear, who managed to land a role at Harper’s Bazaar, before becoming a senior fashion editor at Elle, where she was named style director in 2008.
While Elle is a solidly mainstream American fashion magazine, it’s a testament to Lanphear’s talent that her editorials appeal to a broad audience without sacrificing her characteristic fashion edge. Indeed, under Lanphear’s guidance, Elle’s sensibility has turned darker and moodier, encouraging American women to step outside their comfort zone without pushing them too far.
But today, Lanphear is as well known for her online following, as for her work for Elle. There are scores of blogs and Tumblrs devoted solely to her style and she is a regular on top tier street-style sites like The Sartorialist and Jak & Jil.
Lanphear views her online fame with a mixture of appreciation and unease. “The street-style thing is hard for me to talk about, because it makes me pretty wildly embarrassed,” she admitted. “I get really, really shy. It’s like hearing your own voice on an answering machine.”
But it’s also taught her a lot about the power of the internet and the way the transparent, immediate and personal nature of digital media is changing the world of fashion publishing. “I think it’s really interesting how we sit in ten, twelve, fifteen shows a day and we get this designer’s vision of something and then with such a quick turnaround we then get to see these amazing interpretations [online],” she said. “I think for a long time that was lost in magazines. Now you actually get to see these women — colleagues, editors, buyers — who love it so much actually wearing these clothes. It’s very inventive in the way that they do it, and it’s done in such a different way, such a personal way, so I totally get the fascination for it.”
So where does that leave publications like Elle?
“You have to have a point of view,” Lanphear said. “Now there is almost too much information. It’s about filtering and giving it new meaning and reinventing it.” Indeed, as the explosion of fashion information continues, it seems the role of editors like Lanphear may become more important than ever.
Jonathan Shia is editor of The Last Magazine