Over the last week, charges of racial bias and microaggressions at the world’s most high-profile magazine publisher has made for captivating headlines for fashion industry professionals. As a black woman who spent years at and around Condé Nast, two details caught my attention.
First, the claim by departed Bon Appétit editor Adam Rapoport’s (black female) assistant that she was treated “like the help,” citing his request that she clean his golf clubs. Following the release of The Devil Wears Prada and the rise of the anonymous takedown blog, these kinds of assignments are rarer, though when I supported Condé Nast editors in the 1990s, stories of humiliating tasks were legion, traded like baseball cards. (Having to deliver a boss’ stool sample dominated the hall of fame).
Armed with this knowledge, it was not particularly shocking to me to discover that the company still employs the type of editor who regards his assistant as some blend of concierge-meets-platonic wife. Attitudes are different today, but at the time, we were generally so thrilled to work at Condé Nast that anything, no matter how unsavoury, that the boss asked you to do was your job, especially as some managers saw assistant-hood as a pipeline to becoming an editor one day.
But it’s the second detail that spoke volumes to me about working in fashion publishing and at Condé Nast in particular: when Rapoport’s assistant confessed that she was having trouble making ends meet with her current salary, the editor replied, “well maybe you should consider that this is not the right job for you.”
It was widely understood that magazines were the most glamorous places on Earth to make not much money.
Few know exactly how this message was delivered, but his assessment doesn’t sound inaccurate or unreasonable to this observer. In my day, the promise of robust six-figure salaries did exist, provided you had the stamina and good grace to marathon to the uppermost tiers of a masthead. But it was widely understood that magazines were the most glamorous places on Earth to make not much money.
What does that have to do with race, exactly?
Increasing salaries at entry levels seems unlikely to become a trend anywhere in fashion publishing — the larger the talent pool, the lower the price paid. So, how did this assistant’s dismissed pleas for a salary boost — technically a personal issue — get added to the list of Condé Nast’s personnel issues?
I believe the answer lies here: though class remains a mysterious blank in America’s national conversation on race, it has always been the headline at Condé Nast. As former Editor-in-Chief Grace Mirabella wrote in In and Out of Vogue, “the legendary founder of the magazine empire that today bears his name used to hire Vogue editors from among the pretty young women he met at Park Avenue dinner parties, and that practice, in variety of forms, remained standard for decades.”
When I worked at the company in the late ‘90s, it was common to hear people say of expense account purchases “Charge it to Uncle Si [Newhouse]!” I always took this throwaway as a signal of the attitude that employees felt entitled to spend as though they, too, were the beneficiaries of vast inherited wealth — and, in truth, many were. But because of the inextricable link between race and socio-economic class, such badinage might feel a lot less easy for black staffers, who are far less likely to enjoy the same status and accompanying advantages.
I, too, am a black woman, and a veteran of three Condé Nast publications; for my last job there, I was hired by Anna Wintour for a fairly visible role at a Vogue brand extension and served there until it folded in November 2008 following the financial crash. I cannot say I recall Condé Nast feeling like a hostile place for a black person to work — at least, not more than the wider culture in the country.
But I equally cannot fail to disclose that my experiences at the company (and in all of my jobs in fashion) have surely been inflected by my near-perfect fluency in white culture and codes of conduct. I am a product of a top secondary school and an Ivy League university from which almost all of my friends went on to fashion-related jobs in New York. I obtained my first job at Condé Nast through a casual but direct parental connection to a member of the Newhouse family.
Following attempts to secure positions at Vogue earlier in the decade, I arrived in 2008 fully vetted with a portfolio of party pictures on Style.com and service to over a dozen gala committees. I cannot say definitively if I would have been considered for the job without these bona fides, but for my part, they were fundamental to the CV that I had been carefully constructing for years in the hope it might point me to exactly the job I ultimately got. Put simply, I knew what it took to thrive there. Race begins to fade from view when the signifiers of socio-economic status are on full display. I suspect that this tends to be the case for a good number of companies that traffic in image, as Condé Nast ultimately does.
Here’s what the company should do to make its practices more fair:
- Reframe what qualifications are competitive, especially at the entry level. It’s too tempting to make offers to candidates with highbrow work experience, but as a result posts are too often awarded as a result of economics, location, access or all of the above.
- Devise a hiring rubric that gets at strengths that still meets the company’s requirements but adjusts for socio-economic and cultural bias. Some HR professionals still tend to screen for someone who has already done the open job, or else scan for “brand name” schools and employers, rather than try and gauge the job the candidate might do if given the chance.
- Be more like school admissions: when recruiting, give maximum consideration to racial, ethnic and geographic distribution as well as fields of collegiate study. There’s no definitive evidence that English and Art History majors make better editors.
- Select seasoned employees with exceptional management acumen to serve as official mentors for employees who want or need extra support. Too often HR is misunderstood as a venue for gripes and is too oriented toward listening for and neutralising potential harassment claims to be totally effective. Allowing green or struggling staff to vent and problem-solve in a constructive but low-pressure environment could be invaluable, particularly to those whose parents or role models come from radically different work cultures.
- And lastly, create a new brand manifesto with crowd-sourced input from across the company to better embed diversity in its core ethos. Condé Nast has always been the gold standard in magazine publishing and embracing greater inclusivity will help ensure that tradition endures.
Bonnie Morrison is the founder of Morrison Strategy Partners. She was previously Vice President of Public Relations at Coach and Special Projects Editor at Men’s Vogue.
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