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4 Lessons from Refinery29 on Building a Media Company in the Digital Age

Christene Barberich went from creative writing to becoming global editor-in-chief of the award-winning digital media company, Refinery29. She shares her advice.
Christene Barberich, global editor-in-chief of Refinery29 | Source: Courtesy
  • Kati Chitrakorn

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NEW YORK, United States — Christene Barberich is the global editor-in-chief and co-founder of the New York-headquartered Refinery29, a fashion and lifestyle media company that claims a global audience of more than 550 million across platforms.

Before partnering with Justin Stefano, Philippe von Borries and Piera Gelardi in 2005 to launch Refinery29 — which began as a guide to emerging independent boutiques in New York and Los Angeles — Barberich held positions at Gourmet magazine, The Daily and The New Yorker. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in creative writing from the State University of New York at Oswego.

Today, Refinery29 employs nearly 450 people worldwide. After more than a decade and several iterations, it is now a global female-focused lifestyle destination that publishes style trends and beauty DIYs as well as first-person accounts and think pieces on representation in media. Below, the longtime editor shares four tips for success.

1. Be versatile, embrace change

Christene Barberich: There are so many skills required to working in digital publishing, but in particular, curiosity and adaptability is key. Those who embrace change and seek out learning will thrive. It helps to enjoy digital media in all its forms. You don’t have to be obsessed, but it’s important there’s a genuine appreciation. Seeing digital as a positive means of providing useful tools, information, entertainment, community support and exposure to more diverse opinions have tremendous influence in our lives. On a practical level, this pace isn’t for everyone. It requires a sustainable appetite to move quickly and always have your eyes out ahead.

2. Your audience will tell you what to do

CB: Something that has been a huge priority for me is to be able to speak to women every day. I strive to live up to sharing that diversity of experience and point of views. Individualisation and personalisation is hugely important and it speaks to where the industry is headed. We're leaning toward a time when the audience really has the power to shape these conversations and trends. We're seeing it with this new breed of social influencers like Reese Blutstein or Paloma Elsesser, who are doing their own thing and inspiring this shift toward a more original, unfettered POV. It's important to break down taboos and explore that real-life intersection of high and low.

3. Watch and learn

CB: My early career began in magazine publishing, but, at that time, it was all about survival — get a job, any job, and do not get fired. It wasn’t until I arrived at The New Yorker (initially as a temp) when I realised that being a keen observer of everything happening around me was just as important as having accountability for important work. I learned so much simply by watching how people operated in that environment. Tina Brown was an enormous influence on me and how important it was to be intrepid and break rules, even if those rules were 70 years old. She ushered in a lot of change when she took over at The New Yorker, and her allegiance to her own vision left a major mark on me.

4. Representation is key

CB: Fashion and publishing are both very malleable mediums for telling a personal story, evoking an emotion, shaping a voice or identity. A good publisher is drawn to people’s stories — and more so, the moments or circumstances that lead people to become themselves. In fashion, [journalists should] show how clothes and trends and fashion play a role in society, in culture, in the pursuit of identity and change.

More than ever, it’s important to create content and share real-life experiences that have a sincere and worthwhile impact, and ideas and stories that reflect who people are and what they believe in, even if those beliefs aren’t quite defined yet. It's not enough to just publish content on a page, the end result has to be a three-dimensional dialogue that considers, includes and listens to its audience.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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The Business of Fashion

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Inside the $7 Billion Dior Phenomenon