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Kim Hastreiter: 'I Saw This Whole World of Music, Art and Fashion Colliding.'

Too hip to be a doyenne, Paper magazine’s iconic, bespectacled co-founder and co-editor-in-chief presides over New York’s art and fashion scene with the friendly, match-making powers of a punk aunt that has seen the future.
Kim Hastreiter | Photo: Kevin Trageser for BoF
  • Suleman Anaya

NEW YORK, United States — In the early 1980s, when Vivienne Westwood wanted to collaborate with Keith Haring, whom she did not know personally, she called Kim Hastreiter. Hastreiter, then the newly-appointed fashion editor at the Soho News and a popular girl-about-town, knew Haring well.

Within weeks, Westwood and Haring were working together on a series of fabrics and knits that featured the artist’s trademark graffiti-inspired prints and now form part of the Metropolitan Museum’s permanent collection. Fashion history had been made, thanks to two phone calls to and from one pivotal intermediary sitting at a desk on Spring Street.

As an editor, you have to be able to get rid of everything mediocre, nothing mediocre can even be in your presence.

It is a telling true story about someone who herself says she is a real-deal 'connector,' referring to the type of individual Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book The Tipping Point as being uniquely positioned to make interesting things happen, thanks to a large social network and to a rare "ability to span many different worlds… a function of something intrinsic to [his or her] personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability and energy."

A comparison that would seem presumptuous coming from almost anyone else is downright humble coming from Hastreiter. As the co-founder of New York style and pop culture magazine Paper, which last night celebrated its 30th anniversary with an all-out party featuring a live performance by Brooke Candy, Hastreiter has been a fixture of New York’s art and fashion scene since the 1970s. But her reputation stems mostly from her uncanny skill as a catalyst for the artistic and the outré, someone who facilitates the kind of encounters between creative people that produce synergistic sparks, memorable cultural output and, along the way, dollars. (This last point hasn’t been lost on marketers, who have long sought Hastreiter’s counsel to reach coveted demographics).

If, growing up in New Jersey, the smart Hastreiter seemed predestined to end up in the big city across the river, she never envisioned one day starting and running a seminal publication representative of the city’s storied subculture. Hastreiter wanted to make art and, after a stint at a Canadian art school, went on to study with renowned conceptual artist John Baldessari at CalArts near Los Angeles.

After coming to New York in 1976, she got a sales job at a hip clothing store uptown (part-owned by the designer Betsey Johnson) and before too long had “slipped into this amazing scene that was going on in New York. I would stay up all night, going to the Mudd Club and meeting all these people making movies, music and fashion. I was just burning on both ends.”

Indeed, Hastreiter was lucky to witness a magical and now legendary moment in the history of New York nightlife, notable for its explosive and cross-disciplinary cultural energy. "I saw this whole world of music and art and fashion colliding together. Stephen Sprouse was making clothes for Debbie Harry and Debbie Harry was making music with Fab Five Freddy, hip hop was starting in the South Bronx, and you would see these insane looks everywhere."

Hastreiter had already fallen in love with fashion on a personal level. But her entry to the industry and the world of publishing came in 1979 when her friend Bill Cunningham, who frequently photographed Hastreiter in her outrageous, artfully assembled outfits, recommended her for a job at the downtown paper Soho News. "I decided to put making art on hold and explore this new world that seemed more creative than anything I had ever seen."

At Soho News, Hastreiter was in charge of the fashion pages, for which she had to produce weekly stories featuring the latest runway looks. Hastreiter, however, approached the task through the lens of culture. "It wasn't fashion. It was fashion as seen from an art perspective," she says. Just as importantly, she opened the publication’s doors to her art world friends.

Facilitating collaborations and producing magazine stories that straddled the pop, street, art and fashion worlds, Hastreiter knew she had found her calling. "Robert Mapplethorpe shot fashion for me, Keith [Haring] and his crew were modelling for me. I got to do all these crazy art pieces in the name of fashion. It was incredibly exciting and I realised this is what I wanted to do."

When Soho News went out of business in 1982, Hastreiter and her friend and colleague David Hershkovits, along with Richard Weigand and Lucy Sisman, decided to launch a publication of their own. "Downtown [New York] was becoming a really amazing place, we felt it needed a publication." Funding was a problem, however, and it wasn't until 1984 that the first issue of Paper finally came out, produced on a shoestring budget.

As for the publication's simple, sharp title and design, Hastreiter explains, "After all of the horrible over-decorated design of the 1970s, Agnes B's first store in New York blew my mind. [The name Paper] struck me as truly modern, just how I wanted the magazine to be. I wanted it to look as plain as a glass of water." Paper's first issue was a generic-looking poster-sized, 16-page fold-out, printed in black-and-white newsprint.

From its onset, the magazine promoted the most interesting and undiscovered creative people, places and happenings, from stores to club nights to designers. What set the fledgling publication apart was its early focus on a certain energy or attitude, rather than a specific subject. "In those days, style became a super-important umbrella that everything came under. Style became part of our culture; culture became embedded with style. Especially downtown, which was more underground, it was not just about what you were wearing, but where you were going out."

Unlike some of the achingly edgy style bibles that emerged in London in the coming years, Paper was cool by virtue of how inclusive, excitable and homespun its pages could be, embracing a friendly, diverse family of real artistic freaks rather than an ice-cold projection of unattainable insouciance. According to editorial director Mickey Boardman, Paper was a fanzine from the day it launched. "It has always had the energy of a fanzine and that kernel still holds true. We are not critics and we will never write about anything we think is terrible. It's essentially an avant-garde mom-and-pop operation that has gotten much slicker and more business-savvy with time."

Paper’s unpretentious stance, which itself reflected the punk sensibility of its founders, lent the magazine instant and enduring credibility. The publication also became known for championing outsiders and underdogs. "Sometimes the most amazingly talented people are not able to advocate for themselves, so I have to enable them, either by giving them respect on the pages or by connecting them with people who could help them."

None of this would matter were it not for Hastreiter's gift for discerning the most promising talent. Hastreiter recalls being influenced by a college friend who advocated avoiding mediocrity at all cost. "He said ‘Everything in your life has to be the best. Whether it's stuff or people.’” Hastreiter took the advice to heart, which now informs everything from the soap she uses to the pencils on her desk.

"What Paper had from the beginning is that I can tell good from bad. I am great at finding the best, in any context. I am a really good shopper, I can find the best pair of shoes. I am a really good editor, I can pick the best photograph from a shoot in a second. That is just my talent, I know how to pick the best.”

It’s an ideal skill for an editor, which is by definition a job of elimination. "As an editor, you have to be able to get rid of everything mediocre, nothing mediocre can even be in your presence. And then you have to find the best. Kill, kill, kill, kill — 'This is the best,’" Hastreiter says, adding: "My job is really about quality. I can see a fashion show and right away know when I see great designer."

Hastreiter’s longevity in a fickle industry stems from the fact that she relies only on her own detectors to filter hype from what is actually noteworthy. “I don't read the press, I never listen to what other people say. I have to do my own homework." And seemingly immune to the whims of the fashion system, where something can be celebrated only to be forgotten overnight, once Hastreiter believes in something — a designer, an artist — her support is steady. “When someone is brilliant, they are not going to suddenly become unbrilliant. I hate that about the fashion world. Real amazingness doesn’t just go away.”

Delegating is another key element of Hastreiter’s job. "The other part of being a good editor is to know what you don't know. For instance, I am not going to write about some skater subculture in Hawaii. But I am really good at finding the people that are perfect to work on that story. It's like I have a built-in sense of smell. I am a truffle hunter, I smell for truffles.”

Ideally, once Hastreiter has found talent she trusts, her approach is hands-off. "You find great people, and then you leave it for them to do. You don't meddle. I am at my worst when I don't have the confidence in the people that are executing. Then I can really torture people. But if I think they are brilliant, I don't even touch it."

Thirteen years ago, Paper launched its marketing arm Extra Extra. “Before the word even existed, we realised that all our our friends were ‘influencers,’ people who can make things happen — exactly the types of people businesses want to reach. So we started a second company and as the magazine landscape was changing thanks to the Internet, it has really helped our business model.”

Today, Hastreiter is thinking about her legacy and her vision for the future of the magazine she started is refreshingly pragmatic. “I don’t plan to be here in 30 years.” An avid cook, she uses a cooking analogy to elucidate how her role has shifted. “I still have stuff to say, but I am now the taster rather than the chef, making sure there's balance, not too much mainstream in the mix.” To steer the magazine into a future that is more global and digital, Hastreiter has anointed a successor: chief creative officer Drew Elliot, who started out at Paper as an intern and is one of Hastreiter’s ‘truffles.’

“Drew has a vision that I could never have. And we have had to reinvent Paper, re-imagine what the magazine is. A magazine no longer can tell you what is going on, because you already know that from other sources. Paper has to be something else now, it has to be something more visual, emotional and conceptual, a beautiful object. That is what we are doing, all in keeping Paper’s DNA intact.”

With an eye on the next generation of talent she knows the magazine will need, Hastreiter advises, “You have to be open and know yourself. Ask yourself, ‘What can I do better than others?’ Then concentrate on that and you will succeed. You have to always put your best you forward.”

“No matter what people say about internships these days, I strongly suggest you get an internship at the place you dream of working at. Go and work for someone you admire and work for free, work really hard and you might end up getting a job there.”

Editor's Note: This article was revised on 11 September, 2014. An earlier version of this article failed to mention the roles played by Richard Weigand and Lucy Sisman in the inception of Paper magazine.

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