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NEW YORK, United States — As a recent sociology and media studies graduate from the University of Virginia, Nikki Ogunnaike started out at Vanity Fair as a market assistant before moving laterally to InStyle to kickstart her editorial career. After nearly four years working in print at InStyle, Ogunnaike moved to Glamour.com when “[magazine] websites were just beginning to take off,” first working as a style editor, writing fashion and beauty coverage, before she was promoted to senior fashion editor.
Three years after joining the Condé Nast publication, Ogunnaike moved to Hearst’s Elle.com in 2015 as a senior fashion editor, after which she became fashion features director and style director. Having started out in an industry where “there weren't a lot of people who looked like me,” Ogunnaike now represents the Elle brand on television and online videos, creating original video content including her Online IRL show, for which the first episode has garnered more than 1.3 million views. Here, Ogunnaike shares her career advice.
What was it that has that attracted you and held you to working in fashion?
I grew up in Northern Virginia, where my parents immigrated in the ‘70s from Nigeria, and fashion was always a big part of my life. My mum had a closet full of Delmans [a respected shoe brand from the Golden Age of Hollywood] and my dad wore the best shoes for church on Sunday morning. They also had stacks of newspapers everywhere, so I was always inquisitive and newsy by nature. It’s no surprise that I’ve landed here.
After university, I did a stint at Vanity Fair as a market assistant for nine months. But I wasn't great at what that job entailed, which was a lot of administrative stuff, like calling in pieces and managing people’s calendars. So, I made a lateral move to InStyle as an editorial assistant, which really kickstarted my career.
While I was super specific about my job search, I was able to pivot — and it's okay to change your goal and be more flexible in the job you want. If you want to work in a magazine, perhaps try working at a brand first, because you can get experience anywhere and take what you've learned and apply that to other positions in the future.
What would you attribute to getting your first job?
I always felt no job was beneath me. There were a lot of late nights and placing orders, but I tried to take everything as seriously as possible because I knew that if I could do that, then I could do a lot of the other tasks they would eventually present to me.
I learned to be resourceful. We tried to not necessarily take no for an answer — and if I had an issue, I would present my boss with the issue along with three possible solutions to make her job as easy as possible.
Know that your reputation will precede you, so act accordingly.
However, early on, I didn't communicate as much as I should have and that's something I find with juniors in this industry. If you are having an issue, let your boss know. Don’t necessarily try to solve it yourself — your boss is there to help you and guide you along the way.
What propelled your move from print to digital editorial platforms?
I started out at InStyle on the print side as an editorial assistant, eventually becoming an associate editor, but around that time websites were beginning to take off, especially for magazines. I had a friend who started her own blog, through which she was getting so many amazing opportunities, and I wanted a piece of that but I didn't want to go out on my own. I figured if I could get internet experience at a place like Glamour, in a big publishing house like Condé Nast or Hearst, then I'd eventually be able to gain those opportunities as well.
No matter what medium you're working on, you have to realise you're trying to tell a story. So, first and foremost, you need to work on your reporting and editorial skills, learning how to write and how to be inquisitive. Before I worked on my video series Online IRL at Elle, I hadn't really written a video script or worked within the medium, but I was confident in my storytelling abilities so I could translate that to video. I think juniors who want to do the same should work on those fundamental skills first.
What does the role Style Director mean to you today?
If you had asked me this question 10 or 12 years ago, I would have said a style director is somebody who works with a fashion magazine to help pick out new clothes and have them run in the magazine. But the job has grown so much as different platforms have evolved.
One day, I could be working on a story like one I wrote last October called How to Fix Fashion, for which I asked almost 40 industry employees a series of questions on the future of fashion; the next day, you’re doing a short video, like Online IRL. It's a mix of different things and I love that. If juniors are looking to just do one thing, and one thing only, I think this sort of job would not be the best for them because no two days are the same.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
It’s twofold. When I was starting in this industry, there weren't a lot of people who looked like me. I'm a dark-skinned Nigerian woman who works in an industry which some could describe as very one-note. So, being a representative for people who have never seen anyone look like them in the industry is inspiring.
When you are on your own in this industry, it can feel isolating, but you can also make it work to your benefit. If you have that seat at the table, you can advocate for others and hopefully, eventually, you can bring more chairs to the table — or build your own table.
It won't come instantaneously — it's a marathon, not a sprint.
I really like asking these questions and forcing the fashion industry to do a little better. How are we on the inclusivity front? How are we on the fast-fashion and sustainability front? Are we doing the best that we can?
What advice would you give juniors for getting their career off the ground?
Network as much as possible. Don't be afraid to reach out to people who you love and tell them that. I remember running into Donna Wallace, who's at Vogue now, but she worked at Elle UK at the time. We'd never met in person, but I ran up to her and said, “I love your work. I think you're so amazing. You're doing really great things.” She was like, “Oh my God, thank you so much.” We want everyone to succeed so it's about finding your own tribe within this space and knowing that there are people who are in your corner.
It also comes down to being curious. If you look at the people who succeed in this industry, they are constantly asking questions — they dig into how things work and why they work that way. If you look at my idols in this industry, like Robin Givhan or Vanessa Friedman, they turn things over and over again. I think that juniors in this industry could really benefit from just asking questions.
You really do have to be nice too. It sounds simple, but this industry is so small that everyone at one point knows each other. Know that your reputation will precede you, so act accordingly.
What core skills do you believe are necessary for success in your field?
I read and wrote a lot when I started out. I was writing four blog posts a day, and I read basically everything in terms of fashion press — I still carry that with me today because I want to be as informed as possible. I also read the Washington Post and New York Times in the morning because what's happening in the greater world influences what's going on in the fashion industry.
Many people in this industry can also be shy, which is interesting considering most of the industry must interact with each other. Try to force yourself out of your comfort zone and get to know these people. Go to that event by yourself, even though you're nervous — you may not know anyone, but go up to one person you don't know and say hello, because that's going to help you in the long run.
Some people think they're going to be at the level I am at the second they step into this industry. But I have 12 years of work underneath me and grinding in the trenches. It won't come instantaneously — it's a marathon, not a sprint.