NEW YORK, United States — In the late aughts, MTV aired the cult-favorite reality television series The Hills and a generation of young people fell in love with the idea of working in fashion. Series stars Lauren Conrad and Whitney Port made their Teen Vogue internships look thrilling: they navigated the magazine’s fashion closet, helped style Lady Gaga for a photoshoot and scored tickets to runway shows. Their biggest challenge was deciding whether to spend a summer interning in Paris.
Maria Del Russo, 28, credits the show, along with legendary editor Tina Brown, for inspiring her to pursue a career in magazines. She interned in the beauty departments at Women’s Health and Cosmopolitan during college.
But by the early 2010s, the industry was struggling with declining print advertising. Del Russo saw that the era of “champagne lunches” was over and that there were more opportunities for young people to write online, so she worked for digital media publishers after graduating, eventually landing a job writing about sex and relationships for Refinery29.
Then, one year ago, Del Russo was laid off — and it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Today she has a successful freelance career, including regular writing gigs with publications like Playboy and a book deal with Adams Media, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. She said she makes more money now than at her last full-time job.
“Everything that I actually wanted for my career came after I gave up the dream of traditional media,” she said. Getting laid off was a wakeup call. “I could put so much of myself in a job and it could be gone tomorrow.”
Not everyone is able to turn around a difficult situation like Del Russo did, but hers is not an unusual career story in fashion media right now. A generation of young people who grew up idolising Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour or dreaming of climbing the masthead at their favourite title — assistant editor, associate editor, senior editor, and on and on — face a new reality of whiplash strategy pivots, shrinking budgets and shuttering publications.
It’s harder than ever to get a foot in the door, as internship programmes are now few and far between. And the path is less clear for those who do: promising careers can be derailed by layoffs. Mid-level jobs are often the first to go, reducing opportunities for advancement and forcing more work on entry-level staff and freelancers.
“Experienced junior [editors] or less experienced directors — that whole middle section is just gone,” said a London-based freelance fashion writer with job experience in newspapers and magazines who voluntarily left her most recent full-time job in part because “there was no path” for advancement. She asked to remain anonymous because she did not want to malign her employers.
Another writer said publishers’ strategies are shifting so rapidly that it’s difficult for low-level employees to keep up.
What [publishers] are saying their goals are, and what their actual goals are, are completely different things.
“What [publishers] are saying their goals are, and what their actual goals are, are completely different things,” said the writer, who was laid off and asked to remain anonymous because she didn’t want to jeopardize her relationships. “I was laid off because they felt like they were paying me too much for what I was producing.”
Social media has also tilted the playing field. Young people can build a point of view and promote their work on Twitter and Instagram. But followers and "like" counts can be conflated with success - a worldview that can be confirmed when leadership favours staff with more followers, who can serve as public faces of the brand.
So what is the way forward for fashion media’s youngest and rising ranks?
Don’t Be Fooled by the Glamorous Exterior
Aspiring editors whose main goal is to project an exciting, jet-set lifestyle on Instagram to gain more followers will not make it far. Even the lucky few still living that dream in media are usually supporting it with plenty of unglamorous work behind the scenes.
Teen Vogue’s new editor-in-chief, Lindsay Peoples Wagner, is currently hiring an assistant at the Condé Nast title, and said it’s obvious when applicants have the wrong idea about the job.
“A lot of people think that fashion is super glamorous and while obviously it can be, a willingness to really work hard goes a long way,” she said. “I’m not too good for anything, so I’m expecting an assistant to also have that thinking of [doing] whatever needs to be done.”
Use Social Media — Responsibly
Twitter and Instagram are a great way to show prospective employers who you are and what kind of work you can do, and they are looking at your accounts to get a sense of your personality and tone. They also want to know if you are more interested in free stuff than actual work.
Elana Fishman, Page Six style editor at the New York Post and formerly of Vox’s Racked and Lucky Magazine, said she has hired writers off of Twitter. She thinks it is underrated in the fashion community as a place to build your voice.
Social media is also a tricky place to network with editors you hope will hire you. Someone like Peoples Wagner is inundated by messages, especially after posting the assistant position.
“If you’re constantly DMing me for a job, you’re not taking initiative,” she said. She recommended applicants distinguish themselves by sending a brief email with a resume.
Joyann King, the executive director of Hearst’s Harper’s Bazaar, agreed that direct messaging is generally not the best approach, but if it feels like the only option, “be professional and super passionate,” and ask who on staff is best to email for job openings.
Go Beyond the Job
The most important attributes for surviving and thriving in fashion media right now are adaptability and the ability to take initiative beyond a job description.
King said aspiring editors should be “plugged in enough” in the workplace to understand how their work brings value to the readers, to the title as a whole and to the publisher’s bottom line.
“Focus your energy on the things that contribute to the big picture,” she said.
For example, she recently promoted an associate editor who stood out last year by creating content that attracts audiences who are searching on Google — a key traffic driver — and content that drove e-commerce sales, through which publications get a percentage of the product price. It wasn’t necessarily outside of her job description, but she over-delivered.
Fishman said adaptability is more important than “who you know or where you interned.” When Racked, Vox’s style and shopping site which shut down in 2018, went through the pivot-to-video strategy shift, she took advantage of the opportunity to try something she’d always wanted to do.
A truly good employee in 2019 will be the person where if you say, ‘Have you heard about this platform or tool?’ — They’ll say, ‘Nope, but I’m going to look into it and find out.'
“A truly good employee in 2019 will the be the person where if you say, ‘Have you heard about this platform or tool?’ — They’ll say, ‘Nope, but I’m going to look into it and find out,’” Fishman said. “You have to be your own teacher.”
Ruthie Friedlander, a content strategist who was most recently the special projects director at InStyle magazine, recommended taking advantage of free ways to learn new skills online, like how to use Photoshop.
“Get out of the habit of ‘I was an assistant so I need to go to the next level,’” she said. Learn about what the art department does or try your hand at branded content, she added.
Another way to stand out is to focus on a type of content that is under-covered, like plus-size fashion brands, sustainability or the rise of CBD-driven wellness and beauty brands. Friedlander said that in this media environment, writers and editors who are experts are more likely to thrive. Figure out what your passion points are and follow them.
And, if a job isn’t exactly where you want to be, try to dabble in what you are interested in once your core responsibilities are covered. Peoples Wagner hopes her assistant has the interest to help out with blogging as needed, or is just aware of areas of the title where he or she can contribute beyond the expected. “Be hungry to do work,” she said.
Fashion may not be as glamorous as it appears, but there is definitely an unavoidable element of high drama that comes in an industry defined by public perception, often ruled by outdated traditions and where influence is still concentrated around a few gatekeepers.
“We are not doctors,” said one fashion writer who wished to remain anonymous. “Let the drama queens have their moment. It can affect you, it can upset you, but shake it off and know that things move on very quickly in this business. Don’t fan the flames.”
The same can go for attaching too much importance to your job title. “I used to get stuck on the title so much,” says Peoples Wagner. “If I can do the work that I want to do then it doesn’t really matter.”
Know When It’s Time to Leave
The old stigma against job hopping may be waning, but knowing when to leave still takes some skill.
“Being overly loyal can also be your downfall now because you might get overlooked for opportunities, or your whole company might get shut down,” said Fishman. “People have to be savvy about how they plan their moves. Am I getting what I need to be getting out of this position?”
If not, it’s time to go, even if you’ve only been on the job for a short time.
“Take a minute think about what you feel that you can most bring to the table and if it’s not in the [job] that you are in anymore, do not be afraid to cold call people,” said Nick Remsen, an fashion and lifestyle writer who worked at American Vogue and now contributes to several magazines and newspapers.
If you’re no longer learning anything new or gaining new skills, that’s a sign, said Friedlander. “I think a lot of editors that I have spoken to now have fallen into this grind, ‘x’ numbers of stories per day, [etc],” she said,
“The most important thing is to leave gracefully,” Friedlander said. That means giving ample notice and not leaving projects in disarray. It’s key to preserve the relationships you make at each job — both with your managers and with your peers.
Freelancing Is an Option - But It’s Not for Everyone
While magazines and digital media companies continue to lay off more and more staff to cut operational costs, their need for content hasn’t decreased.
That can be good news for freelancers in this industry, once seen as a code-word for unemployment. For young people willing to juggle being their own managers and open to taking on copywriting or branded content in addition to editorial writing, it can be a way to make more money than they did on staff.
Consulting for brands and publishers about how to approach their content is another potential option.
But freelancers have to be fearless self-starters and ready to deal with rejection, never hearing back from editors or delayed payments from publishers.
“It really depends on your personality, economic stability, how much work you have coming in, if you’ve made a name for yourself,” said Peoples Wagner.
Be responsive to negative feedback from editors and be accountable and efficient, said Remsen. He left Vogue in 2015 with enough clips and connections that he felt confident he could go it on his own.
“I wanted to see if I could write in a different way,” he said. “Have as much proof [of your skills] or as much background [in the industry] as possible before launching in.”
Don't Get Defeated
“If you work in fashion in 2019 you need to fucking love this industry,” said Friedlander. Figure out what your most valuable skills are and follow that path. Does that mean creating content for a brand or retailer? Or working for the business side of a media business? Or pivoting to copywriting for public relations firms? You could always come back to editorial with that added knowledge.
“Print is not dead, media is not dead,” added Friedlander. “Things need to change and things are shifting. That’s scary, but it’s making room for new things to come.”