LONDON — One year into her editorship at Elle U.K., Farrah Storr is ready to pour more of herself into the magazine.
The monthly title’s big September issue, which makes its debut today, is the culmination of one of her biggest missions: Getting the most diverse pool of talent possible through the doors of media companies.
That’s why she worked alongside Britain’s Social Mobility Commission to get 12 students from underprivileged socio-economic areas in the country to join the Elle team in putting together — via Zoom — what has been considered the most important issue of the year.
The students — who were paid a junior freelancer’s fee for the hours spent on the project — were mentored by members of the Elle team, and virtually attended the magazine’s cover shoot with Adwoa Aboah. They also got to ask questions, and submitted artwork inspired by Aboah, one of which will feature in the issue.
The ultimate aim? To get young women to understand that this is a media career path available to them, should they wish to take it on.
The project comes in the wake of the anti-racism protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, and a reckoning in the media and fashion industries, which are both looking at diversity in a new light.
This is no p.r. stunt, however, nor is it a knee-jerk move to the current climate.
Storr has been working behind the scenes with the Social Mobility Commission for several years to identify ways to attract talent from more varied backgrounds into magazine offices — and to ensure these newcomers feel welcome and eager to stick around once they make it through the glass doors of the Hearst building in London.
One of the first initiatives she introduced was a scholarship program, which now runs across Hearst, offering paid internships to students.
“It’s constantly thinking, ‘I don’t want somebody on my watch coming into the office, being worried that they can’t afford a cup of coffee,'” said Storr in an interview, explaining that part of the program offers paid-for accommodation, as part of a partnership with Spare Room, as well as paid travel and living expenses.
It’s a cause that’s close to her heart, as someone who grew up in the suburban city of Salford, near Manchester, England, where a career in media didn’t seem like an option for a young woman of Pakistani-English heritage like her. She didn’t have connections, easy access to London or any role models who looked like her.
She still managed to build a career — by way of hard work and many an unpaid internship — quickly scaling her way up the ladder with roles at a number of titles, ranging from Woman & Home, to Good Housekeeping, Marie Claire, Women’s Health and Cosmopolitan, where she served as editor in chief and received multiple awards for her work including Editor of the Year in the 2018 Professional Publishers Association Awards and the British Society of Magazine Editors Awards.
The Elle role marks her major foray into fashion, which she said felt too intimidating a space to crack during the earlier years of her career. Now that she’s in, Storr has spent her first year leading a more quiet kind of revolution.
She is not the kind of editor to swoop in and impose her vision. Instead, Storr listened, observed and has gradually been developing a strategy that involves plenty of feel-good fashion and “a beating features heart,” with intimate stories centered around every aspect of women’s lives.
As she comes into her second year, she’s ready to shout a little louder, starting with this September issue, which features a smiling, bright-eyed Aboah wearing an optimistic explosion of color and pattern, perhaps a visual signifier of Storr’s intention to shine a brighter light on the friendlier, more inclusive side of fashion.
Here, Storr talks WWD through the September issue, and her vision for a new media world.
WWD: What were your first impressions coming into the fashion landscape?
Farrah Storr: To me, fashion was always this scary place where people were cruel and aloof, so the cheering thing was to find that it’s full of some of the smartest people in journalism, there’s a real sense of sisterhood in it, but that’s not the narrative that’s always been communicated to the wider world. That, of course, could be because I’ve come at it at a very senior level, but I don’t think that’s communicated to younger generations. Certainly, when I was growing up, fashion was very good at assuming this very aloof pose, which deters people, and certainly people like me, from wanting to enter into that world. You feel you don’t look the right way, you’re not the right size, you haven’t got the right accent.
WWD: What are some of the biggest barriers of entry into the U.K. media industry?
F.S.: The fact that magazines are largely based in London creates its own divide. You’ve got to have the means in order to get down here. Fortunately, that whole era of these unpaid internships has largely gone, but there’s still a huge amount of work to be done on attracting diverse talent. People think there’s a certain CV you have to have, a certain path you have to tread to get into this industry.
But do you need a degree? Of course university is brilliant and college can inspire you and support you, but for some people raw talent is enough when it comes to writing, and styling, too.
What happened as a consequence of COVID-19 is that we know we can all work remotely. I think now employers will look at people and go, “Well, maybe they don’t have to live in London.” They can join the conversation, they can join the team now and it doesn’t really make a difference where they are. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves, it’s going to be really hard, but in terms of those opportunities, and breaking down barriers to entry in the media I do think this is going to be a positive consequence if editors and businesses lean into it. If they realize there’s opportunity to put our arms around people in this country.
WWD: What is the current state of the media because of this lack of social mobility in the industry?
F.S.: The Social Mobility Commission did a report called “Elitist Britain,” which showed that more than 30 percent of leaders in the media come from private education or have an Oxbridge [Oxford and/or Cambridge] degree. That’s not to demonize people who come from that background — not at all — but it is to say that it makes it quite difficult if you are someone, like me, from Salford to see where your place might be. It also worries me a little bit, because the media is supposed to represent the nation, and I don’t think we’ll be able to do that if everyone who’s in the media is the same [in terms of both] race and class. There are important conversations going on about race at the moment that are long overdue, but there’s also that really interesting intersection of considering race, gender, disability and socio-economic background together. Where they all intersect, they all compound one another.
We see it in the U.S. and we see it here, too. It’s a pretty divided country, our politics are divided, we are divided by class and the media is supposed to represent as wide a range of people and opinions and voices and backgrounds and races as possible. I’m not sure we do a good enough job of it, and of course it can be dangerous if the media is only speaking to one sector of society. That’s where alienation and anger happen. The media has a duty here, I think. We’ve got to engage as many communities as possible. It’s important and it’s why I joined the Social Mobility Commission and why we did this project for our big September issue.
WWD: What are some practical steps senior editors can take to spearhead change in their offices?
F.S.: First off, language can be quite off-putting and dangerous. You have to be very careful with your words — even the fact that we call those magazines “glossy” magazines. When I worked in this company years ago, everybody looked a certain way, everybody was that word “polished,” so the messaging is quite clear that to get ahead, you need to be a certain way. Even if nobody said that to you, those are the messages you absorb as a young journalist coming through. So we have to make sure we create environments where people feel they can belong and have a voice, whether you agree with them or not. There isn’t a certain way to be or a certain way to look, there isn’t a certain accent that is going to ensure you’re going to get to the top.
It’s constantly looking at situations and asking, “How can we do better?” “How can we make someone feel more comfortable?” Sometimes, it’s identifying those people in your team, or students coming through and saying, “I think this person needs help, so I’m going to go out of my way and I’m going to specifically help them.”
It’s being active. One of the things I did at Cosmo, and what we do at Elle, is put on our Instagram that we are looking for writers because putting jobs on corporate web sites is not enough. Some students don’t even know to look at corporate web sites.
WWD: Why did you decide to incorporate your work with the Social Mobility Commission into this September issue?
F.S.: I had been wanting to take Elle on the road, and go to different areas that are overshadowed.
Across the U.K. there are areas that are designated as “cold” spots: Nobody goes there and there’s a very thin seam of opportunities, particularly for students coming out of education. So we put a call out to schools in those areas, and we said that we would love to mentor 12 students through the process of putting together our big September issue.
We are also committed to extending that mentoring program for a year, because what’s important is not to give students access to this world, [then] suddenly take it away. What we’ll do is open up our networks to them. That’s the whole point of the media. They have to open up their little black books.
WWD: What kind of students did you want to attract for the project?
F.S.: We were very keen, when we were speaking to teachers, that they didn’t just [take into account] the academic capabilities of students. Also, not all of them know what they want to do, and this was deliberate. We could have someone who’s majoring in maths, but if they could be interested in this project to broaden their horizons as to what could be out there for them, they could be part of this project.
WWD: What did you learn from working with, and mentoring, this group of students?
F.S.: The students have a deep focus on body diversity, one of their biggest focuses is wanting to see models who look like them, not just in terms of skin color, but also in terms of shapes and body sizes as well. A lot of them — and this is an incredible sign — are interested in the business side of magazines.
They have a good grasp on what it takes to get ahead, so my job is to make sure that nothing stands in their way. They’re sharper than I ever was at their age, and that comes from all sorts of reasons. They’ve come of age after the financial crash, and now COVID-19, so they have a really keen eye on the bottom line and that’s brilliant.
WWD: Why did you pick Adwoa Aboah to be on the cover of the issue?
F.S.: Adwoa was always one of my dream cover stars and she was brilliant [for this project] because she really cares for young women at every level. The students were part of the cover shoot, they saw her being photographed, she spoke to them constantly, they kind of felt like they know her. She also wrote us quite a breathtaking letter — she called it an anti-graduation speech — where she talks very much about her own experience as a young woman, what she went through at school, both as a woman of color and as someone who was unsure of herself a lot of the time. There was a connection there, she just speaks the language of the people and particularly the language of young women.
WWD: What did you learn from editing this issue, and from leading your team during lockdown?
F.S.: We’ve been bolder, we’ve taken more risks and because we’re going through this incredibly human experience together, for me as an editor of a fashion magazine, I’ve realized that fashion is about human beings, and about their stories. So we pivoted that way a bit more, and it was the right thing to do, particularly for Elle. It’s always been a fashion magazine, but it’s about women as well, women’s secret hopes, secret desires, their strengths and frailties.
These are changes that are going to stick. That’s why it was really important that when we did the mentoring of the September issue, it didn’t end with that issue. These things have got to have longevity, otherwise they don’t work. They become meaningless and they’re all for p.r. and it’s not what I’m about. The changes will continue, you’ll see more of them and it’s just the beginning. I’ve only been at Elle for a year now, and I always say it takes about a year until you start to see what an editor is really thinking, for them to sit back and listen to everybody and read the temperature. I’m not the editor that kind of goes in and says, “Right, we’re doing it my way” because actually we don’t always know the right way.