Amy Astley Architectural Digest

Amy Astley feels she’s just where she should be.

“My whole life, it’s totally of a piece,” Astley said, sitting in her office on the 26th floor of One World Trade Center, where Condé Nast’s Architectural Digest, the magazine she’s led for three years, is housed. “There’s nothing that pokes out in a funny way.”

She’s in all navy, a long pleated skirt and a crisp top, with layers of jewelry around her neck and on her hands — a mix of art and comfort. Her hair is a gentle blonde and banged, as ever. Astley has a serene quality (she’s just taken up yoga, actually) but is also direct. One can imagine her getting impatient, but it’s difficult to think of anyone not doing what she asks the first time.

As a true Condé Nast lifer — her first job out of college was at House & Garden in the late Eighties, moving on to Vogue to work under Anna Wintour for a decade, which continued as founding editor of Teen Vogue, before taking up with AD — Astley has surely seen plenty that could have turned her snippy or cynical. Neither seem to be the case.

“Some days are tiring, grueling, boring stuff, annoying things, but overall it’s so great,” Astley said. Coming from someone else, this could hit as sycophantic or just phony, but from her it seems real, like she’s been through enough at Condé to appreciate when things are good. Or good enough.

And after three years at AD, about to enter its 100th year in publication, things are indeed looking up. When Astley came in, taking over in mid-2016 from Margaret Russell, she felt the magazine was “stuffy,” lacked “interesting people” but was still “a sleeping beauty.” Even in 2016, when Instagram was very much a thing for magazines, AD had less than 1 million followers, no video angle, a web site that didn’t really work. All of that has since changed: now it has 4.7 million followers on Instagram, 2.3 million on YouTube. Print is still tricky, as the MPA Association for Magazine Media has that audience down about 26 percent, but combined with mobile and video (Condé’s main area of focus these days), AD’s audience overall is up by 50 percent year-to date. 

“There was a lot of work to do,” Astley said. But she doesn’t shy away from hard work and doesn’t really appreciate other people who do, something she chalks up to her many years of training to be a professional ballerina. It’s still so much a part of her psyche today that her new yoga practice is proving a challenge.

“When you’re a ballet dancer, you don’t put your hands on the ground, because that would mean you fell down. Never hands on the ground, never.”

A mentality of refusing to fail, along with growing up in a very artistic household — both parents were painters, with her father Irving Taran even showing at Chicago’s well-known Richard Gray Gallery and becoming a college professor of art at Michigan State — put a life in New York on Astley’s mind from a young age. And magazines, those of Condé in particular, seemed like a perfect fit. About 30 years on, she was apparently right.

Here, WWD talks to Astley about her long Condé career, the turnaround of AD and whether or not she’ll end up leading Vogue someday.

WWD: So, how did you not become an artist and how did you not become a dancer?

Amy Astley: Well, I realized I wasn’t going to become a ballet dancer — I wasn’t good enough; my training was a little too erratic in the Midwest. I trained a ton on the East Coast with very good teachers and dancers, but I didn’t have it year-round. Also I don’t really have the right physique for ballet. I was sort of battling my own physique in a way, my feet in particular. In ballet you can’t delude yourself. It’s very clear how good you are very young and whether you’re going to make it. So at 18, I was like, “Mmm, I’m never going to be in New York City Ballet or even a star in a regional company.” I just realized it wasn’t in the cards. 

WWD: Did it hit you all at once or was it a realization over time?

A.A.: No, it hit me at the end of my senior year because I didn’t apply to colleges and I didn’t want to go to college — and my dad’s a professor. And I grew up in a college town where everybody was a professor with 10 degrees.

WWD: So a very academic environment, but you were like, no, thanks.

A.A.: Yes, yes. And when I worked at Vogue, sometimes people would be like, “Oh, your parents must be so proud of you,” and I’d be like, “Hmmm” because it would be in kind of a condescending way, like this girl from the Midwest “made it” here, and it’s like, actually they think I’m not very educated when where I grew up…

WWD: But you didn’t go to college?

A.A.: I did go, but I don’t have a Ph.D.

WWD: For shame.

A.A.: Yeah. My parents, their friends all have one. But I did go to Michigan State. I lived in the dorms, but I was in my hometown. Can’t say it was earth shattering for me. I was in love with New York, I wanted to be a ballet dancer. I was 18, realizing “Oh, this isn’t going to happen for me.” It was tough, but I pulled through. Ballet makes you super tough and able to take criticism and assess yourself honestly, which I still try to do.

I would say that the thread throughout my life then was escapism and fantasy. Ballet is a fantasy, and it’s very hard work.

WWD: Meant to look otherworldly.

A.A.: Yes. So the beauty of that and I was a major bookworm. I was in the library as a child, not far from my home, which saved me. I love libraries. I read a lot of books, a lot of books, every week. And I love writing. I’m a word person, a storyteller.

But again, I’m a person who was like, I’m not a novelist, I’m not a person who can write incredible pieces for The New Yorker. I knew that I was a visual person, that kind of storyteller, so I was drawn to magazines as the right fit. And again, I credit ballet for that. I’m an adequate writer but I’m not that level of writer. But I graduated college and came directly back to New York.

WWD: That was the goal?

A.A.: Yeah. I got out of school in three years, had all my AP credits from high school. I was like, “Get me out of here.” Just get me out of Michigan. Though I’m going back this weekend to see my parents so, love Michigan. Super proud of my hometown. It’s beautiful and I appreciate it more and more as I get older.

WWD: Did you come to New York with an internship or a job?

A.A.: I didn’t have a job. I had a lot of friends here from my ballet days, my parents had some friends here. So I lived with family friends on the Bowery. Super rough in the late Eighties. And I went hardcore for Condé Nast, I just loved the magazines. I’d grown up with them and it felt like the right place for me.

WWD: Tell me about starting here, what was that like?

A.A.: I started at House & Garden, as assistant to the editor in chief, Nancy Novogrod. I was a second assistant. There was a typing test back then, you had to type fast. I had to take it three times, because you get nervous. It was a funny time, there were no computers. It seems prehistoric.

WWD: It’s lightning speed now though. Instagram has only been around since 2012. I remember dial-up and even Gen Z is like, huh?

A.A.: I remember having a cell phone when I was like, 25 years old on a Midwest trip and the cell phone was like the size of this [points to very large ceramic mug] and I was like, “I gotta take a call from New York!” The fax changed my life at House & Garden. Elaine Hunt was the first assistant there and she was trained by Mrs. [Diana] Vreeland, so I always say I was trained by Mrs. Vreeland’s assistant. Elaine was an awesome woman, very sweet and polite. She’d always be like, “Amy, that’s not how it’s done…”

WWD: So no screaming from across the room?

A.A.: No, she did not scream, she was a polite lady. I was very lucky I had so many amazing women in my life, starting with my mom, but the women. There were a lot of great men, too, and it was because of a man that I ended up working in Vogue, but the women there. Really generous, really took me under their wing.

But I did everything assistant-y, and it was a different time. For a busy person, you needed two people to man the phone because it rang all day. We would put handwritten messages on a clipboard outside [Nancy Novogrod’s] office. Pages and pages. I think now, yes, I work with digital natives and they are lucky in that way, but on the other hand, I find many of them cannot spell, cannot write and don’t know how to answer the phone and don’t know how to speak.

WWD: Right. Some seem to have a real lack of basic skills. It can be strange.

A.A.: Yes. But that’s how I was trained, you talk to people. And I worked my way up and H&G, until it was closed by Mr. Newhouse; when he bought AD, he closed H&G in 1993. S.I. always wanted AD. It was a more lucrative business, H&G was super elegant, very European, tasteful, and AD had a more glitzy L.A., American factor to it. And it was a better business.

I also worked for Wendy Goodman at H&G and really, I learned everything from Wendy. I was her assistant doing production on all of her shoots and she was glamorous and still is. I answered her phone and learned how she spoke to people and how she scouted houses and got houses. It’s very intimate going into peoples’ homes and then you’re going to pass judgment — yes or no. She had a real finesse about it. And she’s still working and writing books.

WWD: What do you think it was about you that led these women see you as a mentee?

A.A.: I was Midwestern and had probably a soft quality to me, but I was tough, super tough. In ballet they’re always telling you you’re not good enough, always, always. And you’re fat. It’s brutal and you’re a teenager being told this. But it gives you a toughness. Discipline. But I think I was polite and sweet and eager to learn and I was eager to serve, too. I took good care of all of them.

WWD: Nothing was beneath you.

A.A.: Oh, god no. I was always learning, I didn’t even know what Women’s Wear Daily was.

WWD: Amy, wow…

A.A.: My boyfriend then, who’s now my husband, his aunt in Michigan was very chic and she read W, so I had some sense. I would read it and think: “I must learn about Pat Buckley!” It was a different time in New York, when people like that reigned. But also at House & Garden, there weren’t that many young people. People tend to get into houses as they get older, but I really got the bug early. Then the job I loved was over. 

But an editor named Charles Gandee recommended me to Anna for two positions open in the Vogue beauty department. And Charles said you should call Amy, she works for Wendy Goodman, and Anna knew Wendy. Her sister Tonne [Goodman] worked [at Vogue], so…it’s a small world.

WWD: Smaller every day.

A.A.: Seriously. And again, don’t burn bridges. I teach people I work with if you behave correctly you will not regret that. So I went to Vogue.

WWD: And what year is this?

A.A.: That was like, ’93 or ’94. Anna had probably been there five years? And I just thought, “OK, I’ll work for Vogue for a year or two.” I wanted to go back to shelter, but it was sort of a recession-y time, there weren’t a lot of jobs, especially in shelter. I didn’t expect that Vogue would be such a good fit for me, I didn’t really have any expectations. Honestly, I thought I’d just go and write a lot of copy there and broaden my horizons a little bit. But I ended up staying just shy of 10 years.

Now, at AD people say to me, “Well, where do you get the houses?” I started at H&G so I knew shelter people, decorators, interior designers, garden people, architects, but then I had 10 years at Vogue followed by 13 years at Teen Vogue, so in the fashion and beauty industry. It was all that training that came to fruition here at this job.

WWD: Teen Vogue, was it sad for you when it closed print?

A.A.: I had 13 amazing years there, it was like editor in chief boot camp. I learned how to put together a team, build a digital business, which was important to me even though the company wasn’t emphasizing it. We had the first social media manager.

WWD: That’s a nice way to say it, “not emphasizing it.”

A.A.: People didn’t know what a social media manager was and we had one.

WWD: Right, like “What is the Internet?”

A.A.: Mm-hmm, all of those things. So, was it sad to leave Teen Vogue? No, totally ready. 

I’m lucky I was there in the heyday, when it was such a great business. I am a business person, I’m an entrepreneur, you have to face reality. Even when I was editing Teen Vogue — I have two girls and I can remember looking at them on YouTube when, frankly, most grownups didn’t know what YouTube was. My girls would just watch it for hours, some girl in Michigan in her bedroom doing cat eyes or lip lining. I thought, “Ohhh, times have changed.” We’re still feeling the reverberations of that in our industry, for better and worse. But the consumer speaks and that’s it. If they’d rather get it on digital that’s what you should do.

WWD: And it sounds like you had it in the back of your mind from early on that you wanted to be back in shelter.

A.A.: I always loved shelter. For me to come back full circle, it’s an amazing story. And it’s so positive, I’m so fortunate. I was so ready to move on from Teen Vogue. For me AD was the perfect job. And again, I know I sound like a yogi, “the gratitude,” “hashtag gratitude,” but what else can you feel in this world that we live in? How many people love their job? Some days are tiring, grueling, boring stuff, annoying things, but overall it’s so great.

There are about five people here who are house whisperers, and I’m one of them. I actively do that, I’m not an editor in chief who just waits for things to land on my desk. I write, I edit copy and I look for houses and I host events. I’m super active. And I’ve worked really hard to change the magazine. The first cover I did was Marc Jacobs, which was a “get,” and came out of my friendship with him. Put his dog on the cover with his Instagram handle. People were shocked. The printers called to ask if it was a mistake.

WWD: Amazing, and just a few years ago.

A.A.: I wanted to clearly say, “This is the new AD.”

WWD: Were people excited or freaked out?

A.A.: People were excited. And to this day people talk to me about Marc Jacobs’ house. People were surprised because it was so chic and they got to see he’s a major collector with an amazing eye. They thought he was going to have a “wild child” house or something.

I did that issue in like, four weeks. It was me calling Giovanna [Battaglia], calling Laure [Hériard Dubreuil], calling Amanda Brooks.

WWD: You hadn’t been expecting to take this job for a long time and gotten to prepare? 

A.A.: Nooo. By the time I was aware of it I had to quickly pull the issue together.

WWD: All of the digital stuff AD does, the people that appear online, in videos, is it all crossover from the magazine?

A.A.: Some are and some aren’t. That’s another amazing thing, the halo prestige of the brand, people are very happy now to be on other platforms and not in the magazine. We can put different content in different places, which is ideal. You don’t want to just see all of the magazine content everywhere. Videos are going up every week that are not attached to the magazine. So it’s its own business, thank god.

When I started, people only wanted to be in the magazine, but we’ve been able to build up our web site, which is about 5 million uniques now and our Instagram is 4.7 million [followers]. When I started it was under 1 million. It was small.

WWD: So it’s on your mind to get people not only with a fabulous home but someone that will play to digital?

A.A.: Oh, 100 percent. The October issue was Cara and Poppy [Delevingne]. I’m thinking fun house, they’re cute, and the video is really popular on YouTube. Cara and Poppy’s taste might not be everybody’s taste but it’s fun and it’s fun to look at. You wouldn’t have seen people like that in the old AD. It was very stuffy.

WWD: It seems like your vision is more high-end entertainment then being an arbiter of good taste.

A.A.: I hope that we’re directional in influencing taste and pushing design forward. Taste is subjective and I would defer to, I think, Diana Vreeland, who said something like, “Bad taste can be a lot more fun than good taste.” Also Alex Lieberman, who said, “You’ve got to have something in poor taste in every issue.”

I still think that. Just something fun. Like Cara and Poppy, we showed their velvet paintings and stripper pole in a party room.

WWD: Yeah, that’s a design choice.

A.A.: Yeah. I’m not saying I’m an arbiter of taste, but this is how they’re living and they’re relevant, current, young. Take a look, if you don’t like it you can send a letter. 

WWD: Do you get a lot of letters?

A.A.: Not a lot, but look, when you get a letter, it’s from a different type of reader. 

WWD: Like a time capsule coming right to you.

A.A.: Mm-hmm. We also get an incredible amount of feedback on YouTube and on Instagram.

I want to appeal to different audiences. I don’t want AD to be in aspic in time like it’s just for old, tasteful people. That’s the kiss of death.

WWD: Has there been something so far that got a negative reaction you weren’t expecting?

A.A.: Last March, the covers with Kris Jenner and Kylie. But I’m happy to be part of the conversation, that’s what I want. I want there to be buzz around us and what we’re doing. Kris and Kylie, yes it’s polarizing, you get people saying “This is the worst,” “How can you do this?,” “AD is over,” and they are free to express their opinion. Bring it on.

WWD: And how did the issue do?

A.A.: Great. Tons of web traffic, tons of people watched the video, the covers sold really well and people talked about it.

WWD: What more could you want?

A.A.: Right. And people still talk to me about Marc. No one says, “Do you remember that house with the bone colored walls and tasteful sofa?” We have some of that, but you can’t do whole issues of it month after month. I’m a data freak. I love the analytics and you see the chic issues that are super elevated, they are not the ones killing it online, so it’s a balance.

WWD: Why launch the offshoots Clever and AD Pro?

A.A.: I wanted two things, for AD to be dominant in shelter and broad. I don’t know how you can be dominant in shelter if you’re just for a small swath of wealthy people. I didn’t love that when I first came here, people would say, “Oh AD? Are you sure you want to do that?” I thought, “This is a sleeping beauty.” We’ve scratched the surface now, but there’s so much more we can do with it. It’s why it remains engaging for me, otherwise I would be bored. With Clever, we’ve barely scratched the surface, so much more to do there.

WWD: Like its own print offshoot?

A.A.: No, I’m not super interested in doing a print offshoot. If my bosses tell me to do it, I’ll do it, but I don’t think that’s what the audience necessarily wants.

We did a nice product collaboration with Urban Outfitters, we could have more of that. I have video ambitions. But you can’t do or have everything all at once. With the structure of the company, you have to earn it. We have limited resources and lots of mouths, lots of babies in the nest, so what are you bringing that means you should get more dinner?

WWD: So you’re happy here? You don’t want to take Vogue? People mention…

A.A.: I have no designs on any other job. You can hear the passion when I’m talking about it, right? I love it, it’s like a tailor-made job for me.

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