Since being fired from Vogue at the start of his magazine career, Derek Blasberg has made quite the comeback.
“Being fired from Vogue, I really thought it was over,” Blasberg said, speaking on video from a bedroom in his Manhattan apartment. As the coronavirus pandemic continues, most companies are still operating on a work-from-home basis, including YouTube, where Blasberg has been leading fashion and beauty partnerships for the last two years. A rarefied job, and a first for YouTube, where he makes use of his many, many high-profile friends and acquaintances, and years of fashion magazine work. It’s a long way off from being forced to go freelance at 22 and avoiding having to pay for dinner with friends by saying he was “busy” and would meet them at dessert.
“Then I’d go home and eat Kraft Mac n’ Cheese,” he said.
Clearly, Blasberg’s ability to socialize is not impacted by a tight budget and he’s become a fixture of fashion shows and parties over the years. But a peek at his bedroom offers a few, however vague, glimpses into his now more comfortable life.
It’s finely decorated, with walls painted a dusty pink and well-placed gold fixtures. A woman who appears to be a housekeeper pops into the background at one point, putting some clothes or maybe a towel into a hamper. Such are the limits of interviewing people through a computer screen.
But Blasberg does have a charisma that comes through, even on a laptop. His conversation is easy and light, he’s quick with a quip or a friendly jab, sometimes in his own direction. He’s maintained an ever-so-slight Midwestern lilt and not yet succumbed to using the same phrases over and over that media training can drill into leaders at tech companies. It’s easy to see how his relaxed demeanor and way of talking to someone he’s never met as if they’ve done so a dozen times has turned some very famous women, some of whom started out as subjects for magazine pieces, into his friends.
“It took me a while to realize that my old jobs in magazines and even CNN, I was getting to do on a much bigger scale and much bigger audience and team,” Blasberg said of before he took the YouTube job in 2018.
And he’s busy. The dings of calendar alerts, e-mails and G-chats are frequent while talking to him. He’s brought people like Naomi Campbell to the platform, with her videos taking off during the pandemic. He’s matched influencers and brands for marketing moments, like Emma Chamberlain with Louis Vuitton. He’s gotten legacy brands like Chanel, Dior and Bottega Veneta to livestream shows.
Now, like magazines and the publishing industry at large, Blasberg has been confronted with the Black Lives Matter movement and calls to force the fashion industry, of which he has long been a part, to do more to diversify and represent people of color. Later this year he hopes to launch the Black Designers Initiative on YouTube. With 15 designers already on board, the move is aimed at getting designers of color to the same level of popularity as others in the fashion design world, who are typically white, male and European.
“When we look at who succeeds on YouTube, there’s a disparity, even in who’s represented on YouTube,” Blasberg admits.
Beyond much-needed diversifying of fashion, Blasberg expects the industry to change its ways when it comes to the near-constant stream of shows and parties and events that the pandemic all but wiped out — and of which, for years, Blasberg has been an eagerly high-profile part.
“I don’t think it will go back to what it was for everyone,” he said. “There was an extreme amount of, I guess we can call it waste.”
Here, WWD catches up with Blasberg on his work at YouTube, his past at magazines and where he sees the fashion industry going post-pandemic.
WWD: You’re someone who’s used to going out a lot. How have these past months been for you? Are you going crazy or were you ready for a break?
Derek Blasberg: It’s been definitely super surreal, but I’ve been healthy and pretty happy so it’s nothing to complain about. I think I’m having a similar experience to a lot of people in the fashion space, where you’re forced to analyze some of the routines and norms we took for granted in this industry for the past few years. Like traveling around the world for one 13-minute show, working at all hours of the day. In a lot of ways, I’ve been really happy about having the time and the headspace to reflect. But, like a lot of people, I’m spending so much time on these video conferences that I think my eyeballs are going to fall out of my head.
WWD: It actually starts to physically hurt your face.
D.B.: It does. But I will say when I used to push myself to exhaustion, sometimes I’d have to get on a plane and go to a fashion show. Now when I push myself to my video conference exhaustion, I say I’m going to go for a walk in Central Park. I still don’t think my dog knows what’s going on, he’s more confused than anyone, like, “I’ve been on four walks today and never been on four walks in my entire life. How is this happening?”
WWD: A lot of us have probably been asking that this year. But this is actually your second at YouTube.
D.B.: We spent a year building what would become youtube.com/fashion and, as you can imagine on a platform like YouTube that has more than two billion viewers a day, it’s hard to build things. Or I shouldn’t say difficult, it’s complex. In that time we launched channels, like Jen Atkin and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Louis Vuitton TV, but last September we really moved into this pretty incredible and exciting consumer-facing fashion show extravaganza. Which in hindsight turned out to be pretty timely. Now, in a surreal way, we’re really flexing the muscle of youtube.com/fashion while all of these brands are transitioning to livestream shows, all digital shows or, and I’m sure this is as much your new favorite word as it is mine, “phy-gital” shows.
WWD: I actually get a little bit queasy every time I hear it.
D.B.: That’s probably the right word to describe it.
WWD: In the beginning of the pandemic in the West, were there any viewership changes that struck you, did fashion and beauty content drop off?
D.B.: When it became clear that this was a very serious situation, and there was a moment when Google shifted all of its marketing budget to “stay home,” that was an interesting moment in the fashion space because a lot of fashion people recognized now is not the time to talk about trends and going out, literally we’re not supposed to go out, so don’t talk about how to do the perfect smokey eye for a night on the town. But what was great is from where I was sitting we saw a lot of creators doing, “While we’re home, this is my five-step protein-pak routine,” “This is how to treat your skin when you’re staying home.” We also had a lot of creators come to us for ideas with stay-at-home content.
WWD: Did it take a minute for you and your team to figure out what content would play well — was it you going to people saying you need to shift gears or did content creators come to you saying this is what I want to do?
D.B.: I’m trying to think if there were any moments where we had to reprimand a channel and I can’t think of one so my instinct is no. But we definitely did do a lot of brainstorming. For example, we sat down with Karlie Kloss and came up with a lot of ideas for the kind of content she should be creating during quarantine.
Also, I probably should have started with this, but within the fashion vertical there are three buckets of creators: brands, publishers and professionals. They each have different levels of strategy and concept building. Most brands, if I’m being candid, just went silent for most of 2020. Whereas some of the professionals, like Naomi Campbell, she went, like…
WWD: She went off.
D.B.: She went off. She started a whole new series called “No Filter With Naomi” and for three weeks she did it every single day. And I don’t think Naomi would mind me saying this, she’s not always been known for her punctuality. Shocking. But I will say, for this, she was on time, fully prepared, super easy to work with and super eager to talk to everyone. And we had agreed to do only two weeks and she loved it so much she did a third bonus week. That was someone who really took that opportunity to say some things we all wanted and needed to hear. So different strokes for different folks.
WWD: Is most of your day spent working with brands and creators or personalities directly strategizing content for them?
D.B.: Sort of. Together the fashion and beauty vertical manages, in varying levels, about 100 partners. And I have to say I have an incredible team — our internal alias is “the glitter, the glue and the gold” because these guys make it stick together and make it sparkle.
But the number-one asset we can unlock is the personal management. And to be super candid, I think a lot of people who come from the fashion space and onto YouTube, they’re missing a lot of foundational points for success on YouTube.
WWD: Not super surprising.
D.B.: Right. There is a concept that shorter is better and quicker performs better and we actually have data that backs up the opposite. Videos under four minutes traditionally get very low organic watch time and few comments and few shares. One that’s a bit longer, that’s narrative in story and structure, that does much better on YouTube. Titles are important. End cards are important. Thumbnails are super important. If you scroll through a hundred fashion show videos, the thumbnail is literally the most important thing.
Dior early on into COVID-19 posted a one-hour documentary-style video on their channel which got over one million organic views. I don’t think they’d anticipated such an incredible response to a one-hour film that, I think, is in French. But that had an incredible lift for them.
WWD: When people see a lift like that, does it automatically make them want to do more or does it take a minute for them to get into a groove?
D.B.: When something goes viral on YouTube and the comments go off it’s, um, I’m trying to find a simile that does not involve drug use…
WWD: A dopamine high, you can get that from running.
D.B.: OK, fine, yes that works, exactly. It is super compelling for these brands when they hit and strike gold.
The other thing we’re focused on is bridging the gap between YouTube and the fashion world. When you strike the right balance, it’s an incredible marriage. I feel like a million-dollar matchmaker, a yenta.
WWD: Is it hard to get to that place or do you have a formula?
D.B.: It can be tricky to get brands on board and it can be tricky to convince creators that getting on a plane for a single fashion show is worth it. There are some negotiations. But when Emma Chamberlain went to the Vuitton show, that was her third show, and Vuitton looked at the social analytics, they were surprised at how explosive her engagement and her presence was for them. Bretman Rock, he’s a fabulous creator who lives in Hawaii and he doesn’t love going out, but we got him to come to New York Fashion Week and his video from it was one of his most watched and highest performing.
WWD: Besides COVID-19, the catastrophe that is, the re-infuriation around systemic racism and the Black Lives Matter movement, has that changed your thinking or your approach to what you’re doing now?
D.B.: I think every company but definitely YouTube and certainly the team I work with took a look at themselves and what they represented and how they work. I’m pretty fortunate, I’m the only white guy on my team. But when we look at who succeeds on YouTube, there’s a disparity, or even in who’s represented on YouTube. So two members of my team and I decided to launch the Black Designers Initiative. Hopefully this will launch by the end of the year, they’ve already onboarded 15 brands with workshops and training so they’re also represented on YouTube, as much as other designers and legacy houses.
I don’t think anyone who’s been in America lately, or anywhere for that matter, has not been forced to look at what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. What we do and what fashion does in general will have to be more compassionate and more diverse going forward than it has been in the past.
WWD: And how do you feel about using your role in that way? You’re very connected, so as an individual, how do you go about that, beyond creating specific spaces for designers of color?
D.B.: My instinct is to say I haven’t made a lot of decisions. What has really been a great opportunity is working with such a diverse team, it’s given me more of an opportunity to listen than call the shots. More than anything, I think not just me but a lot of people in fashion for this long, are really interested in listening to learn what the best and most socially conscious next steps are.
WWD: When you were first talking to YouTube and Google about this job, were you intimidated or you were ready to move out of editorial and some of the traditional TV you’d been doing.
D.B.: In my early conversations with them, I was apprehensive. I went to school for journalism. My career plan was to work in magazines and newspapers, I just thought that was my journey and what I was meant to do. And I loved getting to work with photographers and designers and models and stylists and actors and telling those stories through the written word. But in my conversations with Google, I realized my job at YouTube would be telling stories with photographers and models and actors. So it took me a while to realize that my old jobs in magazines and even CNN, I was getting to do on a much bigger scale and much bigger audience and team. So that helped me to take the job and I’m so super happy that I did.
WWD: When you left magazines and that type of work, did you feel you were getting out at the right time? When you started your career, it was some of the last of the good times in magazines.
D.B.: I definitely entered magazine publishing still in the golden age of magazines and definitely publishing is still in a moment of reckoning as it repositions to digital. But I still write for a lot of magazines. But it’s been incredible to see magazines pivot. Vogue just put out this “I Love New York” video about the New York collections, Whoopi Goldberg narrated. It’s a moody look book video, but I think more people are going to see that than the magazine this month.
WWD: There’s nowhere to get good magazines anymore, even if you wanted them.
D.B.: Subscriptions may go up because of that. Can I be really honest with you? Another thing I’ve been doing during COVID-19 — I don’t subscribe to a lot of these magazines because I used to just buy them all at the airport when I travel — but there have been such incredible covers reflecting what’s happening in society right now, I’ve been buying them on eBay. Time, O Magazine’s Breonna Taylor cover, the Kerry James Marshall cover for The New York Review of Books. The New Yorker did an incredible cover. I have a pile now and I don’t know what to do with them. But we’re living in such historic times I don’t want to forget the sort of reckoning and lessons we’re learning.
WWD: It sounds like this job isn’t what you envisioned for yourself five years ago. You probably were thinking more about being an editor in chief at a magazine.
D.B.: Exactly. The surreal plot twist is my hesitation was, “Oh, YouTube isn’t magazines.” And it’s actually doing a lot of the same things I loved about my career in magazines.
WWD: Do you feel like these places — Google, Facebook — are the new magazines, in that they are places where people who may have been drawn toward magazines now want to work?
D.B.: There’s probably some truth to that. There are all of these new roles showing up in the tech space. I guess the difference is, when I worked at a magazine you were really putting on the whole production, you’re actors on the stage. At YouTube, it’s almost like we’re theater owners, so we have the stage and we will give you the best direction we think we can, but it’s really up to the actors to get that standing ovation.
WWD: Was it difficult for you to go from being more front and center to behind the scenes?
D.B.: Not really. Getting a little long in the tooth, let’s be honest. But not for nothing, there have been opportunities to do public-facing things which I’m happy to do. I get a little sprinkle, a little buzz, but the bulk of my job is behind the scenes. It’s a lot of strategy and I actually really love that.
WWD: Going forward, do you see yourself sticking with this and then the occasional magazine piece, or maybe you want to do another book?
D.B.: I will try another book. You know, Peter Beard passed away, the photographer, I loved his pictures. I was an editor for Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s book “Influence,” maybe this was 2008. And me and Ashley went to Paris to interview Peter and I have pictures of them together, we went out, we went to Café de Flore. I went into those notes and the book and part of me was like, “What does the new influence look like?” Or maybe an update on my earlier books. The job at YouTube, especially now, does not offer a lot of time for side projects.
WWD: What about post-COVID-19 — what do you think will happen with fashion month and fashion parties? Will it go back to what it was or will people realize that maybe it’s been a bit much?
D.B.: I don’t think it will go back to what it was for everyone. Chanel and Dior will probably keep their same six shows a year schedule, but Gucci now will have no specific schedule. I’m here for that.
And there was an extreme amount of, I guess we can call it waste. An amount of frivolity associated with the way fashion presented itself to the world. When I first started crashing shows in college, there were two sides of the runway, one was press and one was retail. Twenty years on, shows are no longer about sales and distribution. It’s about marketing and making a dent in pop culture via social media. And I think a brand will always want to do that, but maybe not six times a year in an elaborate multimillion-dollar presentation. The goals of these shows are not to get in newspapers and magazines and retailers anymore.
WWD: You went to NYU and straight into magazines and then you’ve been someone who’s at a lot of parties and fashion events and you’ve made friends with a lot of famous blonde women. Is that what you were dreaming about growing up in Missouri?
D.B.: I guess the way to answer that is, of course, a lot of my wildest dreams came true. I grew up in Missouri. I didn’t miss a day of school K-12, perfect attendance. I lived in the same house in the same bedroom for 18 years. I had a very traditional Americana life. I was a voracious consumer of my mom’s magazines. I used to steal fashion magazines from the doctor’s office. I was obsessed with photographers and fashion and art and a lot of people I used to cut out of those magazines are now in my life as either friends or co-collaborators and I definitely don’t take any of that for granted.
WWD: So for someone young who sees your life now and wants some version of it, wants to be “in fashion,” would you advise them to take your same approach?
D.B.: Whenever I speak to young people just starting in fashion, there are a couple of lines I always say. I never said “no.” If someone asked me to come in early the next day to unpack a trunk, I said “Yes.” “Oh, can you grab coffee for the office?” I said “Yes.” When I had a job at Vogue there was a woman, the bookings editor, she would talk about the kind of girls people liked to work with, and her line was: “Happy to be here, easy to work with.” And that resonated for me. I would like to think I’m easy to work with and the vibe I give off is I’m happy to be here.
But my first job out of college was actually at Vogue and I was fired because I was a terrible assistant. My journey, it’s easy to look back and say, “Oh this was strategic” or easy or glamorous, but there were a lot of tough moments. When you get fired from Vogue.…I really thought it was over.
WWD: How old were you?
D.B.: I must have been 22. So I went freelance and I got a lot of resiliency. For the next three years, every story I wrote I had to pitch. Still to this day a lot of my job is pitching an idea and hoping someone takes it.
WWD: Was there a time when you were younger, say that freelancing phase, where it was so hard and you thought about calling mom to say, “Make my bed, I’m coming home.”
D.B.: Luckily, it never got that bad. But there were, and I don’t want to sound too “woe is me,” there were times. After I was fired from Vogue I was living in Brooklyn and a friend would invite me to dinner and I would say, “Oh I have plans, but I’ll meet you for dessert,” so I wouldn’t have to split the check. And then I’d go home and eat Kraft Mac n’ Cheese.
WWD: Was there a breakthrough moment in your career?
D.B.: I’m still waiting for that moment! It’s a slow, steady climb. I went home to see my family and I found my high school graduation photos. I moved to New York in September of 2000. I have been here, pounding this pavement, for 20 years. Two decades.
But I can rattle off some amazing moments. The day after the 2016 election I went with Emma Watson to put books on the subway for a cover story for Vanity Fair. To have my first Vanity Fair cover story was incredible and surreal. A few years before that I interviewed Tom Ford for the first time for the London Sunday Times; I got all dressed up and wore a bowtie. And then I walked in and he’s lounging on a sofa…
WWD: Perfectly coiffed and tanned…
D.B.: He looked like he’d stepped out of a fragrance ad. And he was like, “I think bowties are sexy.” He totally played me and that was an incredible moment in my career. But that was 10 years ago. When I still worked at Vogue and André Leon Talley still had a column — I’m really aging myself, “Style Fax” — he wanted a photo of a model with a pink Oscar de la Renta caftan shot in the studio and he asked me to go and style it. That was my first sitting editor’s job for American Vogue and that was probably 2005. There have been a lot of thrilling moments.
WWD: But you’re still climbing.
D.B.: I like to think so. I’m not over the hill yet, am I?