NEW YORK — It’s hot in Nina Garcia’s office.
It’s hot outside, too, being the end of August in New York, but for some reason the cool air pumping freely through the rest of Hearst Tower is not making its way into Garcia’s relatively new office on the 24th floor. A pair of large, ceramic, red lips sitting in one wall-length window look hot to the touch. She’s concerned her blown out and expertly highlighted hair is flat — it’s not — and there are photos to be taken, a video to shoot. But, she smooths her Prada dress and carries on — 30 years in magazine publishing and nearly 20 in television have probably prepared her for worse than hair that doesn’t meet her expectations.
But details do seem important to Garcia, who a year ago became editor in chief of Elle, where she spent a major part of her career before joining “Project Runway” and then becoming creative director of Marie Claire. A short unboxing video made to promote Elle’s September issue, Garcia’s first, on her Instagram isn’t exactly what she wanted. The box holding the magazine is “not an Elle box,” the pink ribbon is a little tacky, even if in the end, the video got close to 15,000 views.
Garcia also doesn’t seem one to dwell. The unboxing video seems pushed immediately out of her mind, and the state of her hair entirely forgotten, when she starts in on her childhood in Colombia, where fashion magazines, which she was drawn to as a girl, were scarce. Since her father was a wealthy importer she managed to get an international hotel to order some in — “I cherished them.” She used magazine pages to make covers for her schoolbooks. “Who knew,” Garcia said, shrugging at the idea of any kind of fate.
As she got older and after she moved to the U.S. to finish school, Garcia’s interest in fashion shifted and she got into the industry, first on the public relations side then quickly on the editorial publishing side, where she’s been ever since. Even having spent her whole career at magazines, maintaining editorial positions throughout the entirety of her TV career, Garcia says being editor in chief of a title wasn’t something she was actively working toward. With her high profile thanks to “Project Runway,” she probably could have gotten herself another television gig, but Hearst Magazines seems eager to have people like Garcia — popular, open to social media and its stars and demands, and eager to branch out — at the top of its brands. And at the top she sits.
WWD caught up with Garcia to discuss her first year leading Elle, the industry now and when she started out and the merits of having celebrities interview each other, among other things.
WWD: Did you ever think you would be an editor in chief of a magazine? Was that something you aspired to?
Nina Garcia: No, but I had it very clear that I wanted to be in fashion. I thought I’d be a designer and I very quickly found out that I am not a designer. But I did learn and I became passionate about the magazines and it was such a privilege to be able to appreciate all of the designers, their designs, to discover designers and to communicate to women what you find, what you’re seeing, what the trends are. That very quickly became my passion.
WWD: Was there a time when it dawned on you, “Oh, I have a knack for this,” or did somebody tell you?
N.G.: I don’t know. I started in the business as an intern, as everybody else does, and I thought, you know what, I really enjoy doing this and I’m really good at it and I very quickly moved through the ranks. So that kind of gave me the reinforcement that I was good at it and I never wavered. I was so focused and I loved it. Once I started working in magazines, I really, really loved it. I didn’t want to do anything else.
WWD: And what time was this, the late Eighties?
N.G.: Yeah, this was the late Eighties, early Nineties.
WWD: So the heyday…
N.G.: It was the heyday, it totally was. My first job was at Mirabella magazine under Grace Mirabella and that was great. Jade Hobson was the creative director and she was the one that hired me in my first position as an assistant. Everybody went through Mirabella at that time, it was really interesting.
WWD: Who else went through there then?
N.G.: Oh, I’m really dating myself. It was Paul Sinclaire, it was Heidi Baron, who was at the time married to Fabien [Baron], it was — and these are names that might not be very relevant because it’s a long time ago — Kathryn MacLeod, she was doing the booking. Tracee Ellis Ross was working as an intern; Samira Nasir was there. A lot of people touched there. Again, we were all assistants or interns.
WWD: Do you see big differences between how the industry operated then and how it operates now?
N.G.: Oh my god, the industry has changed so much. It really has been like a switch, right? It continues to change, but I think with change there is so much opportunity. Obviously, when we would go to the shows back then, we would bring slides, we would have to get the slides, you know those little Kodak slides, and choose the looks we liked and then they were transferred into photographs and that’s how we made look books and selected the looks [for the magazine]. I mean, crazy. And now everything is online, you can experience a fashion show in real time, the democratization of fashion, incredible. But with all this access it’s brought so many more voices to the forefront, which I think is fantastic.
WWD: And how do you think print magazines fit in that dynamic now? In the time you’re describing, they were very vital to the industry, people actually needed them to see what was going on. You couldn’t look anything up online, there was no online, but now there is, so what’s the service of a magazine now?
N.G.: Good content is always going to be good content. When you have good content, it’s always so meaningful. The amount of work that goes into writing a good feature, research, fact checking, editing, it’s so important. In the same way, so much energy goes into a beautiful photo. The location scouting, the creative process of coming up with the idea, it’s a very complex process that again, gives you good content. It has changed, undeniably so, but what I think is so fascinating and for me, what I love, is that I am able to communicate with readers. It’s not just information going one way but I get feedback. Now I have all of this information and can really cater that content to what they’re interested in. I think that is the future — to be able to kind of personalize content more to what’s happening. We have that information, we have access to it, so I think it makes our jobs, not easier, but I think more interesting, when we have that two-way conversation.
WWD: It sounds like there has been a shift from the time you started, when it was basically the magazines telling the consumer what they needed to know or what they should know or what they should want to the opposite.
N.G.: Yes and no. I also think there’s so much information that you need a curated point of view. You do need somebody that is an expert in whatever their field is — cooking, fashion styling, whatever it is — curators and experts in every category right now because there’s so much information. Yes, there is a back and forth with the reader, but there’s still a level of expertise and curation that can only come from people that are really steeped into whatever their field is. And with social media and technology, there’s so much opportunity to take print into places they’ve never been before. In April, we did the first personalized cover with Kim [Kardashian]. Then in July, we brought the reader the opportunity to not only shop the magazine but to try on the makeup through [the Samsung phone] camera.
WWD: And what’s the consumer reaction to that stuff — do you actually see an uptick in newsstand sales?
N.G.: Yes, [Kardashian] was a very successful cover for us and so was [July], we had 600 million media impressions with that one. I have been in print so much but…when I’m thinking about a cover I’m also thinking about how it will look online. Yes, we have the newsstand image, but we also need that Instagram image. How is it going to look on that little [phone] screen, because — like it or not — we are living our lives through that little screen. It’s always next to us. It’s not a bad thing for print, it’s an exciting time and it’s a time of opportunity. The first time around when I was at Elle, it was first to the market in so many ways.
WWD: It’s maybe the only straight fashion magazine that’s always been more culture and issues driven with the topics it covers. Is that something you want to push into?
N.G.: Absolutely. I think it’s very important for us to be a platform and voice for women’s issues. The first big event I had to do when I started was the Women in Hollywood event and it was such a, you know, right on the heels of the [Harvey] Weinstein scandal. What was incredibly impressive was to be in this room with all of these celebrities of all ages, and in the past I think it was about really celebrating celebrity, but that evening it was all these women sharing their experience with #MeToo or an abuse of power. That room was electrified and women were not only sharing their story by their concern for what it is that they could do for the next gen of women.
WWD: When you went into that event, right after Weinstein, did you feel any trepidation considering his involvement with “Project Runway?”
N.G.: You know, he really had such little contact with “Runway.” It was really a Lifetime project; Heidi [Klum] was executive producer. We really never had interaction with Harvey. Now that the show’s changed hands and the Weinsteins are no longer involved, it’s gone back to Bravo. Even what we’re experiencing today with our government, there has to be a silver lining, and it’s that we’re all going to come out better, we know we need to take a stance, we know we need to speak up, we know we need to have our voices heard, we know that we are the ones that have the power to make the change. We can’t ignore, it is a moment.
WWD: How do you think #MeToo is going to come to fashion? There have been some stops and starts with models talking about abuses in the industry, but I feel there’s more to come.
N.G.: Yes. At Hearst we’re hyper-aware of a code of ethics that we observe in all fashion shoots…but fashion has so many problems to tackle and we are tackling them the same way with conservation and sustainability and transparency in how we produce things, that’s also a topic that’s very hot. But big companies like Kering and Nike, they’re really looking into it and saying we need to be more transparent.
WWD: Do you think transparency is where a solution would come from? It seems that it’s maybe more of an overall cultural shift that needs to happen, like even fashion’s focus on the male gaze, which is very old and very ingrained and very powerful.
N.G.: Absolutely, but again, with technology and social media, these are all conversations that will help us. It’s brought about so many voices and can unite us.
WWD: So who do you think you’re talking to with Elle now?
N.G.: What’s interesting about Elle is that it has such a wide demographic and we have probably the youngest demographic in print. We have a young reader but we also have an older reader who can maybe afford [more]. So, it’s so important for us to be in that mix, high and low has always been so much a part of the conversation, part of the DNA of this brand, but we do have a very young reader and I think that’s what makes it so interesting and so different from the rest of the magazines out there.
WWD: How do you specifically appeal to a younger reader or what is it about Elle that appeals to them?
N.G.: It’s always been inclusive, it’s been democratic, it’s innovative, it’s bold, it’s provocative. That’s at the core forever and ever and that has never been so relevant as it is today. We are not reinventing the wheel at Elle. We do not need to change the messaging, because it has always been there, and I think it has been the reason of our success and our continued success.
WWD: Did you feel like coming from the fashion background that you did, working very close to the market, that that would impede you moving up to the editor in chief level?
N.G.: I don’t think I ever felt that. Somebody asked me recently did I always want to be an editor in chief and I thought, not really, I just enjoyed what I do in fashion and that I’m able to be part of it and I’ve been able to do so many other things in the fashion community. But this was a role that I didn’t think I could pass up, just because the brand is so important, the message is so important and the opportunity is so great.
WWD: Speaking of opportunity, at the time that you did it, joining “Project Runway” was a bit of a risk.
N.G.: It was an enormous risk. I thought it was going to be a real career killer. I’m like, “I will never get invited to another show in my entire life.”
WWD: Was it immediately positive and people accepted it?
N.G.: I think it was immediately positive. I would go to the shows and people would be like, “Tell us about this designer with the husks.” And at that time it was the perfect storm, H&M was happening, Zara was coming in, it was that time. And the industry had been so shrouded in secrecy that people were fascinated and I was fascinated that people were so curious.
WWD: Do you think anything has been lost by having some of that secrecy gone?
N.G.: No, I think it’s all been positive. When we talk about the abuse of power, #MeToo, it’s just like peeling an onion, it’s all about that transparency. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I know people might disagree with me, but it just makes us all better journalists, better editors, better people.
WWD: When the whole “Project Runway” thing first happened, did you doubt it at all?
N.G.: Oh, yes, completely. Completely doubted it. I was going through personal family issues, my mother was really ill in Colombia — so it was a combination of doubt and personal issues that I didn’t want to ignore or put aside, and it was very conflicting for me to be involved in the show but I took a chance and said, “If it fails, it fails.”
WWD: Did you think the show would last this long?
N.G.: No. But, it’s been a great show. I have 20-, 25-year-olds come up to me and say like, “Oh, I was a little kid watching you on TV” and I’m like, “Oh, that’s great, but please don’t tell me you were a kid watching me and now you’re a grown woman.…”
WWD: With Troy Young and Kate Lewis in place now [at Hearst], are you thinking of Elle’s business any differently?
N.G.: For now, it’s the same, but it will be evolving for sure.
WWD: And how is the mandate to work more with international going to shake out? Is it just more content sharing?
N.G.: We already do so much content sharing on both digital and print. It’s been so organic to this magazine for so long — we have 45 editions, we have constant meetings with international. One part of the job that I love is I get to work with all of those international brands and editors. And I like the content sharing. I think it’s an opportunity to really leverage the power that we have as a brand and that’s very attractive to advertisers, too. There have been covers that can go to 20, 30, 40 countries — that is huge leverage. Or there’s a story I might buy that I might not have thought of or I’m in a bind. It is a global market.
WWD: Do you think the individual editions lose any of their cultural oomph or resonance by sharing so much?
N.G.: No. I think we share enough, we don’t share everything. We still produce original content for all of the editions. Every country has their own sensibility so that needs to be observed but there are some cover girls and brands that really resonate across international boundaries, so it’s finding those stories in features and fashion and beauty.
WWD: With covers, have you been approaching them any differently?
N.G.: I think they’re bolder, they’re more colorful, they’re more positive. When I first came here, there were a lot of gray backgrounds. It was a little sullen and I wanted to bring that energy back. It’s what the brand stands for, so we’ve been working on that.
WWD: With the September cover with Emma Stone, you have Jennifer Lawrence interviewing her — is this the first time there’s been a celebrity best friend interview feature?
N.G.: Since I’ve been here we had Karl [Lagerfeld] interview Nicki [Minaj] and John Kerry interview Angelina Jolie — that was a real brokerage to do that — but I think it’s to offer the reader an unexpected approach for Elle. In terms of Emma and Jennifer, we had shot Nicki and then we shot Ariana Grande and it so happened during that shoot that Nicki was next door shooting for another magazine and after we wrapped, we all went to say hello to Nicki. I noticed there was such a phenomenal rapport between them and to be a fly on the wall listening to a conversation about boyfriends, careers and social media — it was so wonderful to see two women supporting each other and have a real friendship. When we had the opportunity to have [Stone and Lawrence] having a fly-on-the-wall conversation, I was like “Yes!,” because I wished I’d done it with Nicki and Ariana. [Critics] can write whatever they write but I’m telling you the reality.
WWD: From an outside perspective it almost seems like celebrities are getting an unprecedented level of control over their covers.
N.G.: I think that is a problem that a magazine that will go unmentioned here has and, sadly, it’s getting reflected onto us. [The Stone cover] didn’t come from, “Oh, she won’t give us access.” She would give us access. It was something that was offered and I was like, yes, because I had already thought of it for Ariana and it didn’t happen. Karl and Nicki was great, but Nicki interviewing Ariana, I think our readers would have been like, “Wow.” It’s also about the access that print has that digital does not — it’s not there yet.
WWD: Do you think it ever will be?
N.G.: I don’t know. Again it goes back to the quality of the content. I think that in some cases, celebrities still feel very safe with [print].
WWD: Do you think that the average reader can actually recognize good content?
N.G.: I think they can recognize good content. You know when you’re reading an amazing feature or you’re seeing a beautiful editorial. I think that’s what’s going to separate the girls from the women.