NEW YORK — On a temperate midwinter night last month, a line of what looked like teenage runaways piled into a freight elevator in a loft-building in Chelsea. On closer inspection, the pouting, bespangled youths were an aggressively hip crowd from a cross section of the art, fashion and publishing industries. They’d been invited to join Bullett magazine at its new offices to celebrate Jessica White, a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model who, a week previously, had gained some tabloid notoriety for ending a night of clubbing by allegedly hitting a woman who attempted to steal her taxi.
White was auctioning off several nude prints of herself to benefit the charity Angel Wings, which aids children from economically challenged areas. With the fashion week party at full tilt, the mercurial model decided to give an impromptu speech. White began to speak into a microphone, but the sound system didn’t quite cooperate. A young woman in a tight black cocktail dress, heels, and recently bleached blonde updo rushed through the crowd, admonishing those who were speaking over the model.
“If you have any respect for me,” she advised, “you will stop talking!”
The blonde was Erin Ralph, and those were her offices, her party — and, until last week, her magazine. Now she’s on to her third act.
At the ripe old age of 26, Ralph is the co-founder of Bullett and actually something of a fashion lifer. A native of Wantage, N.J., she began pitching big-city publications at age 11. By 13, she said, she’d been offered full-time positions from companies that were unaware of her age. By her midteens, Ralph was running LuxuryFashion.com, a Web site that offered fashion-minded content alongside socialite and celebrity gossip centered on the bold-faced names of the era: the Hilton sisters, Nicole Richie, Casey Johnson. In a 2003 profile, a then-18-year-old Ralph told WWD that, “by the time I’m 25, I’d like to have an avant-garde magazine. Not quite as big as Nylon, more like Jalouse or Visionaire.”
The image of a media-savvy, young and unabashedly precocious fashion fanatic with a cultish Web site draws unavoidable comparisons to a certain tween Comme des Garçons-loving member of the bloggeratti (who has been pursuing her own magazine, in the image of long-shuttered Sassy, with that fabled magazine’s founder, Jane Pratt).
“I feel like I was Tavi [Gevinson],” Ralph said with an emphatic nod over a lunch at The Breslin in late January. “But with no media attention. She started out writing a blog and making comments, whereas I started out with a whole entire magazine that had fashion, music, culture, etc…blogs didn’t exist when I started. It was actually easier to have a unique voice. Now you really have to do something different to stand out.”
Ralph came of age as fashion flooded the Internet. There has been a surge of youth on the editorial side of the fashion industry during the last decade, due in no small part to an influx of bloggers: Web-based content from enthusiastic young people considering collections, snapping street portraits or presenting their own opinions on celebrity style.
Eight years ago, with LuxuryFashion.com, Ralph was an early figure in that youth movement. Bullett was her first play for the adult table. Launched late last year, with Ralph as editor in chief, the magazine reads like a fusion of Interview and Visionaire. It describes itself in volume one as a “revolutionary transmedia platform,” which for now means a magazine and Web site. Despite its indie and newbie status, Bullett was able to land a breadth of feature subjects for the first issue including, to name a few, Cindy Crawford, Elizabeth Banks and Mark Ruffalo. Its second issue, tentatively set to hit newsstands later his month, will feature Léa Seydoux and Stephen Moyer on its covers.
And yet the ongoing development of Ralph’s career path may be proof that while such a move — from Internet entrepreneur to glossy editor, coupled with the office politics involved therein — makes perfect sense to a young dreamer, it is not necessarily going to be easy. As if to illustrate the point, on March 4, while WWD was in the midst of profiling her, Bullett’s investors bought Ralph out and replaced her, at least for now, with Idil Tabanca, another co-founder and the magazine’s visual director. (Ralph told WWD that Tabanca, 26, from Istanbul, is the project’s majority shareholder. A spokeswoman for the magazine said the company is restructuring and “it has yet to be decided whether or not Idil will be the majority shareholder.” When asked about the identity of Bullet’s backers, the spokeswoman said they preferred to be known as “an overseas investor.”) Two other co-founders, creative director Sah D’Simone and art director James Orlando, will continue to round out Bullett’s masthead.
At a Midtown cafe a few days after her departure, Ralph was characteristically optimistic about her future endeavors.
“It’s been about a year since we really began Bullett,” she explained. “I put it together in nine months. So this next project? I could do it in two. I don’t want to say starting a magazine is easy, but, once you know what you’re doing…its not difficult.” That next project is not a magazine, but another “creative coalition” born seven hours after her departure from Bullett, which she has dubbed United Culture — an online social media platform exclusively for artists.
“It’s really an ego thing, wanting a magazine,” Ralph admitted with a smile. “Everyone said that it was, back when I first talked about Bullett, and I denied it…but it’s true. You want a physical manifestation of your dream.”
Several times over several meetings, Ralph repeated inspirational phrases like “Just do it!” with the fervor of a life coach, or a Nike commercial. It is a fitting personal mantra for someone with such a can-do, did-do, is-doing attitude. At the earlier lunch at The Breslin, Ralph explained how her early experiences online helped shape her perky outlook.
“Most people’s self-esteem gets killed as teenagers and their potential goes…” Ralph interrupted herself to make a soundless, plummeting dive motion with her hand. “I was working…I was in the city living this interesting, crazy life. I’d go back to this small town and all people cared about were these really…simple things.”
As she tells it, Ralph soon tired of LuxuryFashion.com, and segued out of the Web-based celebrity-gossip world in order to pursue her more altruistic ideals. She had a brief stint as the editor in chief of Zink magazine, but soon struck out on her own again.
“As I got older, I stopped worrying about things like the celebrity world, the fashion world, the perks of the job,” she said. “I wanted to establish a purpose. I wanted to make the world a better place…to unite people. To inspire people. My big thing is helping people. Maybe it’s a weakness, but whatever.”
The loss of the reins at Bullett has not dampened Ralph’s can-do spirit or her outlook on the future of media (under the right guidance). When she spoke to WWD after her departure, Ralph was poised, motivated and proud of her accomplishments. “This is still a success story!” she laughed into a mug of steeping peppermint tea. There were still some chinks in Ralph’s armor, however. When asked whether her name will be on the masthead for Bullett’s spring issue, Ralph winced almost imperceptibly before widening her eyes and smiling.
“I’m happy that this happened!” Ralph exclaimed of her departure from Bullett, and one is inclined to believe her. “I think it’s awesome: I created this. It’s one idea: Hey, I have a million ideas. I can do this a million times. Bullett’s going to blow up and be huge. Sure, at first, I was clinging to it, I didn’t want to let go. And then I realized,” Ralph paused to stab a chunk of avocado, “if my mission is about people moving forward and sharing their creativity with the world, it’d be hypocritical of me to fight this. To say ‘No, it’s my baby.’ I’ll go back to visit it, watch it grow: it’s like it is my actual baby, being raised in a foster home. Luckily its foster parents are cool and very talented.”
Which is not to say she doesn’t have any takeaways.
“I’ve definitely learned that one should self-finance,” she said. “So you’re really in charge. That’s what I’m going to do with the money from Bullett, for my next project.”