The best people in this industry are the people who really, truly love their jobs—they love their jobs so much that they inspire you to love your job even more. When I met with Us Weekly fashion director Sasha Charnin Morrison (@SashaCharnin) a couple of weeks ago at a midtown Starbucks, I already knew I liked her. How can you not like a woman who is so frank, so open about her experiences in the industry, from the terrors and triumphs of the Vanity Fair fashion closet to the experience of working under legendary Harper's Bazaar editor Liz Tilberis?
What distinguishes Morrison from many of her peers, though, is that she owns it all. Over the course of our conversation, she walked me through every single one of her major career moments—never glossing over the bad parts, or over-emphasizing the good parts. Because to her, each step played a key role in her life—not just her career. I'm not a stylist, or a fashion editor for that matter, but Morrison's path truly inspires me to be better at my job. And hopefully her words will do the same for you, too.
Fashionista: How did you get your start? Sasha Charnin Morrison: Started in this business? I’ve been in many businesses.
What did you do before? I grew up in New York, in Manhattan. My father and mother were in show business—so it’s a true born-in-a-trunk but stayed-in-the-Village story. [Morrison’s father, Martin Charnin, is the famous Broadway director/lyricist behind Annie.] So in the beginning of my very long career, I started working professionally: singing, dancing, acting, at 13. Various things, commercials, off-Broadway. I did a video--I was in “Love is a Battlefield.” And it was just based on a relationship—I met the choreographer on vacation. And he said that I had the look, I guess, of a knocked up hooker. So I said, “I’ll take it!”
My mother gave me a bit of the fashion bug; my father, both of them were so wrapped up in clothes and fashion and not labels necessarily, because in the early ‘70s, late 60s, fashion was so different. It was so exciting and there were just these little boutiques and they would find things. And you know, to have a straight dad who likes fashion is kind of insane. So I had that bug, and then when my parents had separated, my dad met this woman [Jade Hobson] who happened to be the creative director at Vogue. My first meeting with her I was about 12, and it was in the Vogue fashion closet. And I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
I went to NYU and interned doing costume design and scenic design. I was supposed to be acting, but I was failing in acting—they were giving me the big fat F—and I said, “All right, I don’t want to do this.”
So I was working in costumes. Which led me at one point after I graduated to do assistant work for this guy named Kevin Gordon, who did costumes for this show that Madonna, Sean Penn, Harvey Keitel, and Lorraine Bracco were in at Lincoln Center. I was assisting him, and he was creative director of a beauty magazine. He told me that after my show business thing was over, I could give him a call and maybe I could get a job with him if there was still something open, and there was. So I started doing everything at this magazine called Beauty Digest. I would call in the craziest things, the things that I knew, Geoffrey Beenee for shoots, which was kind of ridiculous. But fashion was so different 27 years ago. I would just wing it and ask my stepmother things.
But I was still in showbusiness a bit and I had one week where I was auditioning for Starlight Express, the skating musical, and I was up for a position for the second assistant at Vanity Fair. And I said if I got one over the other, then that was going to be the career I was going to then choose. Well the Starlight audition was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was easier to have children—twins—than to do that audition, okay? And I interviewed for Vanity Fair and I got that and then that was it. I just closed that other book. Because in show business you have to sacrifice everything—including like, young children—in order to pursue that career. And since I was born into it, I didn’t have that [desire]. But I had the passion for this other thing.
What was Vanity Fair like? Well, I was second assistant at Vanity Fair, which basically meant that I was cleaning cups, running out to do crazy errands, expensing chignons, buying books, just crazy stuff that Conde Nast assistants do. And I was being totally tortured and terrorized, as Conde Nast editors do to their young. And I worked for the most amazing person. Her name is Marina Schiano. And had I known, at 21, who I was really working for--I mean, everything would have been different. Because she was like, the right hand of Yves Saint Laurent. I didn’t know and I probably didn’t care. I probably was more into Fiorucci at that point, you know?
But it was the worst experience in my magazine career, and probably the best experience to start out with. Because what I learned was how to respect people. Because I had no respect, I didn’t understand that concept. I learned how to be patient with people, I learned how not to treat people, and how to treat people if I wanted to have this as a career.I think it’s harder when you have an incredible experience and then you go to a real shitty one. But I was already abused, and at Conde Nast!
So that was torture, and then, well you know, the big story is that I had a fever--Everybody always has a fever in these stories, right? Everyone’s always sick as a dog--and I was delivering Christmas presents to people that Marina was giving. And I was delivering, in particular, dog biscuits to Carolina Herrera’s dogs. And I guess in my sickness, one of the biscuits chipped a little. It didn’t completely break, but it chipped a little. Which I, of course, was very sorry about. Well that was the end of it. That was the end of that. I mean it had built up, but that was it—Carolina Herrera’s dog biscuit. That was the cause of my departure from Vanity Fair.
And then I sat for like a month doing nothing. But my stepmother had left Vogue. She went to Revlon for like a month, and then she ended up doing a startup with Grace [Mirabella, former Vogue editor in chief]. She called me, I went in. I had to work as a freelancer because they didn’t want family members working together. At Mirabella, if you raised your hand, if you said you could do it, you did it. One week I was the swimwear editor, one week I was doing knits, and then I became the booker. Hair and makeup and models and whatnot. I didn’t really have experience in that area, but they all kind of trusted me because I wouldn’t sabotage my stepmother and her shoots. And those were all former Vogue people. It was just a really interesting crew.
That was a great magazine. It was great. So I went from a beauty magazine, to Vanity Fair, and then I went to Mirabella. And then after that I wanted a full time position. So I went to Seventeen as the accessories editor, and I left there as the fashion director.
Our editor in chief, who just recently passed away, Midge Richardson, was amazing. She was a former nun who did fashion, who did Seventeen. And what she taught me was to respect the reader. Because one day I had a prom shoot where I wanted to do designer, and "designer" at that time was like Betsey Johnson—Betsey Johnson was the Prada of Seventeen. Well, I almost had my head served to me. Because her point was, well you can’t do an entire story of expensive things, because these kids have parents.
I wanted a Betsey Johnson dress so badly. But they were expensive then! I think they were like $250 for a prom dress. It was crazy. Yeah. And her point was--and this really drove it home for me--you’re telling a father of four, who’s making $30,000 a year, that his daughter is going to be denied a prom dress from Betsey Johnson because it’s $250. That really made an impact. And this was before anybody thought about recession, before that was even a word in fashion. We didn’t have chic-onomics, we didn’t have any of these things, we didn’t have H&M, we didn’t have internet! Everything was by fax. Everything was just by going out onto Seventh Avenue and finding these great companies. We would go to Europe, and we would buy things and have them knocked off here, and have the manufacturers actually make them and put them in their line. And they loved it because they got editorial, and they were able to put something else in the line that was a little more forward than what they were thinking. And I think that was an amazing revolutionary thing at the time.
Yeah, that doesn’t happen anymore, does it? It does, but it’s different now. That $2,000 Lanvin necklace that was just on the cover of Seventeen? You could get somebody to do it for you for less. It’s a big thing, and having stuff copied...you know we were very blatant about it, but back then it was just making it available to the people that really were interested in knowing what was newsy. There was no fashion television. There was no Twitter--there was nothing!
And then I got a call to go to Elle. And you want to talk about really not knowing what you’re doing? I really didn’t know what the hell I was getting into. I was walking into Elle, American Elle, to cover the Paris market. Which on paper sounded fantastic--but I really didn’t know the people. I learned very quickly. But I was only there for a month. I had been in talks, before I went to Elle, to go to Harper’s Bazaar. Paul Cavaco, who was the creative director there, and Tonne Goodman, wanted me to come over, but there was no job. And then somehow, out of the blue, this Elle thing came up. But then I got a phone call that the job that I was doing at Elle was open at Bazaar. So I had trauma over leaving, because at the time, you cared about your career and I didn’t want to be labeled as a jumper. But I left and I went to Bazaar and I was there for five years of incredible bliss. I’m so happy I did it. And by the way, to this day nobody knows I was even at Elle. Even the people that were there. The place was so big.
Was this like, late '90s? This was like mid-90s. So then I went to Bazaar....
Was that when Liz Tilberis…? Yes.
She’s the reason I wanted to be a fashion writer. And that’s why I wanted to [go to Bazaar]! And then she died while we were there. And that just ended it for me. I didn’t want to continue there.But I had done it. I mean that was like the height of IT. As great as Vogue was to me.... I don’t even have to explain it to you.
I was 15-16 and thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. And I didn’t care about Vogue! All I cared about was Harper’s Bazaar and Jane. And those two magazines guided me. So you knew, you felt the same thing.
Yeah, from the outside looking in. But that was like how I felt when I walked into Vogue, the closet, all those years ago. But after [Tilberis] died, that was it. Luckily for me, I got a phone call to interview at Allure. I would be able to work with Paul Cavaco again, which was the only thing at that moment that was most important to me. And I took it, gratefully, and had seven outstanding years there. I mean we just had the best time, Linda was great, and we were always drunk all the time, all of us. And I think that’s what made our pages great. I mean, this is so unprofessional but it was what it was, we were completely hung-over every day.
How did you end up at Us Weekly? I would use Us Weekly as my inspiration. It’s everything I love, it’s entertainment, it’s style start to finish. Very similar to Vanity Fair, but much bitchier and much more fun. Janice Min hired me, and crazy as it was to go to the “not-knowing-how-to-call-Christian Lacroix-correctly” at Elle, the weekly vibe and the way that it goes was traumatizing. Like, what do you mean you need it now? How?
So it’s been seven years, and I learned. Because it has to get done. There are no re-shoots, it has to get done. It goes in. You get it done. You find a way.
One thing I really admire about your career is that you did stay at places for very long, and most people don’t do that. I’m 31, I’ve had four jobs, and one of the big reasons I decided to go freelance was because I just want to find a place that I want to be at for a really long time! I'm sure you got a lot of offers along the way, and I'm sure you still get a lot of offers—how did you stay the course? I think because it’s my training. It’s based on the fact that I trained with the best people. I’m always terrified. I’m constantly terrified, whether it’s of getting fired, or something’s going to go wrong, or whatever. And that I think is very important because it has kept me on my toes. Like, I don’t sit back, I don’t get lazy about things. I always feel like I need to learn something.
What does your day to day look like? During the day I basically come in, either at 9 am or 10 am, sit down, turn on the computer. Actually, I wake up, check the phone. It’s the worst. I probably read the New York Post first. Because then I’ll find something interesting to tweet, whether it’s true or not. And then I’ll go to the Daily Mail, which is my faaavorite. Whoever does the photo editing deserves a prize.
But I get all of what I need there, then I wake up the boys. And if they’re going to school then I take them to school. Then I sit with my best friend at Starbucks before I come into work, go through all the gossip, have opinions on everything—Karen, she’s my best friend.
Does she work in the business too? She used to. She used to assist Lori Goldstein, she used to work at W. So everything I say, she totally knows exactly what it is. She knows what I’m going through.
And then I come in and I start looking through pictures, depending upon the day. But there’s a schedule, so my red carpets go earlier than anybody else. We put those together because there’s a lot involved—we change backgrounds, we do all of this intense artwork. So that needs to happen really quickly, but earlier than everybody else. Because the magazine closes on Monday but I’m already done with my carpets almost a week before. So I have to really think about a great trend that’s going be topical. Given the way that we handle it with all the information that we report, it makes it very current.
How big is your team? Suzanne does the market for fashion, Anna does accessories, and then we have Monique who does the fashion writing.
That’s a lot of work, there’s a lot of market in there. Yeah there is. Because we also service the front of the book, where it’s not just the Red Carpet and Hot Pics, so we could do a whole trend on like, yellow dresses, or pink dresses, you know, whatever the hell it is. And then we do some of the mid-section of the book, like the "Buzz-o-Meter," and then in the back, thank god, that’s another editor. Because I’m so highly opinionated about high fashion....
Ha! That makes so much more sense. Because most of the stuff in the back is so fashion-y. Right, and they’re like, “Ew, what are you talking about? That’s absolutely blah blah blah.” Like, when Kristen Stewart was completely naked in her Erdem I thought it was like the best thing ever. And they’re like, “What do you mean?” and I’m like, “What do you mean ‘what do you mean’? In six months, everybody’s going to be walking down the street in that dress!” And sure enough, it’s happening. Thank god I’m removed from that.
One other thing I want to talk to you about is social media stuff. You are such a natural at it. How did you decide to get on board? Two things: my husband’s business partner, Greg, told me that I should get on Facebook. I don’t actually remember exactly why, but he said that it would be fun, so I did. And then I wrote a book. Publishers are great, but they just basically publish your book. I thought, “How am I going to promote this book?” And then I said, “Hello! Twitter.” So I just didn’t stop. I just kept going and going. It’s been a great platform for me for the Oscars, when I was trying to figure out who’s wearing what. Then June Ambrose said, “You know, your tweets are great but you’ve got to put pictures up. People want to see pictures.” And it was like, “Of course, duh. Fashion people love pictures. So then I started with the pictures.
And then the other thing too is that I had to do it, because I have two boys who are going to be 11. And this is their world. And if I do what my mother did, which is, “I don’t understand your world,” or “I don’t understand what you’re wearing,” or whatever, then I’m really gonna be in trouble.
Everyone should do what comes naturally, but I find so many editors who are like, "I’m not gonna even bother with social media." They should bother a little bit. You don’t have to be the star, but you should at least check it out, because it’s going to be a part of your job forever. I think people are oddly afraid of it. It’s the fear of the unknown. And it’s such a big hole. It doesn’t have an ending to it. Though it’s propelling everything into the future. And in a way, it’s like people who won’t do email. There are certain people that just have a fear of it.
The next time an intern comes up to you and says, “What’s the best advice you’d give?”--what is it? I will always say, “You need to listen to everything around you, and learn. You don’t know everything. You may think that you know everything but you really don’t know.”