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How Ariel Foxman Became Editor in Chief of 'InStyle'

The publishing wunderkind tells us how he broke into the magazine business and made his way to the top -- despite some setbacks along the way.

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

Ariel Foxman is not your typical women's magazine editor. First, there's the fact that he's a man -- the vast majority of editors of female-targeted glossies these days are women. He's also young to helm such a large magazine; having just turned 40, he's more than a decade younger than most of his peers. His resume, too -- a dual degree in literature and religion from Harvard, staff jobs at Details and The New Yorker -- is not exactly typical. And there's the fact that he's not particularly interested in topics like the most flattering looks for a woman's figure, or ways to adapt beauty looks from the red carpet.

And yet Foxman edits a magazine that is enormously popular with women -- and the advertisers who want to reach them. InStyle has a circulation of 1.8 million, making it the second most-read women's fashion magazine in the U.S. after Glamour. The glossy sold more ad pages than both Vogue and Elle last year.

So how did Foxman, who first rose to industry fame at the age of 29, when he became the founding editor of the (now defunct) Conde Nast men's magazine Cargo, end up at the top of InStyle's masthead? We stopped by his office at Time Inc. to learn more about his early career in book publishing, his transition into magazines and his advice for those looking to make it in the industry. Want more? Come hear Foxman speak at our "How I'm Making It in Fashion" conference in New York City June 27th.

Did you have an early interest in magazines or celebrity or fashion? Or is it very difficult, looking back at who you were then, to think that you could have ended up where you are now?

I had always been interested in celebrity, always interested in style, and thought of that as something that may or may not lead into a career. You can go to the movies and not be a director. I wrote and edited in high school and college, but not necessarily about those things. I did take an interest in film, that was as close as I got to celebrity culture or style, or "glamour." It wasn't until I moved to New York that I pursued magazines. And I really got into magazines because I got into books first. I worked at Random House in non-fiction and some trade, and it just lacked a certain sense of urgency. You'd work on something and it wouldn't come out for two to three years. I can't wait a full week now to see a 622-page magazine printed and rushed to me; books were unbearable.

I had an internship in college at Random House. The editor for whom I worked had just published Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Alienist and Makes Me Want to Holler, which were huge bestsellers. There was all this excitement -- multimillion-dollar serial rights, translations, film rights, and I thought, wow this is a sexy industry, money is flying, people become celebrity authors overnight. Once you get a job in publishing you realize, oh, those are needles in the haystack. The editor [I worked for] was incredibly successful at finding those needles; most aren't.

The next summer I interned at Spin to get back to New York. I wanted to try my hand at editing and writing, but it was more about having a cool summer than anything else. I did fall in love with magazine culture, but didn't think I could graduate college and get a job at Spin. When I had the internship it was really the moment when grunge exploded; when I graduated in '95 it was on the downturn, it was all about 'N Sync and Britney Spears, and to go into music magazines at that time didn't seem appealing.

After Harvard you worked at Random House, then you transitioned to Details. How did that happen?

This fiery redhead named Karen Rinaldi came to Random House as an editor, who had worked at Details. We had a conversation about how Random House was not the pace for me, and she said, there's an opening at Details, maybe you should apply, I'll let them know I think you're a good candidate.

I applied there, very nervously. I thought, this is the only job I want, but I'll never impress upon them how badly I want this job. Of course you have no idea about the job, it's a fantasy of what you think the job is going to be. But in an interview, you actually have an opportunity to say how badly you want the job. I'm amazed today in so many interviews that I've done, how few people say that they want the job. Maybe people are shy, or think it's presumptuous. I say to people, "Okay, I've read your resume, tell me, why should we hire you?" And people always repeat their resume. To anyone who reads this piece: In an interview, I would recommend you say, "If I leave you with one thought, I really want this job. And if you pick me, I will want this job every day that I'm here and I will be really good at it.'' No one wants to hire somebody who has low energy about the opportunity. Anyways, I said something like that at the Details interview, though I don't know if that's why I got hired. I did really want this job -- partially because I wanted that job, but also because I really wanted out of my other job, which you can't say.

What have people done to impress you in an interview?

The most impressive thing that anyone has ever done is come prepared to talk not only about the place in which they want to work, but also in the industry with which they want to continue working. People come here and they want to work at InStyle and they have only looked at the current issue. And it's evident within two seconds. They'll say, "I love the cover story of this issue," and I'll say, "Oh did you love when we did x/y/z on the cover story a year ago?" And they sit there looking at me like they've never heard what I'm talking about. You don't have to go to the library; ask someone here to send you issues. Or people say that they're really involved in industry and they read WWD and I'll ask, "Did you see this story relevant to the magazine industry or about InStyle?" and they say no or pretend they read it. And I think actually it's not dumb it's rude. It's a waste of my time and even more of a waste of the interviewee's time. People think in our industry in fashion it's cooler to come in and compliment me on my shoes or office and sit here and be laid back about the interview or the magazine and I think, I'm glad you like my office, but at the end of the day, you need to be excited about the job or the place.

I think the most important thing is to send a really smart follow-up thank you note referencing things in the discussion. It's so easy to send a link to something, or a clip, in an envelope and people don't. I would say to someone interviewing: Plan to bring up one or two things that you could easily follow up on.

People are also very concerned about their outfit. You don't want to come in like you were painting your house, but it's not a runway show, either. I would think nobody expects someone to spend their entire salary on an outfit for an interview. I think a person should look office-appropriate. I really, really want to remember what somebody is saying and not what they're wearing. I don't want to be seeing any skin. I think you wear your best coat and I think you wear the thing you feel the most confident in. I have never, ever disqualified somebody based on an outfit or an accessory and I don't think you should go shopping. If you look great and super fashionable, cool, but it has no relevance on the work you're going to do at the magazine. I'm rarely interviewing somebody whose job is to be out in the world and be photographed for street style, that kind of thing.

But you once said you were hired at Details on the basis of a Prada belt.

I did. I'm so glad that I heard that so many years later that that had an impact, because I did spend on that money on that belt, but I have to hope also that I made an impression otherwise. But I can't tell you for the life of me what my two assistants who are so fantastic wore to their interviews.

I was hoping you could talk more about what it was like being an assistant -- first at Details and then the New Yorker. What makes a good assistant?

People always say, "Look, I am not psychic, you have to tell me what you need from me." Well, a great assistant can anticipate what someone needs before he or she even knows it him or herself. And that's not about reading minds, that's about common sense, observation and a willingness to make someone else's life run smoothly. I was an assistant to the editor in chief, two of them, at Details, so I know it's a very tough gig, but if you make a game of it, it can be just the right balance of challenge and education.

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What was working at the New Yorker like? Was that a good fit for you?

It was like having the ultimate first-date conversation job. There's nobody who doesn't get excited when you say you work at the New Yorker. It was a good fit at the time. I learned so much from my two mentors, Susan Morrison and David Remnick. But when it was time to leave and pursue opportunities where I could get my hands dirty writing and editing, it was time.

How did you find out about Cargo and apply for it?

I read about it in a New York Times writeup about a Conde Nast sales publisher conference. [Former Conde Nast CEO] Steve Florio, may he rest in peace, mentioned in an interview that [Conde] was going to launch a men's version of a shopping magazine. I reached out to Conde to be apart of it -- I was at InStyle at the time -- and I thought that was something I would buy and read, as opposed to InStyle, which I loved but wasn't reading as a consumer. I applied at Conde Nast human resources, and they tried to dissuade me from moving forward. "Ariel, you went to Harvard, you worked at The New Yorker, that's the most serious magazine we have, this is going to be a catalog, not even a magazine, have you seen Lucky," etc. It reminded me of when people try to convert to Judaism and they keep trying to dissuade you to see if you want it. I said yes, I had been at InStyle for over five years, I was ready for a change. I kept badgering HR, and [former Conde Nast Editorial Director] James Truman called me in and I had a meeting with him for about an hour -- it was an esoteric conversation about art, culture, magazines, travel, typical James Truman. He said, if you'd like, do a memo about what you think it could look like or what it could include. So I took a day off work, worked on a memo, working off Lucky which at the time was Kim Frances's magazine. I knew her so I understood her philosophy. I handed it in and got a call from Truman saying that I was one of three candidates. I nearly dropped the phone -- I was 29. He said that [Conde Nast owner] S.I. Newhouse didn't really like any of the memos, but come meet. He said, "Speak your mind, and don't finish his sentences."

It was this incredible experience because S.I. Newhouse loves magazines and he loves talking about magazines, but what he loves about magazines is not what I love about magazines -- his crown jewels are Architectural Digest, GQ, Vanity Fair, all these magazines that, at 29, didn't resonate with me. So I met with him, and he got a real sense of who I was, that I would speak my mind, and we talked a lot about what the magazine would be, but I walked out thinking, "That was fun, but I definitely didn't get that job." Then I was told, "It's yours if you want it." I quit my job at InStyle, came over there, at 29, and started the magazine. It launched during a big explosion of men's magazines trying to capture the metrosexual audience -- Vitals, Best Life from Rodale, Men's Vogue. There was just too much to support the available ad revenue. So the magazine closed [two years later in 2006]. It was very sad. I spent a year consulting and then was hired to be Time Inc.'s last editor at large.

How much management experience did you have before the Cargo job? Your whole list of responsibilities must have changed when you went over there.

It was really tough, really bumpy, I did my best, but I'm sure I bruised a few people unintentionally. At 29, no matter even if you're the best manager in the world, you're handicapped and hamstrung because there's just a bias against youth in a leadership position. I remember being brought into a meeting with top executives and after 20 minutes of being introduced by James Truman and having a conversation about some sort of production matter, one of execs who is no longer there said, "When do we meet the editor?" and I said, "I'm the editor." They were polite and slightly embarrassed -- they weren't trying to be mean, it just wasn't their mindset.

The most important thing I learned about managing is that one individual can not touch everybody consistently whether it's about direction or vision or tone, one person just can't. It's the leadership team that's the conduit, that provides that touch. And the organization wants to have that touch pretty regularly. If your leadership team doesn't understand the vision, the direction and the tone, and they don't understand it's their responsibility to be that surrogate in terms of touch, you have a real problem. So, today, I will have a one-on-one conversation with maybe eight people if I'm lucky, depending on my schedule. My job is to come in and have a certain tone and smile as opposed to not smile, share some good news as opposed to no news, and it's the job of my leadership team to be friendly and supportive, to know what direction is, to know the priorities for brand and get that to the whole team. If you don't have that, you have 100 people getting nothing all day, or getting confused or, worse, having a negative experience.

At Cargo, I tried to touch everybody. Worse, some of my leadership team wasn't clear on direction, vision, tone or, worse than that, didn't understand they were an extension of me. They were doing their own vision and their own type of tone. I think that is the biggest lesson I learned, to remind my leadership team that they're an extension of the number one position, it's one big ball of direction. 

How did you go from Time Inc.'s editor at large to editor in chief of InStyle?

I worked on a refresh of InStyle in 2007 to 2008 as editor at large, along with a small team of InStyle creatives. The refresh debuted in August 2008 with Rihanna on the cover. In September, the managing editor at the time was promoted to a global InStyle brand position and I was made editor.

To what do you attribute your career success?

I've had a great mentor system. Part of that is luck of the draw, part of that has been not forcing it. People I would have liked to have mentored me, if it didn't seem organic I didn't push it, and I tell people who want me to mentor them the same thing. There's people I've felt a real inclination to mentor, and they haven't even asked -- it has to develop.

I think that my success has been surrounding myself with really, really talented people and allowing them enough direction and freedom to do what they do best. While I micromanage the brand, I try not to micromanage individuals' talent. I'm a reflection of succession of brand and not vice versa. Of course I'm the face of it, but I'm a reflection of everybody.

I have a clear understanding of what the brand is and is not and how that is different from what and who I am. I don't define myself with the brand, which is not true for a lot of editors. Cargo was all about cars and tech, style and grooming, and I could define myself by some but not all of it. InStyle is all about accessibility, and fashion and beauty and celebrity. I love so many pieces of it, and there are so many pieces that don't speak to me -- service stories about bras, or how to pick a perfume, for example. I love the work I do and then I go home and I'm me. People have told me that I'm one of the friendliest people in the industry. I don't know if that's true, but I know that our team is super, super friendly.

How strategic were your career moves? Were you always aiming to acquire the right skills to become an editor in chief, or was it less planned -- always taking the next best job?

It was not strategic at all. I always took the advice of mentors though... who I realized had the birds' eye view of, not only my capabilities, but also of the organization at which I worked. If they said, you are not necessarily right for this gig or we don't have what you want here, I listened. I tried not to pout.

Have you ever, at some point in your magazine career, thought about switching industries all together?

I think we all fantasize about what it would be like to be in different industries altogether. I am curious about all sorts of professions, but at the end of the day, publishing speaks to me the most. Content creation, connecting with an audience, and satisfying a creative impulse -- while also coaching and managing new talent -- is what turns me on.

Above: Ariel Foxman in Paris. Photo courtesy of InStyle.