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.
There are a few writers and designers in the industry who really make us geek out here at Fashionista, and Eric Wilson — InStyle’s first-ever fashion news director and former fashion reporter and critic for the New York Times’s Style section — is one of those people.
At the Times, we enjoyed his thoughtful dispatches from Fashion Month and his comments on the state of the industry, especially when it came to fashion’s intersection with pop culture. In fact, a few of Wilson’s most memorable pieces involved celebrities, like when he famously asked Anna Wintour what she thought of the first collection Kanye West showed in Paris, and she simply told him to “ask someone else.” (He also once interviewed Courtney Love while she was in the midst of a bender, which really is a must read.) But, last year, Wilson's longtime friend and colleague Ariel Foxman, editor in chief of InStyle, came to him with a newly created role that would allow him to learn another facet of the industry, and he decided to take on the challenge.
Now that Wilson is at InStyle, we might not be treated to as much of his deadpan, "going for the jugular" reporting — "Now I’m biting with gums, we’ll say it that way," he told us — but he's finding new ways to bring his humor and voice to a different audience. In addition to his own section in print, he has two weekly columns on the magazine's website, and for Fashion Month, he's filming a "Back of the Cab" video series, where he (and fellow editors) will give off-the-cuff reviews and commentary immediately following the shows.
We recently sat down with Wilson in his eight-month-old office, where he told us about his transition from a daily newspaper to a consumer-driven monthly magazine, how his perspective on the industry has changed, how he worked up the industry's ranks and the best pearls of wisdom former colleague Cathy Horyn ever gave him.
Fashion was your beat from really early on in your career. How did you land there? Was it something you’ve been interested in your entire life?
I grew up in West Virginia in a small town before the Internet, so I’d go to the library to look at certain magazines. There was a Carnegie Library in my town and they had back stock of Interview magazine that they were putting in their giveaway pile, so I took them. Reading about Calvin Klein and all these people in New York — this was in the early '90s, or late '80s even. I was fascinated by it.
I knew I wanted to go to college in New York so I went to NYU. I took an internship at Interview. They said I could come as long as I didn’t expect to be paid, and that was fine with me. Because I was studying journalism and history at NYU, my senior year I got a full-time internship at Newsday and that worked out really well. I was covering politics, crime — anything that they asked me to do. When I graduated I stayed on for a couple of years, just working on whatever kind of projects that they would throw at me. When they closed New York's Newsday edition and focused just on Newsday Long Island, I had to find a new job. I ended up at a financial newsletter, which was a very entry-level kind of job in New York reporting at the time. Typically to get to the big newspapers you had to go to a small town somewhere to make your name, but I wanted to live in New York, so I stayed and covered financial operations and investment banks for 11 months and I was miserable. I didn’t have any interest in it.
When did you get your first real fashion gig?
Women’s Wear Daily had a shampoo reporter opening, which I really wanted, and when I went for an interview the editor was very skeptical that I was as interested in shampoo as I said I was — even though I did use it every day — and I didn’t get that job. But I did know I wanted to work there, so I kept harassing the editors until they finally gave me a job, months later. And it was exactly what I thought it was, just all kinds of fascinating stories happening at that time as fashion trends transformed from this kind of glamorous but small independent industry in New York into the conglomerates and billion dollar brands and all of that. It spoke to a lot of different interests I had — personalities, clothes, celebrity, glamour, nightlife. It may not be for everybody, but it was exactly what I wanted to cover.
How did you pay your dues when you were working at WWD and just starting out?
I think everybody knows that they have to climb a little bit of a ladder and you have to learn how and why things are done by doing. At Interview, I was too shy and nervous to ask for a cab fare so I had to go take the subway all over town one day picking up raincoats, which was very ironic because it was pouring rain and I had no help. I was carrying these very heavy garment bags all over the subway and by the time I got back to the office I was drenched, I mean dripping wet. I just sort of dropped them all in the lobby and went home and slept...
Karl Lagerfeld came in one day, and he wanted a Diet Coke. Our office was, as it is now, on Prince and Broadway. At that time, Dean and Deluca wasn’t selling Diet Coke and there were no delis in the neighborhood, so I walked and walked and walked trying to find a deli to buy a Diet Coke. It probably took over an hour and a half and by the time I got back, he was just about to leave and, you know, great good job. So that was my shining moment.
What did you learn while at WWD?
When I went to WWD, by that point I was actually reporting, so then I had to really learn the nuts and bolts of the industry. I covered ready-to-wear which was the more '70s and '80s idea of what fashion was, like coats, dresses, fur coats — so covering brands at all different price ranges, which was a really good entry into fashion because you saw what was happening at Jones and Claiborne and all the way up to Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass. And because I was ambitious, whenever the eye desk reporters might be overloaded or one of them had a health issue at the time, I would step in to volunteer. I don’t consider that paying my dues because I loved doing it. I just took every opportunity that came up and gladly, like you never say no when you have those kinds of opportunities.
Did you ever have a moment in your career when you just felt like, "Okay, I’m on the right track, this is definitely what I want to continue doing?"
I started this in February of '97 and then I think it was just three or four months later when Gianni Versace was murdered. We were in our morning meeting and people kept coming to the door. We all had no idea what was going on and then the meeting ended. I came out and they said, “Go to La Guardia, you’ve got a plane ticket to go to Miami. You’ve got to go cover this.”
So I got on the plane and went to Miami and covered that scene which was fascinating. But I was really good at it — I knew what to do kind of instinctively and filed stories from there and we were competitive with every other newspaper and media outlet on that story, which was obviously one of the major events of that moment. So from there I really knew I was loving what I was doing.
What's some of the best journalistic advice you learned along the way?
Something I learned from Arthur Friedman, who was my editor at WWD, is that you don’t have to be mean to be tough. You can be assertive, you can be very clear about what you want and you can ask really hard questions — and you can do so in a way that is not mean by explaining why you want to know things and why it’s important to have the information that you want to get. A good piece of advice is explaining why you want to know what you want to know.
Secondly, from Cathy [Horyn] I do remember a very, very funny, something that she said that always stuck with me: You could be covering this industry for 30 years and you’re still always surprised at what you find if you peel away one more layer. And she kind of described it like an onion that has endless layers of information inside of it. So you just keep peeling and you learn something new every time you ask. And you think you know about how things work and you’re always surprised to find out there’s always a little bit more to it.
How did Foxman convince you to come to InStyle and to make the move from a newspaper to a magazine?
For one he had good timing – I was at the Times for nine years and I had been at WWD for eight. I’ve always thought that when everything’s become a little too easy, you’re not doing things right. And I had certainly gotten into a point where while I was having a great time, I wasn’t really challenging myself. So I was thinking about what I could do that I can learn from, and I’d always been interested in magazines -- while at WWD I’d worked on a column for W -- so that gave me that taste. I thought it would be a fantastic way to see what else was out there. When he came to me, it wasn’t immediately with the job offer, it was with, what would my voice look like in InStyle? And we talked about it for a long time and it was, you know, I can’t be someone I’m not.
And I can’t come in here and say, "I’m going to tell you what you need to wear this week." But I can tell you what Donna Karan’s actually doing this week because I can go ask her, I can tell you what 12 other designers say. I can tell you why they’re doing what they’re doing. And we both really sensed that with the explosion of the Internet, with all this information coming at people, a lot of customers really want to know why it is that they have to go buy this collection that just came out, why it is that everybody’s excited about eco fashion all of a sudden. They want someone to bring them the news and tell them what’s happening and what influences the decisions that designers make when they’re presenting collections. What’s happening that’s causing a trend of young designers to come up. Everything that happens that leads to that point in the morning when the person who is at home reading InStyle goes to their closet and they’re like, "What am I going to wear today?" So there’s an interest in knowing how fashion works. And I can bring a lot of insight into that to readers in fun and lively ways that I get excited about.
In a more general sense, what’s your viewpoint on a newspaper's coverage of fashion news versus a magazine's?
Historically, I would say that the magazine's responsibility was ultimately to tell you what the news of the season was in terms of trends. Today I think it is more about the bigger picture. Their roles probably are a little more similar than in the past because newspapers have become much more lifestyle-driven to appeal to a broad range of readers, and they’ve become more fun, which is critical to get readers. And magazines recognize the value of the insider perspective — the inside news and access. So they’re not that different, but everybody needs an individual voice. I think that is really critical right now as magazines tend to blur into each other. Nothing makes me more ill than to pick up four different magazines and read four different perspectives on the same news. So of course competition is becoming more intense to get those stories first and exclusively and bring them in ways that are independent.
How have you had to change your voice from writing your columns at the New York Times to coming to InStyle?
I would say the voice hasn’t changed as much as I thought it would, but my perspective has changed. I think I’ve just seen a different world of fashion that is more oriented toward looking at clothes with the idea of, "What’s it going to look like when it’s in the store and how are people going to react to it? What’s exciting about this?" I can cheerlead for things now so I don’t have to be so neutral. I can be a little bit more editorial in the sense that I can pick things that I am really excited about and bring them to our readers as opposed to just being so clinical.
The thing about InStyle that appeals to me is it’s uplifting, it’s very joyous about fashion. It’s not trying to bring you like 360 degrees of the world and a downer. It’s meant to be something that makes people happy. And I know that some people get happy by hearing, like, snark … but it’s not here.
And are there any stories you miss writing that you would write for the Times that you wouldn’t necessarily write for your InStyle audience?
I don’t know. It’s been eight months and the instances where we’ve had a big story, I still write them on the site. And the reaction has been great. You get a sense of things, like when Olivier Theyskens left Theory, that’s something the InStyle.com readers aren't going to necessarily care about, I have to think about it for a minute: Is there something I can bring to this that’s going to interest a general reader? I have to make a call when there’s a big trend, I want to have a voice on that, I want people to be able to say, “Well, what does InStyle think about it?” Or let the InStyle reader know about it because they are very interested in what’s happening in fashion. When L’Wren Scott died, I thought it was important to weigh in on that and tell readers why they should be aware of the situation because it’s an important designer and someone who had a very strong celebrity connection as well. So we’re bringing a lot of news in. So in that regard I haven’t seen a particular story in this period where I thought it wasn’t right for me to write about.
I’m very interested in the whole intersection on celebrity culture and fashion.
I’m obsessed with it. And I think anybody that is not attuned to what’s happening on the red carpet is missing out on quite a fascinating moment because there’s a major transformation happening fashion-wise and personality-wise. Eliza Doolittles out there whose images are being crafted by these teams of people -- stylists and publicists who are really creating storyboards now for celebrities and their fashion. It’s really, really fascinating to watch that happen. And I think there’s a lot to tell our readers about that as well. So yes, I’m looking at the red carpet reports every morning.
Is there more that you have to take into consideration when you’re writing at a magazine, whether it’s advertisers, the web, aspects of in-book stories or e-commerce?
Timing is the thing I keep in mind most often because you don’t want to write about a story so soon that the reader can’t go out and buy something for six months — they’re not going to remember it. That’s a big challenge because we are adamant that as much product as possible that’s featured in the magazine can be found in stores because we don’t want to alienate readers. And that’s why a lot of people get frustrated with fashion, even if they understand it then they can’t buy it. So it kind of defeats the purpose if you’re trying to inspire people to try a new trend. Well sorry, it’s not actually available. That’s not good enough. So timing is a big issue. And the integration of our web coverage and magazine print coverage is the challenge for all magazines today. We have a pretty good approach to it that we’re really in the midst of evolving, which is to think about every story and what are the online components of this? What can we have for our tablet version? What elements we might take out of our reporting that can then be transferred into a post online when the issue’s on stands?
What do you look for in a fashion writer who's going to come work for you?
I think the skills to have for anybody going into any job are a deep interest in the subject and as much understanding about the industry behind it as possible, because you speak a certain language in these meetings that you have. You have limited time with the designer, with the CEO. You need to be able to get to the point and not necessarily ask them a question about, “Well, why do you show spring clothes in the fall?” That’s really not an appropriate question for something like that. You need to know as much as possible about what’s going on and be able to articulate why and what you’re interested in.
What do you think about the current state of fashion journalism as a whole?
I think it’s in a pretty good place. I think it faced a bit of an electroshock with the development of blogs and online and aggregation, and I think people got a little too freaked out about it. What you see now — as everyone’s comfort level has adjusted and the recognition that because something came from online does not make it less valid than if it came from a newspaper or a magazine — is that there are a lot of really good tools that have come out of it. Actually, I think that the concept of original reporting has been replaced by original viewpoints and original voice. That is more important today, I think, to the long term health of sites and publications.
I don’t want to devalue original reporting because it’s critical, but, the second you publish a story, it belongs to everybody whether you like it or not. And you need to adjust to that fact by explaining it in a way that is yours and connecting some dots perhaps that maybe someone else didn’t see, and giving people a reason, well, why should I go look on this site to see what they’re saying, when I already knew this on that site. So I’ve seen quite a few really good examples of sites that are doing a great job. And they have increased the competition and made the active original reporter perhaps more of a race with a lot of horses in it. But that’s the way of the world and if you can’t accept competition then you’re probably not in the right business.
While you've been working at InStyle, what have you learned about the magazine and its role in the industry?
That the reader is the important person and not the designer -- not to say that in a bad way. But you really have to think about your brand and what it means to those millions of women and who are reading it and what they’re coming to it for. And that you’re there to serve them and give them what they want and make them happy.
I know you just landed here recently, but what's next for you? Do you aspire to edit your own publication or maybe explore another area of the industry?
I want to stay in journalism. I’ll figure it out when this becomes easy.
This interview has been edited and condensed.