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How Vanity Fair's Michael Carl Is Making It in Fashion

The fashion market director might be the most charismatic editor in the industry.
Michael Carl: Photo: Michael Carl

Michael Carl: Photo: Michael Carl

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.

If you're one of the 27,000 people who follow him on Twitter, or one of the 18,300 people who follow him on Instagram, you already know that Michael Carl doesn't take fashion, or himself, too seriously. But Vanity Fair's fashion market director does take his job seriously. With an unusual mix of old school instincts developed earlier in his career at Interview, Nylon, Jane and Allure, and bonafide Internet appeal (apparent in a satiric video series for Vanity Fair last year featuring his "unfiltered insight into the crazy world of fashion"), one might think Carl would be a perfect commentator for television. And while he did serve as a guest on the first season of Bravo's Sheer Genius, he considers all of that separate, even irrelevant, to his real job as a market editor — dressing actors, politicians and playwrights for the pages of the magazine in glamorous designer fashion. 

I spoke to Carl about getting his start as a cashier at Ralph Lauren, transitioning from PR to editorial, his famous friendship with Karlie Kloss and where the name Carl's Crush came from. (Full disclosure: I worked at Vanity Fair from 2012 to 2013, though not with Carl directly.)

Were you interested in fashion in high school and college?

I knew that I loved fashion. My exposure to fashion was magazines and Nordstrom and the Brass Plum. Ralph Lauren was my jam in high school, but mixed with something weird, a little skater and a little hippie. I was very confused. I went to college for hotel and restaurant management. I loved to be fashionable and was really into clothes, but that was certainly not the plan. The plan was to move back to Jamaica [where he lived for a few years as child] and open up a little boutique hotel and bar and hang out.

What brought you to New York?

I came to New York for a summer. A very good family friend called me and said, "I have this great opportunity, I have this brownstone in Brooklyn in Boerum Hill," — this was 20 years ago, basically — and she said, "Why don’t you come stay with me for the summer and come get a job and just hang out with me in New York for a bit?" So I came. I had a friend who knew a friend who worked at Ralph Lauren, and I interviewed to be cashier. I walked into the Rhinelander Mansion and thought to myself, ‘This is the most glamorous thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life, everyone here is so beautiful, so amazing and it’s so expensive, I’m never going to get this job in a million years, this glamorous job as a cashier.’ It was $9 an hour. I was like, hair blown back, thinking, ‘$9 an hour!’ They called me the next day and said, "You got the job." I thought, ‘This is the most chic amazing thing in the entire world!’ I called my friends and said I’m working with celebrities, I met Stephanie Seymour and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I was ringing them up, like check or credit? That was about the extent of it. I was freaking out. I had my little navy blazer and my Repp tie and tropical wool pants. Then they promoted me to be a salesperson and that’s when my life really took off.

What changed when you got promoted?

That’s when the fashion really started because we had to create our looks. I had to manage my book and manage clients, and as it happened, about 80 percent of my clients were women. I would go to their houses and help them... The collection would come in and I would say, "OK, this look is for you." I would also have to create looks for myself, because that’s how Ralph Lauren worked. Like using a tie as a belt, tucked into a shirt with sweatpants into golf shoes. It all kind of worked and inside the store you’d think, ‘Oh, you look great.’ And you’d step outside and think, ‘I look like crazy person.’ We went for it, we had these crazy looks. I was at Ralph Lauren for three years.

And you kept learning about the fashion industry?

At that point, I started to really get into fashion and my knowledge of fashion expanded beyond Ralph Lauren and supermodels, which I knew all about because what gay boy doesn’t. Then I started learning about high fashion and I ended up going to work at Paul Wilmot as an assistant. I got that job through a friend who knew an account executive at Paul Wilmot, who was Hampton Carney. He still works at Paul Wilmot, he’s a partner now, and I went to be Hampton’s assistant. The accounts I worked on were IWC Watches, John Bartlett, Cerruti, Gianfranco Ferré, and eventually Sean John and Thomas Pink. I was there for two and half years.

What was it like to be an assistant at Paul Wilmot?

Being an assistant at Paul Wilmot was kind of heaven. The offices are really beautiful and glamorous. Paul, Stormy [Stokes] and Ridgely [Brode] were the three partners at the time. It was this really nice lovely atmosphere. I didn’t know really what I was going to do, [but] I did think I was going to stay in PR. Going into editorial was something I would dream about; I would sit there with the other assistants and think, ‘Oh, can you imagine actually going and being an editor and how amazing that would be?’

After six months I was junior executive, and then I became an account executive. It was all fabulous and wonderful, and I went to Milan for the first time. I had never been to Europe. I was 25? Something like that. I went for the Cerruti show, my first show, and when we got to the show I realized I had left the seating chart at the hotel. I was in so much trouble. And Joanna Jacovini, who is now Joanna Della Valle, had just been named the fashion editor at Interview and I had sent her flowers and congratulated her — we had a great relationship, I love her — and I saw her after the Cerruti show and said, "Oh I’ve had the worst day, will you please have a glass of champagne?" And we ended up sitting there at the bar of the Principe for hours just talking and she asked me if I knew anybody that would be a really great market editor at Interview. I gave her names of people that I loved working with, that I thought would be great for her. And then when I got back to New York, she called me and said, "Michael, do you know anybody that would be a good market editor at Interview?" And I said, "Joanna, don’t be daft, I’ve told you five names!" And she said, "Michael! Do you?" And I said, "Yes, I might know someone." And she said, "How soon can you be here, idiot?" I jumped in a taxi and ran over there and met Brad Goldfarb, who was the executive editor, and Ingrid Sischy, who was at that time the editor in chief. Two weeks later, I was at my first editor job as market editor at Interview.

What did it mean to be a market editor at Interview?

It meant that I had no life. Interview is a very small magazine, as I’m sure everyone is aware, and as any market editor, director or fashion director will tell you, having worked there, it is a beast. Because you have to handle the women’s market, the men’s market, the accessories market and at the time — I don’t know if they still do — I had to handle the beauty market. It meant you had at least three to four events to go to every night, not to mention appointments throughout the day, not to mention the many small celebrity shoots as well as cover shoots and as well as actual fashion shoots. All of a sudden I was working with these big name photographers, and I knew they were demanding, but I didn’t know how demanding they actually were until I got there and was like, ‘Oh, that’s demanding.’

I threw myself into it. Joanna and I were inseparable and did everything together. It was an incredible learning experience, and she had worked at Conde Nast for a very long time and at Vogue for a very long time. She had had that Conde Nast teaching, which she taught me a lot of, like how to behave and how to be at market appointments. And to this day we are in constant touch and stayed very, very good friends. Joanna is always going to be in that small group of people who taught me everything. When Joanna says jump, I say, 'How high?' She’s like my fashion mom.

How did you develop your confidence as an editor in those early years?

It was super tricky at first, because I had to learn Joanna’s sensibility first and foremost. I’ll never forget opening the Versace lookbook for the first time because I was in charge of putting a board together of looks and thinking, ‘How am I supposed to know which is the gown that I need to pick for the shoot?’ I trusted myself, but I was also terrified, so I showed her the board and Joanna was the best first teacher ever because she was said, "Okay, well, look at this actress, look at her body, think about where this gown is going to hit her. She’s got breasts and she’s got a little bit of a waist so this isn’t going to work." Joanna was really great about teaching me slowly. You have to think about the body, the person, the personality, the magazine, who the editor is, what their style is. She also taught me one of the most important lessons — to have really great relationships with everyone that you work with.

Why are the relationships so important?

The market editor is the person who is making sure the stylist gets what they need, that the PR person is happy — we are one of the more political people and make sure that everything goes off without a hitch. If we are doing our job really right, then that’s what happens and it all seems easy and natural. In this day and age it’s so much crazier. When I first started, no one ever said, ‘Well if you’re going to shoot my collection, it has to be a full look including bag.’ Those demands were not being made back then. People mixed it up.

Then you moved to Nylon?

I was at Interview for two and a half years, and then I went to Nylon for my first market director job. It was also an invaluable experience because that was the first time I got to kind of be the boss and make a lot of the decisions. It was a very small team, but I had come from Interview and learned all this invaluable stuff about how to do fashion, how the relationships work and who all the people were.

Ingrid Sischy, by the way, taught me to make sure to know who every communications director was, who every designer was, all the top people at every brand. By the time I got to Nylon, it was so ingrained in me that I could almost recite their addresses off the top of my head. You’d be in Ingrid’s office and she’d say, "Kid, what’s Miuccia’s address? Why wouldn’t you know her address?" And I’m like, 'Why would I know her address?” So I had to know that stuff.

So I got to Nylon and I knew these rules, I knew how it worked. I was like, ‘No, no, no, you can’t do it that way. This is the way it has to be done and you have to do this.’ Everybody was like, "Whoa, take it easy there Michael, you’re super intense right now." So I was able to make a name for myself as a market director. I was a Nylon for two and half years.

Next stop, Jane. What was that magazine like?

I went to Jane, which was my first job at Conde Nast. It was Fairchild, but Fairchild was owned by Conde. Jane was a bigger magazine — it was still market director, but it was definitely [a step up] and it was working at Conde Nast. Little did I know Jane [Pratt] was the most fun to work for ever, but completely out of her mind. But amazing; I literally skipped to work, I was so happy, I never knew what the hell she was going to say.

What was your experience like at Allure?

The second person that I learned so much from and owe so much to is Paul Cavaco. He is without out a doubt just a genius. I respect Paul almost more than anyone I’ve ever worked for. The way he teaches, he’s an incredible pain in the ass. He’s behind you, driving you crazy and then I would walk away and think, ‘Oh my god, that was full wax on, wax off. He’s only doing it to help me learn.’ He made me think differently. He wanted to get the Conde back into me, just the little small things that are right and wrong.

You joined Twitter around this time. Why did you start getting active on social media?

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I am so technologically challenged, it’s embarrassing. Erika Bearman, aka OscarPRgirl, got on the phone with me one day and said, "You have to learn Twitter, you say funny shit all the time and you need a channel for it." I said thought it was preposterous, but said fine because I love her and she’s so pretty and I'm obsessed with seeing her anyway. She came over and set it up and said, "What should your handle be?" and I said, "I don’t know, my fantasy football name is carlscrush, we could just do carlscrush." I sent some tweets out and sent out a couple more, and maybe after a few months, I had a couple hundred followers and thought, ‘Oh, this is fun and interesting.’

Did you feel like you stood out among editors by getting involved?

I felt that I stood out in that I’m out of my mind and the stuff I said on Twitter was just completely out there. I talked about having a unicorn as a pet for a year and people were just like, "What?” The people at Allure were probably secretly a bit terrified I would say something and get myself in a lot of trouble. I’ve never gotten in serious trouble, but I’ve been told to take tweets down and I’ve taken them down. I definitely have some that I have saved in here. I sit there and I look at it and you can ask any editor — at any show, I’m always like, ‘Can I write that?’ And they are like, "No, Michael Carl. You cannot write that."

I think the tweet that people took the most issue with was: ‘The third row is the first row of the people that I don’t care about.’ Which was actually an Allison Janney line from "The West Wing" that was given to me by a publicist, but it’s heaven. There’s people that took issue, but I’ve sent it out several times since and I think it's hysterical, having sat in the third row and sitting in the third row still at times.

How have fashion shows changed since you started your career?

Street style, bloggers, that chaotic thing that goes on outside of the tents. When I started going to shows, editors came because they were obsessed with fashion and wanted to look great and either wanted to show off to their peers or show off to themselves.

How did you become such close friends with Karlie Kloss?

I met Karlie at a dinner for Olivier [Rousteing] from Balmain, and we were seated next to each other and we started talking about football. We realized that we both had a love of football and we spent the entire dinner discussing football. This was four or five years ago. I told her about my fantasy football league and she was very intrigued and excited and said, "I want to be a co-captain of your fantasy football league." And she’s just the nicest person in the world and we’ve maintained our friendship. It’s not hard to fall in love with Karlie, because she’s a properly sweet girl.

You were a judge on Bravo’s "Sheer Genius." Were you nervous to be a part of it? Did reality TV have a negative connotation to you?

No, it was before any of that started. The "Housewives" weren’t out yet. I didn’t think that it was a risk yet because this was a different kind of reality that hadn’t quite been done yet. There was "Project Runway" and "ANTM" — those were the two shows that were out at the time and both were enormous successes and people loved them. When they asked me to do "Sheer Genius," I didn’t really know much about it. They said they were going to show me hairstyles and have me tell them what I thought. Had I been super nervous about it, I’m sure I would have failed completely. I let it fly and said what I wanted to say and they were like, "That’s great." I did it one season.

Have you thought about returning to television?

I’ve had several phone calls, but I keep postponing because I’m waiting for "Law and Order." That’s where I see my career going.

The "Carl’s Crush" videos you did for Vanity Fair last year were a big hit.

We were going to do them around the Oscars and Oscars style, and then it slowly morphed into fashion rules, does and don’ts. The name was going to be "Grumpy Fashionista," and I said I would kill myself if that was the name and asked if we could please call it "Carl’s Crush." In one episode I dress up like a gorilla and scared people on Fire Island, and I really just wanted to scare people because I’m like a 10-year-old, essentially, but they said, "No! You have to scare the bad fashion out of them!"

"Sheer Genius," these "Carl's Crush" videos — that's not technically part of your job description. But is it important for your career?

No, its not important at all. It’s a fun bonus that I was lucky enough to have the chance to do and that my bosses thought would be an interesting thing for me to do. But ultimately, to be a great market editor it’s all about learning how to develop the relationships, and learning about the clothes and all the things that I talked about earlier on. It needs to be about the clothes.

Do you think having a social media presence is important to enter this industry? Do you factor it into hiring now?

It’s not even a consideration that I take into account. I suppose one day it probably will be and maybe it is for some people, but if that’s going to be the reason I’m hiring someone, I’d be upset.

Why did you want to work at Vanity Fair?

Once I got into the industry, I very quickly realized that the magazine where I ultimately wanted to work was Vanity Fair. This was a magazine that I read, that I was interested in. It was the coolest thing. It’s a magazine that deals with so many of my passions as well. I love fashion but I also love literature, film, politics, art, sports. 

What’s the difference between your job at Vanity Fair and your previous jobs?

The number one difference is that I am dressing celebrities almost exclusively. Every once in awhile we get a model in a shoot and I’m like, "Yes! You have to wear the clothes, you’re not going to have an opinion about this and it’s going to fit you and it's going to be fine." Now I have to think about what someone thinks about the clothes. Not just what Graydon [Carter] thinks about the clothes, or what Jessica [Diehl] thinks about the clothes. We’re dressing not just Hollywood people, but politicians and artists and playwrights and all these people that are not sample sizes, so that’s one thing that you have to navigate and think about. If it is a politician, we look for what politicians wear; we aren’t trying to change that. You have to think about if someone will wear fur, does someone want to change their style, do they want to look beautiful. It can be challenging, but you learn to deal with it.

One of the great things about Vanity Fair is that we get to do a decade, like maybe we’re going to do ‘60s mod. There’s the reference picture — can I find a modern version of this Twiggy look from Versace? Thats when it’s fun and interesting and super hard.

Is there a Vanity Fair shoot that you are particularly proud of?

I love our Angelina Jolie cover that we did. It was just her face and it was a closeup. I was lucky enough to be on that shoot and just kind of see how it all came together. And then probably the worst moment of my career — I was sitting there and she was talking to Jessica and I get a tap on my shoulder and turn around and Brad Pitt’s standing there. I give a good hand shake — my dad taught me as a kid to give a good handshake — but I turned around to shake his hand and gave him the limpest handshake, the coldest, saddest fish ever. I was just so surprised, I didn’t even know he was there. He gave me a, 'Who are you and why am I talking to you?’ look and said, ‘Hi,’ and walked right by me. I felt like such an idiot.

Angelina Jolie photographed by Mario Testino for the December 2014 issue of Vanity Fair. Photo: Vanity Fair

Angelina Jolie photographed by Mario Testino for the December 2014 issue of Vanity Fair. Photo: Vanity Fair

What is your daily life like between fashion show season?

It is based on shoot schedules, appointments. There’s also resort, pre-fall, going to re-sees. I try my best to squeeze everybody in, but there are definitely designers I always re-see and some that I see depending on what I thought of the collection or sometimes it happens so fast. There’s some collections you just don’t need to go to the re-see for. You have the time to see it, you get it, you know what it is. If they have a full commercial collection, then it’s lovely to go because runway clothes can sometimes just be a beautiful, amazing picture, but then if you want simple beautiful dresses to put someone in, that’s were you get it. Lanvin, for instance, I know has a full rack of commercial clothes that I can go look at. It’s important for me to see all the accessories as well. When I go to Europe, I’m going to all the shoe appointments, because they’re not on the runways.

What advice do you have for young people who want to be market editors and enter the magazine industry?

Have a sense of urgency and [know that] no is not no. Learn to ask questions, learn to not be lazy. There is a solution for everything and you can figure it out. A glove is not a hat. That goes way back to when I was working at Interview and a shoot came back and someone was styled with a glove on their head. I brought in the picture, and maybe in my mind I thought it was edgy and cool. Ingrid Sischy was like, "What is this? Why does that person have a glove on their head?" I told her I thought it was meant to be a hat. She said, "I know what's meant to be, but it’s really just a glove on someone’s head." There is a fine line between edgy and ugly.