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.
The Internet's premiere luxury retailer, Net-a-Porter, has recently gone through some high-profile changes on the executive leadership side — from a multibillion dollar merger with Italian e-commerce company Yoox to the resignation of Executive Chairman and Founder Natalie Massenet in September. Meanwhile, the editorial team, which is tasked with producing weekly online magazine The Edit as well as six print issues of Porter, has soldiered on under the leadership of Editor-in-Chief Lucy Yeomans.
After a 12-year stint as the editor of Harper's Bazaar UK, Yeomans was approached by Massenet with the idea for a Net-a-Porter-powered print magazine that would bridge the worlds of content, commerce and technology unlike any publication had before. After much soul searching (and some words of encouragement from the likes of Tom Ford, Stella McCartney and Natalia Vodianova), a very-pregnant Yeomans decided she was up for the challenge of building a magazine from the ground up, focused around the hyper-mobile, sophisticated, fashion-loving women that make up Net-a-Porter's global customer base (on which she had plenty of data to draw from).
Before Fashion Week began (and before news broke that Massenet, her dear friend and colleague, was leaving the company), I spoke with Yeomans over the phone about her journalism career, which has taken her from an underground Parisian zine, to esteemed newspapers, to the top of a Condé Nast masthead. Read on to learn more about Yeomans's rise to the top of the editorial world, and advice she has for aspiring writers who hope to follow in her footsteps (or at least write for her magazine).
Did you always know that fashion was going to be your beat, or was it something you just fell into?
I was totally confused about what I wanted to do. I wanted to be an architect; I went on to study classical music. I just loved a lot of different things. I went to university to study economics, which I ditched. I actually majored in art history with psychology as a second, which is a good thing for this industry. I also wanted to study music, so I decided I would go to Paris after university [to pursue that] and learn French. With £300 in my pocket, off I went. I stayed there for three and a half years; I was an au pair, I worked in art galleries, I taught piano to French children.
Then a girlfriend saw an ad for an internship for an art magazine, which sounded like a fun thing to do — she didn't get it, I did. Then suddenly I found myself in this world with everything that I was interested in, and I realized maybe there was a job that involved photography, fashion, architecture — all the things that I was writing about. I never thought about journalism or fashion journalism at all. I started to do a lot of interviews for [the magazine]; I was going around and meeting all my French heroes and heroines in Paris. It was a really small operation called Boulevard written for American and British people living in Paris. It had some fashion and a bit of celebrity, it was a nice introduction. There were about four people there and we did everything: we laid out the magazine, we shot it. It was an amazing lesson because you literally went through the whole process. One time, drivers went on strike and there was no one to deliver the magazines so I said, "I can drive." I found myself delivering the magazine around Paris.
How long did you hold that internship?
I eventually became an editor, I was there for two or three years. But while I was there, it was an amazing time for cinema. I was interviewing Kristin Scott Thomas for the cover, it was for the film "Four Weddings and a Funeral," with Hugh Grant... it was the moment when they were catapulted into the international arena of movie stars. I went to interview her in Paris and we got on quite well. At the time, I was a completely impoverished journalist, and she was like, "Oh, you should interview Hugh. He's great. Why don't I set that up for you?" I pitched it to The Daily Telegraph. I didn't know how to do that, and thankfully my co-editor was quite savvy. He was like, "This is what you do. You call the arts editor." I called them up and they were like, "Who are you? And who is Hugh Grant?" I was so persistent, they gave me 200 words.
But eventually, I ended up writing a 3,000-word cover story. That one clipping got me my next two or three jobs back in England — it was the first big Hugh Grant interview. Then I started freelancing for Harper's, and it was a really nice moment to be [in Paris] because everyone wanted these movie stars ... Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche. So, when I did come back to London, I had an amazing book of great stories and quite interesting experience.
How did you get your first "big job?"
When I was in Paris, I was freelancing for a European newspaper, and when I went back [to London], I got a job on the staff. I started off as the film industry editor, but at the time, the fashion editor left. The editor at the time just sort of pointed at me and said, "Well, she can write about fashion." Probably because I am a woman and I wore nice clothes.
I was in Cannes to cover the film festival, when I got a call from a colleague that everyone was losing their jobs and was kind of panicking. As I got this call, I was in the middle of an interview with the wonderful Robin Williams for the paper. I was obviously looking slightly ashen because I just lost my job; I'm interviewing him for this magazine and now it's possibly not going to happen or exist. I told him what had happened, and he said, "don’t you worry. We're going to have the best interview." We sat down, he cancelled his two next interviews, and basically looked out for me for a bit of time, which was very sweet. It became quite a nice story.
Then I heard that someone at the Sunday Times was leaving for Tatler magazine. I called the Times and asked the editor if she was hiring for her replacement, and she said, "I'm looking for a features editor — you sound like you're serious. Will you go to Tatler with me?" That's where I was first in the traditional magazine environment. I became the deputy editor when I was 27 or something at Tatler, and that's when I really found myself on the team, talking to the fashion teams and having a more rounded experience. I started doing things like covers; I started to immerse myself in the world of talent. It's funny because I had been to the occasional fashion show, but pretty much my first season was from the front row.
When did Harper's Bazaar [at the time, Harper's & Queen] come calling?
I actually wrote to them. I said, "Look, I think your magazine could do this. I'd really love to come and work for it." We had lots of conversations; I was basically told that their editor would be leaving at some point and that I should come in. Then nothing really happened.
There was a vacancy at Vogue UK, and I decided to take that. I had a month off, so I went to Kenya, and by the time I got back, there were all these messages on the phone from Harper's. I went to my first day of work at Vogue, and then I called Hearst back. We have this discussion and he offers me the editorship of Harper’s & Queen, there and then. I came back to my desk, I was shaking a bit. It was the middle of Fashion Week, so [the editor, Alexandra Schulman] was at shows and I was trying to get a hold of her. I had to resign on the phone, after half a day. I'm probably the person who worked at Vogue UK for the shortest time in history. Obviously I wouldn't recommend doing that, but it was just one of those situations — those editorships come up so infrequently and it was just horrible timing. It was so stressful. But I knew I was right to editor Harper's.
What was your vision like for Harper's & Queen, which you evolved into Harper's Bazaar?
I just felt Harper's was very much a society magazine, and I felt like the world had moved on — I really wanted to pull it up from "we're an establishment" to "we're a fashion magazine." I put Cate Blanchett on the first cover. She's the kind of woman I love. We did a lot of film stars, we did models, but we moved away from the kind of more "society" model and more in line with I suppose what would be the classic Harper's Bazaar girl.
What would you say was the most important thing you learned in your first role as editor-in-chief at a magazine?
For me, it's thinking big and being ambitious. You aim for the stars and maybe you'll hit the moon. We really punched above our weight a lot, and we were able to make quite big inroads into the market because we just thought big. And change! The world moves on, and whether it's about the direction you're taking or the type of people you're writing about, evolution is really really important.
Bazaar was kind of about showmanship and Porter is actually asking people to do something different — to be themselves and not be afraid to be shot in an intimate setting. It's not like, "go and hang on a trapeze." It's actually asking Gisele to be photographed with very little makeup.
I see huge amounts of power in the quietness, in the actual being yourself. There's something definitely more intimate about the Porter woman than the Bazaar woman. We try to go a little bit deeper.
What were the factors that made you take the risk of leaving Bazaar to start Porter?
Bazaar wasn't the same thing in every single country, and they're all focused on such a different type of woman. I had my version of the brand, but I always wanted the aspect of being global. Whenever I talked to Natalie, she would say, "[Porter] had to be global from the word 'go.'" There's a global buy. We thought it was sometimes crazy that there were lots of different Bazaar.com's, all the different versions. Something felt wrong. But then who possibly could be in charge of that one Bazaar.com? It just made me think.
With so many other magazines out there, how did you approach Porter from the beginning to make it stand out?
Being here and starting from scratch, it was a real chance to ask the great women I knew, and we also have an amazing 10,000 strong customer research panel here at Net-a-Porter. While getting The Edit up and running, I really had the time to really drink in the brand and the Net-a-Porter women, but also to really look at magazines and think, "What would you do if you were starting one now?" There's so much more media than there was back when they were originally conceived, so every decision that we made on Porter was about, "what does this woman really want?" We found that people just loved a global point of view. They liked a different perspective, but they also felt they had a bit too many magazines. Too much stuff to get through.
If you're looking to hire a writer or an editor, what draws you to someone?
Passion. I'm always amazed when people come into the room and they want to look like they're trying to be cool. Be assertive, speak up, don't be afraid. Curiosity is really important.
What skills would you tell someone looking to rise up in the editorial ranks to really hone from the beginning?
Persuasion. Inevitably, you will have to persuade someone. Always be nice and interested in everyone, no matter what they're doing, because you never know what they're going to be doing tomorrow.
What about confidence?
Someone came up to me the other day and said, about Porter, "I read your book. And I felt like I could go and rule the world." That made me so happy, that's how I think a magazine should make you feel. I always think that the best people I know are the ones that know what they're good at, and they also know what they're not good at. And they make sure that they have people around them to pick up these things that they can't do. Confidence has to be framed by knowing yourself. I have to say that when I did my Hugh Grant piece, I just believed. I knew I had this great piece. And I felt really convinced that they should run this story. And I probably had the right amount of confidence. But yeah, confidence is crucial. It just has to come from knowledge and experience rather than just attitude.
What is your take on the current state of media consumption, and how do you think Porter fits into all of that? Are you a fan of social media?
I love it. I use Instagram. For me, I think you just have to listen to what kind of information [your reader] wants and on what platform. It's one set of content globally, which means that we can be really very precise with our point of view. Honestly, when we ask these questions of these women, we were really expecting them to say that they didn't possibly want print anymore. But print was important to them, and one of the reasons why was because — aside from having a larger chunk of information curated to a very specific point of view — it was time away from technology.
I'll give our woman her content wherever she wants it. I have The Edit that's 30 pages a week and is quick. The new print issue it's around 250 editorial pages, so I can put things in context; I can kind of craft it, have longer reads and really build out this bold world of this woman. I think it's a different experience... the only thing we can't do is cling onto what we've been doing. I think we have always got to make sure to know where our reader is, and as long as we do that, we'll be fine. Great content, great storytelling, information, inspiration, experts, leading photographers and the world's best stylists is what people want. It's just how it's packaged. Where it's packaged. Where it's available. That's all up for grabs. But that's what it makes it exciting. It's slightly stressful but it's exciting.
This interview has been edited and condensed.