With his silver hair, printed separates and circular-framed glasses, it would be easy to automatically assume that author and stylist R.J. Hernandez is your typical Fashion Dude. However, minutes into our conversation at a certain SoHo restaurant beloved by industry insiders, I knew that couldn't be further from the truth. I recently sat down with the 26-year-old writer behind the novel "An Innocent Fashion" — which is being called "the new 'Devil Wears Prada'" and just sold the television rights to an affiliate of HBO — to talk about what it's like to work in the fashion industry, how writing became a form of therapy and what he plans to do next.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Miami, and similar to my main character, always dreamed of a more glamorous life than what was afforded to me. I grew up looking at fashion magazines as reflecting this ideal world that I didn't have access to. My upbringing was the very common, small-town stereotype, which I feel like some people wouldn't necessarily identify with Miami, because Miami is so correlated with the beach and partying and stuff. But I lived in the suburbs and really felt like I knew growing up exactly what would happen to me if I continued to live there.
I didn't even think I would work in the fashion industry because it seemed like something other people did, like this distant, far away thing. I guess I grew up with this impulse to end up somewhere else — to escape — and getting into Yale was that for me. It was the first time I felt that I could become myself and that was when I really started to develop a sense of personal style for the first time because in Miami, the culture is very homophobic. There's almost a tradition of men being required to be men in the stereotypical sense. So it wasn't until I left that I started to develop a real interest in fashion as it related to myself.
What was your college experience like? Your main character, Ethan, went to Yale, just like you.
I loved Yale, but I considered making him go to another college. I actually went for political science, but then I took a few classes and I realized that it was not for me. It's funny because I wasn't admitted to several writing classes that I applied to. [Majoring in] English was something that I briefly considered, but didn't pursue because ironically enough, I wasn't allowed to take writing classes. I ended up studying fine art, and doing sculpture and photography. When you read the book, there's a lot of art references because the main character majors in art history at Yale. The protagonist sees beauty from this more classical perspective: things in nature and he's constantly referencing art. It's something you can really pick up on because almost everything is described in very ornamental, flowery language, which I think is something people have responded to because it's not a quality that is expected in a book about fashion.
Can you share some of your first experiences working in fashion? At Vogue, you interned under a pseudonym.
This is the thing that I think people are interested in. There's definitely been the impulse — and it's a natural impulse — to think that I had some sort of malicious intent. But really, when I went into that environment, it became clear to me, even upon interviewing, that I wouldn't necessarily fit in. I'd had anxiety since I was younger about my identity, growing up always feeling that because I was hispanic — and especially because my name is so obviously Latino — that I would be judged for that, or that the quality of my work or my passion would be underestimated because of my background. I'd been thinking for years about changing my name, and it wasn't until I had the interview at Vogue that I figured for me to really fit in would really require some creative re-inventing of myself.
I worked in the editorial department under Hamish Bowles and André Leon Talley, so I introduced myself to them as "Seymour Glass," and everybody after the second day knew me as "Seymour Glass." The only person that knew my real name was the person who interviewed me, who I actually had no contact with after that point, and that actually might be it. I made this clean break and it gave me the confidence to be this other person. I felt like everybody that was successful in that world was such a character, that I wanted to be a character, too. I started dressing really eccentrically, embodying this other person and going out a lot. Opportunities presented themselves to Seymour Glass that, in my mind, would not have presented themselves to me as R.J. Hernandez. I don't think anybody wants to hear the truth about you. And the truth is never as interesting as [a character].
Do you still think that's the case?
I'm no longer really interested in impressing people in that world. I do think that's the case, and I think society is like that — and I mean "society" like Manhattan society. But it doesn't matter to me anymore. Who knows if I had been myself and if those things would've happened to me anyway? But at the time, I was so in over my head that it helped me to burrow deeper into this character that I had made up and eventually, things went wrong. The book is ultimately about this outsider who desperately wants to be a part of something and doesn't know how to do it by being himself. I feel like that's something almost everybody experiences — but it just happened to be a more extreme version of that.
When did you know you wanted to write the novel?
I started writing because after spending enough time in editorial fashion, I felt really disillusioned and unsure of what to do with myself. I've written since I was a little boy, although people who knew me growing up and in college wouldn't have necessarily have seen me and said, "Oh, he's a writer." I'm an only child, so I was always entertaining myself by making up stories, and so it was very natural for me. I had a lot of time on my hands and was trying to work through why I was feeling as sad as I was. It started out as a form of therapy, really. But I think that there's fact and [then] there's truth. I was interested more in telling a story that was in line with what I found to be the truth. Ultimately, what happens to a person isn't something that everybody would agree on, anyway. A lot of the characters are composites of the people I knew and are a mixture of archetypes and people I worked with over time. I feel like those characters tend to speak more to what I was feeling and my relationships with them than any direct representation of a specific person.
People are obviously going to make a connection between the main character, Ethan, and yourself, plus the Fashion Director, Edmund, and André Leon Talley. To what degree would you say this is accurate?
Working with André Leon Talley was a really great experience. I would never attack anybody, especially somebody I respect as much as him. Again, people are free to come to their own conclusions, and it would definitely be absurd for me to deny that I didn't write the main character with myself in mind. But I think that part of the joy of fiction is that every person can read a character with their own interpretation. I don't want anybody to imagine me necessarily as Ethan, because I’m not. I think the same for the André-esque character.
Your book has been referred to as "The Devil Wears Prada for millennials." How do you feel about that?
I can see the resemblance — I think any book that takes place in the fashion industry, because "The Devil Wears Prada" was so popular, will automatically be involved with an unspoken dialogue with "The Devil Wears Prada." But it's funny, I've gotten so many messages — especially from people in fashion, assistants and interns — who I've never met, but reached out to say, "I'm reading your book, and I'm so glad that somebody finally expresses [the reality of working in fashion]," because what people associate with fashion in literature is "The Devil Wears Prada," which I think is a very reductive stereotype of what the fashion industry is. And for me, it's just unfortunate that fashion people are associated with this idea that everybody is mean or stupid. While there is some truth that people working in fashion can be superficial, there are mean, stupid and superficial people everywhere. The fashion industry relates to so many other issues like class, sexuality and gender, and those aren't really things that people outside the fashion industry associate with it, because the narrative that most people are inclined to believe is so one-dimensional. Fashion is such a great backdrop for thinking about more complex issues, and it seldom gets used that way in literature. I see how on a superficial level it's similar, but I'd like to think that "An Innocent Fashion" is a lot more representative of what the fashion industry is like.
What are you hoping people will take away from the story in regards to the industry?
[People] may have picked up the book with some skepticism or expected it to be some kind of takedown, but realized that the vision of the fashion industry that I was presenting in the book is one that people — insiders — can identify with. The conclusion that I'd like people to come away with is that the fashion industry — like any other industry — has enormous potential and is also flawed. It's not like saying that people in the industry — or the industry itself — is evil or bad. I don't actually believe that.
There were so many moments where I would honestly beat myself up because I felt like I was the inadequate one somehow. There were several times where I was working at magazines and somebody would be promoted who had no experience and just knew somebody or was related to someone. Every time that happened, it just broke my heart even more. What I realized is that it's not just fashion. That's what I wanted to portray with the main character; it's someone who really wants to be a part of this world that he wasn't born into and had no access to, and exploring the challenges. In fashion, it's particularly interesting because there's a masthead and there's people on the top, and [then] people who work really hard and aren't even on it. There's also this almost literal reflection in the way people dress and present themselves, like "Who can afford to live the life that everybody wants?" Working your way up that ladder is so challenging, and in some ways disheartening. You realize that a person who's passionate and skilled isn't necessarily the person who's going to get the job.
Are there any other realms in the fashion industry you would love to explore?
I love reviewing shows, and I cover New York Fashion Week for some London-based magazines. I have some other projects coming up with styling, but I think I'm interested more than anything in telling stories. One is visual, and one is literary: telling stories through fashion and styling, and then hopefully continuing to write books.
What would you say to someone wanting to work in fashion?
Anything that happens that is good will feel like a success. I went into it partially as an experiment, hoping with my fingers crossed that so many things would fall into place, and I put so much of myself in it. But I think that with anything you really care about, you need to have some distance. It's important to work hard and to care, but to also know that we all exist in this larger system that doesn’t always respect our hard work and skills. And it doesn't mean we're not good enough. That's a trap that I fell into, because it seemed like I was rejected from this world that to me was so important.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Homepage photo: Hadar Pitchon