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.
After spending her entire adult life in professional politics, Hildy Kuryk left her post as the Democratic National Committee's national finance director in Washington, D.C. and moved to New York, her hometown. She had just spent the 2012 election cycle working to re-elect President Barack Obama, and with his win, felt as if she had tapped out of her time in fundraising. "It was incredibly challenging; it was incredibly rewarding," Kuryk told Fashionista from her office in One World Trade Center. "I was thrilled." But it was time for a new challenge — one outside of the White House — and she took three months off, soon after landing the plum position of Vogue's executive director of communications.
Kuryk, who had worked with both Anna Wintour and André Leon Talley during President Obama's 2008 campaign, recalled that it took "about six months" to feel fully transitioned into her new role. "I feel so lucky and grateful that I had this opportunity," she said. "Anna knew me. She had worked with me, so she knew what I didn't know." (That experience proved to be especially helpful during her first Met Gala, which was held just two weeks after she started at Vogue.)
Three and a half years (and four Met Galas) later, Kuryk is now a central part of Vogue's daily operations, doing everything from "crisis management" (more on that later) to leading a team that pitches and places stories. Kuryk tells us how she built her career in politics — for which Politico named her one of its "50 Politicos to Watch: Fundraisers" in 2011 — and cultivated a role in fashion that is now very much her own, as well as what she learned in the process.
Were you always interested in fashion?
Fashion was always in my life. This might sound cliché, but my mother is my style icon. She was a career woman her whole life and loved to shop. She loved designers; Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani were her favorite. She used to take me to Bloomingdale's and I would sit on their plush Ralph Lauren couch while she shopped. She always, to me, looked so chic.
You began your career in the Clinton White House, worked as the finance director for the DNC and are now at Vogue. Tell me about that transition from politics to fashion.
I worked in professional politics [for] my whole career, starting in 1998 and through 2013. For the last seven, I worked for President Obama; in the 2012 cycle, I was the national finance director of the DNC. It was a dream come true. If you're a political fundraiser, it's one of the top two jobs you can have, and I did it. Obviously, [President Obama] won, so that was a very natural end-point for me. In my mind, there wasn't really anything left for me to do. I felt like I had done it all and I was so grateful for the opportunities I had. But that naturally closed the book on that chapter of my life.
We're from New York — my husband's from Long Island. We wanted to come home. We [moved from D.C.] in January of 2013 and I took three months off. I'd saved a lot money so we could do that, and it was an incredible experience for me. I had basically worked since I was 16, so to have three months of not doing anything work-related was really weird, but I quickly got used to it.
I sought a career coach to help me order my skill set. People I really admired had communications experience, and I felt like my skills translated. It's about crafting a message, talking to people and persuading them over to your ideas in a way that's very similar to what I'd done in fundraising. I met André [Leon Talley] first. He was a volunteer for the campaign in 2007. We had been talking, and I knew this job was open. They asked me to apply for it and I did. The rest is history.
They took a chance on me. I didn't have traditional communications experience. But what was so nice was that they knew what I didn't know. There was no 'fake it 'til you make it.' And luckily, they were very patient with me. There was a lot of Googling who everyone was.
From there, how long did it take for you to really feel comfortable in your new role?
I feel very good saying six months. When I talked to a lot friends who left the White House, as many people did in the year preceding me, I would say you may feel like you want to vomit for six months. And then something's going to click.
You've touched on the similarities between politics and fashion, but could you highlight some of the differences?
Easy. Time line. Political campaigns are built, conceived, created, executed and then shut down in two years, so when you're doing any planning [for] the future, your future is a month from now. [At Vogue], we're both doing things immediately — we have things happening by the minute on numerous platforms. But to be able to sit with my team and say, "This fall or winter, what are three things we really want to do?", and to be able to digest them and plan them a little bit — it's a luxury. The ability to think in a longer time horizon is a real luxury.
I understand that your job entails putting out quite a few fires. How do you approach crisis management?
I think a large part of my job is remaining calm and solving mysteries. A lot of people may assume that PR is just pitching stories and securing placements — and while, of course, I do that, a lot of what I do in my role as executive director of communications is solving problems that come up. Because I am at the axis of so many parts of the brand, I am able to quickly unpack a scenario. Is this true? Did this happen? Let me see. And then get to the bottom of it.
And know a system of order.
Or create one in your head. And knowing the people to call and check with and also not panicking others around you. It's just about staying calm and figuring it out. Always take a deep breath, and think through all the options before you hit the panic button. There's rarely a time when you actually really need to hit the panic button.
You've worked under some pretty influential figures in both industries. What have you learned from working beneath someone like President Obama or Anna Wintour?
I'm very lucky [to have had] the interactions I've had in my career. I started in the Office of Legislative Affairs in the White House during the Clinton Administration. I was an intern in that office and then they hired me — they had hired a lot of former interns — so we were this group of kids who worked for the President's liaison with the Capitol Hill. That was the end of the administration, and maybe it wasn't the fastest-paced time, but I didn't care. I was 21 and thought it was the coolest thing ever, to watch C-SPAN and follow legislation and write reports on what happened in the Senate that day.
I learned these core tenets of how you work from these people. You work hard. You keep your head down. You respect the people who came before you. You ask polite questions. You always do your work. You always come prepared. You come early. You stay late. You work as hard as it takes. And you will be rewarded. I feel like there's a similarity in the fashion business. They've all done the step ladder, and as you move around the step ladder, you pay your dues. You do great work, you get promoted, you move, but there's this respect.
What I loved about politics [was that] there's always someone who's had your job before you; I knew people going back to the Carter days who had my job before me, both at the White House and at the DNC. There's a little group of us, of former DNC finance directors. When I got my job, they called me. I like that. It's an experience you can draw on. It's like that here. It helps promote good work ethic, and people strive to work hard because you want to live up to this ideal. You should leave [your job] better than you found it.
I've learned that you should stand up for what you think and not be afraid to say it. We're all part of a bigger team. Nothing is done alone. You've got to give people the ability to go out on their own, give them responsibility and let them do it. You've got to be there when they succeed to say great job — and you've got to be there when they fail to pick them up and say, "It will be okay. This is what we can do the next time to make it better."
Why did you start the Vogue podcast? What do you think it adds to the Vogue brand?
It launched year ago. Again, it sounds cliché, but I got hooked on "Serial" and thought, “We need a podcast at Vogue." At the time we launched, there was no other podcast we saw in the fashion space, so we felt like it was the right moment to do it. I partnered with Negar Mohammadi, our director for brand marketing, and we started [doing it] every other week. We enlisted André Leon Talley, and who has a more distinctive Vogue voice than him?
One of my favorite episodes, which I hope we're going to reprise, was [when] we did all of the editors. There's no better fashion education than Grace [Coddington], Phyllis [Posnick], Tonne [Goodman] and Virginia [Smith]. We booked them immediately after Paris [Fashion Week], brought them into a room, put on the microphone and [had them] talk about what [they] saw for the last four weeks. It was priceless
We've had over a million listeners, and Apple rated it one of their top podcasts of 2015. It's been really rewarding to see. I would love to do more; there's a lot of room for growth. I think the podcast listener may be different from the magazine reader, and that's wonderful.
How has the digital space affected media in the time you've been at Vogue? How has your role changed because of Twitter and Instagram?
What's become so interesting is that the referrals have changed — social has become the biggest driver. Even in the three and a half years I've been here, the concentric circles have grown. What's really exciting to realize is that you may be a magazine reader and never look at us online, but consequently, you may only read Vogue on Snapchat Discover and never buy a magazine, or never look at Vogue.com.
But it's still Vogue.
It has to be. It has to be true to who we are, and it has to be our DNA curated for that specific platform. Look at our social channels [on MPA 360]. We are the number-four media brand — not fashion brand, media brand — on social media. I love that stat! We have so much penetration, but people are following us on social media, so clearly they're looking for our content there, and clearly we're creating content that works for them there. One of best lessons I've learned is that all content doesn't fit all streams.
It's been incredible to see how there are so many more ways to enter the world of Vogue. But it all stands for something, and it still means the highest level of quality. That's why I love working here. And I was so lucky to work with the best of the best in the White House, or with President Obama, and I get to do it here. How great is that?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.