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 a few standard rescheduling issues, the day of my interview with Laura Brown finally arrives. It's Nov. 9, aka the day after Election Day, and the mood at the InStyle offices — as it is throughout much of New York City — is somber, to say the least. It's not exactly the preferred vibe for chit-chatting about the fashion industry, even for an Aussie expat like Brown.
"Do put the time frame on this," she quips. "'Conducted November 9th, how are you making it?' Barely!"
But really, if you want to be around anyone on a day like this, it's Brown. The newly-minted editor-in-chief ordered in pizza and cake for her employees and encouraged them to do whatever they needed to take care of themselves. She naturally has the kind of personality that leads you to believe that the two of you are destined to be best friends, which has surely been an asset in her decade-plus career of interviewing celebrities.
Long before the celebrities, though, it undoubtedly served her in forging a career path. Brown moved to New York City in 2001 with $5,000 and no real contacts. "I remember one day I was at home, and I was writing a review of a Helmut Lang show off the internet, and I remember feeling, I don't want to see this second hand, I want to see it for myself," she says. "I want to see that model, or that designer or that piece of art, or that theater, and that was it, I just had to go — there wasn't even a choice."
Clearly, the gamble paid off: Brown went from Talk magazine to W to a short stint at Details before Harper's Bazaar came calling. She started on Valentine's Day 2005, and spent the next decade steadily building a reputation as someone who could seamlessly blend the worlds of art, fashion, and celebrity into one editorial. "It's just more interesting," she says. "I quite like the idea of people that are masters in one world being less familiar with another one and interpreting it in whatever way; I think it's fresher with their perspective on it."
Now, she's bringing that sensibility to the pages of InStyle. While I didn't partake in any of the cake on offer (a mistake), I did chat with Brown about everything from that "Jaws"-inspired Rihanna cover of Harper's Bazaar (Steven Spielberg loved it, if you were wondering) to how she feels about her own social media. If she truly is "barely" making it, it certainly doesn't show.
What first interested you about fashion?
There's a fashion show that was at the Opera House in Sydney, and because it was the bi-centennial it was a big fancy thing and all these international designers were showing. I remember just thinking it was the most glamorous thing I had ever seen.
I always like to say I had delusions of grandeur from a young age. I'm an only child; no money, single mom, worked from when I was 13, working in a sandwich shop, then working as a waitress. That said, I'm so glad I'm from where I am. I think it equipped me so well to live here. Yes, it was far. Yes, I had to really hustle. It wasn't all at my doorstep, but it made me happier that I got to go to the doorstep and do okay.
How did you get started?
I interned a lot. I finished college early by correspondence, and I took a job when I was just turning 19. I was at a magazine called Australian Family, which closed down — I worked at a lot of magazines which closed down — and then I worked as a production editor, fully chasing deadlines and everything at a magazine called Mode. I really wanted to write, so I would write at night. I was at Mode for two years and then I went to London for two years, and I decided I would go freelance, which is the dumbest thing you can do if you don't know anyone. You're young; London is really hard. I remember one day I didn't have enough money for a can of Coke.
I was so dogged about it that one day I took myself off to the shows in Paris on my own. I didn't talk to anybody who wasn't a waiter for five days. People were so mean, it rained, but I still was like, I'm at the Ann Demeulemeester show! I became a correspondent for Harper's Bazaar Australia then. Two years later my Visa ran out and I came home, I worked in a Versace shop for six weeks. I was terrible at it. Then I got a job back at Bazaar as features editor.
Do you have a favorite project that you worked on while you were there?
Rihanna in the shark, because that shark we built was so crappy looking actually. [laughs] I love [Francesco] Clemente painting the models, I love Cindy Sherman; the Simpsons I did in 2007, where Simpsons go to Paris and animated the whole thing, that was amazing. It was things that you would do that were so gratifying that you could remember them for a while — "we pulled that off." I say to my team here, if you have a great idea — and I don't care who it is, what your thought is, or whether you're in the research department, you're the cleaner, or you're the creative director, it doesn't matter — go with it.
What has been the importance of having good relationships with celebrities?
Look, they're just people. They're people who get more free stuff, more money, and have their photograph taken more, that's it. I guess I'm more aware of the mechanics of celebrities than most people, and I always have been. I think that some of the greatest collaborations I have done with people have been because of trust. It doesn't mean that it's cozy or smug or indulgent. Listen, for Bazaar, I did over a 110-something covers — you are going to have to make some friends out of that, otherwise you have no social skills. I have a relationship with them where they trust me; they know me, they know what my ideas are. They're up for it, so they can do something more interesting, hopefully, with me than they would otherwise.
What was exciting to you about the opportunity at InStyle?
Oh, everything. It represents the two worlds that I've always loved: fashion and popular culture. It is the best at what it does in this world. It is an absolutely massive brand. To be able to just bring that up and make it a bit more bold, a bit more irreverent, a bit more fashion-y, give it a bit more of a voice in print and digital — I think the possibilities are endless, and that was so alluring to me.
What approaches are you taking to do that?
[For digital,] no story with a human in it, or a personality in it, comes without a video anymore. That's 101. For the pages that InStyle has, there was more that could be gotten from them than had been previously. More service that is more individual that gives women a bit more choice; rather than one look, I want to be like, "here's five skirts."
[Putting] a fashion designer profile in every issue now; Eric Wilson just gets such amazing interviews and as a reader I used to be like, "Why are they only on two pages?" If I'm getting that, I want to make it bigger and better, so giving that more love, designers more love, photographically, conceptually. More odd, little kick-y, little funny conceptual shoots — because — breaking news — it's me; but it's very important that we also have just beautiful fashion images. For every funny concept story, there will be a beautiful, luxe, gorgeous fashion story.
It's about what's in style, and I can't say enough: These words are so powerful and what we put in the book needs to represent what this is. Sometimes it's as basic as doing that.
How do you see the InStyle reader?
Number one, underestimate your reader at your peril...they are so much smarter than you think.
The InStyle reader is my age, late 30's, early 40's; got the highest income out of all the titles, buys a lot of stuff from the magazine — on average, seven [things] — but I think that she really does know herself. In my whole life, I have never been able to talk down to anyone. I'm just like, here is what we think is cool, wonderful, beautiful, fashionable, and accessible. You make up your mind what you want from that, if anything.
How would you describe your approach to fashion and style?
Respectful, but not reverent. Personally I love it; I love fashion obviously, but I don't live and die for it. I think it's important to have a healthy perspective, and be able to go home at the end of the day and do your job and put on a pair of sweats and be fine. At any given time, I'm somewhere between jeans and slogan sweatshirt and a borrowed Valentino dress that I have to really suck my breath in to do up at the back.
How has digital changed the way you approach your job?
I love it. It's 360 degrees of a way to tell a story, and I think that if you don't see that, you're mad. It's overwhelming sometimes, of course. I have a certain bandwidth, I have things that I exist on and other things that I don't, but you should be thrilled that we have all these outlets. For any cover I do, for example, I'll be like, here's the cover story, here's the video concept, here's what our social campaign is going to be. You've just got to stay on it or hire good people who are on it for you for when you get tired and you want to lie down.
What's the importance of social media to you?
I'm very cognizant of being active, but I tell you, it's just about having your own individual voice. That's what has been so rewarding to me. At least the opinion of me on that is, "Oh yes, she's a fashion editor and whatever, but she's a fun girl who eats her dinner, who drinks wine, whose Dad was a farmer, who likes Australian marsupials, who moved here with no money." That's my story, and I think people can relate to that because I don't want to intimidate anyone. When I was back in Australia looking at this industry, everybody seemed like an avatar or something. Then you realize they're just people, and I'm just that, so it's really important to me to project that back.
What you look for in people that you hire?
Spunk. A really good sense of themselves. Just a DNA for this business. You can tell so fast. I was trying to get Ruthie [Friedlander] in here, like, day one; she was my intern like a decade or so ago. She's always had such moxie. She's got all the nerd qualities of running a website, but she has the voice and she has the humor and she knows fashion. I think that for this world, that is absolutely vital. I can't go on enough about voice. You can have any metric or any following, but if you don't have a voice, you have nothing.
What do you wish you had known before getting started?
I wish I had known earlier that your personality would be enough; that when you're a bit younger and you're worried about your shoes, or whatever the externals are, that you can be successful if you work hard, you know what you're doing, you're a good person, you have something to say, and you make people laugh. Don't underestimate your own personality.
What is your ultimate goal both for your work here at InStyle and for yourself?
I would like, at InStyle, for everybody involved in the brand to live up to and exceed its potential. I think it is capable of being absolutely dominant, and I think it will be. If we can have this voice that is fashionable, but it's fun and it's not alienating, and I provide that service in this business that intimidates people, that sometimes makes them uncomfortable, that makes them feel lesser, then that's my job done. I think that goes for me personally too. Whatever I do — now, future — it's important to be successfully human.
It's a weird day to do this, isn't it? It's interesting to think about.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.