Break out the bubbly: This January, Fashionista turns 10! We know, we can hardly believe it ourselves. To celebrate the place where so many of us got our start in the industry, we'll be taking a look back on all the things that made Fashionista one of our favorite fashion sites out there (not that we're biased). Today, we're catching up with Britt Aboutaleb, Fashionista's fourth editor who is now leading the team at Racked.
Some people are lucky enough to know what they want to do from a very early age; others, like Fashionista's fourth editor Britt Aboutaleb, find it completely by accident.
"I probably didn't know about capital F 'Fashion' until college — it was the first time I had seen a Prada bag in real life," she admits. "I was always really into clothes. I had a uniform, and was always trying to find ways around the dress code, ways to be creative or push the limits. I read Vogue, but I didn't worship it in the way that people often say that they did."
Aboutaleb was studying English at Boston University — with the plan of eventually pursuing a graduate degree in journalism — and landed an internship at Stella McCartney through the school's program. "I really had no idea what I was going to do when I graduated, and I had no contacts," she says. "I didn't know anyone who did any job that I was remotely interested in doing, so I felt like an internship would be a great bet."
It was here that she discovered her love for the aforementioned Capital F Fashion. "I learned about the Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter [seasons]; back then, it was called the Gucci Group, and I understood how that worked, how these mega-companies had come to be, and how brands fell under them, and how a runway show worked," she says. "I loved working at Stella; I loved Stella, I loved the team, I loved being in London."
When McCartney moved PR operations in-house in New York, Aboutaleb followed to work with them full time — and soon discovered that PR wasn't her passion. Instead, she took a retail job at now-defunct Scoop, taking every chance to chat up editors she recognized from WWD and other fashion publications. One of those shoppers ended up offering her an internship at James Jeans; through that internship, she scored a coveted invite to the Kate Moss for Topshop party at Barneys New York. There, Aboutaleb introduced herself to Faran Krentcil, the then-editor of her favorite fashion website, Fashionista.
In lieu of grad school, she opted to learn on the job; she started interning for the site, eventually getting hired as a full-time staffer and helping to turn the site into a legitimate news-breaking outlet. "That was the first time that I just jumped into something, and was like, 'This sounds cool. Let's try it,'" she says. "That's actually served me really well in my career, being open to the unknown."
It wouldn't be the last time Aboutaleb would jump into something, either: From launching the glossy beauty site Byrdie to being tasked with launching a brand new Racked.com, she's spent her career taking leaps and trying new things. We recently chatted with the expert editor about what it means to be a digital native in today's fast-changing media landscape — and why she doesn't consider herself to be a part of the fashion industry anymore.
How did you go from interning at Stella McCartney to Fashionista?
I moved to New York after graduation and quickly realized how small the industry is. It's very hard to go from working in PR to being an editor, a journalist, a writer — or whatever it is you want to do on the other side. So I quit, because I thought, "This is not going to work the way I want it to, and I really want to write."
I [took a job] at Scoop, and I was going to figure out how to get into the [journalism program] at Columbia. I ended up going to the Kate Moss for Topshop party... I was obsessed with Kate Moss and wanted to see her. Faran was there. I said, "I'm trying to go to grad school, can I write for you? I need clips while I work retail. I'll do it for free, I just want to write and have my name up somewhere." She was like, "Come in, and let's talk about it." I went into the office; she talked to me for an hour about why I shouldn't go to grad school, unless I wanted to be on the front lines and be a war correspondent, or had a lot of money, which I didn't. She said, "Stick with me, and let's see what happens." I ended up working at Scoop four days a week and Fashionista three days a week, for six to eight months. Then they offered me a full-time job.
This was still pretty early for Fashionista, so what was it like?
It was so fun! There are some big name designers now who were low on the totem pole assisting at big brands and they would email us [with tips]. Or, somebody within Target would send us a lookbook of the next designer collaboration. There would be really exciting moments of trying to be first; we were able to be scrappy and super-naïve, not knowing that we were breaking a rule. I didn't even know PR people at this point, so there was no relationship to ruin. People got mad, but then they would respect you. Constantly trying to scoop Women's Wear was always really fun.
I launched a column called "A Day in the Life," and I literally just emailed Jenna Lyons: "You're really cool, can I come hang out with you?" She was like, "Yeah, come on by." The scrappiest thing I ever did was when I really wanted to go to Europe for the first time — in hindsight, what a terrible idea! — but I went to E.J., who was running TeenVogue.com at the time, and somehow maneuvered it so that I could write for both Teen Vogue and Fashionista, because together, it would pay for me to go to Europe. It was a lot. We would scan in magazines for art. At fashion shows, I was so happy to stand. I would sit anywhere, I didn't really care — I didn't know that I was supposed to care.
I learned how to write for the internet; I learned how to write fast, and I learned how to work without an editor. There was no one to really fine edit. The thing about being fast is, it's more about the rush you get from being first. That's the fun part.
When it came time for you to be in charge, did you feel ready?
I never was in charge by myself. I definitely always wanted a mentor. I felt like that was the sort of thing that you eventually got when you "grew up" and had a job; there would be somebody older looking out for you, somebody who would pave the way, somebody who had done this thing before you. If I had been at a magazine, I would have had seven layers of editors to help me. There wasn't really anyone around who had done that before — at that point, who knew if [digital] was even a real career path. Fashion had a hard time with it, media had a hard time with it, so it wasn't like we were welcomed with open arms. It was really when Lauren [Sherman] got there — we could be each other's mentors. I think that was important and helpful.
How did you know that things were really starting to work?
I remember the first time that I got into Marc Jacobs, and I was like, "Holy shit. This has paid off." There was a time — a year, probably — where I literally would have gone to the opening of an envelope because I realized how important those PR relationships are. You want people to know your face, who you are and what you're doing.
How did you know that it was time to leave?
It was a hard place to leave, it's a magical place. I think at that pace, you get two to three years and you're exhausted. We were teaching ourselves everything, and I think that seeing Lauren come in — Lauren had worked at a magazine, had mentors and had editors — I was like, "I need that." At that time, I did wonder, "Do I need a magazine on my resume? Is anyone going to take me seriously if I've only worked at this fashion blog?"
How did you decide your next move?
I think that there were a handful of people [back then] who would get called every time a digital job came up, and I was one of them. I was ready to leave, and Keith Pollock [from Elle.com] called and it just sounded like fun. The print versus digital conversation, believe it or not, was more heated then than it is now. I loved Elle, Robbie [Myers] is brilliant. They have such a smart approach to their fashion content, and the magazine is so intelligent — I felt like it was a really good opportunity to bring that brand identity online.
As it turns out, that wasn't my job; I ended up writing 10 stories a day for their blog. It was almost too soon. What Troy Young has done at Hearst is incredible and it's worked so well. Leah [Chernikoff] has built something epic and incredible. When I was there, it was very much like, "Let's get print to be a part of digital," and that was not the right approach. I think the way it is now is smarter, it's savvier and it's working.
Why make the switch to beauty and go to Byrdie?
To be honest, it was more about a life change. I had been covering fashion news for five years at that point, and I'd lived in New York since I graduated. I interviewed a bunch of places and was sitting next to Hillary [Kerr], who I love and adore, at the Reed Krakoff show. I told her I was interviewing for a job in Vancouver, of all places. She was like, "Wait, you want to move? What about L.A.?" I told her that I 100 percent wanted to be a part of whatever she was planning. Honestly, the beauty editors at magazines always seemed to be the happiest, friendliest people, so I thought maybe there was something to it.
I was there to launch Byrdie, within the framework of Who What Wear. I was working really closely with Hillary, especially, but also Katherine [Power], on everything from our logo, to our photo shoots, to our story format, to the influencers that we talked to, the kinds of work that we produced to get it off the ground. I also got to live in LA for a couple of years. It was nice to be in the sunshine. You can't work New York hours, because no one else is working, and it's not like any of these are solo projects. If the whole team is going home at 6, then so are you.
Byrdie was the first time I was on set for a photo shoot, it was the first time I was digging into a budget, it was the first time I hired someone just to be on my team, it's the first time I worked with a photo department, a PR department and a sales department. In essence, it was my first real management role. I had my hands in a lot of different things. And the importance of branding, too — Hillary and Katherine have done that so brilliantly. To learn from them was a great opportunity.
You then moved to Allure and then to Yahoo! — what was exciting to you about those opportunities?
That [Allure] job was a job that didn't exist before and I don't think it exists now. It was called "multimedia director." I missed New York. I just missed the energy. When I wanted to come back, I just sent out a few emails saying, "Hey, I'm ready to come back to New York. Let's talk."
There was this job and there was also an opportunity to be the fashion news director at a print magazine, which would've taken me in such a different direction. One of the reasons that I was so excited to launch Byrdie is that Into the Gloss was killing it and it was wonderful, but it was the only beauty site out there coming from an authoritative, editorial perspective. Allure seemed like a great chance to try to figure [digital strategy] out for them, both with video and the website. I was a huge fan of Linda Wells. She's an icon, so it was chance to work with her, and also to work at Condé. Going into it, I knew it was going to be a long haul. You can't change things overnight at Condé.
The news about Bobbi [Brown] going to Yahoo actually broke when I was still in LA, but I wasn't looking to leave [Allure]. At this point, Joe Zee had signed on. I think it's such an incredible career move, and risk, what he did going to Yahoo. When he called and we talked through it, he was like, "This is the kind of thing you'll regret not trying." So I went to Yahoo. It was massive. A company that size and scale, it was beyond anything I'd ever experienced. To walk into work, and have Kerry Diamond be there, and Michele Promaulayko, and Katie Couric, and Joe Zee and Bobbi Brown, it was just amazing to be able to see those people every day. But I don't know that that was the right place for what we were trying to do.
What was appealing about working at Racked?
I really wanted to work at Vox; I think that was just a combination of reading about all of the cool stuff they were doing, hearing Jim Bankoff speak — it just seemed like a great place. It was a brand I felt had a lot of potential, that I could do a lot with. I think I spent a lot of time executing someone else's vision, which is great and fun, but I was ready to do something of my own.
Racked offered me the opportunity to do that: to build a team, to work at a place where there's a lot of other stuff going on. I think I probably do better when I'm a little bit outside the industry instead of in it. [Vox] is the closest I think that I can get to my dream of working at a newspaper; you have experts in all of these different fields.
How have you revamped Racked since you came on board?
There were two big things I tackled when I got here: One is focus. That was the first question I asked, when they called me: "Well, what is it?" They were like, "You figure it out," basically. I felt like Racked was really well-known for its sample sale listings and had an incredible long-form program, led by Julia Rubin, who was killing it. It had great personal essays, it had women's lifestyle content, it had a lot of aggregated fashion industry news. It had stories about fashion bloggers. It had really strong reporting and a very girlie identity. It went in a lot of different directions, and I felt like we really needed to focus on one thing, and that was shopping. I chose shopping, as opposed to Fashion with a capital F, because I think a lot of others are covering fashion already. I think that there's a huge gap in shopping for real life.
That's everything from talking about why we shop, which really speaks to the long-form program in terms of features and reported out content. Tiffany Yannetta, our shopping director, is growing a market team that is responsible for telling our readers the information that they actually need to know; "Here's how to take a $50 Ann Taylor dress, and actually make it look cool for work, and to wear out at night," as opposed to, "Here's a head-to-toe Prada look," or, "Here's how to look like Kendall Jenner."
The other part is visuals, so we hired our first-ever creative director, our director of visuals. We had an illustrator on the team, but we had never had anyone leading creative efforts across all of our platforms, and that is really important in our space.
What have you learned that's helped you do this job?
I have learned a lot about branding and its importance, as well as about the business side of things. I've learned a lot about the power of not underestimating your audience.
How have you seen the digital landscape change?
At Fashionista, I felt like we were talking to a hundred of our closest friends. Now, it feels like the whole world is on the internet. There's just so much. We aren't really aggregating news on Racked. It takes the fun out of it. Not that it's not fun to break fashion news, but it's so well-orchestrated and it's so pre-planned [with exclusives], that as a reporter and an editor, it's hard to get a scoop [in fashion], right? We literally had to send a reporter out to China to go out and get a scoop.
Do you feel like fashion websites get taken more seriously now than they used to?
For sure, in the sense that now, brands and publicists create entire strategies on how to roll out to which digital outlets. I don't really think about the fashion industry much anymore, since we decided to pivot Racked away from it. I think the fashion industry is so small and so isolated. We can talk and talk about how the fashion industry is democratic now, but just look at the Vogue blogger story. I think that the real change will come when a digital editor is appointed editor-in-chief of a brand that includes the magazine and it includes the website.
How has being a digital native helped you in your career?
I certainly wouldn't be an editor-in-chief right now if I had started as a fashion intern at a print magazine when I graduated college. I think that the thing that's really cool about digital that's also scary is that it's still so scrappy. In a lot of ways, I'm just as scrappy as I was at Fashionista, and I think the value of that scrappiness is learning to do so many different things. Learning all of those different things has been really fun and I don't think I would have had that experience — I know I wouldn't have. I think that in magazines, you really stay in your lane.
What does it mean to you to be in that group of people called when these digital jobs open up?
That I've been doing this for a long time! [laughs] I started on the digital side, and never really left and I think that's probably a big part of it. It also means it's a small industry. Now, I very much feel like more a part of the media industry than the fashion industry. I'm reading Adweek over Women's Wear Daily.
What were you looking for in the people that you were hiring?
I mean, I was pretty tough. I remember making an edit test for interns and I think Natalie [Hormilia] said, "Are you kidding? Do you expect them to know all of this?" [laughs] At the end of the day, I want to hire the hungriest, most ambitious intern, for whom no task is too small. I think about that, even now, when I'm hiring senior-level people — like directors on my team, who maybe have more experience than I do. Do they still want to do the work, or do they just want to tell other people what to do?
I think it's lucky to be hiring in New York, because you already have the most ambitious, hardest-working people. It really narrows it down for you. Hiring interns at Fashionista was also like, "Are you obsessed with fashion?" The Fashionista walls were just covered in layouts — I feel like the day that CR Fashion Book came out, it was like Christmas morning. Alyssa [Vingan]'s model identification skills are next-level. I was lucky, too. They're like my best friends. Because I was so young, they were only a year or two younger, and I've been so lucky to maintain those relationships. Now we're like a little family.
What is your ultimate goal, other than moving to an island and writing?
I truly have no idea. My goal with Racked, right now, is to resonate with an audience, and to have people be like, "This is the inclusive, fun, smart thing we've been waiting for, that we didn't even realize we wanted."
In terms of my goal, for my personal life, I'm trying to figure that out. This is not a career path that I imagined, or that could have existed, really, when I was thinking about that stuff in college or after graduation. I kind of just keep going wherever it takes me. My near-future goal is to figure out work-life balance, always.
What do you wish you had known when you were starting out?
Trust your gut. Say yes to opportunities as they come along. It's been an interesting ride. I would say: Say yes to everything in life that's not illegal!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.