How to Be a Fashion Journalist in 2017

We break down everything from why internships matter to how to navigate a rapidly changing media landscape.
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Photo by Vanni Bassetti/Getty Images

Photo by Vanni Bassetti/Getty Images

Before the internet, working as a fashion journalist typically meant living in a fashion capital, attending industry-insider events and seeing your thoughts printed on glossy pages four to six months after you write them. But now, these things are no longer married to the title. You can live in the middle of Smallville, watch live feeds of runway shows and post your thoughts with just one click. Meanwhile, publications are majorly consolidating their existing staffs and fashion criticism has become a democratized free-for-all. The only rule is: there are no rules. Which raises the question: How exactly does someone make it as a fashion journalist in 2017?

I've asked myself this question repeatedly since graduating last year. Internships and freelancing opportunities are one thing, but snagging a full-time, salaried position at a site or publication has gone from feeling like a realistic, well-reasoned dream to a far-fetched one. For the longest time, the only response I was getting was: "Thank you for your application." To make things worse, I anxiously spent my postgrad summer interning at a magazine that was in the process of phasing out half of its editorial team. I watched the work formerly completed by four people distilled down to one person. Factor in trying to pay New York City rent with a minimum wage salary and it felt like I was trying to steer my way through the asteroid belt while blindfolded.

To get a firm grasp on what is expected of fashion journalists today, I asked seasoned editors, full-time freelancers and emerging writers to share the unfiltered pros and cons of a fashion journalism career, as well as their biggest pieces of advice for those starting out in the field.

Writing clips can matter more than schooling or internships

All the writers I interviewed emphasized that having a strong writing portfolio can trump any lack of qualifications and/or experience, regardless of whether the writing was for Vogue or your personal blog.

"The best advice I ever received was from British Vogue's Fran Bentley," says Hannah Rogers, a recent graduate from Central Saint Martins. "When I told her I was a writer in my interview, she responded, 'Fine. So where is your writing?' Spoiler: I didn't have any. So I started blogging — just to have a digital portfolio to send to commissioning editors and have on my CV."

The task may seem fruitless at first, but you never know who could come across your writing. Through blogging, Trey Taylor, writer-at-large at Dazed, received an out-of-the blue career opportunity. "I was interviewing photographers and models, hoping I could re-create success by following what they did," he says. "I was contacted by someone from Germany saying: 'I'm creating this zine called Husk and looking for someone who can help me... it looks like you're doing that already.' I became the editor of this zine that ended up being printed in 13 countries. That was my first big break." John Jannuzzi, the U.S. lead editor of Twitter Moments and former staffer at GQ and Lucky recently echoed this statement on Twitter: "I've said this many times, but had I not started my own blog, I would never have been offered an editor position. Always write."

Don't get discouraged if your website has an amateur look or little traffic — the most important part is having a space to hone your voice and demonstrate your talent to employers. Also, the practice will make you better prepared for when a major writing opportunity arises. "Writing is like a muscle: If you don't use it, you lose it," Rogers says. "The practice [of having a blog] helped me think of features ideas, find my voice and realize that I wasn't half bad."

Amandla Stenberg for Dazed. Photo: Ben Toms/Dazed

Amandla Stenberg for Dazed. Photo: Ben Toms/Dazed

Cold emails can open doors

If you really want to write or work for a publication, don't be afraid to reach out to an editor. Many editors provide their contact information on their social media profiles and websites for this express purpose. "Do a little bit of light stalking," says Taylor. "Emphasis on the light."

Do not assume your email is going to get buried in a sludge pile, either. "I am always shocked at how few cold pitches I got," says Verena von Pfetten, a freelance writer, editor and digital consultant who spent 10 years as an editor. "Obviously having a pre-existing relationship with an editor is great, but good writing is good writing and any editor knows that."

Before flying off to Central Saint Martins, Taylor secured an internship at Dazed through a cold email. "They said, 'We're looking for someone to help us out during fashion week, can you start then?' I landed in London and the next day I was in the Dazed office." Through that marketing internship, he was able to work his way up from an editorial assistant position all the way to his current role.

And when all else fails: pick up the phone. "Call the office and ask who you can send your CV and cover letter to," Rogers recommends. "This is also good practice for gaining confidence in picking up the phone, which you will be expected to do [as a journalist]."

Digital vs. Print

The divisive line between print and digital has blurred significantly over the past decade. Publications now have teams solely dedicated to maintaining and improving their online presence. With the internet providing an infinite amount of retail space, writers are now expected to produce more and produce quicker. The ability to deliver real-time news has opened the window for fashion journalists to become more integral, as fashion-related news drives in high traffic numbers.

For example, in OUT’s print version, there's little fashion content. However, Editor-at-Large Julien Sauvalle produces fashion content for OUT.com daily. "The new generation of readers is mostly focused on digital," he says. "But you never know if [each online article] going to be loved or hated." The tricky part is figuring out how to avoid smut and clickbait. "From my experience, most people seem to enjoy nudity online… so I bank on that sometimes," says Sauvalle. "But I always try to make it smart and tasteful."

For the emerging generation of writers, seeing their words as pixels on a screen is more common than in print. Based in New York, i-D Associate Editor Emily Manning advises new writers to expect primarily digital writing in the beginning of their careers. "Digital content production has taught me so much about how to construct a story. I'm much more confident working on print pieces now that I've had years of digital experience informing the choices I make."

Bella Hadid on the cover of Teen Vogue's Love issue, Volume 1. Photo: Daniel Jackson

Bella Hadid on the cover of Teen Vogue's Love issue, Volume 1. Photo: Daniel Jackson

Freelancing

When it comes to the internet, there is no such thing as too much content. During an interview with The Glossy Podcast, Phillip Picardi, digital editorial director of Teen Vogue, estimated that TeenVogue.com produces around 60 to 70 stories a day with a staff of just 10. Therefore, editors are more than eager to have a helping hand on deck. Which is why it's the perfect time to be a freelancer.

"I've gotten work simply through being able to be somewhere," says Steve Dool, a freelance writer who was formerly deputy style editor at Complex. "All because my editors couldn't be away from their desks."

Online articles filled with listicles, GIFS and polls are quickly being overtaken by well-thought out, thoroughly reported stories. That's because the longer and stronger the article, the more time readers are likely to spend on the site. According to Pew Research Center, mobile readers have been found to spend an average of 123 seconds on long-form articles compared to 53 seconds on short-form articles.

"Publications are realizing that because there is an endless stream of content, they have to find a way to make theirs stand out," says von Pfetten. "Quality matters. They can't just publish the same mediocre listicle as everyone else. If you can deliver, you'll get paid for it."

Although freelancing offers you the option of working from bed in your underwear, it still requires a 9-5 discipline. "I need a little structure," says Dool. "I tend to set a start time and not an end time, which more or less follows how I operated when I was employed full-time. And unlike like a job in which you have a set annual salary, more work equals more money. So, grind away, I say."

Von Pfetten echoes these sentiments. However, unlike traditional jobs that have varied tasks, there's only so much writing you can produce before hitting a wall. "In terms of daily productivity, you learn a lot about yourself as a freelancer," von Pfetten says. That's why she only dedicates two to four hours a day to writing. "I tend to work in spurts: really aggressively for a few weeks, then lightly and with plenty of breaks. I've learned to say no to jobs and to trust that another one will come my way."

Magazines like Self, Complex and Lucky may have ceased print publication, but there are plenty of fresh mags on the scene. Von Pfetten recommends not only pitching to traditional fashion magazines, but also to brand magazines like Ralph Lauren's RL Magazine, Barneys's The Window, Violet Grey's The Violet Files, and Net-a-Porter's Porter and Mr. Porter.

If you chose to go the freelancing route, there is one important thing to remember: taxes. As a freelancer, you will most likely be listed as self-employed and responsible for setting aside 15% of your income for federal taxes. This may not seem like much at first, but, if you generate a large amount of revenue from freelancing, the numbers can add up quickly.

Take time with your pitches

Put the same effort into your pitches as you do your stories. Editors are busy, and the more you help them envision your pitch, the better. They should demonstrate your writing prowess and contain an engaging beginning, middle, and end.

"Before pitching anywhere, writers should ask themselves how their pitch and their angle relates to that platform's universe and share those thoughts with the editor," says Manning. "Having that kind of conversation with writers helps me understand where they're coming from."

For new writers who don't have clips, von Pfetten recommends writing a full article and sending it over to the editors. "You're taking the risk factor out of the equation for them," she says. "Yes, you may end up writing a piece that they don't want, but it's better to waste your time than theirs. Plus, it's good practice!"

The content of your pitch matters, but what time you send it matters just as much. Pitches sent over the weekend or at night are likely to stay buried in editors' in-boxes. "Make sure you send your pitches in their time zone," says Taylor, who's found Tuesday mornings to be a golden window. "The editors are not fatigued from the weekend anymore and they haven't gotten too busy with upcoming tasks yet."

Getting Hired

The job has gotten hard, but getting the job has become even harder. For example, despite acting as both editorial and fashion assistant at The Times, Rogers is employed under a zero-hour contract. This means that an employer is not obliged to guarantee a minimum amount of working hours to the employee and can utilize "on-call" scheduling. "That lack of security is something I have had to wrap my head around," Rogers admits. "But in some ways, a smaller team offers more opportunities for us juniors. Way back when, there were around 10 people on the fashion team at The Times magazine. Now, it's just myself and the style editor."

As an aspiring fashion journalist, you can never have too many internships or too much work experience. Even if the work is unpaid, the positions will strengthen your writing portfolio and, more importantly, provide useful connections. Unpaid internships can pay off. For example, Manning secured a full-time job through the the connections she made while interning at Opening Ceremony. Right before graduating, she received an offer to work at i-D from one of her former OC co-workers.

The final print edition of Complex. Photo: Complex

The final print edition of Complex. Photo: Complex

The unglamorous part of the job

When people think of fashion journalists, they conjure up "Vogue"-soundtracked montages of freebies, runway shows and fabulous after-parties. What you might be surprised to discover is that there's less time spent fawning over garments and more time spent hunched over a computer, answering emails and rushing to file copy. "I have access to lots of great concerts, fashion shows and some parties," says Manning. "But I am always there to work."

The reality is: as publications get leaner, fashion journalists are expected to do more with a lot less. Sauvalle of OUT says today's writers are expected to be a one-man band. "You're not just a writer; you source images, produce them in the CMS, you fact-check everything, send your story to social media outlets and PR people to make them happy," he says. "The important thing is learning to say 'no' when things get too busy or ask for help from your teammates."

It may be hard, but the juggling act today's fashion journalists are forced to perform ultimately makes them stronger employees. "I've learned so much by having all of these different responsibilities," says Manning, who has has been responsible for writing, editing, researching, assisting on shoots and managing interns. "I've learned what I enjoy best and what I need improvement in."

One ray of light is the restructuring of the fashion calendar. As more brands chose to combine their menswear and womenswear shows, fashion journalists can spend less time traveling and providing up-to-minute coverage and more time working towards a healthy work/life balance.

You may be writing about Gucci, but you won't be able to afford it

If you spend a lot of time analyzing luxury fashion, you're bound to fantasize about adding a piece (or couple dozen) to your personal wardrobe. However, most fashion journalists receive a Zara/Topshop bracket paycheck as opposed to a Vetements one. The real payday, editors seemed to suggest, comes from doing what you love.

"I only started to earn a decent amount when I became a senior editor," says Sauvalle. "And by 'decent' I mean enough to pay rent and buy food and have something left to treat myself to a pair of nice shoes. So it took me something like... eight years after graduating."

Manning advises recent graduates to understand there will be some struggle years. "Aspiring and junior fashion journalists should expect entry-level salaries," she says. But Rogers, who is currently knee-deep in the entry-level grind, says it's all worth it. "I now have the most job satisfaction out of any of my friends, which, trust me, is more valuable than anything else."

While the pay may not immediately be great, Sauvalle believes hard work is the path to a bigger paycheck. "I think money will come in time if you don't give up and know how to impose your own rules," he says. "Negotiating with your boss and making them realize what you bring to the magazine might be the most daunting thing, but it's the only way you'll grow in your career."

The future of fashion journalism

For both amateurs and veterans, the day-to-day tasks of fashion journalists are changing faster than ever. Across the board, publications are tightening their belts and streamlining their operations to the nth degree. For example, Condé Nast announced late last year its employees would be organized by tasks and begin working across publications. The announcement came during a year of layoffs, Teen Vogue being sized down to 4 issues a year and significant budget reductions. Meanwhile, over at Hearst, the publisher has entered, as interestingly described by Hearst President David Carey, a "hiring chill".

Simply put, the restructuring occurring at Condé Nast, Hearst, Time Inc. and others all amount to this: less staff, more work.

Manning views the fast changes occurring in the industry as a chance to step back and reevaluate fashion journalism in the digital age: "Is it too fast? Is it too traffic- and growth-oriented? Is it too restricted by advertiser concerns? What can and should we do about that? I don't have any answers, but I think it's necessary that we pull back and start critically analyzing the way we do our jobs."

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