How Nicole Phelps Turned a Lifelong Love of Clothes into a Career as One of Fashion's Leading Critics

Vogue Runway's director was doing PR for a CD-ROM company before she scored her first industry gig at "WWD."
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Nicole Phelps. Photo: Benedict Brink/Courtesy of Nicole Phelps

Nicole Phelps. Photo: Benedict Brink/Courtesy of Nicole Phelps

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.

Before I began reviewing fashion events for Fashionista, I looked to Nicole Phelps's article landing pages at what was then Style.com for a crash course. There was no better education for the inexperienced fashion reviewer, I found, than Phelps's writing, which spans the course of a decade. She never undercuts the aesthetics of clothing, but also never fails to give those clothes a broader cultural, political or economical context. It's a fine line to toe, but few — if any — do it better than Phelps, now director at Vogue Runway. Phelps is among the upper echelon of fashion critics that, even in the changing digital age, hold remarkable sway.

She made the move from print (at Elle) to digital (at Style.com) in 2004, which, for a fledgling magazine editor, was largely unheard of in those days. "I do have to say that when I left print for digital, colleagues of mine were really surprised," she told me over the phone from Vogue Runway's offices at One World Trade Center. "'Why would you ever do that, Nicole?' I love to tell that story because they wouldn't say it now."

Today, Phelps manages her own Vogue Runway team while keeping up with her own reviewer duties, often churning out content from Milan and Paris Fashion Weeks on her iPhone in the backseat of a car. I spoke with Phelps before New York Fashion Week about how she got here, from her early days ogling chiffon overalls in the Chicago suburbs to a brief stint doing PR for a "very '90s" CD-ROM company to finding her big break.

Were you always interested in fashion?

I was actually in a fashion show when I was really young. I do remember being scared, but also loving the attention and also loving the clothes. I did always love clothes. I have memories later of being in junior high and waiting for the September issue of Seventeen to come and wishing my back-to-school wardrobe into existence and even doing some sketching around that age (or maybe a little bit younger), thinking, "Oh, I want to be a fashion designer." I have a memory of a pair of navy blue overalls with chiffon legs that I thought were just the coolest, and I was on my way to being a designer.

I took art classes in high school, but by the time college rolled around I was pretty convinced that I was better at writing than I was as a visual artist. I went to college at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and told everybody I knew that what I wanted to do was work in magazines.

What was your first job out of college?

I did the Radcliffe Publishing Course [now known as the Columbia Publishing Course] right after college. I moved to New York by September of the year that I graduated. Through that publishing course, I got a job at a now-defunct, very-1990s company called Voyager, and they made very novel products called CD-ROMs. I was in the PR department. It was really short-lived — it was not a good fit for me — but it was a very cool introduction to being a New Yorker.

How did you get started in fashion?

Through an old boyfriend of mine, whose aunt was a publisher at W. She passed along my resume to editors at Women's Wear Daily and W, and I got lucky enough that Etta Froio, who is now retired — she was Bridget Foley's boss back in those days — hired me as her assistant. So I made it! Two years after I graduated from college, I was working at Women's Wear Daily and W. They were on the same floor of a building on 34th Street. I thought it was the most glamorous thing that I could be doing, and it was. It was a moment in the '90s before magazines started putting actresses on their covers, sort of habitually or religiously. It was the days of Kate Moss covers and Shalom Harlow covers, and I have memories of the top editors standing around the art department and coming up with cover lines. As an assistant, I was so happy.

I'm especially happy that I had the Women's Wear Daily experience because you did get the sense of how much it is a business, and despite the fact that I feel like I had a glamorous job, it isn't glamor all the time. I got to meet really talented writers and editors and see how they put that newspaper together daily, which, in the long run, was good training for coming to Style.com when I did in late 2004.

And how did you land at Style.com?

After Women's Wear Daily and W, I went to Elle for about five years and worked in the fashion news department with Anne Slowey. A good friend of mine from Women's Wear Daily, Janet Ozzard, had my job before me at Style.com and called me and said, "You know, I'd think you'd be good for this job. Are you interested?" I totally was, so I made a fairly early leap from print to online.

By that time, it was 2004. Style.com had been around for about three or four years, and they had become my daily tool that I used. Sarah Mower was an icon of mine, and then we started working together when I got there.

I do have to say that when I left print for digital, colleagues of mine were really surprised. "Why would you ever do that, Nicole?" I love to tell that story because they wouldn't say it now. I also love to tell the story that we covered parties, and we covered them once a week on Tuesdays. If you had a party on a Tuesday night, we would report on it the following Tuesday. I think we still thought in many ways like magazine editors; we followed a schedule rather than reacting to the news and to what's trending, which is a larger component of what we do now, of course.

It's a much faster-paced job for me now than it was in 2004.

It wasn't until you landed at Style.com that 'fashion critic' became part of your job description. How did you decide that was where you wanted to go editorially?

I loved the idea of writing fashion reviews. Like I said, I had idolized Sarah Mower, who was a critic at Style.com at that time. It changed the process of going to the shows for me. You go see a show and you know there's work to be done right away, and I liked that.

After my first season of writing reviews for Style.com, I remember waking up in the middle of the night, sitting bolt upright in bed and thinking, "Oh, those reviews that I wrote are going to be online for the rest of time." It filled me with, like, "Wow, that's a lot of responsibility." Knowing how many people work on these collections and the importance of the Style.com review at that time, it dawned on me that this is a really big deal, what I'm doing. But in the years since then, I've gotten used to it.

I didn't necessarily know I wanted to do it, but I did learn to like having a clear purpose at the shows and having the daily or the many-times-a-day challenge of putting yourself on the line the same way that the designers do.

At what point in your time at Style.com did you feel like you knew exactly what you were doing, from the moment you sat down in your seat to when you filed your review?

I would say that the big adjustment was going from a monthly calendar to a daily one, and the late nights during the fashion shows. There were days, seasons in Paris back when the staff was quite small, when I would have six reviews to do, and I got back to my hotel room at 10 o'clock at night and I was up until three or four doing them.

I was very, very, very happy [at Style.com]. Like I said, it was a great work environment and we were never bored there.

During fashion month especially, what allows you to be so efficient?

My iPhone! I do so much writing and editing on my iPhone. I'm not embarrassed to say [I use] the biggest font; I think I need to make an eye-doctor appointment because even that isn't doing the trick anymore. I do a lot of work on the go, in the subway or in the back of a car in Milan and in Paris. I cannot even imagine what it would be like to go to Europe now and not have a device, but that just shows you how much things have changed.

One of the qualities I most admire about your writing is your ability to contextualize a show. How are you able to incorporate political and cultural background in a way that feels natural?

Maybe it's my training from Wesleyan; you just go to that school and wind up being a little politicized. The way to answer that is that I've been doing it for a long time now, for 10 years or more. And especially with the designers who I've been reviewing since that time, I think I have an in-depth, intimate awareness of their work and their trajectories, so obviously that has helped me.

At Vogue Runway now, the team is quite big and we tend to keep the same reviewers on the same designers because there is that background that makes it a more interesting review. On the other hand, sometimes it is nice to ask a pair of fresh eyes to write a review.

We're seeing a lot of designers who are opting out of New York Fashion Week or opting out of the fashion calendar altogether. How do you think New York can adapt to again compete with Paris and Milan?

Yeah, I don't really see it that way. I see change across all of the cities and all sorts of designers looking for different ways of showing. I'm not sure if it will ever settle down in the future with everyone doing the same thing again. I think this is a smart thing for designers — they are finding the unique things that work for their brands.

Luckily, being an online destination, we at Runway feel like we can be nimble. There have been weeks in the last six months where we've posted a men's show, a pre-fall show and a resort show all in the same week. Now, do I think that is good for the customer? Maybe not, but we want to be a place where you can get that news regardless of if it's being done in a traditional timeframe.

What are you most looking forward to this season, shows or otherwise?

It's going to be a super-exciting New York season with Raf Simons's debut at Calvin Klein. He's moved the label's show to Friday and shifted the energy of the whole week in the process. I think he's really going to elevate the playing field.

One thing that Runway is excited about is that we're updating the Vogue Runway app*. It involves a few things, the first of which is a streamlining of the functionality of finding shows. I think what will be exciting for people who use the app is that we're adding street style pictures, so while you're sitting there waiting for a show, you'll be able to click through Phil Oh's street style gallery. We're also adding party galleries.

It’s Vogue's 125th anniversary! How does your team plan to celebrate?

With online, it's a chance for us to reveal the amazing archive of photographs that Vogue has [built] over more than a century. There'll be cool online features and beyond. Outside of the world of online, we're partnering and doing some collaborations with brands; there will be special Vogue-branded products. It's going to be a good year, a big year, for Vogue.

*The Vogue Runway app, which relaunched last week, is available for download on iTunes and Google Play.

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