"I wasn't from fashion," says Joan Juliet Buck to the small audience gathered at the French Institute Alliance Française on Wednesday night to hear the former editor speak at length about her life and career path outlined in her new memoir, "The Price of Illusion." With her chic pixie cut and large green eyes that seem to see through any bullshit — and wearing a very lovely olive coat by her friend, Zac Posen — it's admittedly hard to believe the exuberant, raspy voiced Buck could be anything but a fashion editor. But over the course of the 45 minutes that followed, everyone gathered in the room would soon know that there was much more to her career than wearing advertiser-approved designer dresses and traveling to exotic locations.
Buck was born in Los Angeles, but grew up in France and London from the age of four after her father, a film producer, relocated their family to Europe. After attending the Lycée Français de Londres, Buck returned to the United States to attend Sarah Lawrence College, but dropped out shortly thereafter and moved to New York City to write book and film reviews for Glamour. At 23, she found herself back in London, this time in the role of features editor for British Vogue, which Buck refers to as "the one job I ever really wanted." ("This was a job that was occupied by Marina Warner, who was brilliant, well-born and went to Oxford. I wasn't any of those things, but I loved it.") During her tenure at the title, Buck shook things up by featuring culture disrupters like Andy Warhol, Conrad Brooks and Fran Lebowitz. "As features editor... I felt that I owed an allegiance to what was then called the counterculture," says Buck.
Stints as a correspondent for Women's Wear Daily and contributing editor to American Vogue and Vanity Fair followed her time at British Vogue; then came the position of editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris, an offer which she initially declined. "It just seemed very boring to be sitting behind a desk, telling people what to do. I didn't see where the fun was," she says. "I also had it in my head that I was an artist, writing novels [instead of magazine copy]." During her seven years Vogue Paris, Buck brought her love for art and culture to the magazine's pages, organizing thematic issues surrounding the topics of cinema, love and la femme Française. "Magazines are illusions; movies are illusions," says Buck. "There's an intensity, there's a focus. There's nothing more heady than a group of people focusing on one purpose, one thing."
After being abruptly forced to go on a two-month sabbatical by her then-boss Jonathan Newhouse, Buck was sent to a rehab center in the American Southwest, Tuscon's Cottonwood facility, though not for any degree of substance abuse. Buck was no stranger to addictive personalities, but it was there that she experienced a revelation of her own: "I was addicted to Vogue! I had become a [drug] dealer in that illusion, so as to afford the life around me," she recounts. "Vogue is a potent drug that women get lost in. Vogue is more than a magazine. We are making the most potent substance there is: the dream."
At the end of the panel, when Buck is asked for her thoughts on the current state of the industry, she references Culture Crush (founded by Debra Scherer, with whom Buck worked at Vogue Paris) and blogger Garance Doré as examples of exemplary fashion editorial in the digital age. And as for any advice for young writers and editors looking to "make it" as she had? "Don't fall down the manhole." Buck certainly hasn't.