In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
According to a previous Fashionista story on how to make it in menswear, Eugene Tong's career trajectory could be a textbook example. For starters, he's humble: "Not sure if I am really making it but happy to chat," said his reply when I first reached out for an interview. Second, he's spent more than a decade climbing the ranks within the fashion magazine world, from college-grad-turned-intern at FHM Magazine to Style Director of Details until the publication folded in 2015. And although his previous places of employment are now defunct, it's Tong's strong network of relationships within the menswear industry that has helped him work on his own terms, garnering a steady stream of gigs that involve consulting, styling and some influencer work. (More on that later.)
Growing up in South Jersey (Cherry Hill, to be exact, close to Philadelphia), Tong's interest in fashion stemmed from suburbia's mall culture. "We would hang out at the mall and I was definitely drawn to The Athlete's Foot or Foot Locker," recalls Tong. "I was always into sneakers." In high school, he got his first part-time job at Banana Republic and spent every summer traveling to Taiwan and other major cities throughout Asia with his family. "I would go to Japan and really see things that I couldn't see in the States because there was no internet," he says. "All of those things — now, looking back — fed into my love of fashion."
With a business degree from Boston University, Tong didn't truly pursue a career in fashion until he moved to New York after college. "The only thing I knew was I wanted to live in New York," says Tong. "Ever since I was in sixth grade, the first time I visited it, I knew right away." Interviews for jobs in the marketing field were boring to him, so he decided to take a internship at men's magazine FHM. ("My last hurrah before getting a 'real job.'") There, Tong was introduced to the world of media and fashion and meeting the people within it, some of whom have become mentors and friends.
As his network grew, so did the opportunities that came his way, including an Accessories Market Editor job at Cargo at Condé Nast and then Details, where he was promoted from Market Editor to Senior Style Editor and, eventually, Style Director. "What I always found the most rewarding was to have the experience that I had and to have the start that I had," says Tong. "I wouldn't be where I'm at without that."
Ahead of New York Fashion Week: Men's, which kicks off on Monday, we managed to catch the menswear expert on the phone to talk about what he's learned so far in his career, how the industry has evolved and his best advice for young designers.
What have you learned throughout your early career in magazines that you still follow today?
A lot of things. Having a critical eye was something that Bruce [Pask] was very adamant about. At Cargo, he demanded that we know the market inside out, so if he wanted a certain color in a belt, he expected me to know where to get it and not just be like, 'Go to Saks.' I knew belt vendors down south who could make us things. You were forced to learn how to be a market editor and completely know your market and be the expert for that market. That type of attention and having a macro-view of the fashion industry is something I took away from there.
Also, just the work ethic. People think one thing about what it is that we do and that may be true and that may be very public, forward-facing and a decent part of what we do, but that's a very small percentage of how a magazine is put together, how stories are conceived, how photo shoots are done. I think a lot of hard work goes into it and a good work ethic was something I was lucky enough to be around to understand. Plus, treating fashion like a subject matter in school — studying it and knowing about designers; the history of why trends happen the way they happen. It's a very scholarly approach to fashion. All that was really great to learn and have when I left Cargo to go to Details.
What did you enjoy most about working at magazines?
I enjoyed the job most with the traveling and exposure to market. I always said that my job was basically to go out and look for cool shit, which is always a real blessing — being in the mix and being in the know of what's coming out and seeing those trends start from the beginning, talking to these really talented designers when we were at shows or out at market appointments. I liked the fact that my job wasn't the same thing every day. It was very dynamic and we were always out and I wasn't just sitting behind a desk nine-to-five in a boardroom. Obviously the fashion industry is a fun industry, and so you meet a lot of interesting and really great people, some of which I call friends. That whole vibe of the industry is what I love the most.
And what have you been up to over the past three years?
Towards the last few years of when I was at Details, I was really lucky that my editor-in-chief at the time allowed me to do different freelance projects that came along and that I thought were very interesting. I started working with brands like Public School and John Elliott, and a few others doing styling for fashion weeks. And so when Details folded, I extended those types of projects. I do everything from styling for shows, photo shoots and campaigns to consulting, and then, obviously because of the way the world is now, I do a little bit of influencer work as well. But I'm wary of that path, so I'm very careful and selective with the projects that I do in that realm.
What brands or designers are on your radar right now?
I always love and look forward to see what the guys from Second/Layer are doing. Those guys are super talented and I think they have a really cool vibe. I love to see what they're doing. I'm curious to see what Public School and a lot of these American designers are trying to do now that they have a larger platform. I'm just curious to see the direction of the industry in general, because it's been a hell of a year. I wonder what the momentum will be like going into 2018.
What are your thoughts on how the menswear industry has evolved, and also how mainstream streetwear has gotten over the years?
It is what it is. I think it's good and it shows that the level of interest men have in fashion has grown exponentially. Especially street fashion, streetwear and sneaker culture — these things are definitely in the forefront now and I wonder how it will evolve. It's not a subculture anymore. It's been pushed into mainstream culture and everything from high to low has streetwear infiltrated into it. I was fortunate to be around the first wave of streetwear, and it going away and morphing into something more tailored and buttoned-up and then now swinging back again. I think it's interesting and that's one of the things that I'm very curious to see, if that momentum will still carry on or we have hit a streetwear saturation point.
Where do you want to see menswear going?
I'd like to see it go away from it being this groupthink mentality and this perceived value being placed on things. It'd be nice to see a little bit more individuality and different perspectives, instead of feeling like everyone is looking like everyone else.
Social media definitely has a big role in that.
Yeah, it's a gift and curse. It's a double-edged sword. It's great to have all of this information and everything at your fingertips. But it then lends to everyone looking exactly the same. And there's little pockets of people going in a completely different direction or their own direction, but in general, and especially in New York, everyone is fucking exactly the same, which is a little scary to me.
Since you work with a lot of brands, what advice do you usually tell younger designers?
The thing that I look for with brands is their point of view. It's very telling, at least for myself, that they have a very unique point of view and that is a real asset. There are so many brands out there now and it's hard to cut above the noise unless you really have a unique proposition; the desire and the ideas to be able to sustain the pace that the fashion world is at right now. That's the one thing that I always look for: Know exactly what your story is and what you want to tell and what it is that you want to do. If you're trying to chase trends, then you're already late. Also, don't be so set on how things are going to go because the industry is so fickle that you never know. There is no plan. You just have to be ready.
Do you have any career advice for people who want to get to where you're at now?
For our industry, specifically magazines or fashion, experience is the one thing that I find to be the most valuable. Any type of experience, any type of internship or assistant job — whatever you can do to learn and hone the craft because it's a very high-paced, fast and dynamic world. It's nothing that you can really learn from a book. You have to have the experience. We're not Goldman Sachs; there's not a new class of editors or influencers or media people that come in every year. You really have to build that and be ready to work. And it's not all glamourous. There's a lot of great things about it but at the end of the day, it's a job and you're expected to work and perform.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.