Ever since "The Devil Wears Prada," it's felt like the public can't get enough of dishy works of fiction centered around the fashion world. The latest tome promising to deliver an insider look is "#FashionVictim," written by Amina Akhtar, a former fashion editor herself — but those looking for a frothy, escapist read may want to look elsewhere.
For one, "#FashionVictim" centers around fashion editor Anya St. Clair, a woman so thirsty to be a part of the in-crowd that she'll do everything from planking in her boss's office to, well, murdering people. In her desperation to become besties with Sarah Taft, the blonde socialite-turned-fashion editor St. Clair just happens to work with, she literally becomes a serial killer. Without giving too much of the plot away, things get really #dark. And for another thing, Akhtar wasn't aiming to write another "Devil Wears Prada" takedown of the fashion industry — so don't bother looking for thinly-veiled real-life industry figures in her characters.
The idea for the book first came to Akhtar around 2008, but she didn't get around to writing it until 2014 when, after a series of layoffs and the passing of her mother, she decided it was time to leave New York City and the fashion industry for good. She channeled her energy into writing "#FashionVictim" — which is, she says, imbued with real life experiences from her time in the industry. But former co-workers and colleagues reading the book don't have to worry that there's too much Anya St. Clair in Akhtar.
"I can say for a sure fact that I have no desire to murder anyone — I just really like murder-y things, like books and movies and shows!" she says with a big laugh. "But if any of my former colleagues are worried, I swear to you I never wanted to kill you. Not at all."
"#FashionVictim" has more in common with "American Psycho" and "Scream Queens" than it does "The Devil Wears Prada," and Akhtar turns the sillier aspects of the fashion industry up to an 11 to add a sense of absurdity. Her characters walk around saying, "WTF" and "OMG!" without any irony, and the name of the book comes from a hashtag one of the characters uses on Instagram to document a murder. After committing another crime, St. Clair documents the steps from her FitBit. In other words, it may not be light, exactly, but it is fun.
We hopped on the phone with Akhtar ahead of "#FashionVictim"'s Sept. 11 release (get it here!) to ask her how much of Anya St. Clair's experiences are based in reality and why the fashion industry lends itself so well to an over-the-top story about a serial killer.
My first question is: WTF?
[laughs] I know! People are expecting just a fun fashion story. They're going to be in for a little surprise.
Why was it important for you to take that over-the-top tone?
I was like, you know, if I'm going to do this I have to go whole hog and make it as batshit and weird as possible, because that was funny to me. Also, I wanted everyone to be so over-the-top so you don't know who to root for in it.
And, to be honest, as I was writing it, I was laughing, and I didn't feel like I had a lot to laugh about at that time. This was really something that made me feel happy and I wanted to write a book that was fun. You can read it in one night if you feel like it, and you feel like you had a good time — even if it was a little bizarre.
I really do love horror movies and I wanted it to be creepy. Maybe I went overboard. I don't know. [laughs] My sister actually was like, 'Should I be worried that you know so much about killing people?' My Google search results are really, really weird. I wasn't leaving my house at the time, so I would just binge watch 'Law and Order.'
I really wanted it to have a woman doing this. We're inundated by men being horrible to women, and not just [in] pop culture, but everyday life. I wanted this girl who people didn't really expect just to be completely off her rocker going after it.
How much research did you have to do to accurately depict the main character as mentally unstable?
I picked up this book at Strand [Bookstore] called 'The Wisdom of Psychopaths' and it's written by this guy whose dad was one. He was really interesting to me, because it's talking about how people are successful in business, and they have these character traits. I was following along and saying okay, here are the things that I need her to be to be just completely off her rocker, but also I had to exaggerate it, because from the first draft, people didn't relate to her. Not that she's the most relatable character now, but you could understand wanting something so bad that you give it everything. She just gives it her everything in a really sinister way.
I definitely had to do the research and I always joked that my dad's a retired shrink, so I grew up with him giving us lectures on mental illness; my school projects were about insanity being passed through the genes when I was in the sixth grade.
How much of the fashion part of the book is real and how much is exaggerated?
All the racist comments [were real] — and I know I've had some people be shocked that I included that. I would say 100 percent of those comments were said to me; I was told I was the token diversity hire, we weren't allowed to hire people who were a certain race or who had strange ethnic backgrounds. I had more stories; I just didn't put them in because it was kind of going over-the-top. I felt that I had to include it because that was really a part of my career.
The size shaming stuff [is real] also. I'm not the fashion figure, I'm not size 4; I'm a very curvy, short woman. I was not forced to plank, but I was definitely told on a regular basis how much I would benefit from planking. I've had people talk about my weight like it's conversation. Like, "How's your diet? Are you dieting? You should lose some weight," or "You'd be so cute if you lost some weight." I've actually had colleagues poke and prod me and grab my breasts and laugh at how large they are in the office — not over cocktails being ridiculous, but at work.
Size shaming is a huge part of the industry — a part I don't like — and definitely, between the size issues and the racism, I very much felt like I didn't belong. I really wanted my character to reflect that a bit, because it sucks. Some of this isn't stuff that happened 15 years ago, some of this happened five years ago, so while things are improving — at least I hope they're improving, they seem to be — we've got a long way to go where we are inclusive, not just in content but in the people who are being hired, whether they're plus-size, whether they're people of color, whether they're gender non-binary. There's a lot more that fashion has to do to get with the times.
Some of the fashion details are so current, like the reference to the head on the Gucci runway. Were you working those in as you went to print?
I got my book deal of February of this year. It was a long process of finding the right people to publish it and work with, so I got to make the references more current, which was really important to me because I think when I first wrote it I made references which I don't think apply anymore. I wanted to go through and make sure things were as current as can be.
At the same time, I don't follow collections anymore; it's part of my detox from the fashion world. I had to really go back and look [at Fashionista] and everyone's sites, going through and seeing what was in so I could make sure that the references made sense.
What are you hoping people take away from your book?
If people have a great time reading it, that's it, that's what I want. If maybe people start talking about diversity in fashion a bit, with size and racism, that would be awesome. We need to keep furthering that conversation more and more and more; I don't think we can have enough conversation about that.
The other day, one of my friends was like, 'I was surprised at how trashy this book was, but I loved it.' And I was like, 'Good!' Read whatever you want to read. Have a good time reading it and enjoy yourself because there's enough going on in our lives that is difficult. If this gives you a weird break — and it is weird, I admit it — then that will make me happy. That's all I can hope for.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.