How Eva Chen Went From Pre-Med Student to Director of Fashion Partnerships at Instagram

She's adding one more title to her already-lengthy resume: children's book author.
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Eva Chen with her children Ren and Tao in her collection for Janie & Jack. Photo: Courtesy of Janie & Jack

Eva Chen with her children Ren and Tao in her collection for Janie & Jack. Photo: Courtesy of Janie & Jack

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.

Not to start a story about Eva Chen with a story about me, but I promise it will make a few points if you'll indulge me for one paragraph.

Back in 2011, when I was selling granite countertops in a college town in Alabama dreaming about moving to New York City to work in fashion journalism, Chen was the beauty and wellness director at Teen Vogue, regularly dispensing advice to other fashion fanatics like myself via her then-very-active Twitter account. We shared an exchange about whether I needed to relocate before applying to jobs, and I expressed nervousness at moving somewhere without employment. I've never forgotten what she tweeted at me next: "Fortune favors the bold," an expression I regularly repeated to myself as I sent dozens of cold emails to fashion editors, applied for (and, clearly, scored!) an internship at Fashionista and uprooted my life to be here in the Big Apple.

The first point this illustrates is that, long before she was the director of fashion partnerships at Instagram, Chen was an enthusiastic and early adapter of social media. Before it was ever part of her job description, Chen was the one who encouraged several major fashion figures — think Karlie Kloss and Pat McGrath, for starters — to launch their own Instagram accounts.

She insists that, while it may not seem this way, she's quite introverted and loves the opportunity social media gives everyone to build communities for themselves. Twitter and Instagram each created more places Chen could share the things she was seeing as a beauty editor, and then as editor-in-chief of Lucky, with people like me who wanted a look inside the industry; more importantly, she sees her online presence as a natural extension of her own personality. 

"I love sharing — I'm an oversharer," she says. "I'm that kind of person where, if you bump into me in SoHo and you're like, 'Excuse me, where's Mulberry Street?' I'm like, 'It's over there, and you have to go to this pizza place and then there's a really cute store three blocks down that sells silver jewelry.' Then, they're like, 'Okay, bye.' And I'm like, 'Bye, but don't forget to go to Rubirosa, it's my favorite restaurant!' Instagram now, of course, is that times a million."

Second — and I clearly admit to a bias! — Chen might be one of the nicest people working in fashion today. In addition to dispensing advice via social media on everything from making a major career leap to finding the perfect cashmere sweater, Chen has maintained relationships and mentorships with several of her former employees, bringing a number of them with her to Instagram, and still finds the time between her jet-setting job and writing a children's book — the just-released Juno Valentine — to give informational interviews to people hoping to break into the industry.

"Now that I'm more established in my career, I always try to take time to do informational interviews; since I was at Elle, I do informational interviews usually once a week with anyone who has curiosity about whatever I'm doing, just because I didn't really have that opportunity growing up and didn't really understand the concept of them," she explains. "It could mean the difference between someone going into a new industry and taking a chance or not."

The last thing I hope my one story signifies is that Chen is bursting with great advice that she's more than willing to share. I caught up with Chen again, this time over the phone (Twitter may have increased the tweet limit, but you can still only do so much with 280 characters!), to get her take on everything from breaking into fashion and climbing up the editorial ranks to making the move to Instagram and writing a children's book. Read on for the highlights.

What first interested you in fashion?

I grew up on the periphery of fashion because I grew up in New York, and I feel like New York is definitely one of the most fashionable cities in the world. My mom was always well-dressed; she has always been a style icon for me, but I, myself, was not really interested in fashion. I was a very late bloomer, and for me, my world growing up was books and populated by characters from books.

My awareness of fashion really started picking up more in college; I went to college at Johns Hopkins which is kind of a fashion-starved institution — it's mostly engineers and doctors. [Laughs] But I interned at Harper's Bazaar and I feel like that ignited my brain. I didn't feel like I dressed horribly by any means, but I never put a lot of effort into it or realized it was a form of self-expression and understood the concept of personal style until I was 20.

What made you want to take the internship at Harper's Bazaar?

I was pre-med; I assumed that I would be a doctor growing up because my parents always expressed that wish for me and I always had an aptitude for science. But I wanted to take a summer off before I went to medical school or even took the MCATs to apply to medical school; I was like, I'm going to apply to every crazy internship and do something so different before I'm a doctor for the rest of my life.

My strategy for applying to internships was terrible. It literally was: apply to jobs at places I've heard of. I applied to internships at places like William Morris because I had read in The New York Times that they represented authors; Random House because I love books and I love reading; MTV; CAA because they also represented authors and people I had heard of. I applied to Hearst through their official programs because I didn't know anyone to help me break into the industry; I didn't realize you could get in through "connections." Because I'm a first-generation American to immigrant parents, I didn't have those fashion connections that a lot of other people had.

Harper's Bazaar was the only one that paid, which, when you're 20 years old and you're living in New York City and have the choice between getting paid or not getting paid, of course I took getting paid. I think I got paid maybe $300 a week, which, oh my god — I was so excited by that $300 a week. I obviously spent it all on truly frivolous things.

It was such an amazing experience for me, and I'm really grateful that I had the opportunity because I didn't realize that magazines existed as a career. I never thought about the fact that between 50 and 200 people worked on these things that just showed up in my parents' mailbox every month, and that it was someone's job to test out lipstick or check for grammatical errors in the copy department or organize photo shoots. 

Eva Chen. Photo: Leo Faria/Courtesy of Eva Chen

Eva Chen. Photo: Leo Faria/Courtesy of Eva Chen

What were your first steps in the industry?

After Harper's Bazaar, I was like, "This is my dream in life, I want to work in magazines." But then I couldn't find a job because it was 2001, right around 9/11. It was the first dot-com boom and a lot of magazines were folding, like Mademoiselle and YM. I actually worked for a law firm for nine months because I did what so many people do, which is: 'Oh, I'll go to law school.'

While I was paralegaling and working in a law firm preparing to take the LSAT, I kept in touch with a bunch of people. Emily Dougherty — who is now the editor-in-chief of New Beauty — emailed me and said, "Joanne (who used to work in credits at Harper's Bazaar) is looking for a freelancer. It's just a few months. We don't know what the hours are, but maybe you do that job while you look for a real job in magazines." I only did it for probably a month before Emily emailed me and was like, "You should take this job at Elle; there's going to be a beauty assistant job open."

I went and worked at Elle. I was assisting the beauty director at the time who was a woman named Cara Kagan, and basically my job was to open packages, update Rolodexes, answer the phone. I'm proud of the fact that I got all the assistants at Elle wearing headsets because it's so much more efficient. [Laughs] I loved organizing press releases, so I would organize press releases by category. I always found calm in creating systems out of chaos. 

What were your next steps?

I was at Elle for three years. I started as a beauty assistant and it was really great timing — so much of the fashion industry is timing. The woman who was the associate editor, Aida Leisenring, ironically left for law school just as I ditched a future law profession. I was an assistant for nine months at Elle, and I got promoted into Aida's position as associate editor; I was associate editor for a year and a half, and then I did a little bit of everything. I assisted Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele, the legendary French stylist, and frankly, I was a terrible assistant. [Laughs] But it was cool to kind of try something new. I always knew I didn't want to be a stylist, but they needed an extra hand and it was fun to try it out.

I got to Teen Vogue because Kara Jesella was the beauty director at the time, and she was leaving because she was writing a book. She had suggested me to Amy Astley, who was the editor-in-chief then. It was really my dream job. I loved Teen Vogue — from the moment it came out, I was obsessed with it. My whole life, I've loved teen culture, I think because I was so awkward and never really had the typical teen experience.

I worked there for seven years, and it was an awesome experience because Amy was such a great boss. We had a lot of autonomy as editors, and I think that's informed my managing style now; I try to empower the people who work for me to make decisions because I learned at Teen Vogue that giving someone autonomy and independence and letting them do what they feel is right really helps you grow. I eventually was doing beauty, health, special projects, all of Teen Vogue's offshoots – it had a bedding line; it had a bag line with LeSportsac; there was a book that I worked on.

I left Teen Vogue because my husband, who's a producer, had an opportunity to work on a series for Vevo; he had to live in LA for eight months to film this live show. I was newly married and I figured there's not many times in life that you can go somewhere new, completely different. I moved to Venice and I continued doing contract work for Teen Vogue, like writing covers and working on the commerce projects. But then I also did a lot of other things; I was freelance and I was a contributing editor for Kristina O'Neill at the WSJ. Magazine; I wrote stuff for Vogue and I was a contributor to Vogue China, as well.

Then, Anna [Wintour] reached out to me, right when she became [Condé Nast] artistic director. She said, "We're rethinking Lucky and we want you to consult. Tell me what you think about Lucky." I was like, "Well, I love to shop, but now people are inspired to shop from a lot of different places. It's much more of a conversation and I think the tone should be a little bit more modernized. There should be bloggers and young style influencers on the cover. This is the future. There should be Instagram integrated into the magazine."

I started out as a consultant for Lucky and then she asked me to be editor-in-chief. I did that for a year and a half. It was an amazing experience to learn from Anna and to work with her and see how her brilliant mind works — because it truly is genius, the way she thinks.

What made you want to leave editorial to work at Instagram?

I worked at Lucky for about a year and a half. What happened is that Condé spun off Lucky into a joint venture with an e-commerce company named BeachMint. The timing was really difficult because I think I was seven months pregnant when I found out this was happening. I didn't take a maternity leave because I wanted to be the one to make all these changes that needed to happen at Lucky. I left Lucky in April of 2015, literally four months after Ren was born, and then I took my maternity leave from April to the end of July. 

During that time, a friend from Instagram who I now work with, Charles Porch, had reached out to me. I had met Charles at South by Southwest and at various parties; I had met Kevin Systrom, the co-founder [of Instagram], a few times at social events, but it never occurred to me that I would get a job there. Charles was like, "We're thinking about adding someone to oversee fashion for Instagram and this job is made for you." My brain was this jumbly hot pot of hormones and exhaustion from all the stuff from Lucky, and I was like, "I think I just want to take time off."

The more I thought about it, I was like, I kind of have been doing this job already; I would always email Charles like, "You should really add this feature or that feature." I was excited to come work here at Instagram because it was something that I really, really loved and still love, to work somewhere that has such a global influence, especially in fashion. 

Instagram's one of those things that really brings people together. I can't even name the number of people who I was Instagram friends with before actually being friends. I got my book deal through Instagram; I met my illustrator through Instagram. He had tagged me in a photo he did about two years ago, and I DM-ed him and was like, "Oh, thanks so much! This is so nice — can I repost this into my profile?" He was always in my mind. And then two years later, when I got this book deal, I DM-ed him; he quit his job, and we worked on the book together. It was a dream come true. I also met my book publisher through Instagram because I was posting all these pictures of me hugging bookshelves. [Laughs]

The opportunity to work at Instagram and to learn from this amazing organization and contribute to this platform that I so, so love — it was a dream come true. But when I started, it was literally just me in New York City for Instagram for partnerships. Now we have music and news based in New York, too, and I have a team of people — Virginia Nam, Emilie Fife and Kristie Dash.

What does that role entail for you now?

As an editor or a writer, your day is different every day. Some days you're sitting at a desk and your eyeballs feel like they're about to fall out of your head, and then other days, you're running around to 14 events in a row. My job here at Instagram is quite similar. Today I've been playing catch up; yesterday, I was in Brazil; a few weeks ago, I was in Paris doing meetings with models and designers and stylists. But I would say half of my job is working with the fashion industry, whether it's models, designers, stylists, publications, editors — all of those categories — helping them understand how to use Instagram better. 

I would say the other half of my job is to take feedback they give me and share it with the product team at Instagram, so that they can change the Instagram product to what the fashion industry wants. For instance, the other day when I was in Brazil, I was meeting with this influencer. She was like, "My dream in life is for direct message: when you're typing in someone else's username, for it to populate as a tag, so a person in DM could just tap the tag and go to the profile." I literally looked at her for 30 seconds and was like, "Yes, we should have that." 

Or, for me, from the moment we launched video on Instagram, I was like, we need to be able to tag in videos based on feedback I had heard from models; they want to be able to tag brands, but they also want to be able to tag their friends. I was really involved in the launch of Stories. I love Stories and I'm really proud and happy to see how well Stories is doing — 400 million people use it everyday. From the very beginning, I was like, "Fashion brands are going to do filters. I think between Rihanna, Off-White and Gucci, those three filters have had half a billion impressions since they launched. It's so cool to think about that — that something I helped work on, half a billion people have seen. 

The cover of "Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes," by Eva Chen. Photo: Courtesy of Eva Chen

The cover of "Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes," by Eva Chen. Photo: Courtesy of Eva Chen

What made you want to get into writing children's books?

I always grew up reading books and now I read usually about 15 books a day-slash-night to my kids. I always wanted to write children's books. When I left Teen Vogue and I did my exit interview with Amy, she was like, "What's your dream?" I don't think she was expecting this: I was like, "All I want to do is write children's books."

For me, this is really a dream come true. Back then, I didn't have kids, but now as a mom, writing a children's book obviously has a different meaning because I'm writing things that I want my kids to read. It's half-fashion fairytale, half-girl empowerment guide. You don't have to be into fashion, but if you love fashion, you'll love all the little fashion Easter eggs in the book. Like, can you spot the Public School baseball cap in the closet of Juno Valentine? Can you find the Donatella Versace shoe? Do you see the Chanel slingbacks that I wear basically every day of my life? Do you see the Chiara Ferragni shoes?

What do you look for in people who would be part of your team?

When I look for people to be part of my team, a lot of it is energy-based. That sounds really New Age, but I'm looking for people with positive energy, with a can-do attitude, people who will roll up their sleeves, maybe because that was me. I think back to when I was an intern at Harper's Bazaar and there was the beauty closet. I was immediately like, "I will organize this beauty closet." Or when everything was on Rolodexes and I was like, "We should have a contact list that's not a Rolodex because we should be able to press control-F [and search]." 

I'm looking for people with initiative, with a positive energy and who, no matter how senior they are when I hire them or how junior they are, have a similar level of enthusiasm and drive. Obviously, to work at Instagram, you have to know Instagram, which sounds silly, but I want you to have tips and hacks better than I do. I want you to know how to use the product better than I do.

What is something you wish you had known before starting out?

It's hard to say because for me, there has been very little pre-meditation to [my entire career path]. That sounds weird, but I literally never expected to go from pre-med to magazines and then have all these surprises along my career path. I wish I'd known that you have to go with the flow and trust in the flow; you just have to see what opportunities come up.

A lot of the fashion industry is timing-based; through my career, so much of it has been through fortunate timing. You have to create opportunities by working really, really, really hard, but you also have to know that a lot of opportunities come as a byproduct of timing.

Eva Chen with her children Ren and Tao in her collection for Janie & Jack. Photo: Courtesy of Janie & Jack

Eva Chen with her children Ren and Tao in her collection for Janie & Jack. Photo: Courtesy of Janie & Jack

What advice would you give someone looking to follow in your footsteps?

Talk to as many people as you can. Of course, going to college is great; it's fun, it's four years of exploration. But really, what you're getting from college also is a network. Whether you went to University of Michigan, Princeton or a local community college, you really have to make the effort to create a network and talk to your alumni office. 

Also, try to realize that if you reach out to 10 people in the industry, three might write you back and two of them will probably just drop off the radar because they get too busy or something happens. But all you need is one person to give you a chance. 

If you do informational interviews or job interviews, do your homework. Don't just show up to an interview and say, "I'm interested in fashion." Now, every career is represented on Instagram; you could follow a hairstylist like Lacy Redway or Sam McKnight; you could follow makeup artists like Violette or Pat McGrath; you can follow fashion editors like Joanna Hillman or yourself; you could follow the set designer Shona Heath; you could follow fashion stylists like Danielle Nachmani, Kate Young or Micaela Erlanger. You get a sense of what their jobs are, and that is a "don't" in my book when people are applying for jobs. Don't come unprepared. Don't waste this opportunity.

What is your ultimate goal for yourself?

I've never measured success by salary or by milestones — like a title, for instance. I always measured success and happiness by how fulfilled I feel and how stimulated I am in a job environment. For me, ultimately, that's what I want to continue, and I feel really lucky because writing this book gave me an opportunity to stretch a different part of my brain. Frankly, I don't write anymore. I write captions. I have a Facebook moms group I write in where I give advice and have conversations with other moms, which I actually love doing. I write newsletter once a month because so many of my followers on Instagram are like, "I want to know what baby bottle you recommend," or whatever. But that's the extent of my writing besides this book.

Writing this book was, for me, something that stretched my brain in a different way. I also had the opportunity to do a clothing line with Janie & Jack for this book, which made sense because Juno is in such a distinctive uniform; she's in this kind of French sailor-striped shirt. It's meant to be a gender-neutral outfit, these little olive shorts and a bandana print, which I'm super into. I've never designed something before. It was so much fun. 

My goal for myself is to always have that excitement and newness and fulfillment. When I was a beauty editor, people were like, "What do you want to do next?" And I was like, "I just want to be happy and like my life." I've been so fortunate in almost my entire career to have that, but I think it's a chicken-and-an-egg thing — I think I've had that because I've never been chasing a title.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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