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.
Within 10 minutes of hopping on the phone with Patrik Sandberg, I learn a lot about the new creative director of CR Men and CR Fashion Book. He was born in a picturesque town in northern California that's often used as a backdrop for films, and he isn't one of those typical fashion types who spent their formative years poring over editorials in Vogue. "Fashion was never really on my radar," he says early on in our conversation. Sandberg was a pop culture kid, who wanted to grow up to make movies and work with music icons like Madonna.
As it would happen, he did grow up to work with Madonna and a handful of his other pop culture heroes, like Britney Spears and Lady Gaga. His career, which reads a bit like an unlikely fashion fairytale, began after attracting the attention of Dazed editors through his music blog and radio show while in college. He then started to write about new bands in San Francisco for Dazed and Confused while pursing a degree in English and Creative Writing.
Following graduation, he moved to New York where he became Nicola Formichetti's assistant, quickly proving he had a strong vision and was full of ideas. "I was trying really hard to push designers on Nicola — like Telfar and Hood by Air — and back then Nicola was like, 'I don't want shoot this, because it's not well made enough or it's not serious enough,'" Sandberg recalls. "And I remember when he finally did do a shoot with Hood by Air or Telfar for Vogue Homme Japan feeling like I made an impact and that was a big deal for them at the time."
A few years later, he dropped the styling gig and went to pursue writing at V Magazine. There, he helped start VFiles and became a senior editor at 26. Before being recruited to work at CR by Christopher Bartley, Sandberg took a break from magazines and went to work with a variety of ad agencies on copywriting, creative direction, castings and strategy for brands like Nike and H&M. He returned to editorial last August when he joined CR Men as its editorial and creative director, overseeing a rebrand of the publication. In February, Carine Roitfeld promoted him to creative director of both CR Men and CR Fashion Book.
We spoke with Sandberg about how he accidentally ended up in fashion, how he came up with his vision for CR Men and why Roitfeld is the best boss. Read on for highlights.
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What first interested you in fashion?
When Madonna's Blonde Ambition Tour happened, I was very young. My family was on vacation with some friends, and it was airing as a concert special. We were watching it and my mom yelled at us: "You're not allowed to watch that, that's for adults!" So, we snuck to a bedroom upstairs and we watched it on that TV. I was just like, "this is the coolest thing I've ever seen." So, seeing all of that Jean Paul Gaultier at a very young age made me aware of clothes in a different way.
What experiences did you have growing up that led you to pursue a career in media and fashion?
I've always been a writer, and I knew from a very young age that I was a writer and that it's something I'm very good at. I always wanted to work with a pop star and on a movie. Growing up, there were a lot of movies being filmed in my hometown; I grew up in a town called Petaluma, California, which is very picturesque — it's actually where Ronald Reagan shot all of his campaign films.
I was always just drawn to the magic of filmmaking. So, the fact that I ended up in fashion feels like an accident.
How did you break into the industry?
When I was in college, I was working in the pornography industry, which was fabulous — they really know how to pay people in that business, fashion could learn a thing or two. I wasn't a porn star, but I was working for porn companies, because I lived in San Francisco.
I had a radio show and a music blog through MySpace and that was how I ended up making some of my best friends who lived in London — one of whom was Matt Irwin, the late photographer. He was a close a friend of mine, and at the time, he was editing the front-of-book section for Dazed and Confused with Robbie Spencer. I became friends with them, and through that, I ended up doing stuff for Dazed. I think I was probably 21 or 22.
Then, when I moved to New York in 2008, I met Nicola Formichetti, who had also just moved to New York, and he needed an assistant. My first job in New York was that I was Nicola's assistant, which is how I started working in fashion. We were styling big shoots for Vogue Italia and Vogue Hommes Japan. I loved working on those shoots, and I met Hedi Slimane through them. I was immediately thrown into the fire.
What was it like being Nicola Formichetti's assistant?
I never wanted to be a stylist. I knew that being an assistant for Nicola was a launchpad for being a stylist, because he had had so many assistants who went on to become stylists before. So, it was impressed upon me very quickly that the job could be what I made of it.
I was trying really hard to push designers on Nicola — like Telfar and Hood by Air — and back then, Nicola was like, "I don't want shoot this, because it's not well made enough or it's not serious enough." I remember when he finally did do a shoot with Hood by Air or Telfar for Vogue Homme Japan feeling like I made an impact and that was a big deal for them at the time.
From there, you landed at V Magazine; what was that like?
I started at V in 2010 and that was another instance of being thrown into the fire, because I was hired to take over their digital. When I came in, the idea that I came up with was that V should have a digital platform that's its own channel. I wanted the website to be its own project and do a lot of really conceptual digital things. Then, Stephen [Gan] brought Julie Anne Quay over, who had been a managing editor at V, and through that, VFiles started.
I was one of the original creators of VFiles. After that, I launched V's social media; then Stephen fired the senior editor and I [took over], so I was immediately booking shoots.
Did you feel ready for that kind of responsibility?
I felt ready for it. I felt kind of overdue for it in a crazy way, because I've always felt 10 steps ahead of myself. I don't know where I got that confidence from.
Working at a magazine like that, that's very celebrity focused, it really emboldened me to reach out to all of my heroes. My first full issue there was with Britney Spears. My last V issue — which was V 100 — was also Britney Spears. Everything starts and ends with Britney.
What did you take away from your time at V?
I was at V for six years, so that was where I found my voice in editorial. Being on a small team, I was very involved in everything: The concept of the shoot, the art direction of the shoot, the casting, the stylist, the photographers, the commissioning and production.
Stephen Gan is a creative director, but he's also an editor, and I feel like I learned how to do both things because that was the way that he works.
How did you meet Carine Roitfeld?
I first met Carine before she was launching CR Fashion Book. When she left Vogue Paris, she started doing things for V; she and Mario Testino did a full issue together with Kate Winslet on the cover. It was an issue that was dedicated to Elizabeth Taylor, so we worked really closely with Carine on that. That was the beginning, and then when she launched CR, she was working out of our office.
Christopher Bartley was the editor of CR, but he had been the editor of V when I started working there. I've always been close with him and with Jorge Garcia, who's the publisher of CR, so they brought me in because Carine was looking for a new direction for CR Men's Book, which we rebranded and now call CR Men. I did one issue of that, which is the issue with LaKeith Stanfield on the cover, shot by Roe Etheridge, and it got a really good response. Carine felt ready to push CR into a new direction, so she brought me over to creative direct women's as well. Spring is my first issue.
What was your vision for CR Men?
Men's fashion right now is so much more free and so much more fun than it was when I stopped doing V Man. Back then, everything was about suits ... that GQ monopoly of taste. Men are now willing to dress more exuberantly. It's a more liberated kind of vision of men's fashion. When you look at Carine and all of her work over the years, I feel that type of liberation and irreverence — I mean, her book was called "Irreverent," and that's always been such a strong part of what she does. It's something I feel is very Parisian; there's something very sexy about it.
I only had a month to do my first CR Men issue, so it came together really quickly. Once you make one issue, there are things you aren't happy about or things that you would do differently — you're always trying to perfect it for the next time. I think they're just going to get better and better.
What is like to collaborate with Carine?
It's the best. She's the best. Having been in the fashion industry for over 10 years, I think it's a very superficial and a very phony business. What you really learn is that there's this synthetic accord that everybody has where, on the surface, everybody is positive and optimistic, but then when you're actually working in fashion, you realize people are quite motivated by greed and selfishness and they are not always open to new ideas.
It's easy to become jaded, and I've worked in situations and with people that were quite negative and have witnessed the way that they would wield power over people. I found it all really conniving and it was a nice education for me, because when you're around people like that, you realize this is the way that I never want to work. It sounds cliché, but it is very rare that you find someone where the spirit of what they're doing is so genuine and is so joyful. With Carine, everything that she does in fashion she really loves, and she's genuinely inspired and not a snob.
There's something that's so pure about her and it's very easy to collaborate with her and to give opinions and express ideas and have discussions. Maybe it's because she's European that she has a more laissez-faire attitude about everything. At the end of the day, it's just fashion and it's not that serious. It's such a breath of fresh air. Anyone who gets a chance to work with Carine should, because they'll love it.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in the industry?
I get myself in situations that aren't necessarily good for me because that's just part of my personality — I'm a journalist at heart. I'm willing to suffer things that maybe some other people aren't, but I would say that before you enter the fashion industry, you need to be honest with yourself that it's a business that's ruled by money. If you don't come from money, there's no place for you. It's like whoever has the most money will always pull the strings. Whoever has the wealthiest parents will always get the job. It's all about who you know, and if you come in the way that I did, where you really are full of ideas and have a very strong vision, it's never going to come easy. You're gonna have to kick and scream and fight and claw.
Don't back stab anybody, but I've always had to be pushy and express my opinions in a very convincing way in order to get anybody to do anything — but I think that's also part of being an editor. If you don't have that tenacity, then you should probably look for something else; it might be better to do something that pays more, because there's not much money in editorial, either.
If you really are passionate about it, you need to develop a thick skin and you can't hold back on your ideas. You have to be strong-willed and you have to believe in what you're doing and not get easily derailed.
What are your ultimate career goals?
We're very much a generation of not wanting to be stuck in one role, which has been hard to market and to manifest. I've been a writer; I've been a stylist; I've been an associate creative director; a freelancer; I've been a creative director; I've worked in film, video, all of it.
I've always been publicly regarded as a writer and once everyone is like, you're a writer, they have a hard time perceiving you as anything else — even though during the time that I was writing for magazines and editing magazines, I was also doing commercial creative direction, which is how I was making my money.
If I could go back, I wouldn't have put the label on myself of being a writer. Even though I love that I'm a writer, I feel like I got pigeonholed. Most people think editors just edit articles; they don't realize that you're introducing photographers to stylists, that you're having meetings to come up with creative ideas, that you're on set, actually guiding the shoot. People weren't quite aware that I was doing it, and so being regarded as a creative director now was a goal, which I feel like I'm in still in the process of achieving, even though I'm now represented by CR Studio as a creative director.
I want to continue to work in film. I've worked with so many pop stars, and I've had so much fun working with them. Musicians have an album cover shoot, and they do music videos, live appearances, a tour and have merch. There's a lot there to play with, so I'd like to work in a more serious way with a musical artist.
I love magazines so much. I grew up on magazines and I feel like it's such a privilege to get to make them. As long as I'm allowed to do it, I want to keep doing it. I feel like I should be able to do everything that I want — and so should everybody.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.