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.
The word "cool" is an ironically hot term in fashion. Relaxed suiting is cool; square-toe boots are cool; harnesses on the red carpet are cool — everything with a slight edge that doesn't qualify as chic, is cool. The same goes for editors, many of whom have careers that read like pro sports players, getting traded from one publishing giant to the next. And while fashion media is filled with people who are gracefully competent at their jobs and at getting dressed, Nikki Ogunnaike — who's held senior positions at both Hearst and Condé Nast — stands out above the rest.
David Brooks defines a "cool person" in an op-ed for The New York Times as someone who "found his or her own unique and authentic way of living with nonchalant intensity." He might as well be describing Ogunnaike: If we take her #BathroomBigFit posts into account, which often feature perfectly baggy Levi's and a statement-making blazer or button-down, then we are left with perhaps the coolest person working in the industry.
Ogunnaike got her start in fashion with a brief closet stint at Vanity Fair, before transitioning into a more editorial role at InStyle. From there, she made a smart bet on digital and went to Glamour.com. "I figured if I could get a website to take a chance on somebody who only had print experience, but had connections and was really good at writing and reporting, then I would be set," says Ogunnaike.
Glamour.com was an internet bootcamp for Ogunnaike, who later took all that valuable training and applied it to her time at Elle.com, where she started as Senior Fashion Editor and went on to serve as the website's Style Director. There she gave the world a taste of her coolness through original video content on YouTube and Snapchat. She also wrote important stories that forced the industry to meditate on how to fix itself.
GQ snapped her up in October, making her Deputy Fashion Director under Fashion Director Mobolaji Dawodu. The fashion department at the men's glossy is now run by two Nigerian-Americans, which Ogunnaike proudly notes is "so major at a company like Condé Nast in media today."
We hopped on the phone with Ogunnaike to chat about her new gig, what excites her about working in the menswear space and how she strives to be a person of influence rather than an influencer. As an added bonus, she breaks down her career advice and what she looks for in a new hire. Read on for highlights.
What first interested you about working in fashion or media?
My mom worked in retail when I was growing up and watching my dad getting dressed for church on Sundays was always an event. So, I just remember being surrounded by clothing. And then my sister Lola, who is 10 years older than me, moved to New York to work in newspapers and magazines. I always knew from then on that you can make a living in this industry and you could support yourself. I knew I wanted to follow in her footsteps, but in a fashionable way.
What were your first steps in the industry?
I went to the University of Virginia and it's a very traditional school, so everyone I was in school with was going to be a banker or a lawyer. They were studying history or politics, and I studied sociology because I'd always been interested in race in the media and women in the media. I ended up majoring in what I liked, because at the end of the day, your major when you get into this job doesn't exactly matter. Coming from a sociology lens has always helped me, because it allowed me to see how different people were portrayed in print.
I knew that UVA wasn't going to help me get an internship. I had to figure out how to do that on my own. I asked my sister if she knew anyone who was looking for an intern. Domino magazine had just started, so I ended up interning in the PR department there. The internship coordinator could quickly see that I wasn't exactly interested in home decor at the time. But she did mention that she had a friend at Glamour who was looking for an intern in their fashion closet. I interviewed for that position and got it.
Once you graduated college, what did you do?
I graduated without a job. It was 2007, shortly before the recession. I had stayed in touch with all of my internship coordinators over the years and was able to intern at Elle.com in their fashion closet when I graduated for six months until I could find a full-time position.
What was your first full-time position?
My first full-time position was in the fashion closet at Vanity Fair. I was there for about nine to 10 months. I realized that I wasn't a great market assistant, because you have to be hyper-organized and really care about the little things, like making sure that the pieces are there on time and keeping schedules organized. I wasn't good at logistical things like that when I was first starting out.
I left and ended up becoming an editorial assistant at InStyle, which is where my career really started and took off, because I was able to write and assist at the same time. I was able to work on the contributor's page, and I wrote for the website and wrote features in the "well". I had an opportunity to hone my writing and reporting skills there.
What made you decide to transition from print to digital?
I was at InStyle for about four years and I left in 2012 to go work at Glamour.com, because I had a good friend who started a DIY blog and I saw all of the opportunities that she was getting. I knew I didn't want to start my own blog, but I did want to learn about the internet. I figured if I could get a website to take a chance on somebody who only had print experience, but had connections and was really good at writing and reporting, then I would be set. So, I ended up leaving InStyle, which was a full-time, benefit job for a permalance job at Glamour.com.
I was at Glamour.com for about three and a half years, and it was there that I learned about how the internet worked in the beginning stages. Then, I had a friend who was leaving Elle.com and I'd seen what Leah Chernikoff, the site director at the time, was doing there and I wanted to get in on that. So, I ended up leaving Glamour.com to go to Elle.com
What were your goals when you were at Elle.com and how did they change over time?
Two years in, I was one of the only woman of color, Black woman, who was in this senior position at a magazine, let alone a website. I learned that I could really have an influence on the stories that were being told and who was telling them. In my last two years at Elle, it became my mission to shape the people who were covered, the brands that were covered and also the people that we hired to tell those stories.
What were you most proud of during your time at Elle.com?
I'm proud of two things: I started this web series called "Online, IRL" a YouTube series that then segued to Snapchat. I was proud of it because it melded the different worlds of digital and home videos. When I started getting noticed on the streets from the videos, that made me realize that I'd created something that people were really engaging with.
Simultaneously, I was really proud of the women who were on my team who were telling those stories. I ran the fashion and beauty team when I worked there and it was made up of three Filipino girls and two Black girls. That is essentially unheard of. That doesn't happen really in this industry, and I think that in working with Leah, she really enabled me to hire these women that were not only fully qualified for the job, but also brought a different vantage point and really shaped the kind of stories that were being told on the website.
How has social media affected how you approach your job?
It's interesting. I vacillate back and forth between this idea of being an influencer and being a person of influence on the internet. I think they're very different and I've always strived to be a person of influence. So, I not only talk about fashion and beauty, but I talk about race in the media and what's going on in politics, because I think it's important to provide people with a well-rounded experience when they come to your social platforms. It's important for me to be known not just for the cute outfits that I wear, but also for the amount of time that I spend with my family and that I run half-marathons, and that I care about politics and what's happening in the world today.
What goals do you have as the deputy fashion director at GQ?
Mobolaji (Dawodu) is a Nigerian-American and I'm a Nigerian-American. So first things first, having two Nigerian-Americans running a fashion department is goal check number one — that's so major at a company like Condé Nast in media today. And then, I'm looking forward to influencing the people that we cover in the magazine and the ideas that are being pitched and the people that we work with.
What excites you about being at GQ now?
I was super eager to start here because GQ has a sort of energy that not only emanates and bounces off of the pages, but also in its social media video coverage.
A lot of people were like, "Oh my God, you're going to work in menswear? Are you leaving womenswear behind or scared to leave it behind ?" And I was like, "I want to go where the energy is." You look at a magazine that is shooting Odell Beckham Jr. and they're shooting Keanu Reeves and Pharrell and Brad Pitt and how could you not want to be a part of that?
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What qualities do you look for in a new hire if you were to hire someone?
I want you to be organized and ambitious and thoughtful and be able to anticipate what I may need. We call it a "yes and" person — you say yes and you provide a bunch of different solutions if something is happening or if something's gone wrong, you anticipate how to solve that problem.
Then, I really just want somebody who's excited to be in the room. That means you have read the magazine. You'd be surprised how many people have not taken the time to really look over what the brand has done. And then also somebody who wants to work for the brand, not make a brand out of themselves. A lot of people say, "I'm working on my personal brand," but it's really important to figure out how brands work before you try to put yourself first.
What is something that you wish you knew before starting out?
I thought I was going to be a fashion director by 30. I thought I could climb the ranks, get promoted each year. But, I wish I had known earlier that you can't really plan for stuff like that in this industry. You can have a loose framework or a jungle gym sort of structure in your mind of how you want to get to where you're going, but you should be a little more flexible in terms of the kinds of jobs that you take when you're first getting out of school, because you can really learn anything on a job and you can take that into your next job.
What do you think people misunderstand about your job or about jobs you've had in the past?
A very common misconception is that we go out and choose pretty clothes and that's our day-to-day — like it's just fun and frivolous. But if you look at a magazine like GQ or you look at a magazine like Elle, we're really shaping cultural coverage. I do wish that people understood that and took it a little more seriously, because it goes way beyond putting cute things on the page or covering cute guys — we're making a mini time capsule every month and that's important.
What is your favorite part of your job?
I like the storytelling aspect, be it through the clothing or through the words. It's important that people who have never seen themselves on the cover of a magazine are represented in the pages of a fashion magazine. It's been really amazing to watch how these stories and these narratives have shifted over the years.
What's the most challenging part of your job?
The most challenging job is turning off. Your mind is constantly racing and you're coming up with new ideas and you really feel like you have to be "on" a lot. More so than anything, it's about finding balance for myself and practicing that balance every day.
What is your ultimate goal for yourself?
I don't really know, because career-wise, I did not think that I would be in this position up until six months ago. I honestly had never even thought that I'd be working at GQ. I'm really open to anything. Personally, a goal is to be a great partner and a great mom and take my parents to Brazil.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.