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.
When reminiscing about her career trajectory, Karla Martinez de Salas, the editor-in-chief of Vogue Mexico and Latin America — and alum of Vogue U.S., T, Interview and W — brings up an early job interview, where she was asked how a girl from El Paso, Texas ended up wanting to work in fashion. Really, her hometown had a pretty big impact.
"What helped me in live in a tough city like New York, work in an industry like fashion that's very demanding... is attitude," Martinez de Salas tells me over the phone from Mexico City, where she's lived for the past few years. "Having grown up in El Paso, a small town with not a million stores — now I go back, and I feel like it's a wonderful city to grow up in — but [back then] you're like, 'Why don't I have a Hard Rock Café? Why don't I have all these things you had in a city like Dallas or Houston?' That really helped me appreciate every place that I lived in."
That included Paris, where she moved to for a year after graduating from the University of Arizona, and New York, where she began and built her career as a fashion editor. "Everywhere I went, I kind of had these starstruck eyes, which I think helped me — helped me appreciate [El Paso] and helped me appreciate where I was," she says. "I never imagined that I would work at Vogue, so I was so excited and gave it 200%. I needed the job, also — no one was paying my rent except for me, so I couldn't give myself the luxury of saying, 'Oh you know what? This is hard. I'm going to quit.' No, if I quit, I had to go home. I couldn't afford my $1,500 [a month] apartment, which in New York, that's a lot of money to live with four people."
Mexico's home now. And through her work — at Vogue Mexico and Latin America, but also through projects like curating Bloomingdale's The Carousel and through hosting showrooms in Paris that highlight regional talent — Martinez de Salas is bringing attention to the output of Latin American creators: designers, models, stylists, architects, chefs and more.
Ahead, she talks about how she got her start, the role mentors have played in her career, the challenges she's faced on the job and the Latin American talent she has her eye on right now.
Tell us a bit about your career trajectory. What would you say have been the big moments that got you to where you are now?
Well, I grew up in El Paso. I mention that because I remember an HR woman asked me, 'How [does] a girl from El Paso come to move to New York and want to work in fashion?' Which I felt was a racist question at the time, but I was like, 'Alright.'
I cold-called people, and I had the opportunity to work at Aeffe with Michelle Stein, who's still there. That was my first big internship and where I learned what exactly what I wanted to do. I was in the sales department there, and I knew I didn't like that. An editor from W came in, and she was pulling clothes for a celebrity, and I was like, 'Oh, what is she doing?' The girl that I worked for explained to me what that was. So the next summer, I interned at W, also by cold-calling — I think email was just starting, and LinkedIn was nonexistent.
One of the biggest opportunities I got was to work at Vogue U.S. A friend of mine, Garine Zerounian, introduced me to Wendy Hirschberg, and she recommended me. I worked there for four and a half years. Then, after that, Garine, who works at Armani, was like, 'Oh, they're looking for a market director at T, the New York Times style magazine.' Stefano Tonchi had just gotten there. Working at Vogue was really like finishing school, I always say, but then, working at the Times, I got to see the world of style, versus just fashion. That was really exciting. I was one of the younger market directors.
What do you see as the difference between the world of style and that of fashion?
Style is everything about your life — how and where you eat, where you travel, what style of house you have. [At T] we had a lifestyle issues, we had a home issue, we had a travel issue, we had a fashion issue. It didn't just center around fashion. I don't think magazines now fully center around fashion. I think we're talking about style in general, about how style influences your life throughout.
What do you think made you an appealing hire?
I had worked at Vogue for Wendy Hirschberg and Virginia Smith, who was then a market director and is now fashion director. I remember I interviewed for the accessory director position, and Anna [Wintour] said that I wasn't ready. After that, instead of being disappointed, I think I wanted to get a different experience, so I went to work for Elissa Santisi [at Vogue] — she was style director — to learn about making images. That really helped me because it wasn't just about helping on other people's shoots. I was helping Elissa really see what it takes to produce a shoot — how much money do we need, what do we allocate [for] this. I feel like that really helped for the job at T because it wasn't just about calling in clothes for the French market for a particular editor. It was about going to Europe and [building] relationships with the houses, but also doing jewelry and accessory shoots, learning how to put a picture together and what makes a good picture. I feel like that was appealing to them. And [being] someone who was ready to do everything. There were only three of us in the department, so we went down and did all the dirty work. It was more all-hands-on-deck.
After T I went to Interview. That was tough because it's a very demanding magazine, but at the same time it was very frugal and we had to do a lot of things with very little money. It was interesting to learn that side of the job, working at a magazine that [didn't] have a lot of resources. How do you make the most of those resources? Then, after Stefano went to W, he called me and asked me if I wanted to join him there.
What was the reason for the move to Mexico City?
I moved because my husband got a job offer here in Mexico. He grew up in Mexico City, and he moved to New York around the same time I did. He was never one of those people that would say, 'Oh, I have to move back.' But he got an opportunity [to work here].
When you relocated, how did you go about your work? Did you always know you wanted to try for something at Vogue Mexico?
I was also doing some freelance work for Travel + Leisure and Glamour U.S. I had a brand with a friend of mine, that unfortunately had to close a few years ago, that I worked on. But I knew that, if there was an opportunity to be at Vogue, then, yeah — it was my dream, in a way, since growing up, to be the editor-in-chief of a magazine. It was definitely something that I knew I was ready for. It's just, I wasn't sure when.
You first joined Vogue Mexico as an associate editor. How did that opportunity come about, and how did that lead to the editor-in-chief job?
I had spoken to the CEO and she wanted me to learn how things work in Mexico before going into the editor-in-chief job because the fashion industry, the editorial world [here] is very different. It's much leaner — it's always been a smaller staff than at the American magazines.
For two months, I sharpened up my writing skills, because I hadn't written in Spanish basically all of my career. It was important to see the magazine from that perspective, of an associate editor, and what it's like to work in Mexico. I feel like that was very helpful.
What have been the other differences that you've had to learn about — or relearn — as you started working in Mexico City, versus your time in New York?
I feel like a lot of the brands are here in Mexico, but at the same time, it's a much smaller territory [for them]. They will invite you to their show and sit you in the third row and say, 'Oh, Mexico's not a priority market.' Which is silly, if you think about it, because at this point, people travel all over the world and spend their money in different areas. That's been a challenge, getting people to respect the market.
Even with models: A lot of the agencies are more inclined to give the best models to the Asian regions because that's where the big campaigns are, so they're a little bit hesitant to give them to Latin America and Mexico. We've been working our way up to working with better photographers and great models, and it did take a while to get people to realize that there's a huge opportunity in Mexico and Latin America.
Brands like Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Saint Laurent and Prada, they've invested in Mexico. I feel like that's exciting. We like to support those brands that have been investing in Mexico for a while. Even on a personal note, when people say, 'I only shop when I go to the U.S.' — I'm more inclined to buy it here now than in New York, even if it is a little bit less expensive [there].
How often do you travel to New York for work?
Before [coronavirus] I was going quite a bit — like once every two months. Definitely twice a year for fashion week, a few times for photo shoots. We did a big project with Bloomingdale's that was really exciting. I was the curator for the Carousel, World Bazaar. We were supposed to do a big launch event, but it was postponed. We're doing it digitally, which is a new and interesting way to approach it.
What role have mentors played in your career?
I think it's so important to have someone that you can go to for advice. When I worked at Vogue for Virginia Smith, she was great because not only was she professional, but she also was a mom. I learned a lot from her about how to have a very demanding job but also be a wife and a mom. Stefano and Anne Christiansen, who worked at the New York Times — she was a fashion director at the time when I was at T and someone that always had her head on the ground, super humble, down to earth, talented. I would say that she helped me a lot, just to learn about the industry in general.
I would say now there are people that I lean on that are like my contemporaries, but at the same time are mentors, people that you use to bounce ideas of off. Smart women like Rickie de Sole and Karin Nelson.
Edward Enninful has been really instrumental. He recommended me to Jonathan Newhouse when I was first moved to Mexico. I send him a message, like, 'Edward, how do handle this situation?' Or, just recently we had to do a cover in London and he helped me find a stylist. He's someone that I really look up to and has also taught me that in fashion, you can be really talented and business-oriented, but you can have fun at the same time.
You've spoken about how, being an editor-in-chief of a publication that covers a large region, there's a challenge in that Latin America is not a monolith — not culturally, not even in terms of seasons. How has learning about these nuances from this position helped you do your job better?
That's really a huge challenge that we face. Not a lot of people realize that we do two magazines — one is Mexico, one is Latin America. There are so many different cultural differences between the regions that I learn something new every issue. Argentina's going into fall now. Mexico and Colombia, it's the same weather all year long; our winters aren't as extreme as they are in Chile and Argentina. We have different contributors that help us learn these things and introduce us to people doing different things. It's really interesting to see the differences in cultures and how we speak to these different audiences. You just have to be sensitive to that.
A lot of the issues you've published during your tenure as editor-in-chief have gotten a lot of international attention — the Yalitza Aparicio cover, the Afro-Dominican model cover, the Muxe cover. Tell us a bit about how those came together: What conversations did you have internally about them and how it has guided the way you plan future editions?
When I first started talking to the magazine, the director at the time — who is a very smart woman — she would say, 'Stick to the international models, because that's what people in Mexico like. They have this aspirational view of fashion. Let's look at your counterparts and see what they're doing.' My first cover was Karlie Kloss shot by Chris Colls.
I started questioning our strategy of just using international models and [asking]: Why don't we start using local models? Every time I would go to fashion week, I would see more and more Dominican models in shows — Lineisy [Montero] two years ago was coming up as one of the more famous ones. We decided to start shooting these girls. I started saying to myself, 'If I'm not shooting Lineisy, who is giving her a cover?' Because a lot of the US magazines have the celebrity models going for them, which is great — but if we're going to do celebrities, if we're going to continue to talk about models, why don't we do people coming out of Mexico and Latin America? So we started doing precisely that. And we found that when we did, the response was really, really great.
Mariana Zaragoza, her first cover [for Vogue] was a [Vogue Mexico] cover. She's a Mexican model — yes, she's blond-haired, blue-eyed, but she's very proud to be Mexican. Then we did Lineisy. We did Camila Cabello and, before the Yalitza cover, that was one of the most successful [ones] we've had on digital.
That's not to say that we didn't want to shoot Gigi Hadid. Of course we love Gigi. We've shot her before. We brought her to Mexico. But we did want to shoot more of the [Latinx] and Mexican [talent], and not just confine it to celebrities — chefs, architects, artisans.
There are so many faces to Latin America. You could do 10 covers a month and not finish, right? We wanted to talk about these women, these unsung heroes that for so long have been the backbone of our culture and haven't gotten the spotlight. We wanted to present them as best we could. We started doing that a lot last year. It was our 20th anniversary, and we wanted to talk about the last 20 years at Vogue. We thought it was an amazing time to celebrate the beauty of Latin American women in a new way, give it a new light.
You mentioned how the Camila Cabello cover was the biggest before the Yalitza one...
Yalitza was our cover in January 2019. The engagement was through the roof. I would get emails every single day. I would be tagged in Instagram posts of different Indigenous women — not just in Mexico, but around the world. That was a really exciting cover for us because it opened our eyes to what people want to see. I think people were so happy for Yalitza and to see a different kind of beauty — this non-European, beautiful, Indigenous woman on the cover of a magazine.
After that, we wanted to, as I said, represent different Mexican women, different Latin American women. We shot Paloma Elsesser, whose father is half Chilean and her mother's African-American. We shot Christy Turlington, her mother's actually from El Salvador. We shot the Afro-Dominican models with their natural curly hair, which is surprising because I proposed that to different photographers and a lot of them passed — they said, 'We're not feeling the casting.' I'm like, 'What do you mean you're not feeling the casting? These girls are beautiful.' We finally did it with Ben Weller, an English photographer, and Maya Zepinic.
Then, for the anniversary issue we shot a Mexican runner in Chihuahua, who's part of the Rarámuri Indigenous group in the north part of Mexico. We shot Abigail Mendoza, who's a very famous chef, with her sisters. We shot the [cholitas escaladoras] in Bolivia. We shot Juana Burga, who's a Peruvian model, with a group of Indigenous women that make clothing in Peru. We wanted to celebrate the idea of what it means to be Mexican and Latin American, and what that beauty looks like. You can't say it's one thing. It's so many different things.
What Latin American talent is exciting you right now, specifically in the fashion space?
I think there's so many people doing exciting things. Johanna Ortiz kind of paved the way for a lot of designers. I think she's been instrumental in giving people hope that there is space for Latin American fashion. There's Victor Barragan, who was one of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalists last year. There's Rio [Uribe] from Gypsy Sport. Here in Mexico, there's local talent such as Lorena Saravia, Sandra Weil and Denisse Kuri, who makes everything in her local town of Pueblo with Indigenous women — they do classic weaving. In Colombia there's Silvia Tcherassi, Verdelimon and Kika Vargas. From Venezuela you have brands like Arata and Efrain Mogollon, which is on Moda Operandi, a great website that supports Latin American designers. We did a showroom in Paris with different brands, and there's a woman from Uruguay called Margo Baridón that's doing sustainable fashion. There are so many exciting brands now that are really taking that next step.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.