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.
Erik Maza's first-ever front-page story was for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the regional newspaper he interned at while he was in college. The year was 2005. The headline: "Blood bank seeks love, but in vein." (It was about a singles night at a blood bank.)
"Those jobs teach you to be fearless and to do anything for the sake of getting the story," he says of his reporting gigs at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Miami New Times and Baltimore Sun, where he cut his teeth before moving to New York to work at WWD in 2012. "It's attitude that John Fairchild famously referred to as 'bringing home the bacon,' though I didn't really know that at the time."
From covering the media industry at the then-Condé Nast-owned trade publication, Maza went on to become an editor, first at WWD and then on the digital team at Stefano Tonchi's W. That eventually led him to his current role: style features director at Town and Country, where he writes and edits stories about the Ferragamo family's palazzo, jewelry empires and conservation efforts in Venice. His beat may have evolved a bit over the years, but his reporter roots still feel relevant to this day.
Ahead, Maza talks his moves up the masthead, the source of his journalism aspirations and, of course, those legendary coverlines.
If you were to go through the highlight reel of your career, what are the big moments that stand out to you, the stepping stones that got you to where you are now?
I would say the top of the list for me was being the media reporter at Women's Wear Daily. The way that I got the job was in itself a highlight, because the late, great Peter Kaplan pressed Ed Nardoza, somehow, to take a chance on someone without really any New York connections, who was working at a regional paper at the time. That in and of itself was rewarding.
The job itself was extremely complicated, because the media column at Women's Wear had been reported and edited by a kind of murderers' row of great reporters. It felt like I had a lot to live up to. It was scary, because it was read by all these people who were far more experienced than I was at the business of magazine-making. It was also complicated, because at the time, Women's Wear was still owned by Condé Nast, so it felt a little bit ominous to be reporting, honestly, on the people who were also cutting my check. I felt enormous pressure to do it well, not embarrass myself and live up to the expectations that the job implied.
To have emerged with stories that I found enjoyable to report on, stories that people hopefully remember for one reason or another — I'm very proud of that period.
What made you want the job to begin with? And to work in fashion in New York, from being a reporter at regional papers?
All of those things are a little bit accidental, in a way. Like any young gay boy, I was interested in fashion and fashion magazines, but I can't say that I planned on working in fashion. I certainly didn't look to work in fashion magazines. I knew that I wanted to end up in New York — because if you're a working journalist, it feels like the center of the media universe, and it was the place where the work that I enjoyed the most was happening. But I wanted to come with a job in journalism. I didn't want to fetch coffee for anyone. I knew that the only way that it made sense for me at the time to get a job was to work in regional papers and just slowly work my way up the ladder, which was the way that people used to do this.
It so happened that when I was working at the Baltimore Sun, I was writing a Tumblr on the side, a personal blog that was a tongue-in-cheek commentary about New York media. And it came to the attention of a bunch of New Yorkers, among them John Koblin, who was the media reporter at Women's Wear at the time. When he left that job, he told Peter Kaplan, "There's some kid out of Baltimore who seems to be unhealthily obsessed with New York media, he might be good for this job." And somehow, Peter had also heard my name through Frank DiGiacomo, now an editor at Billboard, who had also recommended me, just based on my clips, I guess. And Peter was like, "Who the hell is this Erik Maza?"
That's what brought me to New York for an interview with Peter — with no expectation that I would get it, because I thought you would need to be Nora Ephron's kid to get a job at Women's Wear Daily. The interview would have been good enough, because it would've meant meeting my hero, someone whose paper, The New York Observer, was so formative to my journalism education and very much informed my sensibility and point of view. I don't know what they saw in me, but Peter and the editors at the time at Women's Wear took a chance.
Going back even further, what made you want to pursue journalism in the first place?
Initially, it was because no one else in my high school was thinking in those terms, and it seemed like the contrarian thing to do. But also, when I was in high school, I started reading very early iterations of Gawker, edited by Elizabeth Spiers and Choire Sicha, which were a great deal of fun. And if you read Gawker in those days, eventually you started reading the media column at Women's Wear, and eventually you started reading this pink paper out of New York, the Observer. You got a taste of an attitude and writing that, to me, was incredibly intoxicating, mainly because it seemed to me that everyone was having such a good time. All these stories were enormously mischievous and fun. I was drawn to both that attitude and that world of beautiful things and bohemia that they covered.
My first internship that I ever did, the summer after my freshman year of college, was at the newspaper [from] where me and my parents settled after we came from Cuba, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. I wanted to see if I was going to be any good at it. Those papers really put you through the paces. They make you do a little bit of everything — they make you do the police beat, they make you write obituaries, they make you report on hurricanes and corrupt politicians. That kind of fearlessness serves you well later when you're walking into a room of Condé Nast executives to ask them how many people they've fired for X, Y and Z, even though they're cutting your check that week. They really teach you the value of gumshoe reporting, of working the phones and knocking on people's doors if you need to, of doing the work that goes into reporting a story — which is still, other than editing, what I love doing the most.
Coming from that, what's something that has surprised you about covering the fashion industry?
It's an appreciation for beautiful things. I remember being in the backseats of cars when I was a reporter at Women's Wear, just having come out of the show and [listening to] Bridget Foley, Jessica Iredale and Alex Badia talk about them with such a sense of joy and excitement. That appreciating fashion was exciting to be a part of. Working in fashion teaches you that beauty itself can be fulfilling, that it can be restorative and transformative, that it can be its own kind of transcendence.
You sort of fall through the rabbit hole when you start working in fashion, because you might see a Marc Jacobs show that references a particular Helmut Newton photograph and suddenly you're absorbing all of Helmut Newton; then you find out about Guy Bourdin. You keep learning a new vocabulary that's very different from my background, which was a "just the facts" approach to reporting.
I remember, in particular, there was a Marc by Marc Jacobs show at one of the piers. It was Fall 2014. Katie Hillier and Luella Bartley were designing it at the time, and they set up a BMX scenario, with girls biking around. It was this carnival that had been erected just for the sake of this 15-minute show. It showed me such a sense of possibility, because all these shows are mini dioramas and these designers, when they're good, are like auteurs who imagine entire worlds in their own image. And it feels entirely thrilling to step into it. I remember walking out of that show with a giant grin across my face, because it so crystallized what makes fashion special, which is that sense of fun and frivolity and sheer imagination, when it's good.
When you were at WWD, you made the transition from reporter to editor. What made you want to make that change?
The decision was sort of made for me, believe it or not. I think I had made enough trouble for myself as a media reporter that my bosses at Women's Wear said, "Let's promote you out of this job, because you're good at what you do, but you're pissing off way too many people." Once I started editing The Eye, I learned a whole new bag of tricks that made me appreciate that job trajectory more.
It taught me to train young writers — some of whom are now editing The Eye, like Leigh Nordstrom — and to think in terms of the big picture. I had to think in broad terms about where the section fit in within the larger news report. That gives you a sense of humility about the job that maybe you don't always have as a reporter, when you think the only story that matters is the scoop that you're working on. As an editor, you have to think more holistically.
Also, it was my first taste of the collaborative nature of magazines and of making an editorial product. As a reporter, you don't necessarily have to work with the art director or with the photo department. But as an editor, there are a lot more cooks in the kitchen, and you have to learn to diplomatically involve them all. And as a young person that's not always easy. My boss at the time, Jim Fallon, taught us you get more bees with honey than you do with vinegar. It taught me to appreciate the editors who had worked with me before in a whole new light.
From WWD, you went to W as a digital features editor. What inspired that move?
I thought that the business had been moving in a new direction for quite some time, and despite the fact that I think newspaper reporters are some of the most versatile and well-versed [people] for a digital reality, I'd never had a fully digital job, so it seemed like a good time to experience that 24/7.
At the time, W had a very bare-bones staff and infrastructure. The pitch for why I should come from both Dirk Standen, who was the digital director at the time, and Stefano Tonchi, then the editor-in-chief, was that Condé Nast was investing in W. If I went over there, I could build something from the ground up — which we did, I feel.
You joined Town and Country in 2018, as style features director. That's a more print-focused role. What made you want to go to a different title, but also back to that format?
You know as well as anyone that the pace of working on the internet full-time is exhausting. It leaves very little time to have any semblance of a work/life balance. Anyone who works on digital properties — editors especially — experiences that aggravation or pressure of keeping up with the news cycle. I found myself stressed beyond belief. Maybe it had something to do with turning 30 during that time, but I just wanted to slow down. So when Stellene Volandes approached me for the job, I appreciated the idea of moving back to a more normal pace of producing work.
When I joined Town and Country, we were all still working on an accelerated schedule from the way magazines used to conduct themselves, but it was at least something of a step back from the marathon that W was.
But, there was another element to it: Town and Country — historically, and especially during the time that Stellene has had it — really appreciates good writing and good writers. I knew that I would be able to offer writers a decent wage for their tireless work in a way that when I was at W, I had to barter and beg. I didn't have a good way of paying writers. I was really looking forward to call people that I like and be able to give them a decent rate.
So, we have to talk about the coverlines.
Well, I'll preface this by saying that Stellene is the queen of coverlines. A lot of those are coming straight from her brain or from things that she's charmed by. "Bourgeois? Moi?" is a Stellene creation.
Sometimes we come up with coverlines as we're making the issue — something that maybe doesn't quite work for the page — but they're kind of like inside jokes a lot of the time. We get the cover and Stellene sends it to a bunch of senior editors, like Danielle Stein and Adam Rathe, and we all kick back ideas over Slack or email. Sometimes it happens over lunch in Stellene's office.
The making of the coverline at Town and Country is like a cocktail party at its peak: Everyone's gossiping and trying to best themselves and each other with different jokes and ideas that are going to be attention-grabbing. I don't know that there's a very refined strategy behind it, other than we, I think, have a self-awareness about the magazine and we enjoy poking fun at the idea of what Town and Country is in the larger imagination. The magazine's mission statement from the very beginning was to amuse, instruct and delight. Hopefully, those coverlines set the tone for what you're about to read.
There are a lot of Easter eggs, and it reminds me of something that I learned at Women's Wear. The most successful stories were the ones where the subject of the piece didn't know that they had been had by the writer, but everyone else read between the lines and realized that that person had just been ridiculed. That informs my sensibility when I'm writing headlines for my stories or helping fine-tune coverlines — there's a lot of double entendre and lots of winking.
Do you have an all-time favorite coverline?
"Bourgeois? Moi?" is up there. But then there's another one that we came up with for a story that John Brodie wrote: "Mommy, Are We Rich?" All of these cover lines, by the way, are meant to be read out loud, like charades. You should be acting them out for your friends and family.
What about all-time favorite stories you've written or edited, throughout your career?
When I was at Women's Wear, one of the toughest stories I had to report was about Anna Wintour becoming artistic director of Condé Nast. We had gotten a tip that the announcement was coming, which was fairly monumental for Condé Nast and for the industry. I had called my best source at Condé, and this person told me, "Don't worry about it. We can talk in the morning. Nothing's going to break." And of course, that night, Eric Wilson broke the news in the New York Times, and we felt totally caught off guard. The piece I had to work on was a signature of The Observer, which is the second-day interpretation story — somehow, I had to work all my sources the day after that story broke and get a piece that would do right by Women's Wear and put the whole thing into context. It resulted in one of my favorite leads of a story that I've ever written, which really, Jim Fallon came up with.
At W, I remember a piece that Nell Scovell wrote at the height of the James Comey hearings about how, for the first time, a man was getting the treatment of skepticism that women usually receive when they act as whistleblowers or raise the alarm about something. It felt like a very powerful story, not just because it was timely and it wasn't the kind of piece that you would typically see in a lifestyle title, but because it was written by this great, gifted writer who's mainly known for comedy writing but who has incredible emotional depth.
And at Town and Country, one of my recent favorites is the Save Venice story that Christopher Bollen wrote. It's such a great marriage of words and images, thanks to the tireless work of one of our photo editors, Nelida Mortensen. I knew that Christopher would write a beautiful poem to a city he's always loved, I just didn't expect it to be as weirdly prescient as it was. We published that story online when Italy was beginning to shut down because of the coronavirus — suddenly, it took on a whole new meaning.
As someone who, through their work, has seen fashion from so many different points of views, what's interesting to you about the industry right now?
Fashion publishing is especially relevant right now, I think, because we're all on an IV drip of terrible headlines and news. Fashion publishing offers a distraction, a relief, a respite. It offers the calm of beauty. I can't think of a time when that could be more valuable than the present, precisely because we're so bombarded by terrible news elsewhere. It's nice sometimes to get lost in a fashion story and fantasize for a little, even if we're reading New York Times alerts simultaneously.
The fashion industry, I think, is going through a reckoning unlike anything it's ever experienced. There have been other times in history when calamity has struck and it's been one of the most creative periods for creative people to do great work. I don't know that fashion is going to stop because of coronavirus — I think it's only going to find more ways of becoming interesting, and it might become more weird. I'm looking forward to whatever that looks like and I'm looking forward to a period where there are more eccentrics around than there have been until recently, when everything felt so corporatized and clean. If we get more shows by young designers that are whimsical and wacky, that's great.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.