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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.

Nicole Chapoteau loves a good reference. The more cinematic, the better. Her mood boards are typically filled with film stills (past references include John Hughes and Wes Anderson movies) and other pop-culture references, imagining a shoot as a retelling of one of her favorite scenes. 

Fittingly, the brands and designers that resonate with the longtime magazine editor tend to be those that peddle some form of fantasy, be it through the clothes themselves or through the world they create at their shows. The Miu Mius, the Pradas and the Marc Jacobs of the world — the ones that make you think: "Wouldn't it be fun to be that person for a few days?" she says, on a Zoom call in September.

Earlier this summer, Vanity Fair named Chapoteau, most recently the title's fashion market editor, its fashion director. She replaced Samira Nasr, who left Condé Nast to become editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar and with whom she worked closely, first as a freelancer for the magazine and then as a member of her market team. (Chapoteau officially came on board in 2019.) During that time, the magazine created some of the most memorable celebrity images of the past few years. (Julia Louis-Dreyfus in an elevator surrounded by suited agents, wearing a feathered Valentino gown? Epic.) 

Vanity Fair's approach to fashion is about complementing or enhancing a subject's persona, without straying too far from who they are — whether they're an actor, a director, an athlete or an activist, according to Chapoteau. "It's something that I think we're doing really well, and it's something that I learned from Samira, about just really pushing the talent's personality," she says. "Say they're a baseball player — you still want to see who they are, but also [have] this little bit of a fantasy, like, 'Of course. If I was this multimillion-dollar baseball player, that is what I would be wearing in Vanity Fair. And that's probably how they look like, sitting in their house watching TV.' But still making sure they're comfortable in their own skin and feeling good." 

Since she started styling for Vanity Fair (first as a freelancer, then as fashion market director, now as fashion director), Chapoteau has dressed Louis-Dreyfus, Angela DavisMaya Hawke, Jonathan MajorsBlack Lives Matter activists and more. Throughout her career, she's styled for Out, New Beauty, Ebony, Allure, Oscar de la Renta and La Mer. But fashion is technically a second act, having first started out in architecture and deciding to pivot to fashion in her mid-20s. 

Chapoteau has had many a pinch-me moment throughout her career (first time going to Paris Fashion Week, walking onto many an impressive Karl Lagerfeld set for Chanel, crying in her seat at Marc Jacobs's final show for Louis Vuitton), but she still has the same appetite and excitement for fashion that she did at the beginning of her career. 

"I remember sneaking into Marc Jacobs shows as an assistant — we would use an old invite from the season before, because they were the same shape. That's not the case anymore," Chapoteau remembers. "We would just walk in and stand in the back, because you're like, 'I just want to stand here, I don't even care — I just want to see it.' Those are always really fun. I'm sad that there's no fashion week. I like seeing it all, so I can't wait for it to come back full force." 

Read on for more about how Vanity Fair's fashion director got her start (and found her way), how freelancing helped her become more assertive and what she finds exciting about the industry right now. 

Nicole Chapoteau.

Nicole Chapoteau.

Tell me about the origins of your interest in fashion, even before you pursued it as a career — because you started in architecture. 

I was always interested in fashion. I actually have these drawings of mine that my mom framed, from I think [when] I was seven years old. I drew clothes. I always was interested in dressing up. She would tell me I never named dolls or Barbies — I just made clothes for them, and I made houses and furniture. That's what I did. 

I always read magazines. I grew up in the woods, so it was an escape. I had a big brother who was really into fashion, so he would dress me up and is someone who piqued my interest in that. 

One of my parents is an immigrant, and how the thing goes is like, "You will be a doctor, you will be a lawyer." It seemed like I could maybe slide architecture in there. I think that's why I was like, "That's what I'm going to study and that's what I'm going to do." 

I worked at an architecture firm based in downtown Manhattan, getting my [foot] in the door. I was there for about a year, and then 9/11 happened. I watched it on my way to work, with my now-husband. Then we were both like, "All right, we're going to work." I went inside the building and then I realized, "Wait, this is crazy." I just sat there like, "I hate this place. I hate working here." I was working until four and five in the morning, all the time. And [I thought,] "If you could die at work, I do not want to die here. I want to do something I love." I came up with a plan and quit. 

I interned while I was taking some classes at FIT, so I was an older student. I actually have an associate's degree from there, but I don't even remember what I studied. I had another job, working with a friend who did fashion PR and marketing on her own. I interned at Marie Claire, and then someone quit and I got hired. Then it just started from there.

Did you know you wanted to go the editorial route, when you decided to pivot to fashion? Was that always clear to you?

It was not. I was thinking I should either be a buyer or I should work in editorial. But, during that time period — early 2000s — to be an editor... It seemed like a job that maybe three people had. Like, "This is not a possibility, but maybe." I had to decide between taking the Marie Claire internship or one in a buying program, and I was like, "Well, I most likely will end up a buyer, anyway, so I might as well just have fun at a magazine that I've always wanted to work at."

When I did finish up, I had a job offer to go into a buying program; the Marie Claire one came after. I was just like, "I can't do it." I wanted to be an editor. I wanted to do styling. I wasn't really too sure then, so I just was like, "I'm going to see how it goes." 

When I interned at Marie Claire, it was in the accessories department. The accessories assistant quit, so I just went down that path. It was great. And I had a really great boss, Leah Karp, who guided me through the ranks. She taught me everything she knew about accessories. 

What skills did you learn as an accessories editor that you now parlay into your work?

To make a decision — because I'm also a Gemini, so I'm like, "Ooh, I like that. But then I also really like this." Even when it's dinner, my husband will be like, "Do not text me for things that you want for dinner. We need to pick one." I'm like, "Oh, but I'm just putting the possibilities out there!" I feel like with accessories, there are always probably 10 shoes that can go with a look. Being able to edit down, definitely, is a skill that I needed and that I still use now. 

How did you get into styling beyond accessories? 

I always wanted to do it, but I was an accessories editor, so it slowly became like, "Can I be the prop stylist for the accessory shoot?" Or, if we had an accessories-focused shoot that had a model, "Am I able to style that one? Can I go on set?" Assisting people on set for those shoots, before I was in a higher position where I could just do the shoot on my own, slowly working my way in there, moving up, asking for more shoots and doing the smaller ones that maybe the director or the bigger editor didn't want to do. 

Do you have a philosophy in your approach to styling? 

I always just want to make a beautiful picture, something that tells a story. That's how I always thought of fashion: It's something that tells a story, something that creates art and makes you think about it. When you think of a Wes Anderson movie, every little thing is thought about — the clothes, even the button on a jacket tells a story that fits this bigger picture. That's the way I want to see it. 

It's not even one of my favorite shoots, but the mood board [for one project I worked on] was really fun because we had a girl and a guy that were supposed to be going around the city on this night out, and I was like, "Oh, maybe if I retold 'Pretty in Pink,' and maybe Andie didn't go with Blane, she went with Duckie." Just making that board is something I like to do. I create these characters of who the talent would be, and they're definitely always based on movies or TV shows I watch too much or a book that I read.

When you're pulling pieces or looking at runways, what catches your eye?

I tend to look for things that have color, because I feel like the reader always is attracted to that. Even if the reader is someone who wears black and brown all the time, your eye gravitates towards things that are colorful. And just something that seems original and sometimes unusual — like, "Oh, that's weird." Pieces that can feel museum-quality or not even that you saved up to buy, but that you bought because it was really special and you're still going to wear seven years from now. It's not just a throwaway item. Commercial pieces will always be there, but the runway is not where you're looking at those for; [it's for] those things that feel inspirational, that you want to wear and own. I know there's a Prada coat that, anytime I see someone wearing it, I'm like, "the Prada coat that got away." It's just such a great coat and it's a big statement. Things that make you feel good and like, "I don't care if everyone knows what season it's from, I still plan to wear it for 10 years from now, because it made me feel good when I bought it and wore it."

Louis-Dreyfus in Valentino in Vanity Fair, styled by Chapoteau.

Louis-Dreyfus in Valentino in Vanity Fair, styled by Chapoteau.

After Marie Claire, you worked at InStyle and Allure, before going freelance as a stylist and brand consultant. What kind of projects did you work on during that time?

I did something with La Mer for Instagram — because it was product- and beauty-related, so I was able to use me working at Allure [to execute the project]. That's something that we learned a lot at Allure, especially under Linda Wells: "Alright, we're talking about a cream. So, how are we going to show this?" It needs to have the product present. Plus, we got to do a shoot at the beach, so it was really great. 

I spent a lot of time freelancing at Oscar de la Renta. I did a Saks Fifth Avenue window with them — that was something I'd never done before. I realized, that stuff is so hard. But it was really fun to make sure the vision of what the designers want the brand to be [was communicated] and make sure they were happy with that. And [I did] other shoots for their branded content and social media. I didn't do a lot of social media as an editor, so it was something I was also able to learn along the way and then, really, gain interest in and have ideas of how it works and should work or can work for brands. 

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I did a lot of just random styling. I did something with Out magazine and Mickalene Thomas — it was just a great group of people, activists in the LGBTQ+ community. I worked with a designer on his first runway show, talking about how many looks he needed and the flow of the show. That was something that was new for me, but I had that insider knowledge from so many years of sitting there, watching shows and being like, "That was a strange sequence of models to come down with those looks." 

What have been the biggest changes that have happened in the industry since you started, that have had an impact on your career trajectory? You mentioned, for instance, how you learned more about social media once you were consulting.

We didn't have digital cameras when I started out as an assistant and a freelancer. We photocopied jewelry to check it in. Our market pictures were taken on disposable cameras, that we'd send away to develop; we developed two copies and, say, Chanel got the Marie Claire copy and then we had a filing system [to] number the photos. Just having a digital presence and then it developing online [has been a big change], and everyone being able to see images instantly, as opposed to waiting for the next month to come out. Or being able to see a red carpet on TV — now, it's right there, as it's happening. That's something that's been really impactful. And I think it's given more people the opportunity to work in fashion that wouldn't have had that, and that's something that's great. There are shopping websites who have stylists who help people pick things out... You don't have to live in New York and L.A. — you could live in Nebraska and have a piece of the fashion space and create your own digital platform and have it become really big. 

What did you learn from your time freelancing? 

I learned to be more assertive, just because in that freelance world, you're constantly fighting for yourself and you have to make sure that your voice and your aesthetic [are] what you're putting out there. Also, things like pushing people to pay an invoice — I'm very uncomfortable with those types of things, so it was becoming more of a business person and like, "Hey, you have 30 days to pay this invoice. It's day 31, you now owe me an extra 15%," or whatever it was. That's something I did not have before. Now I'm able to be much pushier, like, "Hey, what about this? I don't like that. It should look like this." 

Also, when you're freelance, you have this thing where this is maybe a one-off job, or maybe it's a few months — it's not like you're there for years and years and years and you have to think about what everyone is going to say. You can say how you feel, like, "Well, I'm going to be out of here, anyway." So at least they knew where I was coming from, they knew my standpoint.

What role have mentors played throughout your career in fashion?

Paul Cavaco was one of my biggest mentors — I call him my fashion dad. I still talk to him, I still call him, I ask him for advice for everything. He was someone who was really instrumental in helping me grow as an editor. He's given me lots of advice and just little sayings from when I used to work for him. And the way he also treated his staff is something I learned from. 

I learned a lot working with Samira [Nasr]. I worked with her at InStyle for a time period and then, again, at Vanity Fair. And also, I've learned a lot from my friends, like Shiona Turini — I think she's such a great career woman and so beautifully ambitious, I always ask her for advice. Tiffany Reid is another person who I feel like I'm her mentor and she's also my mentor, because she started out as an intern of mine. It's great that you can do that exchange, where you can go to someone who you give advice to and ask them for advice. You just get a different perspective. That's something that I really cherish, those relationships. 

Nicole Chapoteau and Shiona Turini at New York Fashion Week.

Nicole Chapoteau and Shiona Turini at New York Fashion Week.

What's the most valuable lesson you've learned from a mentor, and what's the most valuable lesson you've learned from a peer?

From a mentor, ask the question — that was from Paul Cavaco. You will not know if you do not ask. Do not sit there and wonder and guess and try to hypothesize. Just go ahead and straight-up ask. It's also asking for what you want or asking, "How come I can't have the look? Where is it?" Just really asking for what you need so you have all of the answers. 

Then, from a peer, I would say ... probably to trust your instincts and trust your eye. Sometimes, I'll ask them, "What do you think? Do you think this looks good?" and they're like, "Why are you even asking me? You know what looks good. Go for it. What if I didn't answer the phone or look at this text? You can do it."

If you were to go through the highlight reel of your career, what would be the big moments that stand out to you?

I will say that, even though it's very new, the September issue at Vanity Fair is probably something I never even dreamed of would happen, within fashion, but it's such an important thing for me. I studied history and specialized in African American history, so to be able to speak with some of the activists that we shot — especially Dr. Angela Davis. I was having a meltdown the night before, like, "I can't sleep. I don't know what to do." My dad was talking me off a ledge. I was just like, "I can't talk to her on the phone. I can't get on a Zoom with her and be like, 'Wear that dress.'" Someone who is a profound scholar and a leader, someone who I've always been taught to be like, "These are the heroes, these are your influencers." Then to be like, "I think that shirt looks good on you" — it just felt crazy to me. I felt like I should be talking to her about, like, "So, what are my next steps as an activist?" But it wasn't that call, and she was great and lovely. That, to me, was probably one of my biggest moments. 

Also, a while ago, I was able to shoot with the cast of "Pose" when I was freelancing, for Ebony. It was great to be able to work for a Black magazine, and also that cast is extraordinary and I love the show. It was really a fun day. Everyone was there at once, and I was like, "Wow, I've never done a shoot like this." And they were just so into the fashion and talking, I got to meet some of their moms. 

Oh, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, when I was still freelancing at Vanity Fair — to do that was really fun because I, obviously, love her in "Veep" and as Elaine, so, I was like, "What's she going to be like in person?" And she was just exactly who you wanted to meet. She just is a dream. And like everything, I was like, "What about this naked dress?" and she's like, "Yeah, let's go for it." It was just really fun. 

We at Vanity Fair, with Mickalene Thomas, shot Barbara Hammer, because we knew that she had terminal cancer and was going to pass away soon. That was just a really beautiful moment. I cried. The energy was really beautiful. It just felt really good inside, to be able to work with such talented people. 

Have you had any personal, pinch-me moments — be it the first time you got invited to a certain show or an event?

I will say, the first time I went to Paris Fashion Week was just epic. I was so excited. I remember feeling like I never slept. It was like, "I have to do every event, every party." I'm also very geeky — I had a grid of the shows with dates and what I was going to wear. I needed to be perfect and not mess up. That was something that was just so great. It was what I couldn't wait to do as an editor, and it was everything I wanted it to be.

Another one was sitting at Marc Jacobs' last show for Louis Vuitton and crying. Crying and texting my brother, "I'm crying. I'm crying, too. This is so beautiful. It's sad." Fashion is very emotional for me, so I was just sitting there like, "Wow, it's an end of an era. And look at this — everything's in black and it's so beautiful." 

I'd say that and going to my first Chanel show was something... I think I took 1,000 photos. The sets there are ridiculous. It's like for a movie. My first show, there was a giant globe that [Karl Lagerfeld] created. And I was like, "Cool. What can get better than this?" And then the next one was like, "Oh, he can do better."

I think about the Chanel rocket ship at least once a month.

It's just crazy. I missed the beach — I wasn't there for that one, but I just I don't understand, there was an indoor beach with waves and a tide. It's nuts.

This summer, you were promoted to fashion director at Vanity Fair. What do you want to achieve in this position? 

I think we do a great job at showing diversity, but showing even more stories and really getting the reader to see the personality of talent. For example, Julia Louis-Dreyfus — she's not Elaine, she's an actual person, so making sure their talent shines through. Getting all kinds of diverse stories out there. That's something that we do a great job at, and I just really want to contribute. I'm so ecstatic that Radhika [Jones] gave me a space at the table to just throw my opinion out there for everything. 

What's something that's exciting to you about the fashion industry?

It's always changing. There's always a new collection out there. It's like forever-evolving art. You're never going to get a new Picasso to go look at, but you can go to a Gucci show and see something really amazing. I love to see all the changes, how there's a season where it's very minimal and then, the next, it's like, "Oh, we're wearing hats again and socks and gloves." I love to see that evolution. 

I'm also really excited to see some of the younger designers. Now, especially in this movement, we're going to see a lot more designers of color and more women designers being backed and pushed to the forefront. 

What are some designers that you find really exciting right now?

I'm obsessed with Kenneth Ize. I'm always excited by Kim Jones, so his appointment to Fendi, to do women's... will be great. I'm really into Marc Jacobs' new line, Heaven — it's like we get Marc by Marc back, a little bit. I think he's really, truly inventive. I always look to see what Mrs. Prada's doing, so now that she's working with Raf, I'm like, "Whoa, this is crazy!"

Another one I like — not that she's new or anything — [is] Stella McCartney, because I feel like she's going to push other designers to get more sustainable. Even at the show and when you go to an appointment, they'll give you a rundown, like, "This was made by using this and this is why it's sustainable." Instead of someone being like, "Yeah, that bracelet is sustainable." And you're like, "But why? What makes it sustainable?" I think she's really a driving force, and that's something that's really important to me. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.  

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