Could you share a bit about your background with us?
I’m from London and studied painting at university. I started working as a receptionist at Models 1, and then went on to assist Danielle Emerson at Wonderland magazine, turning into a fashion editor until I left to go to Asos.likes where I did production, writing and social media (which I didn’t love). It was a bit of a mess at Asos, to be honest, I felt very lost there and had a mental breakdown in 2016 [laughs].
I tried to start a casting agency with a friend which didn’t go very well and ended quite abruptly. We casted for magazines, Asos, ES magazine, and Shelly Durkan but I realised that I needed a break from fashion. It had become horrible to me. I was fed up with being spoken to like shit, and I took some time to reassess what I wanted. I was adamant it wasn’t going to be fashion. I didn’t feel strong enough. There’s a horrible culture in this industry; overworking, acting like fashion is saving lives, not looking after yourself, and therefore not looking after the people working for you. I just fell completely out of love with all of it, which was devastating as it was really all I knew. I was unemployed until I started freelancing at The Observer on the picture desk, whilst still emailing people all the time asking for work. Then, after that, I took a position as a deputy picture editor at Soho house. I was made redundant during the pandemic and was freelancing, researching, and editing for Dazed, Jazz Grant, Gucci, Sharna Osborne, Conde Nast Studio, The Stack, Hugo Boss, Selfridges, Danielle Emerson/Heaven, Stella McCartney, and then Vogue.
“There’s a horrible culture in this industry; overworking, acting like fashion is saving lives, not looking after yourself, and therefore not looking after the people working for you. I just fell completely out of love with all of it, which was devastating as it was really all I knew. ” – Isabella Brunner
How did you get into fashion? What drew you into the field?
My parents were and are very creative. My dad is into photography and my mum is into fashion. Books and magazines and clothes and music and photographs surrounded us. My father worked in media photography and there were always stories and pictures. I was drawn into all of it. Dragged into it even. I was painting and taking pictures all the time.
I first fell in love with the idea of working in fashion when I watched John Galliano’s SS’05 show, probably on Fashion TV. I did a presentation on it at school in an English lesson and nobody cared. The music and the clothes were just magical. Even watching it now, I feel it’s so special. Galliano’s gazette dresses, tiny bikinis, and feather boas were just quintessential Galliano that made me sit up and really feel that this was what I wanted to be doing. I knew there were so many different parts to the industry and it was just figuring out which one was for me.
I was super lucky that a family friend Natasha Wray [now head of womenswear at MatchesFashion] was an assistant at ELLE magazine around the time I was finishing school, and she told me to apply for an internship on the Fashion team. I obviously thought I was going to be just like LC from the Hills. I had no money, I signed on for a Job Seekers allowance so I had enough cash to get the bus to the ELLE office. I used my dad’s computer to email, anyone and everyone, asking for jobs, asking to meet. I assisted Natasha Wray who was styling here and there, thinking maybe I could style. I went through a really bad break-up halfway through university, and could barely function, so I quit my job and stopped going to university for a period of time. Once I finished university I was just drifting and my friend Charlotte Roberts who was styling and casting told me they needed a receptionist at Models 1.
“This industry exploits the desire people have to work in fashion. ” – Isabella Brunner
What were your very first aspirations in terms of a “dream job”?
To be THE editor of Vogue. I had no idea what that meant when I was a child, or what it entailed. It was that or a pop star [laughs]. I wanted to run a magazine, but I also wanted to be a painter. I studied Fine Art Painting at university and went back and forth between that and working in fashion for a while.
“There comes a point where you’ve been walked over one too many times and you just sit up and realise your worth. Or you try to.” – Isabella Brunner
Was there a point when you realised that fashion might be a hard industry to navigate?
When I was at a magazine in London I was getting paid very little and was working ridiculous hours. This industry exploits the desire people have to work in fashion. I was very lucky because my parents live in London and I could move back home. But very few people are privileged enough to come from a type of background where they have financial stability or even have the emotional support of a family that can allow them to work the way the fashion industry expects them to when they are trying to break into it.
I would cry almost every day when I got home, it was painful to work there, and be treated like I was. There comes a point where you’ve been walked over one too many times and you just sit up and realise your worth. Or you try to. I tried to believe that I was worth more than how I was being treated. I realised quite early on that there are so many systemic ‘flaws’ in this industry, but not all of them would affect me directly. In my early twenties, I didn’t really know what to do about them, I just wanted to work and wanted to keep my head down. But when you hear another assistant being spoken to with micrο-aggressions you feel torn between doing the right thing and staying silent, whilst everyone else laughs along.
“There is so much pressure on us as soon as we leave school to know what we want to do, but I didn’t figure it out until I was 29.” – Isabella Brunner
How did you start developing a special interest in visual research and when did you think that you could turn it into a career?
I had some time off work in 2018. I had just finished working in casting, and was just really slowly trying to find work again, figuring out what my next ‘move’ was going to be. I had become quite unwell mentally in the last couple of years and felt so much personal and societal pressure to keep up with everyone.
I kind of one day just thought oh why don’t I try this, it makes so much sense! I’m confident in my eye for images, I love photography and art and image-making and my dad was a picture editor and a photographer’s agent before he stopped working, so I’ve always been around it. It was in front of me and I just never noticed it. There is so much pressure on us as soon as we leave school to know what we want to do, but I didn’t figure it out until I was 29. I was a late bloomer.
What is that you like about fashion images and the act of researching visuals at large?
I love learning! I can’t express that enough. It’s really important to be excited to learn when researching. Seeing new things, discovering new images and image makers, and learning about new processes. I immerse myself in the subject at hand, whatever it might be, I can fully understand it.
“The most important thing for a pictures editor is knowing your photographers and photographs.” – Isabella Brunner
For anyone who is not aware of the term, what does a picture editor do?
Essentially, a picture editor researches and reviews images, chooses photographs, and commissions photographers for publications. But it’s also so much more than that in my opinion! A picture editor is a visual editor. They figure out what photos will be used for which piece, how they’ll work, and why they’ll work. Negotiating fees, rights, and permissions for photographs is also a bit part of it.
What kind of skills does one need to be in such a position?
The most important thing for a pictures editor is knowing your photographers and photographs. Having a few contacts within the industry helps too. I was going to say you need to have an ‘eye’ for photography but what does that even mean? Everything is so subjective, it’s not as simple as that. Visual Research has played a huge role in all of my jobs. It’s really important to understand what you’re looking at, where the idea for the stories you’re working on have come from; to know your references.
“I have to take breaks from social media sometimes when I find myself feeling jealous and bitter toward other people, because I know I can spiral into thinking of myself as a failure.” – Isabella Brunner
Does work change when moving to a large publication such as Vogue? Is there a certain pressure that comes with a title like this?
So much pressure! It’s very fast-paced, especially in digital.
It’s not just about what I want and what I think looks best. It’s a team of people that have to approve the images so they relate to the pieces that are being written, which at first is hard to come to terms with especially when I’ve been used to working on my own.
“I needed to make sure my mental health was in front of my need to work, choosing between looking after myself and chasing a career to keep up with my peers, and what was expected of me was a really hard decision to make.” – Isabella Brunner
You are vocal about mental health online. Do you think it is important to speak out about emotional struggles at a time when online presence is mainly “aspirational” and has it helped you in any way sharing your feelings online?
I think it is important to speak out about mental health. Really important. It makes me feel less alone when I get messages saying “I feel this too” and I hope it makes other people know they aren’t alone in whatever they’re feeling. Social media only shows one way. One path. People usually only post things that affirm life as amazing and wonderful, which deflates a lot of us. It is really important to have boundaries with these platforms. I have to take breaks from social media sometimes when I find myself feeling jealous and bitter toward other people, because I know I can spiral into thinking of myself as a failure. A few other people I know do it too. It’s helpful!