Representing the creative future

Durga Chew-Bose: “Don’t shy away from having a voice”

SSENSE's Managing Editor shares what she is looking for in a writer and how culture informs her work

Whilst editorial e-commerce is a rising norm in the industry, SSENSE is at the vanguard of the practice, publishing 3-5 articles on its site per week. Founded in 2003 by brothers Rami, Bassel, and Firas Atallah, SSENSE currently serves over 150 countries, its content is translated into English, French, Japanese, and simplified Chinese, and receives 88 million monthly page views. At the helm of the editorial side of SSENSE is Durga Chew-Bose. A writer renowned for her intimate, elegant style, Durga wrote and published her collection of essays, Too Much and Not The Mood, before joining the company in June 2017.  She was appointed Managing Editor in February 2019 and assumed the role of Editor in Chief for SSENSE magazine in September 2020. Her writing is seasoned with her interests, as is, it seems, the editorial output she manages on SSENSE.

Here, Durga discusses her working practices, sharing insight into the ethics behind an editorial e-commerce role and her tips for writers interested in honing their practice as she has.

Lara Johnson-Wheeler: Can you tell me about your relationship with fashion? Are you interested in garment design? You write about your interest in objects and items – do you think about clothes in a similar way?

Durga Chew-Bose: My relationship with fashion is that I am a bit risk-averse and practical, not very dramatic. I am very much influenced by my mother, friends, and movies. I’m a visual person, so style, how people express themselves, how garments are made tell stories that are of deep interest to me. The character building that happens with dress is fascinating. Tactility and design bleed into my interests of film, objects, memory, which is central to my writing. When it comes to the fashion industry, I like paying attention to the artistry of it, first and foremost.

“I’m deeply interested in young and emerging designers. I love reading about them and discovering new voices that are trying to push the boundaries of the fashion industry, sustainability, and pedigree. ” – Durga Chew-Bose

LJW: As Managing Editor at SSENSE, to what extent are you involved with the e-commerce side? Do you exert influence when it comes to the buy?

DCB: We try to keep the communication channels open between our Marketing and Buying teams. Our editors have and continue to share emerging designers with our Buying team. For instance, our editor Romany Williams reached out to Brigitte Chartrand, our VP of Womenswear Buying at the nascent beginning of Mowalola’s career, and that’s how we started carrying the brand at SSENSE. Our editorial team constantly has our eyes out for emerging designers, especially with sustainable practices. There’s an investment from the editorial team to stay interested and participatory and finding alignment between the voices we look to amplify on our editorial platform as well as the brands we offer on our e-commerce side.

LJW: Are you interested in the work of young designers? How often do you look at the work of other fashion professionals and their editorial practices in your role?

DCB: I’m deeply interested in young and emerging designers. I love reading about them and discovering new voices that are trying to push the boundaries of the fashion industry, sustainability, and pedigree. What I love about the fashion world is that a lot of young people want to put their friends on making it easier to learn about new voices.

I love reading Rachel Tashjian’s Opulent Tips newsletter, it’s kind of a reprieve from the internet and her voice is so essential. She’s so compulsively readable and her point of view comes with a deep sense of fashion history. I keep up with other style and fashion writers to guide and add narrative to how fashion is documented. I also love to follow stylists and see what editorial work they’re doing, like Jessica Willis. I learn a lot about new designers through stylists, so I pay attention to that part of the industry in terms of how we conceive of stories.

LJW: Do you have any advice for writers interested in moving into the ever-growing field of editorial e-commerce?

DCB: My advice for writers is not limited to e-commerce, but it’s to stay curious and critical. A story is only as good as the voice that’s behind it, so it’s important to stay super porous. Something that we always try to keep a balance of at SSENSE is to protect the side of you that is a fan and a critic. In the world of editorial and e-commerce that makes it a bit spicy and fun, as opposed to a simply informative or commercial approach. It feels like a new way of publishing content so the possibilities are limitless.

SSENSE, Mowalola Ogunlesi
SSENSE, Issue 3, "What Does The Future Hold"

“If you remain open, curious, and engaged, something that you’re working on for your job will invariably enter what you’re reading for fun. Our passions are an undercurrent, so it all bleeds into each other.” – Durga Chew-Bose

LJW: To what extent do you think about the ethical implications of content creation for the sake of commerce?

DCB: I think about it every day. There’s no content without that being top of mind. You have to be self-aware of your business, your audience, what you’re selling, the brands you’re selling. It’s a bit reckless and naive not to think about that.

LJW: You often share books you’re reading and movies you would recommend on your social media platforms – is this downtime or procrastination for you or are you able to see your own engagement with content as research?

DCB: Procrastination is research for me. I’m not trying to optimize that time; I’m happy to not be working when I’m not working. If you remain open, curious, and engaged, something that you’re working on for your job will invariably enter what you’re reading for fun. Our passions are an undercurrent, so it all bleeds into each other.

“Writers who aren’t traditionally writing about fashion are a pleasure to work with because they approach topics from another entry point.” – Durga Chew-Bose

LJW: How has the pandemic seen your work evolve, if at all?

DCB: We were faced with new considerations and limitations, and are always prioritizing the health and safety of our team and contributors. To do that, we had to consider not only the end result of a story but also how to get there. Acknowledging that we’re communicating with someone through a screen and without fully knowing what everyone is experiencing means being mindful of how a story is made and approaching every interaction with empathy. The pandemic also challenges us to think about how to tell stories visually, which led us to widen our scope of graphic designers, illustrators, and creatives. In terms of the stories we tell, we wanted to prioritize having them meet this moment. In thinking of where our readers are in this moment of time, we’ve moved a bit away from trend forecasting and towards commissioning nimble writers who recognize that stories need to be representative of this moment.

LJW: What do you look for in the writers you commission?

DCB: Voice, style, and passion. Writers who aren’t traditionally writing about fashion are a pleasure to work with because they approach topics from another entry point. We try to find the right writers for the right piece and ask ourselves ‘Who should tell this story and why?’. Finding writers who will handle a story with care and an unexpected perspective on the subject is really important. A sense of humor is also really important.

SSENSE, Issue 3, "What Does The Future Hold"
SSENSE, For The Love Of Skirts
SSENSE, "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous"

“A tip I have is for writers to take chances. It is something that more writers should do, don’t shy away from having a voice. No one wants bland writing, and no one wants to read something that’s already been said.” – Durga Chew-Bose

LJW: What is your process as an editor? Do you have pet peeves you always like to cull or tips for writers you’ve accumulated?

DCB: My editing process is completely individualized, based on the writer. I like to immerse myself in whatever the writer is speaking about. It’s really fun for me to learn more by volleying DMs back and forth with the writer as you see patterns forming or identifying them forming or by trying to keep a level of recency with the subject matter by sharing articles that have just been published that might be relevant to the story. My process as an editor is really spending time with our contributors’ work and getting to the center of what they’re trying to say. I try to bring that out while playing to their strengths and identifying what they might be saying but not fully committing to. I’m there to push them closer to whatever might be pulsating. Lastly, I always get advice from my colleagues and defer back to the team to ask what they think.

I don’t have any real pet peeves when editing. A tip I have is for writers to take chances. It is something that more writers should do, don’t shy away from having a voice. No one wants bland writing, and no one wants to read something that’s already been said.

“The visuals can completely recast a story.” – Durga Chew-Bose

LJW: The imagery on SSENSE has always struck me as so elegant and well done. As a writer, how do you feel about having your photo taken? What advice, if any, would you give to other writers, nervous about sharing their own image?

DCB: I don’t like having my photo taken, so my advice is if you don’t like having your photo taken, then don’t feel the pressure. I’m constantly impressed with the visuals from SSENSE. Our Design team and collaborators are extremely visionary and they spend time with the text to take stories to another galaxy. The visuals can completely recast a story. We work with a large community of collage artists, graphic designers, etc. We try to pair artists with stories that can feel like they’re in conversation or alternatively that create tension. We’re always creating visuals with stories in mind; it isn’t secondary.

LJW: I was interested to see that SSENSE started a section with ‘EVERYTHING ELSE’ for sale. Have you purchased or wish-listed anything in this section recently?

DCB: I recently moved and am in a nesting moment. I’m always trying to expand my candle repertory.

1 Granary

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