Tallulah Harlech: Where did you start your Fine Art foundation, that never continued on…?
Isabella Burley: I applied to do a Fine Art BA at the Slade and didn’t get in, but I hadn’t done a foundation yet. So I started a Fine Art Foundation at Byam Shaw in Archway, which was part of [Central] St. Martin’s, but it doesn’t exist anymore. I really wanted to be a painter. I think I was there for around 3 months and then… See you later!
TH: Then you dropped out.
TH: Why did you drop out?
IB: I just didn’t sit well with the education structure. Even when I went back and attempted to study art history a few years later, the same thing happened. There’s something about the structure of it that I found frustrating. I prefer being in the real world, working, and learning through experience. That has always suited me much more as a person. The excitement of what was coming next, it’s always unpredictable!
TH: When you went back to study art history, you didn’t do it at CSM?
IB: No, I actually was at the Courtauld [Institute of Art] for a year. I don’t know how I got in, but I got in.
“Rather than sitting in a classroom hearing some old man tell me about Jenny Saville, I’d rather get to interview her and ask these questions and do my own research for that piece.”
TH: Again, why there?
IB: Well, that was different because I was a little bit older. I must have been 21. When I did the Fine Art Foundation, I was already working at Dover Street Market on the weekends, whilst interning and writing for different magazines and I kind of felt like, “Oh, maybe I should go back and study.” But the frustration I felt there was much more than when I was at [Central] St. Martin’s. We were sitting in these lectures hearing about these different artists, but I was already interviewing a lot of them on the side through DAZED. So rather than sitting in a classroom hearing some old man tell me about Jenny Saville, I’d rather get to interview her and ask these questions and do my own research for that piece. I found this process more exciting than researching them for an essay. I felt that if I would finish the BA, I would have just spent my entire three years building up to something that I had already started doing.
TH: Do you know what happened to your peers? The people that were in the same foundation course as you?
IB: When I was 17, I was in a relationship with someone slightly older than me. He was an art director and is now incredibly successful and brilliant. As a lot of my friends were his age, four-five years older than me, I didn’t really make any connections during the foundation or at the Courtauld. I felt that I already had that.
“When you think of the fashion industry, it gets reduced to whether you’re either a model, a photographer, or a fashion designer.”
TH: Do you think that if you had stuck around, you’d have stuck with painting?
IB: I don’t know. I went back to my parents the other week and I was going through my old sketchbooks, and actually, what I had there was basically the layout of a magazine. Now, looking at it through the lens of an editor I understand where my references were at. I was so obsessed with finding pages of old art books, interviews, etc. I had an addiction to the photocopier. I would just be photographing all these things and piecing them together. One page would be Jenny Holzer and the other would be Francis Bacon, then someone else. I was really obsessed with their research books and their creative process.
TH: That’s really interesting in terms of the editor’s eye.
IB: Yes, and you just don’t understand that these positions exist… They’re the people that work in magazines, but when you think of the fashion industry, it gets reduced to whether you’re either a model, a photographer, or a fashion designer. People don’t understand that there are stylists or creative directors who work in different ways.
TH: In simplified terms, how did you start your career?
IB: So when I was 16, I worked at American Apparel. I would travel all the way from South East London where my parents still live to go central. Then I started working at Dover Street Market when I was 17.
TH: How did that even happen?
IB: I literally went in with a friend of mine that I used to work with at American Apparel who said, “You have to come and see the store, it’s insane. It’s a curated mad world.” I remember going and, obviously, it blows your mind when you’re 16-17. I wanted to work there. Around Christmas time I was speaking with one of the managers and, I’m not sure how it happened exactly, but I had a trial day and then it went from there. Dover Street was really the beginning. For me, it still is my education. Everyone that was working there was working on other things too, so I got to meet with people that were writing for DAZED and i-D at the time, stylists, designers like Charlie Casey Hayford… It was this amazing place that exposed me to all of the different roles within the creative industry.
Later, when I was 18, I worked with Laura Bradley, who used to be the editor of AnOther online. She launched i-D online many years ago, but she was working at SHOWstudio at the time where I was an intern. It was just an internship but the assignments that Laura would give me were really clever and exciting. Then I began interning at different places, doing different stints here and there. Later, I thought of exploring the possibility of becoming a stylist and started doing test shoots. Actually, my first and only test shoot was with Cara Delevingne. Then, my friend Dean Kissick was the editor at Tank where I was also an intern. It was him I turned to express my want to pursue writing and interviewing. He was like, “Okay, pitch some stuff.” My first interview was with Cosey Fanni Tutti. She had a big, one-day event – “The Cosey Complex”, curated by Maria Fusco, the editor of Happy Hypocrite. That was my first interview. I didn’t enjoy the writing part of it, but I loved the interview process, having that conversation. The research that led to being in a position where you feel confident enough to interview someone- that’s what I really enjoyed. The writing felt secondary. It was this annoying thing you had to do in the end.
After that, I did a couple of pieces for Dean and then I thought that I could be a writer. Laura Bradley who was at i-D online would commission me a lot. My friend Dean Mayo Davies who was fashion features editor DAZED would commission me as well. The progress happened organically. A few months after leaving the Courtauld, Dean was leaving his position and put me forward to replace him.
TH: But you turned it around to become editor-in-chief in one year, right?
IB: I became editor after a year. And then editor-in-chief after two years.
“I thought that to get to the editor-in-chief position, which was never really a position I ever dreamed of or wanted, you have to be a traditional journalist.”
TH: If you think of those first two years, and even at the first point that you were editor-in-chief, what’s the difference between then and now?
IB: Everything feels different. What’s a better word than confidence? Being really sure of yourself. What I found really hard was – and I don’t want this to come off negative at all, but the editors-in-chiefs before me were all music journalists that transitioned into those positions. That completely made sense for DAZED at the time, because it had these strong music journalists leading its editorial voice. One thing that I was really unsure about was that I wasn’t naturally a confident writer. I’m pretty capable of writing but it’s not where I feel most at home. I thought that to get to the editor-in-chief position, which was never really a position I ever dreamed of or wanted, you have to be a traditional journalist. I thought that this is not where I want to be. Instead, I was interested in working with Robbie [Spencer] who was appointed fashion director when I first started at DAZED, shaping features around the visual world he was creating. Our partnership was always really strong. The whole landscape of magazines and fashion was changing at the time. Jefferson [Hack] saw my partnership with Robbie and thought “What if he had those two leading the voice of the magazine?” Having a traditional journalist as an editor-in-chief didn’t make so much sense because the magazine was shifting so much more towards fashion, that you needed to have someone paired with the fashion or creative director. I look at my other editors and they are brilliant, brilliant writers who could turn a piece around in a day or hours, when it would take me weeks of no sleep because I love the research so much.
TH: How is the editor to art director relationship?
IB: Honestly, I treasure so much my relationship with Jamie [Reid]. There’s a lot that I really relate to the way art directors see the world. I have so much respect for every art director I’ve worked with. It’s such a rare, incredible gift, and having those relationships is so crucial. If you don’t have those relationships with your art director, your creative director, your fashion director, there isn’t a magazine.
“When I became editor-in-chief I was 24, which is insanely young, I never really thought hard about what that position meant. Especially when you’re dealing with a magazine that has such an incredible, weighty history and legacy behind it, you would just be paralyzed.”
TH: So what do you think led you to get the place that you are in today and how do you deal with the pressure of this position?
IB: When I became editor-in-chief I was 24, which is insanely young, I never really thought hard about what that position meant. Especially when you’re dealing with a magazine that has such an incredible, weighty history and legacy behind it, you would just be paralyzed. Because I had Robbie and the new energy of Jamie it felt less terrifying. That’s what people often forget about; there’s a whole team of people behind a magazine or a fashion house. You have each other to redirect things, to validate whether you have a good idea or not. Having that protective safe space where you can throw ideas around is really special.
TH: Do you ever find that responsibilities fall upon you, as an editor-in-chief, that they don’t on other people?
IB: It’s making sure there’s a really strong dialog with a whole team of people. Especially with this pandemic, it is being that person to anchor a team. You need to be this agile editor who can move through the different departments. I’m an editor, but I work heavily on the fashion part. Holding a team together is a big part of being an editor-in-chief. Drawing connections between different departments or the different people that you’re working with, which is quite curatorial. How can you get the best out of all of these different people? It is constantly putting out fires. You can’t just drop the ball. It’s a lot.
TH: For anyone that doesn’t know what an editor-in-chief at a publication like DAZED does, can you explain the responsibilities and how a day might look?
IB: I would say that an editor-in-chief is leading the storytelling of a magazine. Setting an editorial agenda with a loose creative direction. You’re working with your creative director, your art director, or your fashion director. Setting the agenda of the magazine that might be thematic or something that’s more politically, or visually led, or collaborative, whatever it is. Asking: “What is this issue gonna stand for?” Then it’s about working and making sure that each issue really carries the spirit of DAZED. It comes down to commissioning. I do less of the writing commissioning now and more of the project-based commissioning. Joining the dots between departments and thinking. How does this roll out on social? Then I am working with our head of content, Ahmad [Swaid] or Sophie [McElligott] on communications. Whilst there are individual teams that give me weekly updates, it’s about coming in to make sure that things are going to roll out as we see it. That’s how we story-tell around each issue. It doesn’t just finish when we go to print.
The way we work is quite fluid and very independent. It’s about trusting your team to develop things by themselves. We have a weekly production meeting and we have an issue list, which is what we use as our Bible for each issue. I want people to explore and experiment and make mistakes. That’s important for people to learn, and that’s what the DAZED experience should be.
“What I struggle the most with is that we all have clients outside of DAZED. We’re working on personal projects. We have a lot going on. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like there are enough hours in the day.”
TH: Best and worst part of your job?
IB: Oh, God. I have to have a good answer for that. What I struggle the most with is that we all have clients outside of DAZED. We’re working on personal projects. We have a lot going on. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like there are enough hours in the day. You have a day where you’re constantly treading water and you’re putting out fires and you’re just trying to stay afloat and keep the team. It is so much work that you don’t have the time to do research or feel the excitement that you get from discovering someone. But this does come with a role like this. That’s the bit that I find difficult, the sheer workload that all of us have. I hate the feeling of not giving 100% because you just didn’t have the capacity or the time.
The best bit is the whole creative process. There might be an artist you’ve always wanted to do something with, and they’ve never really done a print feature. But somehow, through your dialog with them, they feel enough trust that you’re the first title or the first editor that they want to do that with. You go on with the commissioning process, pairing an image-maker with a writer. Finally, you get to the final result and some people might see that image for two seconds on Instagram, or will flip past it in the magazine, but you know the backstory and how much love and trust, and work went into creating that. There’s something really special about that. To have the trust that people give to magazines or editors or image makers, to be open and have their world or themselves be interpreted by a team of people is an incredibly vulnerable space for that person.