Representing the creative future

Isabella Burley on her journey from dropping out of CSM to becoming editor-in-chief of DAZED

The Editor-in-chief of DAZED shares her advice and speaks openly about the reality of running a magazine and pursuing personal projects in 2020

ISABELLA BURLEY ON HER JOURNEY FROM DROPPING OUT OF CSM TO BECOMING EDITOR- IN-CHIEF OF DAZED

What does it mean to be the editor-in-chief of one of the most influential youth culture publications in the world? We are used to imagining the person at the head of a magazine as an English-lit graduate with perfect punctuation that would spend the last day before going to print fighting with the art direction department. Isabella Burley is made out of a completely different mold, following an unorthodox career journey as a proud art-school drop-out who attributes the start of her career to her retail job at Dover Street Market instead of an Oxbridge college. Whilst looking for her list of tips or some child-prodigy story that would explain her reaching the top position at DAZED at the age of 24, we discovered that the answer is quite simple: Isabella Burley is a person that never got intimidated by what she didn’t know how to do.

An avid researcher, thirsty to discover the story behind culture creators, Isabella  Burley is one of the most influential editors of our time, making fashion journalism the fluid and multi-faceted field we know today. From managing the editorial direction of DAZED over the last handful of years to working with Helmut Lang, initiating Shayne Oliver as the designer whilst cultivating the much-anticipated series that saw her bringing together artists such as Carrie Mae Weems and Walter Pfeiffer, Burley is now launching her own online bookstore, CLIMAX Books specialising in hard-to-find ephemera and erotica, embodying what she calls “a project generation”; a generation of professionals that are characterised by who they are and not by what they do.

Isabella Burley sat down with Tallulah Harlech and shared her journey, her views on the fashion industry, and what she looks out for in hiring new talent.

Isabella Burley at her house photographed by Jacob Lillis

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. 

IB: Yeah.

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.

Isabella Burley on her journey from dropping out of CSM to becoming editor-in-chief of DAZED
Isabella Burley at her house photographed by Jacob Lillis

“I am looking for someone that comes at DAZED from a very, very different point of view to me. I know what my perspective is and having someone that thinks in the same way as me and doesn’t challenge me is less exciting.”

TH: What are you looking for in a writer and an editor?

IB: For me, I am looking for someone that comes at DAZED from a very, very different point of view to me. I know what my perspective is and having someone that thinks in the same way as me and doesn’t challenge me is less exciting. Someone that can open up the viewpoint of the magazine and take it in a different direction. DAZED has always been this incredible, mad mash-up of different perspectives and points of view. Someone that has different references, has different ideas of what a magazine should be, has a different community of people that they work with, and can bring them in.

TH: And a good writer?

IB: I think more in the lines of “How do we tell a story that feels unique?” I would be so excited if the person I would commission for a cover story with a big star told a different story that hasn’t already been told. Bringing in aspects that people have overlooked and weaving that into the story, creating a new narrative around that person.

“Be kind to everyone you meet, be respectful, be grateful for every opportunity you’re given because you just don’t know what’s going to happen. There are still a few people that believe that to work in fashion, they have to be really hard and be a bit of a bitch.”

TH: Do you think that today’s young creatives tackle work in the right way? What is your advice from your own experience?

IB: There is this old vision of the fashion editor working themselves to death to get things done. Yes, I work insane late hours, and there are times you are ripping your hair out and you look like shit and you haven’t eaten all day to get it done, but the number one thing I’d say to young people is to be kind to everyone you meet, be respectful, be grateful for every opportunity you’re given because you just don’t know what’s going to happen. For example, having the conversations I had on the shop floor at Dover Street has led to massive shifts in my career, massive opportunities. There are still a few people that believe that to work in fashion, they have to be really hard and be a bit of a bitch. I would never want to be that editor that’s aggressive. I’d rather have a team that feels like they can throw around any mad idea and no one’s gonna be scared of getting told off in the same way that I have ideas that are awful. There are fewer and fewer opportunities in the wake of this pandemic and it’s just going to be absolutely devastating for young people getting into jobs or having opportunities.

Budgets are going to be reduced further and further, and they’re really tiny in London so you really have to stand out. The way you do that sometimes is just about being kind and really true to yourself. Be respectful and listen, stay curious, don’t be scared to ask questions.

TH: How long were you consulting for Helmut Lang? When Shayne Oliver was designing, did you bring him in?

IB: Yes, I brought Shayne on. In total, I was at Helmut Lang for about a year and a half, but a lot of that was before everything was announced. It was all under NDA. It was a really intense period, not only because I was splitting my time between DAZED and Helmut Lang, but I was in London for one week, New York for two weeks, London for one week. It was consistently like this, which seems completely insane now looking at how much we’re not travelling. You’re constantly jet-lagged because you never have enough time in one place to not feel jet-lagged, and I think it really takes a toll on your health.

” I could have easily stayed at Helmut Lang for another year, maybe two years, but I was putting my relationships with people on the line. I have too much respect for myself and for other people to wanna do that.”

TH: How did this come about? Did you know how long you were going to be involved for?

IB: It was meant to be an ongoing thing. I was so proud of bringing Shayne in, but I think that where we wanted to take it [the brand] was very at odds with where some of the internal people wanted to take it. I just had a light bulb moment where I thought that I’ve put so much work and time and energy into relaunching and rebranding this… Doing all of these projects altering people’s perspectives of the brand, and it’s going to be a lot of hard work and a lot of banging my head on the wall to keep this up because there are people internally that want to take it somewhere else that wasn’t exciting for me to do. I could have easily stayed at Helmut Lang for another year, maybe two years, but I was putting my relationships with people on the line. I have too much respect for myself and for other people to wanna do that.

TH: Is there a take away from that experience?

IB: What I got goes back to this question: “OK, I know how to edit a magazine, but how does it look if I translate the skills that I have to work on a brand?” Coming at it from the point of view of an editor, not as a stylist or as an art director or a traditional creative director. It was really eye-opening for me. It really gave me the confidence to think that I am an editor, but I am not boxed into an editor who should only be able to write and do copywriting.

“A lot of magazines aren’t going to survive. It is heartbreaking; people who’ve spent years and years building businesses that have been relatively successful, all of that changing tomorrow.”

TH: Where do you think printed fashion magazines are moving towards?

IB: The bin, the recycling bin. No, I’m joking, sorry. [Laughs]

Since the pandemic, we have no concept of what’s going to happen in the next six months even logistically being able to shoot, etc. We don’t really have an understanding of the financial implications. We’re really going to see more titles folding, so many redundancies. But any time there’s a global crisis or there’s such tragedy in the world, people always react against that and push things forward. For titles like DAZED, there will be a very – back to the 90’s – DIY approach and a scrappiness to putting a magazine together, which I think is very refreshing. A lot of magazines aren’t going to survive. It is heartbreaking; people who’ve spent years and years building businesses that have been relatively successful, all of that changing tomorrow. That’s what’s terrifying.

“I’m so open and curious and love that I have no idea where my career’s going to go.”

TH: Your creativity has touched these multiple areas; fashion editor, publisher, writer, brand consultant, art curator. What else?

IB: Now, book store owner! We’re part of a project generation. It is so exciting for me that I can have a friend of mine asking me to curate a photo show and do that, but then not necessarily have to pivot my entire career. Same with Helmut Lang. I don’t want to necessarily go in-house at a brand and become an in-house creative director. But it made sense at that time to have me as an editor and curate this whole program of different artists and designers. I’m so open and curious and love that I have no idea where my career’s going to go. 20 years ago it would have been insanely frowned upon that you are a publisher and then you move into an editor and then you curate. That just wasn’t possible. I love that I’m able to explore all of these different interests of mine and just see where each thing goes. And maybe there’ll be one thing that I fall so deeply in love with.

I also think that the way my brain works, I have a lot of curiosities and in different areas and fields, so for me to have one job in one place doing one thing, it’s just not exciting. I start the day and I might be working on consulting work, so I’m checking emails. And then I’ll be working on DAZED and I’ll be working on the [DAZED anniversary] Rizzoli book, then I’m shipping Climax orders, and then it’s like 11:00 p.m. and I’m off to the post office with Climax – it’s just so exciting for me that all of that can exist in one day. I feel so insanely lucky to have that because whilst it is exhausting I feel grateful that that’s what I get to do every day and not being scared to be like “I’m not a curator, how can I curate this?” When I started at DAZED I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no idea how to edit a magazine. When I did my first interview, I wasn’t a writer. I had never interviewed anyone before, I didn’t know how you do it. You have to do those things and not be held to these archaic systems of “You’re not this, but you are this.” Who cares? Also as women, we’re so terrified to assert what we want to be; Just try it out.

“When I started at DAZED I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no idea how to edit a magazine.”

TH: What do you think it takes or is going to take someone to follow in your footsteps and be an editor. Is there anything that you wish that you’d known?

IB: For anyone that wants to be an editor, explore all of your interests within that. Try not to pigeonhole yourself into one thing. I’m insanely dyslexic, I really can’t spell very well at all. But I have a great sub-editor, so it’s fine that I’m not perfect at this, because you have a team of people that support you and through their support, they give you the freedom and the space to do what you do best. I am commissioning editors who are much better than I could ever be. And that’s great. I’m not threatened by that. I want that as part of my team.

“I love it when there are young image-makers or photographers, or artists that we approach for DAZED and they decline.”

TH: The part of the industry that we’re in has some fixation with youth. Do you think that young voices are essential for the industry to exist, or do you think that we put too much pressure on creatives to “make it” young?

IB: Young voices and young talent is integral to this industry. The new generation coming up is the ones that will challenge the people that have been in positions of power for a long time to rethink the way that they work, the way that these structures exist. The fashion industry’s fixation with youth and youth culture, we find it more on a brand level where people are so quick to pick up the hot new talent and then dispose of them in a second. They almost become tarnished because they work with one brand. The other brand can’t work with them. One magazine shot them on the cover, so we can’t do them on the cover. I find that incredibly toxic because people aren’t setting up young people’s careers for longevity. They’re setting it up because it works for them at that moment. Even though I did start when I was very young, it was a very different climate. It’s also very hard for a young person who’s just getting into the industry. If they get offers, naturally, they are going to be excited. You’re going to want to say yes. It’s so hard to say no. I love it when there are young image-makers or photographers, or artists that we approach for DAZED and they decline. I actually think “Good for you because you’re having a decision in the future of your career rather than just thinking ‘I must say yes.'”

This whole performative culture that, you know, we’ve seen on speed around, all of the Black Lives Matter movement and activism around that. I had a conversation with a friend of mine who was a former editor who’s a woman of color in New York. She was like “the number of opportunities I’ve been given in the last month!” And obviously, that’s amazing. But also, you can look at the other side of it: Where were these opportunities six months ago? Is it just another performative thing? Are you paying these people properly? This idea of ‘said big brand’ goes to ‘said person’; is that really in that person’s best interest or is it the brand doing it to cover their back? The fashion industry is so terrified of looking bad. Working with young talent, you’re shooting them, you’re putting them in front of a camera, but you’re not really giving them a say in something, which is why I think it was so important with DAZED’s Autumn 2020 issue. And I think we’re gonna see a lot more of that. I just hope there really will be real change.

 

Check out CLIMAX BOOKS

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