Fashion editor at Vogue Runway must be one of the most glamourised positions in our industry. To demystify the position a bit, would you mind taking us through a typical workday?
I usually start my day by looking at my phone, which is a bad habit. Because we work so globally, being in New York, you’re at the tail end of people’s day. We’ve been working to cover Shanghai Fashion Week and, obviously, we’re remote, so that means I’m currently having a lot of Zoom calls with designers, either really early in the morning or very late in the evening. I try not to schedule any calls before 8:30 because you’re simply not alert enough. I want to give the best version of me and I don’t want to waste anyone’s time.
Yesterday, I did a couple of Zoom calls with designers in Shanghai, then I went to the office. We’re currently going in three days a week which I really prefer because I like to have a separation between when I’m working and when I am at home. Once I get to the office, there is a lot of writing to be done and chasing up with emails.
Vogue is a big company, so working and coordinating with all our different colleagues takes a lot more time than you would expect. There are so many different departments, we have peers in every country around the world, so whether it’s just catching up to find out what people are working on or making sure that we’re sharing social media assets across all markets, this is a big aspect of our job that is not often talked about. It’s not glamorous, but it’s integral to making sure the stories everyone is working on are cross-pollinating into every market.
I try to set aside three to four hours a day, probably between noon and four pm, to just write. It can be hard, especially with emails and text messages coming in. During COVID, the industry became much more adept at using these digital forms of communication, which was great, but we haven’t figured out yet how to find moments to sign off from that. I’m sure it’s annoying to a lot of my colleagues when I don’t reply to their slack messages straight away, but I try to take enough time to write and think about what I’m writing. I’m cognisant that I use other people’s time when I reach out for an interview, it’s only fair if I give them the same amount of my time when I’m reflecting on the piece. Usually, we have an end-of-day check-in to assure everything that was supposed to happen happened, and then I’ll head home.
It seems that internal communication is a big aspect of your job. I imagine this also requires a specific skill set, you need to be able to communicate your ideas to large groups of people and get them excited about your ideas.
While we’re working within this flexible remote model, a lot of our meetings are still on Zoom. Vogue Runway has a meeting every day, we’re five to six people, but we can be in meetings that are over fifty people. When you’re working in such a large infrastructure, it’s always better to err on the side of caution and brief everyone on what you’re doing. If I just received a pitch to interview a designer, for example, I’ll send an email to anyone whose work might overlap with that story, just so they’re aware of the topics that are happening.
A huge aspect of Vogue Runway is being in touch with social and video teams, because we have our independent social accounts and on those accounts, we really try to clarify fashion, make it less esoteric and more fun, and try new things: reels, IGTV, Instagram lives. That part of my job, working with the video and social teams, is very fun, but it is very different from writing and reporting because there is much more communication. To make a video, you need a lot of pre-production and post-production, speak to dozens of people. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes work. I think my biggest skill there is that I’m always very excited about the topics I’m working on, so I can easily motivate the team.
Having worked at Vogue for six years now, with a lot of people from the style.com team, we all have an understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, so it feels like you’re in this safe space to experiment.
“When you’re a young journalist, you start out by talking to peers, young designers and writers, which shapes your understanding of fashion from the ground up. It’s very different when you talk to someone at the helm of a heritage luxury brand.” – Steff Yotka
You’ve been at Vogue for six years now, how did you evolve within the company?
I had worked with Nicole [Phelps] at style.com and we have a really good rapport. I was doing a lot of news writing, almost two articles a day. After working there for about a year, the opportunity to work on a new social project for Snapchat came my way. It felt like something really fun and exciting, and while it wasn’t totally tethered to runway reporting and fashion writing, it was an opportunity to play with a new medium and try something completely different. I started doing that in 2016 while still working on Vogue Runway. We had an amazing team on the Snapchat project and everyone was really obsessed with fashion and pop culture in a very different way from me. It was an opportunity to build a different, younger, more engaged social media version of Vogue. By the time we stopped working on that project, I had wedged myself into the social and video team and was enjoying that a lot, which is how I started getting more involved with the Vogue Runway social media account, so there was this multi-media bucket of my career that was growing in tandem with the reporting and writing I was doing.
To Nicole’s credit, she always gave me the opportunity to pursue the weird stories I was obsessed with, and she also encouraged important designers to want to talk to me. When you are working at a place like Vogue, where every editor is famous within fashion, designers will often ask for someone specific to do their review or interview. Nicole was very adamant that if something was my idea, I would be the one to do it. That really helped me grow my experience. When you’re a young journalist, you start out by talking to peers, young designers and writers, which shapes your understanding of fashion from the ground up. It’s very different when you talk to someone at the helm of a heritage luxury brand. You can ask different questions and you have to think about the industry from a different perspective, so it helped me grow as a thinker and a journalist, and it helped raise my profile because more important people in fashion were reading my articles. That is how I ended up on this tandem journey where I am now.
“But even in the worse times, the least you learn is never to do it again!” – Steff Yotka
How intentional was that career path? Did you take time to reflect on your skills and think about where you were going?
I try not to be too prescriptive about the future and trust my own instincts – they haven’t led me astray yet! I always knew I wanted to work in fashion, I was always reading style.com and subscribed to WWD, and I just feel that being exposed for so long to the industry has created this mental back-catalog of how it works – like immersion therapy.
I know what I’m good at and I know what I’m not good at, and I’m honest about that. I don’t think I ever made a tactical choice in my career, it’s more that I constantly followed these projects that I was excited about. They took me in a lot of directions. Sometimes the result would be a disaster, and I’d think to myself – “why did I agree to this crazy trip and stay up for 24 hours?” But even in the worse times, the least you learn is never to do it again! It’s probably not an answer you want to hear, but I try not to think of my career as this finite, linear narrative because I really believe that if you follow your interests, you’ll find a way to make it work.
“The fashion industry, traditionally, is an industry for people with independent wealth, which is why salaries can be so low. It can be hard to stand up for yourself in interactions with managers or superiors.” – Steff Yotka
Throughout your professional journey, was it easy to have conversations about money? Was that something you thought about when you made career choices?
Before I worked as a journalist, I had a stint as a styling assistant and I was getting paid a horrific rate. I could barely pay my rent. When I started writing and working at different magazines, I was really aware that it had to work. I didn’t grow up in a wealthy family, I didn’t have any safety net. This job is my career and my source of income, I have no secret pile of money to help me survive. I’ve always been very frank about that to my bosses, throughout my entire career. I let them know I didn’t have another source of income. The fashion industry, traditionally, is an industry for people with independent wealth, which is why salaries can be so low. It can be hard to stand up for yourself in interactions with managers or superiors. But I believe in the quality of my work and the people who I’ve worked with were always willing to make accommodations. It’s really hard to talk about money. Especially in fashion, there’s so much smoke and mirror, you don’t always know what is going on. Different publications can have very different standards.
“Being interested in fashion means you’re working every moment of your life.” – Steff Yotka
I want to go back to what you said about a work-life balance. Is that at all possible to maintain when you’re as passionate about fashion as you are and work is also a personal interest?
When it comes to doing the job – responding to emails, responding to slack messages, writing, doing interviews – I prefer to do that at the office, at a desk, or in a conference room, just to have that separation between when I’m working and when I’m not. But of course, being interested in fashion means you’re working every moment of your life. Going shopping or visiting a fashion exhibition, is that fun or work? There’s no hard line between the two.
I also try to pay attention, no matter what I do. I’ll start observing, connecting patterns, and analysing, even when I’m watching a football game. I do have to remind myself to just enjoy the moment sometimes. But that skill will come in handy when I’m in a luxury department store, for example, and browse through the product. I’ll notice which bag the salesperson is pushing versus the one they’re holding back, or which item customers are most interested in. I’m constantly keeping these little mental post-it notes. Some of them might linger and grow into an article.
What spaces do you like going to for research and inspiration, both online and IRL?
Going to the mall is my number one activity. I’m always surprised at how forthcoming the sales associates are. You can find out a lot about a brand by going into their stores, especially outside of the city. Even if it is something you’ll never publish, it’s good to have those insights. I’m from New Jersey, there are a lot of malls here, it’s a very different customer. I’m nosy, so I like to snoop around and see what’s happening.
Outside of that, I do a lot of walking around, just to observe what people are wearing. I’m always trying to sneak photos of people’s outfits. Whether you’re seeing that luxury item you saw on the runway in real life, or someone is wearing vintage in a very exciting way, you can find a lot of inspiration from the way people are dressed. That is also how a lot of designers work. They will look at how real people dress and put their own spin on it.
Then I’ll be online all day. There are so many people on Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, who are as obsessed with fashion as I am and are constantly talking about it. That is so fun and exciting to me because when I was eighteen, the internet was very different. Everything felt more official. Now, it’s more open, so you can watch a live stream, read the comments, and stay aware of the conversation around fashion.
When you work at a desk in an office, it can be easy to forget what other people are talking about. It’s very important to keep your ear to the ground and know what is happening, especially in other places. I haven’t been to London, or Paris, or Shanghai, or Tokyo, in a very long time! So going online gives you this more diverse insight. In that aspect, group chats can be my greatest source of inspiration. Texting colleagues around the world, asking what they’re up to, if they’ve seen anything cool, what they think of a brand I just discovered.
“I do want to believe that every garment that I see, every garment I touch, can be worn by someone. In my imaginary world, all these clothes are destined for a real flesh and blood person.” – Steff Yotka
That’s so true! When you work in fashion, it’s easy to get stuck in a bubble. This designer we’re all excited about, have people who don’t work in fashion even heard their name?
True, but, as naïve as it may sound because the prices of some of these garments are so exclusionary, I do want to believe that every garment that I see, every garment I touch, can be worn by someone. In my imaginary world, all these clothes are destined for a real flesh and blood person. Someone has to want it. At the end of the day, people want so many different things. Before the pandemic, there was this idea of easy functional dressing – building a wardrobe became a buzzword that so many brands were trying to connect through – but not everyone wants a high-waisted pair of chinos. Someone might look at the Comme Des Garçons bubble and think – “This is it for me, if I had 10.000 dollars, this is what I would wear every day.” Post-2020, I think that designers are cutting away the filler that they produced because they wanted to appeal to a mass audience. If you design one pair of weird pants that only speak to 1000 people but those 1000 people wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it, then you have created a successful design object and that’s meaningful. That’s probably why I have a soft spot for the more extreme collections. It’s very easy to write them off as weird.
When I first discovered Chopova Lowena, it’s like someone shot an arrow through my brain. I couldn’t imagine someone was making clothes for me. It was the most overwhelming sensory experience because I love shopping and I have a lot of garments, but I finally reached this eureka moment. Their clothes are so strange, they probably don’t appeal to a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t exist. It doesn’t mean the people who buy their designs don’t love them as passionately as someone who loves their straight-legged jeans. I’m always writing as if every garment will be worn – someday.
“I’m really moved by fashion writing that is about garments. They’re the thing that is closest to our bodies, and everybody has them. ” – Steff Yotka
I think this is a sentiment we don’t have enough in our field. Celebrating weird, out-there designs, without resorting to conceptual or academic arguments. Whenever designers like Rick Ownes are appreciated, it’s from an angel that borrows a lot from art criticism. We tend to forget about the emotional reaction, the joy.
Yes. I was reading a new publication last night, Warehouse Review, which described clothes on the runway as signifiers. That is entirely valid, you can read fashion in this academic way, but I do want to believe that clothes are meant to be worn. They are not just symbols. They have a use in our lives. Rick Owens might look outlandish and crazy, but his platform boots are actually really comfortable and I wear them all the time. You wouldn’t know that unless you tried them. You need to experience these things, even if you’re not immediately interested in them. I’m really moved by fashion writing that is about garments. They’re the thing that is closest to our bodies, and everybody has them. You can go at it very abstractly and think about the industry in a more critical sense, I do still feel very deeply that it’s important to think about our clothes as the skins that we live in.
Talking about Rick Owens, I was watching your Instagram live interview with him. Do you remember the first time you were on camera and how was that experience?
I think that Instagram live was the first time I had done something live or on camera. I remember being so unmeasurably nervous. I had to turn off my phone for thirty minutes before and just sit in silence, thinking about what I was going to say. Being on camera and being a host is very different from an in-person interview. After doing that conversation with Rick, which I hope was fun for people to watch, I learned a lot about what questions to ask. You’re sort of a manager when you’re doing that interview, you need to be more direct. For a written piece, you can go on tangents because it will be edited out. When it’s live, you need to get to the point straight away. It’s something I’m trying to get better at. As you can tell, I like going on a lot of tangents and I’m interested in all these things around fashion. The first time I ever interviewed Rick, which was on a face time, he gave me a full tour of his apartment in Venice. Those things just colour your understanding of a person, their work, and their creativity. Rick is very forthcoming with his life and his passions, so I’m always interested to learn about these other things: what TV shows are you watching, what snacks are you buying, how do you get to work in the morning? All these things are interesting to me, but doing the live interviews I learned that that is not interesting to everyone.
“Depending on who you’re talking to, they might not always be excited to be talking to a young woman in a big Chopova Lowena dress.” – Steff Yotka
Could you take us through the process of preparing and writing a feature? I assume it varies a lot, so maybe you could take us through the average shortest and the longest?
Let me think! If we get an email about something that’s a bit more straightforward, a designer opening a new store, for example, I try to get as much information from the PR ahead of time. A pitch like that can be incredibly detailed, there will be a twelve-page pdf attached, including fabric, prices, points of sale, etc. or it’ll be a single sentence announcing the news, asking whether I’d be interested in interviewing the designer within the hour. In that case, I might have to jump on it straight away. Even for the shortest pieces, I do try to read the most recent interview that person has done because it helps to give insights into what they were thinking about. If I have a tight turnaround, I would keep the interview to the bare minimum, talk only about what I want to write about, twenty minutes tops. There isn’t time for the rambling questions I like to ask. I use a digital transcription service, but I always reread the transcript and relisten to the interview. For something that is urgent, the fastest I’ve written an article must be ten minutes. It won’t be my best work, but it’s what you have to do.
For a longer feature, I like to do a lot of research, probably too much research. When I was interviewing Rick about the CFDA lifetime achievement award, I went through almost every single article written about him, because they’re all shared on his website, and I bought his most recent book and read all the essays taking notes. It’s important to know what people are saying to other outlets. Then I’ll have copious notes. Depending on the piece I try to define three or four bullet points that I want to make sure to cover, but then you also need to follow the interviewee in their story. The hardest thing is when you’ve prepared your interview thoroughly, and you’ve created this narrative in your mind of who the person is and how they work, and then you meet them and they are completely different, or they don’t want to talk about the topics you’ve prepared. That’s when you really need to think on your feet. Pay attention to what they’re saying and make sure you can prod on their answers. It’s not a nice feeling when that happens, all your research time feels wasted.
It’s not easy to manage an interview subject. I’m not the most commanding personality, so depending on who you’re talking to, they might not always be excited to be talking to a young woman in a big Chopova Lowena dress. As fun as this job is and as much joy as it brings me, I’m still a reporter at the end of the day. There are many fun bits, but sometimes you need to put on your serious reporting hat.
“There are hard parts in fashion because there are hard parts in life.” – Steff Yotka
When does the “serious reporting hat” come out?
There are stories that I’ve covered that aren’t happy stories. As much as Vogue always tries to look at the industry from a positive angle, when things like #metoo were happening or the Black Lives Matter or garment workers protests, you need to cover that and it’s not easy. It’s a different mindset than when I’m writing a collection review of an artistic designer that I connect with on an emotional level. There are hard parts in fashion because there are hard parts in life.
I try to be a happy, optimistic person generally, so to switch over and stop thinking about clothes and creativity and start thinking about the cold, hard truth of being alive today, was not easy for me. Even the most creative things exist in a vacuum, so I have to keep myself tethered in reality. You have to stay on top of current events. You can’t just be in the world of rhinestone handbags. It can be really fun to only think about the good parts of this industry, so it’s easy to ignore the uglier parts. The most important thing is to know what you don’t know. Nothing is worse than a writer with a blind spot and they have no clue.
“The more you write about luxury fashion, the harder it is to think about what the average person wants. A huge blind spot is simply reality.” – Steff Yotka
What are some recurrent blind spots in your field?
The more you write about luxury fashion, the harder it is to think about what the average person wants. A huge blind spot is simply reality. You can become so wrapped up in the fantasy that the reality becomes alien. The best reporters are those who are super aware of what is happening in the world and tether fashion back to current events, changes in politics, and society.
What was your impression of fashion week after a year of isolation?
I think New York really met the moment. Some shows were in person, but they were mostly outside. It felt like it was much more about the community of people that make fashion happen. People who would’ve been in the second or third row in the past were now sitting first row because so many international visitors couldn’t come. Everyone had to take notice of them, and they were involved in the shows. This felt very positive. Designers had the right instinct to make clothes that felt both really useful and magical. I really thought the Eckhaus Latta show was a charge of energy, same for Vaquera and Collina Strada. There was a real sense of purpose.
I haven’t gone to the fashion weeks in Europe, so I can’t comment, because you really don’t get the same information watching it on a live stream or on social media. The texture of the air in the room matters to me in how I understand a show. “How do the models look, are they excited? Who is there early, who is late?” I do hope that, as fashion weeks come back, designers find ways to open up the shows to more people. Fashion people get jaded easily, and it’s important to welcome fans and customers into the experience, as well as the next generation of writers.
You mention the “texture of the air in the room”. Why is that real-life experience so important to report on?
In the first seasons that happened during lockdowns, where everything was only virtual, I was just really skeptical about the collections being shown because brands have so much power. When you only see an image that’s been retouched dozens of times, you don’t really know what’s real. You don’t know if the dress that you see on the model actually exists. You have to see it to believe it because fashion is notorious for creating imagery that lies to you. Fashion photographs through digital art are amazing, but they’re not real. No experience can come close to being in the room where it happens. When you’re seeing it with your own eyes you can ask anyone else in the room a question, you can actually report. Otherwise, you only have the information the brand wants you to have.
“Seeing a peer of mine succeed on another platform is better for me than seeing something fail because it means they are creating a new audience of people who read about fashion, and maybe they’ll want to read something I wrote.” – Steff Yotka
What are skills you look out for in writers you want to work with, qualities you admire?
I admire writers who think completely differently from me. I’m not interested in reading my own point of view. It’s really fun to be challenged. When I’m commissioning, I’m always looking for someone who has an expert understanding, but also their own point of view, a curiosity to do things differently, and a real mastery of language. Fashion writing is writing, after all. It can be easy to fall into repetition because the same phrases are everywhere – “bold”, “edgy”, “chic”. It’s really exciting to me to read a writer who is employing a completely different vocabulary from fashion press releases.
I see so much exciting young talent and I hope this will continue to grow. The success of one of us is the success of all of us, and I think fashion can be really competitive. Seeing a peer of mine succeed on another platform is better for me than seeing something fail because it means they are creating a new audience of people who read about fashion, and maybe they’ll want to read something I wrote.
That’s a great sentiment because our industry can be so competitive.
It’s good to be jealous too! If I wasn’t jealous that other publications were getting stories that I wanted, what would drive me forward? I love to see a really good story in another publication because it sparks that competitive urge.