The life of a fashion magazine assistant isn’t all Prada
By Kim Forrest

Fashion magazines have occasionally served as backdrops for books, television shows, and movies for decades (think Funny Face, The Bell Jar, and Just Shoot Me). But in the past year, they’ve been all over the big and small screens.

In the movie The Devil Wears Prada (based on a novel by a former Vogue assistant, Lauren Weisberger), ugly duckling Andy Sachs takes a job as an assistant to imperious Miranda Priestly, editor-in-chief of fictitious Runway magazine. In a few short months, she emerges a Chanel-bedecked swan while schlepping coffee and performing near-impossible tasks.

In ABC’s TV series Ugly Betty, another of those ducklings triumphs over scheming editors at a fashion magazine.

MTV’s reality show The Hills focuses on interns at Teen Vogue. In one episode, a stylist inspects intern Lauren Conrad’s outfit and gives her accessories from the magazine’s closet so that she looks “more Teen Vogue” and presentable to editor Lisa Love.

As a result of these and other depictions of life at the bottom of the magazine food chain, you could say that the coolest jobs in publishing right now are also the lowest positions on the masthead: the assistants and interns.

When I worked as an assistant editor at Washingtonian magazine in DC, I performed all the standard tasks: I fact-checked, wrote short pieces, and researched articles. Sometimes I imagined myself as Devil’s Andy Sachs, throwing on a pair of Chanel thigh-high boots from the accessories closet and heading to work. But is there any truth behind the fiction? Sure, we’ve all heard the industry gossip: Atoosa Rubenstein’s departure from Seventeen, the infighting about cover subjects. . . . But what is life really like for the mere mortals at fashion magazines, thetwentysomethings like me?

After talking to numerous sources in the magazine industry, I found that, as in the movies, life at a fashion magazine does have elements of glamour, but it’s also full of the mundane. The factual glamour isn’t as over-the-top as the fiction, and the mundane, I’m happy to report, isn’t usually as abusive. Art is imitating life, but only up to a certain point.

According to Karen Yampolsky—former assistant to Jane’s founding editor, Jane Pratt, and author of Falling Out of Fashion, which was published in April—part of the interest in fashion publishing comes from the fact that it’s a female-dominated industry. “It seems very glamorous, with the clothes, the models, and the photo shoots, but none of it really is,” she said. “I think that you end up with a bunch of people, mostly women, and—not to bash women, but when there are so many women working together, the bitchiness—that’s not so far from the truth.”

Betty and Andy arrive at their magazines with no interest in fashion, just a love for journalism. LiliAna Andreano, currently a student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, saw a different reality when she was an intern at Teen Vogue. Most of her fellow interns were fashion savvy. “They wouldn’t hire you if you didn’t know about the industry,” she said. “If you come from Idaho and you don’t know about Jean Paul Gaultier, you’re not going to get hired.”

There is evidence of this on Teen Vogue’s new intern blog, where the interns talk about their interview and first-day-of-work outfits. “At my interview, I wore a black and blue trapeze dress by French Connection with beautiful brown leather boots I ‘inherited’ from my mom,” intern Shavanna Miller wrote. “On my first day of work I wore a top by Cynthia Vincent and beige slacks,” wrote Lauren Conrad.

But clothes-conciousness may depend on the magazine. Some positions at fashion magazines don’t require much knowledge of couture. Sunny Sea Gold, now an associate editor at Glamour and vice president of the networking website, first interned at Popular Science and was interested in science and health. She eventually landed a job as an editorial assistant in the health department at Glamour. “I’ve never had much of an interest in fashion and didn’t have my eyes set on particularly a women’s magazine,” Gold wrote in an email. “Now that I’ve been in women’s magazines for five years, I feel lucky that’s where I landed.”

Jenny Feldman, a senior fashion news editor at ELLE, agreed. “There are many aspects to a fashion magazine,” she wrote in an email. “ELLE, for instance, has a very strong features department, and many of our assistants and writers on that side are passionate about theater, entertainment, or politics, with little interaction with fashion.”

As for the duties assistants perform, some former interns and assistants say that their responsibilities were remarkably similar to those shown in movies and on television. Working long hours and performing menial tasks for an editor are common. Particularly revealing are the recollections of Lucy (name changed to protect her career), who interned at a fashion magazine and was frequently sent on errands reminiscent of The Devil Wears Prada. These included picking up dry cleaning, getting lunch, taking an editor’s shoes to be fixed, and knowing her favorite brand of nuts. There were times she wasn’t allowed to leave her desk. When filling in for an editor’s assistant, Lucy was given a six-page document on the editor’s needs and wants, including three pages on her food preferences.

Once, Lucy was sent to pick up a coffee cake from a particular café for an editor. When the cake wasn’t available, she bought a variety of cakes from several stores to appease the editor’s craving. When she returned, the editor claimed she never wanted cake and threw out all of the pastries.

Television shows and movies omit most of what an assistant actually does because, well, it’s not particularly entertaining. According to Andreano, assistants at Teen Vogue spend much of their time organizing the fashion closets, logging items, and sending used items back. “That’s why you exist,” she said. “If you’re in fashion, your entire life is that closet.”

Many girls (this author included) dream of having a closet stocked with designer labels where everything is color coordinated and in season. According to on-screen depictions, these closets are the center of life at fashion magazines, and borrowing items is commonplace. Andy Sachs’s Chanel wardrobe came courtesy of the closet, as does Betty’s Gucci handbag. This is purely fictional. Assistants and editors can get into big trouble if they’re caught filching a closet item.

“The editors-in-chief could get great discounts and occasionally get things sent to them for free, but you don’t completely dress yourself for free out of a fashion closet,” Yampolsky said. “That’s so unrealistic.”

Sometimes, staffers can borrow items for a short period of time. “I broke a heel one day and asked an accessories editor if I could borrow a pair of sandals from the fashion closet,” Gold said. “But you have to give them back! And you can’t just walk out of there borrowing the Prada. The very high-end designer stuff is always sent back to the designers after it’s photographed.”

To an outsider, photo shoots may seem like glamorous experiences, with gorgeous models and beautiful couture. But, said Yampolsky, “photo shoots, the ones that you go to, are boring and long. I was given the opportunity to write, but that’s not typically the case. You’re scheduling someone’s appointments, hair appointments, travel plans before you see any writing other than a letter or a thank-you note.”

Which is not to say that, like Andy’s trip to Fashion Week in Paris or Betty’s invitations to celebrity parties, some assistants aren’t able to escape the boring tasks and take advantage of more stimulating opportunities. “I’m not going to lie, there’s a touch of glamour sometimes,” said Gold, “like when you ride the elevator with Queen Latifah after an event and get to chat, or when you get to dress up and attend an amazing Glamour event like the Women of the Year awards. Those are the times when you realize that maybe it’s not like every other office job.”

Fashion magazines can’t escape the rumors that the women who work there are devils in Prada, evil witches who only care about their appearances and the labels on their cashmere sweaters. Again, it may depend on the magazine—Lucy and Andreano offer conflicting testimony.

According to Lucy, editors at the magazine she interned for “wouldn’t be caught dead” in non-designer clothing. When Lucy showed up to work in a designer top she had bought on sale, one of the editors approached her. “Oh, I have that shirt,” she said. “I guess I can’t wear it anymore.” Andreano, however, said that editors at Teen Vogue were welcoming. “You can’t run a successful magazine if you are a bitch. You have to get along to work well together.”

She added that while everyone at Teen Vogue dressed well, it certainly wasn’t always in Prada or Chanel. Some wore dresses from the Salvation Army and carried designer bags. When I paid a visit to the Condé Nast cafeteria to see for myself, I found that while designer labels were common, so were the standard Banana Republic uniforms most working girls are familiar with, as well as vintage ensembles.

And although in The Devil Wears Prada, Andy is told that her size 6 “is the new 14,” Andreano said that editors were not all stick-thin. Some were a size 12 or 14. “The hallowed halls of fashion magazines are not filled with girls that weigh less than their Birkin bags, contrary to popular belief,” she said.

Editors may not all act like Miranda Priestly in Devil, but, said Yampolsky, “there are people who take themselves very seriously. Everyone thinks their job is real important. They get very serious about a fashion spread. This isn’t brain surgery; it’s not the end of the world if the photo goes [into the magazine] with a watch that doesn’t belong.”

On MTV’s The Hills, Lauren Conrad’s fellow intern, Whitney Port, is helping out at a Teen Vogue photo shoot. She is frequently scolded for not steaming the clothes properly. When she asks to leave early to attend her sister’s farewell dinner, her request is denied. “It’s hard to do something for someone when they’re not really respecting your position,” Port said, adding later, “As much as I love clothes, they’re only clothes.”

Adding all of this up, our advice is: don’t base your future career goals on what you see in the movies or on TV. Being an assistant isn’t about snagging free Chanel sunglasses or mixing it up with celebs. It’s hard work, just like any other profession. Well, maybe it’s just a little different. As Andy’s frazzled coworker tells her at one point, “A million girls would kill for your job.”

Illustration by Olivia Williams


About | Site Map | Archive | Masthead