The summer after she turned 16, Ninotchka “Nina” Garcia found herself in the crossfire of a mafia shoot-out. She was eating a late dinner with her friends at a trendy restaurant in Barranquilla, Colombia, the hometown she shared with Gabriel García Márquez, Shakira, and a growing population of drug lords. The bullets started and stopped so quickly she didn’t realize what was happening until she was crouched beneath the table.
“It was the Wild West back then,” she says. “Some mafioso upset at having to sit in traffic—you know, like road rage, but with guns. Or quarreling mafia families. No one dared ask.” Her voice is resigned. “You just learned to be low-key and not flashy.”
Too many more gunfights and threats and near-kidnappings would follow. Her childhood schoolmates would grow up to launder money or marry drug lords or invest in bodyguards and kidnapping insurance. But Garcia, the daughter of a wealthy importer, had her sights set far beyond Colombia. And so she went about quietly, unflashily, climbing the ranks of New York fashion, eventually becoming one of its most recognized faces with the help of a little show called Project Runway.
But the past year has been a test of Garcia’s well-honed survival instincts. Forgetting for a moment that in Colombia petty feuds result in death, whereas in fashion the worst-case outcome is generally a series of anonymously sourced Women’s Wear Daily items, the expiration of the contracts binding Project Runway to the Bravo channel and Elle has hit the business like the bust of the Medellín cartel. Fashion-industry feuds, adhering to that great axiom about the viciousness of low-stakes conflicts, are not so unlike mafia feuds. Players shake down other players for a bigger cut of the business, poorly paid minions lose their jobs as alliances shift and entrenched powers are offed (aufed?). Which is, in a nutshell, how Nina Garcia, one of the game’s savviest, most politically astute players, found herself abruptly stripped of a day job.
“It was time,” she says philosophically the first time we meet, in Bryant Park on a muggy mid-June day, though her dark-navy knit shirt, dark-navy pants, and black four-inch Louboutin sandals lend a mournful quality to the sentiment. She’s on a break from shooting promos for the fifth season of Project Runway, where she is still representing Elle as an “editor-at-large” two months after being fired.
The events that conspired to upset the fashion-media ecosystem culminated in one brutal week in early April, when news broke that Runway producer Harvey Weinstein had sold the next five seasons of the show to Bravo competitor Lifetime for $150 million. Bravo parent NBC Universal had filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit alleging that, among other things, Weinstein had broken a promise to NBC CEO Jeff Zucker, whom the complaint claimed Weinstein had once called “one of my five friends.” Then the news emerged that the show was losing its producers, Magical Elves, who had a competing contract with NBC. And by Friday, the trade publications were reporting that Nina Garcia’s office at Elle had been cleared out.
Among the courtroom revelations and Runway-related tidbits that leaked out over the ensuing months: Tim Gunn worked for free for the whole first season and a mere $2,500 an episode for the second; L’Oréal was offered the opportunity to take over both makeup and hair sponsorship on the show (thus bumping TRESemmé) for the bargain price of $6 million to $8 million; and Weinstein will get $1 million an episode when the show moves to Lifetime—up from $600,000 in the Bravo deal.
But the focus on the show’s finances and Weinstein’s money obscured a more complex and ridiculous story: that of the dénouement of a years-long struggle for regime change at Elle, which claimed Nina Garcia as its final victim. This October, as a swearing-in of sorts, Elle will debut a new reality-television series on the CW Network, featuring a different fashion editor, Anne Slowey, as its star. The show, Stylista, will pit aspiring fashion editors against one another for the chance to be an Elle junior editor under the preposterously critical eye of Slowey. It is hard to say which has more in common with that lightly fictionalized account of interoffice meanness known as The Devil Wears Prada: the premise of Stylista, or the backstory of how the show came to be. In any case, it’s what happens when a group of fashion-magazine editors recognize that their most valuable role is to play a fashion-magazine editor on TV.
“Fashion is this elitist world that’s full of gossip and backbiting, and all those things are good for reality television,” says Ken Mok, executive producer of Stylista and developer of America’s Next Top Model. “That whole world is just a never-ending mine for us.”