The idea for Stylista was born five years ago, when Project Runway creator Eli Holzman was meeting with Anna Wintour. Vogue was having second thoughts about passing on Runway, and Holzman paid a visit to make nice, hear her out, and politely discuss possible projects that might unite their interests in the future, one of which occurred to him as he was walking through the hallways toward her office. A behind-the-scenes reality show on a fashion magazine! He’d call it Fashionista. (The name would later be changed because of a 2007 SOAPnet show called The Fashionista Diaries.)
“All these beautiful people, incredibly well put-together and hypercritical of everyone else, but also devoted to excellence.” They were the story. “You know how they say show business is high school with money? They were sort of like the mean girls.”
Wintour required more control over her image than Holzman could see making for good television, so he headed back to Elle, where no such dominating persona held veto power. The problem was that Elle wasn’t really much like Mean Girls With Money in 2003. The closest it had to Anna Wintour was an insouciant French fashion photographer named Gilles Bensimon, who controlled the magazine’s fashion coverage and all its covers from the post of creative director. A founder of American Elle, Bensimon was one of the last people at the magazine to have a personal relationship with then-CEO Jean-Luc Lagardère, but his power also stemmed from the formidable connections he’d forged in a career spent shooting—and sometimes dating—celebrities and models. The magazine had long kept its editorial and visual departments strictly separated, an arrangement some believe accounts for the fact that Elle’s features have consistently been smarter and more substantial—and more likely to be written by a “serious” writer—than those of most other women’s magazines. When Roberta “Robbie” Myers was named editor-in-chief in 2000, it was her word skills her colleagues praised.
“The difference between me and Anne Slowey,” Nina Garcia says carefully, “is that I never sought this out. I never wanted to be famous.”
But Myers’s lack of jurisdiction over the fashion department began to grate on her a few years into the job, say former colleagues. (Although numerous principals and insiders were interviewed for this piece, few wanted to have their names associated with a story about the inner workings of their current or former place of employment.) By the summer of 2003—which ex-staffers remember, not insignificantly, as the summer that paperback and book-on-tape copies of The Devil Wears Prada were delivered to the desk of every fashion editor in the city—a breathless new trade publication called Fashion Week Daily was covering the comings and goings and outfits of magazine editors as if they were celebrities. Myers, who’d spent her first three years of the job giving birth to two children, was ready, say former colleagues, to go to shows and parties—even though, as she often remarked, she was not one to place a lot of importance on shows and parties.
Bensimon wanted little to do with her. In photos from the rare occasions they would attend shows together, his expression is dour. He saw Myers as ambitious, insecure, and overly American; she saw him as an overpaid, out-of-control spendthrift who was losing his touch. (His salary was rumored to be higher than that of Jack Kliger, the chairman of Lagardère’s U.S. outpost of Hachette Filipacchi Media.) Neither of them could anticipate how their power struggle would worsen when the fashion department they were fighting over was thrust into the spotlight by a hokey little cable-TV show the magazine’s publisher had roped them into participating in.
That show, of course, was Runway—the pet project of Elle publisher Carol Smith, whose aim was to grow awareness of the Elle brand. Bensimon readily admits he was “not a fan” of the idea, seeing the Queer Eye network as a circuitous (and mass-market) route to targeting potential Elle readers. The fact that Nina Garcia, the magazine’s fashion director, traded off Runway judgeship duties with Anne Slowey, the fashion news director, during the show’s first season is a testament to how utterly indifferent the magazine’s staff once was to the show, and to reality TV in general. Garcia, who had been in the fashion department since 1995, was something of the empress of Bensimon’s ruling clique. (And as such, she paid little heed to Myers—to Myers’s occasional annoyance.) Slowey, having been hired in 1998 in one of the few fashion-personnel decisions made by Myers’s predecessor, Elaina Richardson, was decidedly not.
In real life, their roles barely interfered with one another’s: Garcia was known for having the fashion-house connections to finagle important dresses from collections Anna Wintour had put on reserve, and being able to move a $10,000 dress from Zimbabwe to the Caribbean for a photo shoot tomorrow. Slowey was more in the Myers camp—a theatrical, thrift-shopping East Village dweller from Indiana who was more interested in writing about fashion than living in it. Prior to Runway, Slowey had been the most public face of the Elle fashion department, appearing on the Today show regularly to discuss trends; Garcia’s most significant media exposure involved serving in 1999 as a “personal shopper” to a former welfare recipient who had won a Sears shopping spree. A Times “Styles” story from the event describes Garcia sporting a J. Lo–esque combination of Daryl K army pants and high heels and admitting she had never been to Sears—or, really, much of Brooklyn. Public appearances and interviews tended to unnerve Garcia. Slowey, meanwhile, was highly entertaining, in a bitchy, campy way—on one memorable episode in the first season of Runway she declared that an ensemble had achieved the unlikely distinction of being simultaneously “vulgar” and “dowdy.” But when the season drew to a close, producers decided they preferred Garcia’s presence on their panel of judges.