Of course, these kinds of differences do not mortal enemies make, until you turn the cameras on a dysfunctional office. When Jean-Luc Lagardère’s death in 2003 left the family business to his son Arnaud, the influence of Bensimon was immediately diminished. There was a feeling that his “essence of woman” aesthetic—which tended to favor a combination of untamed hair, smoky eyeliner, liberally applied bronzer, and a casual ensemble that had the effect of making cover subjects all look a little like Cindy Crawford—had had its day. And in 2005 a new business director was hired and immediately went to work slashing budgets. Assistants were barred from working excessive overtime, a vital supplement to their $20,000 salaries. Layoffs followed; at one point even the receptionist on one of the magazine’s floors was fired, replaced by a cardboard sign.
The bright spot was Project Runway. The show had helped restore Elle to its No. 2 position among fashion magazines, and expanded the scope of its ad-sales model, justifying publisher Carol Smith’s belief in it. The Elle team was packaging magazine ads in tandem with the Bravo team that sold the show. And Garcia, long loved by luxury-brand advertisers like Prada and Chanel, was expanding her appeal among mass advertisers, who began asking for her attendance at their events.
If the promotional clips of Stylista are anything to go by, Slowey has an innate feel for fashion reality TV’s appeal—and she does not plan to play to it with subtlety.
Nevertheless, there seemed to be ever more pressure to attract new ad dollars, which brings us to the launch of Elle Accessories in mid-2005, and what Elle staffers saw as a critical flash point in the Bensimon-Myers power struggle. Smith had decided to start an ancillary biannual focused on accessories to further expand the brand and bring in more revenue. Bensimon’s wife, a model-socialite named Kelly Killoren-Bensimon, was named editor-in-chief. Cue the office screaming matches. Sources say Garcia upbraided Jack Kliger in a successful bid to get her name placed atop Killoren-Bensimon’s on the masthead for its inaugural issue, and that Killoren-Bensimon did her own share of yelling during an epic shouting match with Garcia over the supplement in the summer of 2005. But the power shift was already under way. By the beginning of 2006, Killoren-Bensimon (who, incidentally, will join the cast of The Real Housewives of New York City this fall) was out of the picture at the magazine. By the end of that year, the Bensimons’ marriage had broken up, and Gilles Bensimon had been demoted and replaced by a talented young art director–about–town named Joe Zee. And when the dust settled, Anne Slowey, who had been floating around the upper echelons of the Elle Accessories masthead, was the one who snagged the top spot. “It was a big shift for her,” says a former colleague. “It suddenly put her in charge of a staff, and in front of advertisers.” And, if only because she had nothing to do with Bensimon or Nina Garcia, in the good graces of Robbie Myers.
Garcia says she knew her days were numbered at the magazine when Bensimon was demoted in late 2006. Certainly she could have learned as much by reading Fashion Week Daily and the vicious e-mails about her posted on Gawker. Also, she was pregnant. Many assumed she would go on maternity leave and never return; the week after Garcia’s son was born, Slowey even hired an “energy clearer” to tour the office and exorcise the place of its bad vibes.
But there was a problem: Garcia’s value to Elle was growing exponentially. A bona fide celebrity by the show’s third season, Garcia was also becoming a bigger and bigger part of the package Elle sold to advertisers. So even as the rest of Bensimon’s clique—art director Guillaume Bruneau, style director Isabel Dupré, fashion editor-at-large Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele—found themselves slowly sucked out of their jobs, Elle found new uses for Garcia. When Carol Smith’s team sold space in the magazine to Anne Klein, it also sold Garcia’s time at in-store appearances at Anne Klein stores. When the magazine sold a few pages to the Las Vegas Tourist Commission, they sent Garcia to Vegas to host an event extolling the great shopping. Smith even sold Garcia’s services as a pitchwoman to Research in Motion, manufacturer of the BlackBerry. On top of all that, Garcia continued to produce her shopping pages, and went on a brief tour to promote her book in September. By the end of the year, she was one of the highest-paid editorial staffers, though she spent little time at the office.
In her absence, the Elle staff, once the most devoted crop of Project Runway fans you could meet, had turned against Garcia. It seemed that creative director Joe Zee was freezing her out, holding fashion meetings at 9:30 A.M. without telling her, and “forgetting” to invite her to a lavish dinner in Milan during the fashion shows. “They all hate her,” says one recently departed staffer of office sentiment toward their former fashion director. “And no one really knows why. They just call her, like, ‘the evil one’ or ‘the monster.’ ”