Deborah Needleman Just Wants Everyone to Have ‘Beautiful Things and Great Taste’

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Photo: Melissa Credit

After earning a cult following as the founder and editor-in-chief of the dearly departed Domino magazine, Deborah Needleman has a new gig: She’s the freshly instated editor of “Off Duty,” the Wall Street Journal’s two-week-old Saturday lifestyle section. The sixteen-page weekly features a slew of new contributors (a few of them Domino alums) writing about design, fashion, food, technology, travel, and family. But though she may covet the luxurious designs of Phoebe Philo and Tom Ford, Needleman’s editorial approach is refreshingly unfussy. “Style is such a fluid concept,” she says. “It’s in how you decorate, how you cook for your friends, how you wear your clothes, and how you hang with your children.” She’s not necessarily aiming to lure readers away from the fashion glossies, either. “The job of the section is to translate the runway for real people,” she says. “A lot of fashion coverage is geared toward the few of us who go to shows and work in the industry, rather than the masses of women who care about style."

From profiling up-and-coming trendsetters to trolling antique markets to introducing indie jewelry designers, Needleman is looking to translate the Domino aesthetic for a larger audience. “There are so many people out there now calling themselves lifestyle experts and style gurus, and they’re raining a lot of dreariness and tackiness down on the world,” she laughs. “Taste is undervalued — I just want everyone to have beautiful things and great taste.” (Is that really so much to ask?) We caught up with Needleman to talk about her new job, why she cherishes imperfection, and her obsession with “old lady” jewels.

What’s your vision for “Off Duty”?
My vision is to make a really amusing, readable, and informative lifestyle section. I want it to be a pleasure to read every weekend, not a chore. It’s a bit like a magazine front-of-book: lots of small, hopefully useful takes on fashion, food, decorating, technology, and more.

Was it a leap jumping from a monthly magazine to a weekly newspaper section?
With this role I get to satisfy both sides of my brain. The newspaper side satisfies a desire for fun, newsy, quick-takes, whereas the magazine side can offer really smart reporting and beautiful photography. That said, the weekly pace is wildly different — it’s exciting but also terrifying, like I’m flying by the seat of my pants each week.

How does your editorial approach differ from that of similar style sections?
I’m not that interested in being super-arch and impressing the fashion industry — it’s more about the reader. In fashion magazines, we like to do photos that impress other photographers or cover clothes that show that we’re really “on it.” I’m more of a pragmatist than a fantasist.

How would you describe your personal style?
I’m a bit of an anglophile. When I think of style, I tend to think of decorating first. I gravitate toward things that are gloriously imperfect and layered; I love the way English people decorate, mixing really fine pieces with a bit of junk. That’s my approach to dressing too: a few beautiful things, a few comfy things, then I mess it up a little.

Where do you like to shop in New York?
I love great service, so I really love Kirna Zabête for clothes. For home, John Derian, Paula Rubenstein, and Amy Perlin Antiques. I love places that are a little worn, loved, and lived in, with a bit of history, even if it’s not my own.

Who are your favorite designers?
I’m a giant Celine-ophile. At the moment I’m also wowed by Prada and Tom Ford. That presentation he did was about unabashed luxury. When everyone’s scaling back and being reasonable and minimal, it was just so nice to see someone really going for it and making beautiful, extravagant clothing.

What’s your favorite day-to-day uniform?
I live in a high-waisted pant with a striped shirt — sort of YSL-y. And the older I get, the more into eclectic jewelry I am. I guess that’s sort of a cliché, that old ladies like big jewels, but I’m starting to appreciate that.

What trends are you liking right now?
The focus on personal expression. Any style that doesn’t come with some component of personal expression isn’t really that stylish, whether it’s your clothes or your home. I admire someone who can mix fine French antiques and cozy English armchairs and super-modern pieces and great paintings and quirky shit on the mantel.

What trends are you ready to see retired?
At home, the colorful Hollywood Regency aesthetic; if I never see another piece of lacquered chinoiserie or zebra rug it won’t be too soon. In fashion, the bad stuff seems to retire itself after a couple seasons — the nasty bubble skirts and things just go away without your having to worry.

What’s one item you’re saving up to buy?
I’m pretty obsessed with the classic Celine box bag. I also have one sort of fashion victim-y thing: I can’t face those wheelie suitcases, so I’m always lugging around giant suitcases and duffel bags. It’s a big problem when you’re traveling with me — but I just feel like they’re so ugly. I’d love to have a globe-trotter suitcase.

What’s something you never leave the house without?
I’m fragrance-obsessed. I’ve gone back to Jo Malone Verbenas of Provence lately, but I [also] love anything from Santa Maria Novella.

What should every woman have in her closet?
Great underwear. You need one piece of armor every day that makes you happy, whether that’s sexy underwear, a killer pair of shoes, or a great watch.

What about her home?
An ethnic or antique textile, comfy chairs, good lighting, and plenty of surfaces to put down a drink or a book. And everyone needs some quirky, jolly thing that makes them smile. I love having beautiful things, but I think that beautiful things need to be tempered with stuff that just makes you happy.