America’s Next Top Fashion Editor

Nina Garcia (left); Anne Slowey (right)Photo: (L-R) F. Scott Schafer/Bravo/NBCPB; Spencer Heyfron

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.”

STYLISTA: Slowey and her would-be junior editors. Photo: Jim Deyonker/The CW Network, 2008

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.

PROJECT RUNWAY: Garcia with Heidi Klum, Tim Gunn, and Michael Kors. Photo: F.Scott Schafer/Bravo/NBCPB

“The difference between me and Anne Slowey,” Garcia says carefully, “is that I never sought this out. I never wanted to be famous.”

The five years that have passed since Holzman first conceived of Stylista have proven his instincts correct. The blending of the fashion industry and “reality” TV, of scrappy voyeurism overlaid atop the business of obsessive-compulsive perfection, has created the crack rock of programming. There’s something oddly compelling about watching pretty teenagers from Ohio trying to bear up under the faux-withering gaze of a fashion photographer on America’s Next Top Model, or Whitney falling down the stairs in plain sight of her bitchy colleague Emily on The Hills.

Slowey claims not to watch any of those shows. But if the promotional clips of Stylista released by the CW are anything to go by—and they are—she has an innate feel for fashion reality TV’s appeal, and she does not plan to play to it with subtlety. In one, she haughtily mocks her would-be assistants’ ensembles and totters around on heels about four inches taller than anything she’d wear to the actual Elle office. In another, she is shown riding the elevator wearing sunglasses and a hysterically contemptuous sneer.

“I don’t even know what reality is anymore,” she remarks the first time I reach her by phone. The fact that the early trailers have been panned for being schlocky seems to have surprised Slowey, who hoped viewers would get that the whole thing is a joke—just her and Elle creative director Joe Zee having a laugh. But whatever. She professes to be “somnambulant” regarding the public’s perception of her. There are too many immediate tasks to accomplish, she says, decisions to make, stories to read, and at the end of the day, too much vodka to drink. Apropos of very little, she e-mails me a favorite passage of James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson that brings her solace in times of metaphysical confusion:

My indolence has sunk into grosser sluggishness, and my dissipation spread into wilder negligence. My thoughts have been clouded with sensuality; and … my appetites have predominated over my reason. A kind of strange oblivion has overspread me, so that I know not what has become of the last year; and perceive that incidents and intelligence pass over me without leaving any impression.

There are probably a handful of people in the entire fashion industry—Karl Lagerfeld is another—who could tell you who Boswell actually was, but Slowey sends him as an e-mail salvo. With her Birkenstocks and vintage frocks, she prefers to identify with the “creative” as opposed to the “consumptive” side of the fashion business. And she possesses an acute allergy to discretion. She was famous in the Elle offices for sharing—often in her “outside voice”—the details of her marriage (to architect Rodger Fairey) and sex life with even the greenest of interns, while keeping the office busy with an endless swirl of healers, alternative-medicine practitioners, and feng shui consultants. “Anyone who works with her thinks, how does this woman not have a show?” says a former Elle staffer.

Slowey’s endless, self-mocking struggle to exterminate the proverbial last ten pounds has alone fostered something of an Internet reality show. She has tried steroids, supplements, pills, a sort of detoxifying electroshock therapy she calls “Frankenbutt treatments,” and an on-again, off-again commitment to juice fasts. Until Stylista, Slowey’s big moment on the New York cocktail-chatter radar was divulging her February 2007 Fashion Week Food Diary, a harrowingly calorie-deprived fast of Emergen-C supplements, oatmeal, wine, and the odd olive. To motivate herself, Slowey buys her fashion-show ensembles, tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of Lanvin and Prada and Balenciaga, several sizes too small. Once, she decided to read Ulysses and practically locked herself in the house for a week, reading it in the bathtub. “I lost eight pounds,” she recalls wistfully, and advises me to confront my distaste for Joyce.

Slowey and Garcia were smoking buddies when they started working together at Elle in the late nineties. But they were always quite different from one another. Staffers often reference a pair of videos on the magazine’s Website that peeked inside the closets of Elle editors as proof of how incompatible they are: Slowey’s is small, East Village, overflowing with vintage finds; Garcia’s is cavernous, color-coded, and situated in an apartment overlooking Central Park. Where Slowey got into fashion by accident and mostly to be around other creative people, Garcia had “total conviction” it was where she belonged. In a book she wrote called The Little Black Book of Style, Garcia evocatively summons the moment of epiphany: the day her 15-year-old “Colombian princess” self, clad in a miniskirt and heels, first took in the sight of her new classmates at Dana Hall School in Wellesley, Massachusetts, who were uniformly decked in khakis and duck boots. First, she was horrified at the sight of her classmates, then mortified for herself, then she felt a renewed commitment to dress the way she felt most beautiful.

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.’ ”

It all made a little more sense if you considered it from a Mean Girls perspective. By the beginning of Season 4 of Runway, it was clear that Elle’s relationship with the show was about to change. The show was up for contract negotiation after Season 5, just as it was reaping its best ratings yet—so Harvey Weinstein was playing hardball with Bravo. As it became increasingly clear that anyone Weinstein didn’t deem an irreplaceable part of the show would probably be forced to pay up or get aufed, it also became increasingly clear that Weinstein, like many advertisers, simply found Elle to be a greedy middleman to the services of the talent, Nina Garcia.

So Robbie Myers and Joe Zee swung into action, unearthing Holzman’s reality-show idea—against the wishes of Kliger and Smith, who recently told Ad Age she was skeptical about Stylista “at first,” worried that the show had too much of a Devil Wears Prada–meets–Apprentice vibe. They also set about redesigning the magazine with the help of a mostly new staff. Frustrated by her increasingly ersatz role at Elle, Garcia started balking at her public-relations duties, reportedly refusing to wear Anne Klein clothes to her Anne Klein in-store appearances on the basis that it was a conflict of interest. The day that Garcia’s assistants finally cleaned out her office, a young male accessories editor, a Project Runway fan no one had previously known to be a Garcia loyalist, burst into tears and spent the afternoon bawling. It was the end of an era.

Garcia’s main profession now is to be a celebrity, spokeswoman, tastemaker, socialite, “personal brand,” and long-term Project Runway judge. But she also landed another day job: fashion director of Marie Claire, as part of a package that includes the magazine’s sponsorship of the show. Season Six of Runway begins in November, just a few weeks after Anne Slowey—who is “trying not to think about it”—makes her debut on Stylista. There’s also talk of a Runway spinoff, featuring Garcia and the staff of Marie Claire. Says a Marie Claire staffer, “We’ve had TV training.”

Additional reporting by Rebecca Milzoff.

America’s Next Top Fashion Editor