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  • Claire Kalikman

An Interview with Nicole Phelps, Director of Vogue Runway

Y Fashion House

From Yale Fashion Quarterly, Issue I

Y Fashion House President Claire Kalikman hosted the third in her fall speaker series of professionals in the fashion industry on November 8th, 2019. We were honored to host Nicole Phelps, Director of Vogue Runway for a talk about her rise through fashion journalism and some of the most critical issues in fashion today. The event was generously funded by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism. 

Q: Can you tell us about your career, and which came first, the interest in fashion or journalism?

A: I started to read Elle magazine when it started publishing an American edition in the mid-80s and I was in high school and I just fell in love with it. A couple years out of school, I got a job at W magazine through an old boyfriend. I took a pay cut to go work there and assist an editor who worked about both W magazine and Women’s Wear Daily, when they were both published by Fairchild Publications. 

Q: What did your first job look like?

A: My boss was a very senior editor so I was doing things like booking her flights, filing her expense reports, calling designers for credits, you know like “how much does that Prada coat cost.” I transitioned through a few different roles there, including the moment I thought I wanted to be a stylist. The way to get there is to be a market editor, which means calling up public relations people and asking for samples. I couldn’t abide doing that - I couldn’t stand asking people for clothes that most of the time didn’t end up in the photo shoots because the stylist was a diva. I ended up landing in the accessories department and writing for W about anything. For example, the return of stoles - those fur scarves...of course they never really did return. When my editor left W to go to Elle I joined her. 

Q: Fashion and fashion journalism has changed a lot over the course of your career. How has that change affected your job and that of other fashion journalists?

A: I left the magazine to go to, which became a very popular website, but my boss was horrified that I left a print magazine for a website. 

The internet has obviously changed everything. Now instead of writing per week or per month, stories need to be published every day. “Feeding the beast,” we like to say now. 

Q: Today you are the Director of Vogue Runway. I’m wondering how that became your specialty and what you think the role of fashion shows is today. Is it a way for the brand to market itself or is it an expression of the designer’s creativity?

A: Fashion shows became my beat at - the site operates 365 days a year but really comes alive during fashion month. In 2015 Conde Nast decided to merge and was very well-funded and had a bigger purview. 

Social media has really changed the role of fashion shows. If you look back at old pictures, it was for the customer and the models would walk around with numbers and everyone would sit in silence. Now, celebrities are paid a lot of money to sit in the front row and talk about how much they love the brand. All that is to say that once upon a time shows were a selling tool and now it is a way for brands to market themselves. Now, with Instagram, people stopped clapping at the end of shows because they are too busy creating their own content. 

Q: You mentioned see-now, where-now, and then there have also been a number of top designers in the last few years - Phoebe Philo at Celine, Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent - who have been fired or left their companies under duress. What do you think about the discussion recently in fashion media about if the fashion cycle is broken - that there are too many shows and too much product is being produced.

A: I do think it’s hard on creatives. But it’s not broken. It’s adjusting to the new world that we all live in now of constantly being connected. Companies like adidas and Supreme have adopted this “drop” model that has created lines out the block. 

Q: Do you think it is fashion’s responsibility to become more sustainable?

A: I think about this a lot in the face of the looming climate catastrophe. Just by nature of being multi-billion dollar brands, it is hard for large companies to change their systems. In my fantasy world, the 2020s will be the new age of independence and a moment where we will celebrate and see the rise of smaller brands that stay closer to the product, to the human touch. 

Q: Finally, what advice would you give to someone who wants to be a fashion journalist?

A: Read Vogue! And read more broadly. 

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