Leah knew she wanted to be a writer, but when starting her career, her open-mindedness is how she ended up landing her dream position as The Cut's fashion producer. In her current role, she writes for online, oversees traffic on the site to position the homepage content, and during fashion week she hires and manages a team of interns and freelancers to keep The Cut as one of the top news sources.
This interview took place between Tate and Leah at Kaffe 1668 in New York
Editor: Christel Langue
TVPS: So tell me a bit about how you got to where you are today.
LR: I went to high school in Manhattan, not too far from where I work now actually.
Oh which one?
Elisabeth Irwin but most know it by Little Red. When you’re growing up in the city, or maybe because I went to a particularly artsy school, it felt like everyone's parents were artists, or musicians, or worked in fashion. So it felt like a very tangible industry, which I guess is a little ridiculous. At the end of high school, part of the curriculum was an internship, so I ended up interning at this agency that represents various photographers and makeup artists. But I was definitely more drawn to the journalism side of the industry. So when I went to Rutgers, I majored in English and Journalism and wrote for the school paper.
Then senior year I interned at WWD. It was definitely, as a lot of internships are, a monotonous position but I met a lot of cool girls whose interests matched mine and having the opportunity to go on set and to see all of that firsthand was definitely a good experience. During fashion week we would run the memory cards between the shows and our office. So we would go and meet all of the photographers at each show, which was pretty cool and I also managed to sneak into a lot of shows.
I was always pretty confident that I wanted to be on the journalism side of the industry but being open minded definitely helped as Mode PR ended up giving me my first full-time position. So right out of college, I became the accessories and swimwear account manager. I had like 8 accounts and no idea what I was doing but I went with it.
In the back of my mind I was like, "I'm a writer. I don't want to be writing pitches. I want to be interviewing designers. I want to be telling their stories." I ended up emailing the market editor at The Cut as I’d worked with her quite a bit at Mode. She got back to me and said, "Actually, we're relaunching the site, and we need some extra hands to help us with production if you want to come in, we can talk about that." So I did and ended up getting hired as a freelance producer. For an entire summer, day in and day out, I was pulling photos off of Getty Images, putting together these lookbooks, which now I oversee. Then September rolled around, and they needed extra help for fashion week, too. They overhauled the whole runway page, and we had galleries of each show from runway, to beauty, and we had to tag everything meticulously by trend.
They asked if I’d run production on the runway during the day, which is super intimidating because you're the one pushing things out live and if you mess up it's going to fall on you. But I was like, "Alright. I'll give it a shot." After that, I was kept on as a freelancer for a couple of years, working on a lot of slideshow building and photo research until finally my boss, Sally Holmes, was moving on. She went to Elle, where she still is. But right before, she sat me down and asked, "Hey, would you like to take my position as The Cut's fashion producer?" I was totally blindsided; I went into the meeting thinking that I was getting fired or something. And she was like, "Oh no! I'm leaving. And do you want my job?" And I was like, "Okay!"
That must have been nerve-wracking.
Yeah, a little bit. So then I became The Cut's fashion producer, and I've been in that role ever since. A lot of it is making sure that everything is working on the site. Updating the home page throughout the day, looking at traffic and deciding, alright, a thousand people are looking at this post, where should it be on the homepage, so it gains even more traction?
Do you learn about your target audience by what they're drawn to?
Honestly, there is a formula, but there isn't.
It's surprising how stories go viral by somebody famous tweeting it or it getting posted on Reddit. We know our audience, but I think that sometimes stories that we don't anticipate will get shared, and all of a sudden they blow up. When I’m updating the homepage I’m deciding, "Okay, this article has a beautiful photo. Let's highlight that." And then, I still look over the lookbook archive, which is an extensive collection of mostly celebrity style or anyone that we think is worthy of flipping through 100 looks that they've worn. For instance, Jenna Lyons has a lookbook.
And then, during Fashion Week, I'm overseeing the full show. I hire a team of interns and freelancers. A lot of it is coordinating with IMAXtree, which is a photo agency that we work with. But I still have to request the access for those photographers to get in the show. If someone can't get into the show, I'm figuring out what to do with the PR people. I think having been in PR and understanding what it's like to be on that side, helps me do my job better now.
Yeah, you know what they're going through too.
I've learned so much about what tactics work and don't from the other side.
Anything in specific?
Do your homework I hate getting bombarded with pitches that have nothing to do with anything that I write about.
Do you have a favorite part of your role or one that's the most rewarding?
What I love about The Cut is that we talk about things that pertain to women in every aspect and intertwine them all. It's a site where we can talk about fashion and politics and how they merge. I love being part of the team here.
Even though I'm responsible for a lot, my ideas are always welcome for things that are outside of my role. For instance, if I want to write or contribute to the conversations that they're having about what to cover or who to feature, my ideas are taken into account. It's not like, "Oh, you're a producer, so you don't have any say in this."
Have you learned any tactics for interviewing people?
You have to work with what you have. I think my problem is, is that I go into it already having a story in my head about this person, and then I find out that everything I assumed is wrong and it's hard not to write the story that you thought you were going to write and instead write the story that they're telling you.
When you knew you wanted to go down the editorial path, were you ever concerned about being stuck at your desk?
Well, it's hard because you don't want to get pigeonholed by your role, I work hard to grow whatever part of my role that I feel is lacking. Recently I did an interview with this girl, Leah Dou. Even though I wasn't styling the shoot, I conducted the interview and got to be on set that day. Being close enough to those hands-on things and having the opportunity arise once in awhile is great for me.
Leah Dou photographed by Ben Rayner for The Cut
So why digital as opposed to print?
When I first started, glossies were taken more seriously as opposed to online. But now, the internet has changed how we see and digest fashion, I would much rather be in digital. By the time a print issue comes out at the end of the month, we've already covered most of those trends or new musicians or whoever.
Do you think that print is an important supplement for digital?
Yes. On Saturday mornings, I like to wake up and flip through a physical magazine because by the end of the week my eyes hurt from looking at screens. It's also nice to look back and keep them as artifacts.
Do you think there's still room for strong journalism since people are now consuming information in smaller and smaller tidbits?
Yes, even more so because everyone thinks they're a writer. I mean, everyone can be a writer, but it doesn't mean that everything that's being put out into the world is good or thoughtful. But in return, the role of the fashion critic is becoming more obsolete because teens don't care about what Cathy Horyn has to say about a collection but they do care if Kylie Jenner wore something and then Instagrammed it.
So fashion is becoming increasingly more accessible. How do you think that has changed the industry?
It’s made fashion less romantic, especially when everyone is on their phones during the shows, and they’re also live streamed. But at the same time, it’s good because it’s democratizing the industry and making it less elitist.
Some of the traditions are antiquated. Do we still need to have every editor in a room to see the collection if you can view it online? Should editors have to be stressed out going to 12 shows a day if you can view them online? The process needs to change a bit. But with that being said, it’s already starting to change, fashion week is one day shorter this upcoming season, and a lot of people are opting out of doing a traditional runway show. You can see designers responding to this mindset in a practical way that makes sense for them individually. But I can't see the CFDA setting a ton of strict guidelines on the matter, designers have to take it into their own hands. But that's also exciting because it's up to them to interpret the market and that whole scene.
Do you have any favorite writers that you look up to?
I love Cathy Horyn, which sounds biased because she writes for us but she's super blunt and smart and doesn't hold back even when it comes off as maybe a little rude. All of her fashion writing is worth reading for sure.
Do you think it’s important to hone your voice as a writer to be recognizable, no matter what publication you’re writing for?
It’s important, but at the same time you don't want to be tied down.
What would you say is your biggest challenge is?
I've been at The Cut for almost 5 years, and people in fashion are always looking for the next best thing or publication. But I'm really happy where I'm at, so I think that's a challenge in itself. You have this moment where you're like, "Am I supposed to be changing jobs? Am I supposed to be going somewhere else?" A lot of people work for a magazine for a year and then move on.
And your biggest learning experience?
That's tricky. I think that having to take on a managerial role has been challenging because you're not only in charge or yourself but you also have to run the show.
How many people do you oversee?
I hire about 6 interns every season.
When you're interviewing people, what do you look for?
I'm always surprised by how many applications I get that don't mention that they've read The Cut or what they like about The Cut or why they want the particular job. I look for people who seem genuinely interested in our site and what we do, and have a reason for wanting to join. And that they haven't blindly sent in their resume.
Actually the last round there was this person who had almost too much experience. They had done 10 internships, and I thought alright, this person probably would probably do a good job but instead I’ll go with the girl who had only interned at 1 place as she was really genuine. I also thought it could really help her.
And what makes a good boss?
Communication and checking in with your team to make sure everyone’s on the same page and pulling their weight is important.
And what makes a good intern or assistant?
Being proactive and reliable but beyond that, I'm always impressed by people who aren't intimidated by the fact that they're in a junior position. Having the confidence to contribute and not feel held back is a strong trait to have.
What do you like about working in the fashion industry in 2017 as opposed to another time?
There are a lot of conversations about diversity and making sure that runway shows and campaigns are representative of the population.
The industry was less accepting when I first started, I'm really happy that the conversations have shifted to unconventional beauty and body positivity.
How would you like to see this industry evolve?
I would love a world where celebrity is not the focus of fashion.
Ah I'm happy you said that.
The Kardashians are written about a lot, but there are so many other people who have cool style or interesting lives that we could be profiling.
What is your take on this generation, and where do you think everyone's headed?
Our generation is playing by their own rules and not letting marketing or advertising dictate their spending habits or their interests. The internet and Tumblr, and Instagram have allowed people to take style into their own hands and broadcast themselves. Of course, there’s an emphasis on celebrity, but I do think these platforms promote individuality. This generation doesn't need authority to tell them what's cool or not because they're already showing and picking it up from each other.
And where do you want to go?
In the near future, I would like to be writing full time. That's my goal, and I'm trying to make that happen by writing more blog posts and longer features now. But also it's important not to be married to this idea of what your perfect job looks like or what your ideal career looks like. Saying yes to things that don't exactly fit the description of what you want is really important. For instance, I went into PR not wanting to do PR, but I learned a lot and that's helped build a foundation for everything that I did in fashion after.
Do you have any advice for someone who looks up to you?
Be hardworking. I think talent can only get you so far and knowing the right people can only get you so far. It's important to actually do the work, and then let it lead you to places that you didn't anticipate. Unfortunately a lot of people want to take that shortcut of... “Oh, I want to be in fashion, I'm gonna party with the right people and get a job that way." Which can work but most of the time if you're a hard worker, it'll pay off and probably even more.