July 06, 2017
I watched The Devil Wears Prada in theaters the week it came out. It was 2006, the summer before I entered ninth grade. I had no aspirations to work in fashion at the time, but I did harbor a deep affection for fashion magazines. I religiously read the print issues of Elle, Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire and Vogue every month. I had never given much thought to how they were put together, however, and I definitely didn’t know who Anna Wintour was. I just loved the stories and the clothes.
The Devil Wears Prada movie is like a fashion magazine in that it showcases all the sumptuous goods and wearable fantasies; it does them one better, though, in that it reveals how the sausage is made — Hollywood-style. There are makeover montages, catty coworkers, evil bosses, power plays, demeaning labor, unparalleled perks, relationship drama and existential panic. But how much of this stuff is a true reflection of the fashion industry, and how much of it is exaggerated or just plain false?
As an editor at Man Repeller, I do have *some* insider knowledge of the fashion industry, but my grasp of the OG inner-workings at big publishing houses like Condé Nast and Hearst is pretty limited. Eager to sate my curiosity, I tapped four industry veterans to weigh in on the accuracy of The Devil Wears Prada. Read their (VERY) honest answers. *Names have been changed for obvious reasons.
Sarah: False. Vogue is the exception, though, from what I’ve heard. At Vogue you’re not allowed to wear stockings or tights in the winter — you have to wear high heels to fashion week even if it’s snowing, and you have to wear your hair a certain way. But at the titles I worked for, employees were encouraged to have a bit more self-expression. People wore sneakers and did the high-low thing — mixing in H&M and Zara with high-end designers like Chanel.
Zach: False. Super false. There are people who dress up like that, but for the most part it’s a casual work environment. People really only go the extra mile during fashion week, because they want to get their picture taken, and they want to look good when they’re seeing everyone else. In my offices, there were always a lot of jeans. At the end of the day, you’ve gotta work, and you don’t want to be in binding clothes the whole time. I think you just need to look presentable. My general rule of thumb is that if someone sees you on the street, they should know you work in fashion, but that doesn’t mean you need to be in expensive clothes or heels all the time. There are plenty of girls who change their shoes in the lobby of Condé Nast every day.
Annie: False. The big editors actually almost always wear black and white — simple slacks, jeans, button ups and turtlenecks — because they have so many fireworks going off in their brains, it’s more efficient if they can keep their daily wardrobe simple and save their creativity for the racks. Individual editors are celebrated for their “uniforms” because they are all very distinctive. If you don’t have a point of view, you don’t have style.
Claire: False. While I personally feel better and more productive when I look my best, and I think it’s nice to kick it up a notch in the fashion department and hold the office to a certain standard, it’s not required too look super fancy. I am always really inspired by the interns and assistants who turn out super creative looks on a very limited budget.
Sarah: Ummmmm, I would say true and false. When I worked in fashion, people were definitely conscious about how they looked and what they ate, but like, if there were cupcakes in the office for something, most people would have a cupcake. But then, to be honest, I don’t know if they’d eat anything else for the rest of the day. There’s a lot of pressure to be able to fit into a sample size — because you get a lot of free clothes, you get stuff from the closet and you have to be able to fit into it. So yes, everyone wants to be skinny, and that’s a definite thing. I remember at Condé, I was riding in the elevator and someone got in and they had eggs and bacon on a muffin or bagel or something, and it was like wooooahhh, you know? Like, what happened to you last night? Where’s your chia bowl? People would also do fasts before fashion week — not juice cleanses like people do now — actual fasts. They legitimately wouldn’t eat.
Zach: I’ve never experienced that. To me, that always seemed like a myth. It’s a very common joke, especially among PR people to be like, “We didn’t know what food to get for this event because it’s for fashion people who may not eat!” And I’m like, in my experience, fashion people can definitely put food away. I worked at a men’s magazine, so there was even less of a stigma around that. I do remember once though, there was a tweet on that Condé Nast elevator account about someone getting shamed for ordering a big omelette in the cafeteria. But overall, I think a lot of people in the industry hate the “fashion people don’t eat” stereotype. I personally always ate a ton of food.
Annie: False. If anything, you almost forget to eat because there’s so much going on. You have to set an alarm to remember to get food or have someone else run to get it for you. You have to lock the door of your office and ignore your ringing telephone just to eat for five uninterrupted minutes. I would get avocado tuna melts and devour them, sometimes as late as 4:30, because I just had way too much going on earlier in the day. I wasn’t the only one who ate big sandwiches or burgers, though. I remember everyone getting excited about birthdays and going-away parties because it meant we could order mountains of pizza or Carvel ice cream cakes. Everyone dug in. I think when you’re working in fashion, you have so much adrenaline running through you at all times that it keeps your metabolism high, so you have to eat. Otherwise you can’t function. That being said, no one would bat an eye if someone was on a weird new diet, or claimed a gluten allergy, so yeah — a borderline neurotic diet isn’t going to raise any red flags, and it would probably make good story pitch down the road.
Claire: False. It’s more a matter of having TIME to eat! But we are always sharing snacks and candy to keep us going. I don’t like it when someone brings in something smelly to eat, but I think that’s more of a universal office problem as opposed to a fashion-specific one.
Sarah: False. People stereotype the fashion industry as an incredibly bitchy, competitive, unhealthy world. And there are aspects of truth to that, but I have to say, my closest friends are all from that world. I met some of the best people, my best friends, because we all lived through it together. We were all young girls working these pretty stressful jobs, creating great content, and learning a lot, too. I think most people in the industry are good people, and there are a few bad eggs. But a few bad eggs can ruin everything, especially if they’re the ones in positions of power.
Zach: Um, no. That’s false. There are mean people, but I would say the industry is still dominated by nice people. Some people feel like they should be mean when they first start in the industry, or should be entitled, but you learn pretty quickly that that’s not going to help you out. The world of fashion is so small, and we’re all so dependent on each other. If you’re a dick to someone, it’s going to come back to bite you when you need something from them three years later (which you will). The “being mean” thing will never get you far, and it’s such a bad look professionally. Even Anna Wintour — she’s revered for her coldness, but she’s not a mean person. Maybe you can get away with being cold once you get to Anna’s level, but you’ve gotta be really nice to get to Anna’s level. Don’t be a dick if you can’t back it up. If you’re a dick and you can’t do your job, you’re totally screwed.
Annie: False. Maybe this was just my experience, but I only met one genuinely mean person at Vogue, and they were edged out. Truly mean people don’t survive long in fashion, because their ego gets in the way. Every day feels like an NBA playoff game: it’s intense, there are egos, there are tempers, but everyone has to work together to accomplish the overarching goal of getting the ball into the hoop, metaphorically speaking. Ultimately, this kind of atmosphere can really bring people together. You learn to forgive any short tempers quickly and move on. If you’re keen on holding grudges, fashion publishing isn’t the career path for you. People who create drama always end up having to leave. For every negative incident, I saw 10 positive ones — a director defending an assistant who’s taking heat for something, an editor fighting to keep a lower-level writer’s byline on the page, an assistant editor going above and beyond her job description to drive across state lines and make a pivotal cover shoot happen, ongoing mentorship of interns, etc. It’s an intense, fast-paced environment centered on excellence. It can bring out the worst in people, but it mostly brings out the best.
Claire: False. There are definitely a lot of mean people, but you can avoid them for the most part. I think it’s always easier to be nice than it is to go out of your way to be rude and cut people down in a business that is already stressful enough to begin with.
Sarah: Yes, very very very true. It’s kind of like a dictatorship. That one person’s opinion is all that matters. If you play the game and agree with everything they say, you’ll have a pretty easy ride. It’s all about pleasing the editor-in-chief. I don’t think that’s exaggerated in The Devil Wears Prada. I remember when our EIC would walk around and do a lap, and you knew she was coming not because you could see her, but because of how everyone acted. Everyone would be like, “Run, run! Hide that!”
Zach: That can be true. It varies from person to person. I’ve never been intimidated by my EICs. They were always very kind and had a genuine concern for everyone at the magazine. Anna Wintour was never my direct boss when I was at Condé, but she was extremely intimidating. One time, I was in the Condé elevator, and I used to go straight to the gym from work, so I was wearing a ratty old tank top and shorts — they weren’t short shorts but they were definitely short. Anna walked into the elevator and gave me a look. I think she wrote me off forever in that single moment, but that’s fine.
Annie: Both. It varies. I personally had only neutral or positive experiences. Anna Wintour has a preternatural instinct for picking up on insecurity, so if you’re insecure, you should probably do something else with your life. That was the situation with the author of The Devil Wears Prada, to be honest. But if you’re confident in yourself and what you’re bringing to the table, you’ll get along famously with her (although you might not know what she thinks of you at first because she’s very reserved). The people who’ve lasted at Vogue are confident perfectionists with a thick skin. Yes, she’s intimidating, and yeah, that can be exhausting if you’re easily ruffled — but if you’re not, you’ll start to learn and understand her motivations and idiosyncrasies, and how she’s a master at moving the chess pieces of her world. You’ll start to appreciate and respect it. Anna has a high bar. Her expectations are precise, but they’re also consistent. I find that kind of personality much easier to work with than a CEO or boss who’s mired in insecurity, whose actions are unpredictable, who doesn’t give clear objectives and who can’t manage a team. Anna manages a print magazine pretty damn well.
Claire: True. I think it’s good to have a boss who’s intimidating, though. It keeps everyone on their toes at all times. The days of working in print won’t last forever, so you can never feel too comfortable. In most cases, the person in power achieved that authority because he or she has been around for quite some time and has high standards they always expect to be met. If you’re “freaking out,” it usually means you’re insecure or unprepared. If you’re confident and organized (i.e. Andy when she prepares the Harry Potter manuscripts in The Devil Wears Prada), you won’t need to feel nervous.
Sarah: True. I’ve never been in that role, but I have friends that have. One of my good friends was the editorial assistant to a high-level publisher. She was basically at the office 24 hours a day, to be honest. After years of being completely on-call, she ended up losing her job because he was flying somewhere, and he wanted to take two dogs with him, but he didn’t have the necessary paperwork from the vet saying the dogs had been immunized and this and that, so he called my friend at like 6 p.m. on a Sunday and said, “Where is the paperwork for the dogs?” And she was like, “I didn’t even know you were bringing the dogs,” and he was like, “You should have asked, you should have been more prepared, go back to the office now and hand in your key. You’re fired.” And I think he was going on a personal trip. I don’t even think it was a work trip.
Zach: Totally true. Absolutely true. I think that’s just sort of what the job is. That scene in The Devil Wears Prada where Andy is at dinner with her dad and Miranda is trying to get out of Miami in the middle of a hurricane — that might be an overstatement, but there is definitely work to be done on the weekend. Being the assistant to an EIC is an extremely demanding position. You’re also responsible for maintaining that person’s calendar, so you’ve got to be on your shit 100% of the time. I’ve worked weekends before, and when I came in and saw other people at the office, a lot of times it was various editors’ assistants. If you’re an assistant to the fashion team, you’re constantly calling in samples, sending things back and forth and getting things done. You’re also dealing with celebrities, which is a whole added layer of stress. My experience in the industry is that everyone understands how hard the assistants work, and the assistants understand that they’re paying their dues, which is a terrible thing about the fashion industry. You start paying your dues as an unpaid intern, and then you continue paying them as a low-salaried assistant.
Annie: True. Working any assistant role is really demanding. But then again, even if you’re a director, you’re on call 24/7 for Anna Wintour.
Claire: True. There is SO much on your plate when you’re an assistant. You’re keeping the ball rolling on so many things, doing a lot of work that no one else wants to do and also making sure your boss’s life is as easy as possible — even if that means yours is not. But you won’t be an assistant forever, so the more amazing and on top of everything you are, the sooner you’ll be promoted.
Sarah: I wouldn’t say any employee. Probably not assistants. It’s a hierarchy, again. If a beauty director comes in and says, “I’ve got an event tonight, can I borrow a pair of shoes?,” the people running the fashion closet would definitely say yes. But I don’t think an assistant could just walk in and ask to borrow something.
Zach: Oh no, that’s a big false. The closet in The Devil Wears Prada is completely ridiculous. If you take stuff from a fashion closet without asking, you get fired. As you climb the ranks, you can borrow something for an event, but in the movie Andy just walks away with all those clothes and suddenly just…owns them. In real life, that’s how you get straight-up fired.
Annie: True and false. At Vogue, it is a palatial space and one to be respected. You can’t take anything from “working racks” — racks of clothes that are in the process of a very nuanced editing process based on the story/subject, aesthetic and advertising objectives. If you were a lawyer, that would be the equivalent of someone “borrowing”and rummaging through your case files— it’s insanely disrespectful, and you’d probably get fired. There are definitely situations where people can borrow stuff, but you always have to get permission. Taking whatever you want, whenever you want, would be frowned upon and probably lead to a dismissal. There’s a tacit understanding among editors and PR houses that we respect the clothes — and if you do borrow from the closet and wear a dress to an event, you call the PR rep to get the green light first. Having a good relationship with the fashion closet manager and the market editors increases your chances of being able to borrow stuff, but everything still has to be done above-board.
Claire: False. It’s a messy and cramped room that is nearly impossible to keep organized — and don’t you dare borrow an unauthorized sample and embarrass the magazine! You will be caught, especially these days with social media. Gently trying on stuff is totally okay though — we need to have a LITTLE fun.
Sarah: True. I think that’s part of the reason market appointments exist — so designers can change things depending on the editors’ opinions. I’ve definitely had appointments where designers are like, “The editors love this, the editors love that, we don’t know if we’ll make this but we might change this because editors didn’t like it, etc.” They can have a real impact.
Zach: I would say there is some truth to that. In the documentary The September Issue, the Vogue editors talked to Miuccia Prada, and she ended up changing the material on one of her products. It’s usually very minor things. So yes, there’s a lot of influence that the high-power editors can have, but very few designers are willing to compromise their original designs.
Annie: True, but it depends on the editor and how much time is left before the show.
Claire: True. Though I’m personally not powerful enough yet to have this effect, it happens all the time when stylists come in to work on collections right before the show.
Sarah: True, but not as good as they used to be. I think that when the economy got bad and magazines started suffering, they all had to watch themselves a little big more. It isn’t as good as it was and it’ll probably never go back to that. It was ridiculously extravagant. I mean, as an assistant, I would be having my meals at Koi in Bryant Park between appointments. I was going out to the best restaurants. I probably survived on champagne and hors d’oeuvres four nights a week. And I went on crazy trips. As an associate editor, I went on a press trip for an eyewear company, and they put us on a private plane to Italy. There was a chef on the plane, there was Prosecco, tons of wine. We stayed at a really nice hotel in Rome and they took us to amazing restaurants. We spent only a few hours at the factory where the eyewear was made, and we got to choose pairs that we wanted for free — all high-end designers. And then we went to more nice restaurants, got more freebies and got back on the private plane to go home. So yeah, there was a lot of that — London, Paris, Rio. I got so much free stuff that I was actually packing up boxes and just shipping it all out to my sisters — boxes full of beauty products, full of clothes, full of accessories and handbags and things. I didn’t even have to buy even dental floss for a year, I just got everything for free. I remember I had so many free tampons and shampoo that even after I left my publishing job, it was still over a year before I had to start buying toiletries again. I also probably have 300 pairs of jeans that I got for free. We would get $2,000 handbags, really expensive jewelry, yeah, all of that.
Zach: Yeah! That’s true. I left my publishing job about three years ago, and I’m still working my way through the grooming products that were sent to me there. I have some clothes that I got for free that are absolutely beautiful. There are tons of press trips, if your company allows you to take them, nice dinners…the perks that come from a good editor job are really something. There used to be a rumor, a pretty widely-circulated one, that pre-2008, like before the recession, Condé Nast would actually buy the editors-in-chief vacation homes as part of their contracts. I don’t know if that’s true. It seems a little too ridiculous. At these magazines though, before the recession, there was wild spending. The perks were much better then, but supposedly Anna Wintour still gets her hair done every morning, and Condé Nast pays for it.
Annie: True and false. Even though you might get to work the fashion show circuit in Europe and have access to endless free eye cream, you’re not getting paid much. People who work at Vogue or any fashion magazine forgo the bonus, vacation perks and equity options typical of less glamorous, corporate jobs. If you work in fashion, you do get a lot of free stuff — so much that you’re always having to clean out your closet. There are trips abroad, and the parties and shows are non-stop, but it’s the opposite of a champagne-doused vacation. After 10 shows, work dinners and constant market appointments, you have to answer all your emails and calls from the office and file stories at 2 a.m. — all while struggling through jet lag. By the end of Paris Fashion Week, all the editors are irritable and eager to get home to their families.
Claire: True. It balances out the low salaries. I haven’t bought makeup in years because of all the free beauty products.
Sarah: True. I mean, my whole circle of friends became whoever I worked with at the time, and it kind of had to be that way, because you’d work all day with them, then you’d go to market appointment with them, then you’d go out to dinner with them, then you’d hit an event with them and then you’d do it all again the next day. One of the reasons I left the industry was because I started having kids and the job just wasn’t flexible enough. It’s really bizarre, because fashion is such a female-heavy industry, but it’s not that accommodating for moms. Sometimes you have to leave at 4 o’clock to pick up your kid, and people just don’t wanna hear it. I think there’s a reason why so many editors or influencers are married to photographers, because they’re the people they work with most. Working in fashion isn’t just your job, it’s your life, and it’s your social life as well. You have to consciously decide to step away from that in order for the other parts of your life to work. That’s why I decided to change career paths. I wanted work-life balance, I wanted a family, I wanted to put my kids to bed every night, I didn’t want to work weekends. The experience of working in fashion was also losing its gloss for me. When I first started, I remember one of my bosses said, “Oh my god, I’m so glad you’ve started so now I can stop going to market appointments and events!” And I remember thinking, “Who the hell would ever want to stop going to market appointments and events?! That’s crazy!” But then the same thing happened to me.
Zach: False. It can be a very demanding job, and I think your social life might be impacted a little bit, but I always found time to maintain one, and everyone else I knew always found the time. You need a personal life when you’re working in the fashion industry — if fashion is your only life, you’re going to go absolutely crazy. The Devil Wears Pradaperpetuates this misconception because Andy’s boyfriend is a huge asshole. He basically doesn’t let her have a career because he wants to make her a grilled cheese. I mean, she came home from the MET Ball with a cupcake! Cut her a fucking break.
Annie: True and false. You’re encouraged to have a personal life after you’re promoted from assistant, but it’s difficult to keep your work life separate. Ironically, as an employee of Vogue, you don’t have enough time to enjoy the lifestyle that is portrayed in Vogue‘s pages, even when you ascend to the director level. But you’re still expected to lead a life outside work and have a personal brand that reflects well on the magazine’s brand.
Claire: True. I love doing my “actual” job (editing, dreaming up ideas and concepts, etc), but my days are consumed with answering emails/calls, putting out office fires and making sure product arrives, and my evenings are occupied with appeasing the demands of press reps who expect my attendance at events, dinners and parties after work hours. That means the WEEKEND is when I finally get around to the actual editing and researching, thinking, etc. You need to set limits though, even if you love what you do. Luckily, most of my friends work in the business, so I get to see them often, but you have to purposefully carve out time for your significant other and family. It’s fun, but it’s definitely my life.
Sarah: True. Yeah. When I was younger, I didn’t even know working at a magazine could be a job. I thought if you were smart, you had to become a doctor, or a lawyer, or go to business school. I went to business school, and I remember thinking “My god, I’m good at this, but I don’t want to do this my whole life. It’s so boring!” And then I moved to New York and I fell into working at a fashion magazine, and I like, wait a minute, you can get paid to do this? This is an actual job? When I was growing up, I had always had stacks of magazines, I ripped pages out, I had file cabinets at home…when I realized that that could be my job, it was life changing.
Zach: That’s totally true, 100% true. I love that The Devil Wears Prada shows how fashion seems like an extremely exclusive industry from the outside, but when you actually look at the people who make up the industry, it’s a very inclusive place, or it can be. There is still a huge problem in terms of ethnic diversity that isn’t addressed in the movie, but Nigel does a really good job of explaining how the fashion industry can be a home for a lot of people who didn’t have a home, or who felt out of place growing up. For a lot of people I know who work in fashion, the fashion industry has become their second family, or in some cases, their first family. There’s an emotional connection to the work people are doing and the passion behind it, and it’s a huge part of the global economy. Nigel gives a great speech where he talks about fashion being a higher form of art — he says it’s better than art because it’s stuff that you live your life in, which always reminds me of Bill Cunningham’s quote about fashion being the armor for everyday life. And that’s why a lot of people do what they do.
Annie: True. For me, and I think for many who work at Vogue, it’s about playing a part, however small, in a visual legacy devoted to documenting every cultural projection of the feminine since the magazine’s first issue in 1892. Throughout the 20th Century, beauty and fashion were the most available mechanisms for women to assert their identities and independence. Fashion lets you say, “I AM ____,” visually, in the here and now. Vogue‘s legacy has much to do with the significance of your first assertive swipe of red lipstick as it does with the evolution of women’s rights. It has overseen our collective assertion of self in this country. It is polarizing because the story of what it means to be female, at this point in history, is still exceptionally polarizing and under constant scrutiny. But because of its steadfast position as a chronicler of feminine interpretation, Vogue will exist — even as the definition of beauty expands, as barriers between masculine and feminine principles disintegrate, as print dies. As long as there is a story about WOMEN to tell and interpret visually, and editors to tell it, Vogue will exist as a cultural constant.
Claire: True. I think people who get dramatic or mad in the office only do so because they care so much. No, we’re not saving lives, but what we’re doing is still important. If someone on your team drops the ball, it’s justified to be frustrated or annoyed. We’re all human and humans make mistakes, but there is a certain standard that should always be met. The second you stop caring, the quality of the work decreases and the people around or underneath you also become unmotivated, and then the whole machine falls apart. In short, the drama keeps everything thriving. What’s fashion without drama???
By Harling Ross
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