Leah Chernikoff on the fashion industry hustle & why good shoes are always worth the $$.
Between our Deskside sessions, Get Well interviews and full-time closet snooping, we get to meet some pretty inspiring people. And all Dries-filled wardrobe stalking aside, we really love calling them up and quizzing them for all kinds of life/career/relationship/shopping advice. 1. Because we’re super nosy and 2. For you guys, duh. So when we had the chance to do just that with ELLE.com’s editorial director, Leah Chernikoff, we naturally needed to know everything. But mostly things like, what does the woman who runs one of the sites we read every morning, read every morning. Y’know? And her past gigs at the New York Daily News, New York Magazine and Fashionista.com (which led to her overseeing all things ELLE online) along with her take on editorial balance (Kardashians *and* politics), kind of make her a boss.
So yeah, we couldn’t think of a better Deskside subject for our week dedicated to getting your shit together. Consider it a much needed dose of new year career motivation. Whether you’re just starting out in the city (keep hustling), mulling over a crazy career change (go for it) or seeking a mentor for the end of the world (look at your best friend), she’s got the whole been there, done that, words of wisdom thing down pat. But we’ll just let her take it from here.
BASICALLY THE CLIFFNOTES VERSION OF HER LIFE STORY
“I went to Bowdoin College, a small liberal arts school in Maine, and majored in English literature, because I liked it, and not necessarily because I had any idea of what I wanted to do later in life. Or that it might serve me (it’s nice that it has!) After college, I had no idea what I wanted to do. So I ended up working in nonprofit education for my first three years and I was kind of bored, and I thought, ‘Okay, now I’ll just study for the LSAT, because I have no idea what else to do and it’s a secure thing to do.’ I hated it and wasn’t good at it, so that was really frustrating.
I happened to be dating a guy in law school, and he said, ‘If there’s anything else that you think you might want to do more than this, try it first. Because this is awful.’ So I took that to heart. I had been listening to a lot of NPR when I was at work, and I thought, ‘Okay, maybe I could get into journalism.’ I loved the program StoryCorps that produced stories for NPR, and I read a lot of Gawker at the time, which was really voice-y, fun and kind of gossip-y. So I applied to the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, because I noticed that a lot of people who worked for NPR and StoryCorps had gone there. I got a scholarship for the program, did that, and then came back to New York and started hustling.”
ON LANDING A WRITING GIG AFTER SCHOOL
“I got a job through friends of friends of friends at a new magazine that was being launched called Cocktail, but it was not about cocktails, it was supposed to be a muddier, weekly version of Cosmopolitan. But they pulled it before it launched and two weeks after I got there, which was my first real entrance into the New York media world. Then I just hustled. I freelanced. I did party reporting for New York Magazine, which was a really great and humbling experience. I pitched to the Daily News, because a few of the people I worked with at Cocktail, albeit very briefly, were either from there or went there. Eventually, that’s where I got hired, and then I worked there for three years. That was really my journalism bootcamp.”
AND SWITCHING INTO THE DIGITAL WORLD
“I saw how many buyouts were happening at the news and the rise of digital, I just thought, ‘I have to figure this out.’ I saw that one of the editors left Fashionista, and I applied and ended up going there, which was a fantastic experience. I worked with Lauren Sherman, who’s still one of my best friends, and we helped grow the site together. Fashionista helped give me a platform where I was visible, and then Troy Young came and approached me to come to ELLE.com.
THEN THE FASHION WORLD (TAKE NOTES, GUYS)
“If the Daily News was my bootcamp for journalism, Fashionista was that for writing on the Internet and understanding the way news works on the Internet. The freedom that I had there, too—it was a nice, nurturing and free place where you could try any kind of story. And I think that informed a lot of how I create and come up with story ideas and content now—just encouraging conversations and ideas from anywhere. I learned very deeply about the fashion industry in a way that I hadn’t before. At the Daily News, I covered features more broadly, so I didn’t cover fashion specifically. But this was a real immersion in everything fashion.
What I also loved about it was the challenge—how could I talk about what was going on in the world, but also make it about fashion. And I found that that wasn’t that hard to do. Robbie Myers always says, ‘Fashion is what’s current.’ So it’s not just about a piece of clothing, but it’s about what fashion tells us about the times. I think Fashionista was a really great challenge in figuring out how to make a world that can seem inaccessible, accessible. And make it have more entry points for our readers, rather than just this particular runway show or something that seems a little esoteric.”
HER NOT-SO-AVERAGE DAY RUNNING ELLE.COM
“There is is no average day, it's always a mix, and that’s what makes it awesome. We all start talking about the news and what we’re going to cover that day really early in the morning—between 6:30 and 8:00AM we start throwing links around and having conversations. I sort of oversee the lineups for the day and I might be editing some pieces. I’m likely in a lot of meetings and those could be really across the board—it could be marketing and coming up with ideas for a campaign; it could be creating strategy around cover break; it could be going to an appointment, for example we’re in pre-fall, so going to see collections; or meeting with my team and discussing ongoing stories.”
GROWING TRAFFIC (IN A MAJOR WAY)
“I think that one of the things that appealed to me a lot about ELLE was that it covers what’s important for women, and not just fashion. ELLE has really hard-hitting profiles of politicians, really gripping psychological stories, relationship pieces. And so I was excited to look at that mix and sort of replicate it online with a tone that felt more conversational and sort of moment-to-moment to match the pace of the Internet. Simply by really working to be a part of the conversation, by hiring an amazing team and getting those resources, traffic just naturally grows.”
HER MORNING READING LIST (A.K.A THE ONE WE’RE COPYING)
“The New York Times’ NYT Now newsletter is the first thing I read every morning. I really like that, it comes at 6AM, so it’s always at the top of my inbox when I wake up. Then I listen to NPR and watch NY1: In The Papers. If my first meeting isn’t until a little later, I’ll stay home and work from there and watch part of The Today Show. Even some of The 4th Hour. I like to cover a really wide range. Then I’ll scroll through Facebook and Twitter to see what people are sharing and look at Snapchat to see what people I’m friends with did with their stories and to look at the Discover page. So I consume a lot in the morning, but it always starts with that newsletter, then I switch on NPR and watch In the Papers.
Then my husband makes us each an espresso, sometimes I have time to eat breakfast, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I try to work out, occasionally I’ll go for a run if it’s not freezing or sometimes I do that seven-minute workout and try to do two of them, because I find it’s easier to get in some sort of activity in the morning, because my days often go really long. And feed the cat."
ON FINDING A MENTOR (IN YOUR FRIENDS)
“The most valuable mentors I’ve had have really been my peers. I even had Lauren Sherman, who was my editor at Fashionista, and she actually wrote a piece about peer-mentoring for ELLE. Because I think there is a lot of pressure on women to sort of find this magical mentor—someone who is going to be that person who you can turn to at any dilemma and she will show you the way. And I think that’s awesome if you can find that, but I really think more often than not, the mentors end up being the people that you work with and came up in your industry with and know you really well.
I think my peers have been my strongest mentors, especially Lauren Sherman and Jessica Grose, who also writes for ELLE.com and we worked at Cocktail together—so even those jobs that don’t work out, really do work out. So yeah, I sort of run anything from, ‘What do you think of this story idea?’ to ‘How should I negotiate a raise?’ by them. Because maybe they’ve had that experience right before me, so I can learn from them.”
HER ADVICE FOR ASPIRING—WELL—ANYTHING
“This is going to sound cliché—but hustle. Just keep trying. Keep meeting people and having conversations and work really, really hard. I think it’s easy to get discouraged, but if you hold on long enough, you can get there. And the nice thing. You never know. You may be working for your intern one day. Being nice is strategic—as well as just the right thing to do.
I always tell my team—'think about the conversations you’re having with your friends, what are the issues you’re grappling with? What are the dating stories? What are the trends you’re noticing? What are the issues you’re talking about all the time?' And that’s where I think the good stories come from, because if they resonate among your friends, that means they’re going to resonate with a larger audience too.
I especially like thinking of ELLE.com as your best friend—someone that you can have a really great conversation with, someone that you can laugh about something silly and be like ‘Oh my God, what was Kim Kardashian wearing yesterday?’ But also learn something, like a profile about someone you didn’t know that much about before, a beauty technique or where to get a good pair of flat boots that won’t make your feet hurt. And then maybe you’ll read a story that might make you cry a little. But yeah, everyday should have that mix, and that’s a goal we’re trying for.”
THE 5 THINGS THAT MAKE HER FEEL :100:
“I don’t like to prescribe anything to anyone but I think you should have five pieces in your closet that make you feel good anytime you put them on. For me, that’s a cashmere crewneck sweater (I swear by Everlane); a pair of shoes that you can walk in, but really make your outfit feel a bit fancier. I’ve never spent this much money on a pair of shoes before, but I bought these Valentino Mary Janes and women stop me on the street and ask me about them all the time. I wear them constantly and don’t regret buying them for a second. I like to wear them with jeans or black pants—they always make a really simple outfit feel a little more elevated. So I think shoes you can walk in that do that for your outfit and for your mindset.
Also, one piece of jewelry that does the same thing—I have a simple gold-plated choker from Trademark that makes my outfit feel a little more elegant. It’s all about pieces that do a lot of work for you and are interchangeable so they can go with a lot of things. A pair of jeans that make your ass look great—as every pair of jeans should. And finally, a coat that you could wear a ratty t-shirt and gym clothes under, but if you went out in that coat, people would think you were going somewhere. l love that a coat can make everything feel put together.”