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So What Do You Do, Robbie Myers, Editor-In-Chief, Elle?

This fashion-forward EIC outfits her brand for print, TV and Web

- September 9, 2009
Robbie Myers easily laughs off the moniker of fashionista, but there's no denying she's become emblematic of the glitz and glamour of the couture-clad clique that populates the front rows of the shows in New York, Paris, and Milan. Last year, Forbes named Myers the second most powerful fashion editor in the U.S. (She tied with Vogue's Anna Wintour; Glamour's Cindi Leive earned the top spot). Unlike her headline-grabbing counterparts, Myers is content to let the spotlight shine on the magazine and its bumper crop of reality stars, a cagey strategy that has paid huge dividends.

Elle was the first magazine partner on Bravo's Project Runway with then-fashion-director Nina Garcia as one of the show's judges. While the rest of the fashion crowd turned up their noses at the prospect of mixing with wannabes on television, Myers says she and her bosses took a "calculated risk" that helped make the renowned publication a household name. "'Runway' was a great showcase for the magazine and the brand," she says. Emboldened by their success, Elle moved on to more television projects. Creative director Joe Zee and fashion news director Anne Slowey presided over the aspiring editors vying for a job at the magazine on The CW's Stylista in 2008. ("I wouldn't let them script me. I told them I was going to be myself," says Myers of her cameo.) Next up, Elle has a starring role in the second season of MTV's The City, which will follow a group of young women alongside the magazine's public relations director Erin Kaplan through her professional and personal paces. Zee also makes several appearances.

Besides using television to bolster the Elle brand, Myers has put plenty of substance behind the magazine's style. Under her stewardship, Elle earned a top spot on Advertising Age's A-List for three successive years (2005-2008) and last year tallied up 2,573 Publishers Information Bureau (PIB) ad pages -- the highest in the magazine's history. "It's all about the brand. The magazine is the star," she says.

Ahead of New York Fashion Week, the editrix spoke with about her lifelong love of magazines, the power of reality television, and building a brand for the Internet age.

Name: Robbie Myers
Position: Editor-in-chief and vice president of brand content, Elle
Birthdate: November 10
Hometown: "St. Louis, Philadelphia, Colorado, Fort Lauderdale. I grew up all over the United States."
Education: Colorado State University, political science
Resume: Assumed current position in May 2000 after serving as editor-in-chief of Mirabella since 1998. Prior to that, held senior editor positions at Elle and InStyle. Toiled at Seventeen for six years, rising to managing editor from articles editor. Worked at Interview from 1985-1987. Got her big break fresh out of college in 1983 when she landed a job at Rolling Stone.
Martial status: Married with two children
First section of the Sunday New York Times: "The front page."
Favorite TV show: "Since The Sopranos went off the air, I've been casting around for one."
Guilty pleasure: "Really late night television."
Last book read: "I'm reading Philistines at the Hedgerow. We have a little house in the Hamptons, and I'm at the part where they're talking about 'north of the highway' versus 'south of the highway,' and we're so north of the highway. My family has been out there since the '50s, but they haven't been out there since the 1450s."

What's the best part of Fashion Week?
I love what Andre [Leon Talley] said: 'When it starts and when it's over.' I guess it's when I see something that's truly new and also beautiful. You don't always get that every season.

Designers must be feeling an incredible amount of pressure these days. What are you expecting to see this season?
It's going one of two ways with the financial crisis: The designers either become very safe and commercial or very innovative and creative.

Where does the celebrity designer fit into the scheme of things right now?
It's interesting; I just read the story in the Times on the Olsens' line. It's very easy to sneer at celebrity lines, but I have found that a lot of creative people can be creative in more than one medium. I've heard the Tom Ford movie is really good.

What about the whole idea of packing the front row of the shows with celebrities? Do you think there will be less of that this go-round?
Fashion has been fairly democratized. I don't think we're going back to when it was just a handful of people sitting in ateliers. The celebrity-fashion connection in the way that we consume culture is undeniable and here to stay. I do think that often these designers are genuine friends of their guests.

"When we did Project Runway, some people were like, 'Oh no, it's reality TV.' My feeling at the time was, it's a different medium... It doesn't hurt the integrity of the magazine."

But there have been plenty of "checkbook" relationships in the past.
Speaking of that, I think there are elements of it that will go the other way and become more publicized and celebrity-driven. There was conversation that at one point [Fashion Week] would be a revenue stream, and people would charge the public [to attend] because there's such great interest.

Did you always know you wanted to be in fashion?
I didn't. I took the LSAT and was going to go to law school. I was one of those people who wanted to be a First Amendment lawyer and fight the good fight. Then I fell in love with magazines, particularly Rolling Stone, because it was what I read in college, and I worked there in my first job out of college.

What else did you read when you were younger? Did you read Seventeen before you worked there?
I spent six years of my life at Seventeen. I didn't read it when I was a teenager. My stepmother had the big fashion magazines, so I read those. I never, ever really read teen magazines, and I didn't know what they were about until I went to work for one. But I loved working for that reader because I identified with them.

What was it like working for Andy Warhol at Interview?
I was admittedly not in Andy's inner circle -- but I was in the second ring of hell. [Laughs]

What did you learn working at the magazine?
It was amazing. Here's what happened at Interview: You worked until 10 o'clock every night. Everybody did. Then you would go out because that was part of the culture of the magazine. I was at Rolling Stone first, and I learned a lot about reporting, journalism and celebrity culture there. Then, I went to Interview where it was all about the image. I remember the art director taking fake copy. He would do the layout with the art the way he wanted it to be, and then he would cut off whatever was hanging over the bottom of the layout. He'd throw it at me and say, 'Cut that much.' [Laughs] I learned very early on about the importance of image and the importance of journalism and reporting.

What do you read now and how much of it do you read online?
I read a lot of magazines. I read the competition -- it would be irresponsible not to -- and I read The New York Times, New York Post, Women's Wear Daily. Sometimes I read them in both mediums.

What sites do you regularly check out?
Perez Hilton, The Cut, Politico, Mediabistro, The Daily Beast.

What's the primary function of Elle's Web site? Is it a brand builder or a traffic generator?
It's both. The one thing that's gotten a lot of buzz is Elle Video Star, which is edit, but we have an advertising partner. It's a great example of the edit coming to life in a three-dimensional way. It's what the Web can do that a print magazine can't. It's user-generated, which means the enthusiasm for the content is built-in -- [readers] provide it. I think the Web is a powerful and amazing thing, especially for a brand like Elle.

I remember you once mentioned to me that you had a brief foray into acting, and last season you played yourself on Ugly Betty. What's tougher: being a fashionista or playing one on television?
[Laughs] That's your title, not mine. I was in Caddyshack, but I wasn't an actress.

Were you an extra?
No, I had a role. I took my little sisters to the casting call and [the director] Harold Ramis said, 'You look kind of Irish. Do you want to be in the Noonan family?' And I said, 'Sure.' [Laughs]

Okay, so how was it playing a fashionista on television?
[Laughs] I will say I admire the amount of time and effort it takes to shoot 40 seconds of television. I really appreciate what they do.

For another interview last year, when we discussed Elle's involvement in the past seasons of Project Runway, you told me that TV has played an integral part in building the Elle brand. What role does the medium play in your current and future strategy?
Next up, we're doing The City on MTV. Our head of public relations [Erin Kaplan] is the central character from Elle. When we did Project Runway, some people were like, 'Oh no, it's reality TV.' My feeling at the time was it's a different medium. If a person turns it on in their home, they're complicit and they want to be there. There was a lot of debate about this. It doesn't hurt the integrity of the magazine -- meaning the fashion stories are still going to be great and cutting edge, the writing is still going to be top notch, and the reporting is going to be strong. Project Runway was quite a phenomenon -- not just for us, but for the business.

"The one thing magazines know how to do is make money: We're making less of it, but we're actually operating at a profit."

Stylista wasn't the hit Project Runway was.
My attitude is, it's done. I looked at it and thought, 'What did we learn from it?' What do we now know that we didn't know?' It's a different medium for us.

Is Johanna Cox, [the Stylista competitor] who won the one-year gig as a junior editor with the magazine, still there?
Yes. She's been a great addition. Now, I have to figure out if I can keep her.

When I did my interview with [Elle creative director] Joe Zee for this column, he talked about how so many interns and young staffers come in with more of a sense of entitlement than an enthusiasm for the work. Do you see that a lot?
Yes and it's maddening. When I interview somebody I always ask, 'Do you have any questions for me?' That's always the moment where people show themselves. Invariably, about 85 percent of the time it's, 'When can I get promoted? When can I write?'

The person that I hired as my assistant jumped on a plane from Colorado. I said, "I'm sorry I can't pay you back for your trip," and he said, 'I'm coming anyway' and showed up on Monday morning. I went through a stack of people who had mint educations, and they were all lovely and all very polished, and completely disinterested in what we did. They were only interested in their own thing. I get that it's your first job, but where's the passion for what we're doing?

When I got to the point in the interview where I asked [my future assistant], 'Do you have any questions for me?,' he was the only one who asked me a question about what had recently happened at the magazine and what our editorial plans were about something specific. He was the only one that read the magazine.

And he's your current assistant?
Yes, he is.

What advice would you give to candidates coming to Elle?
Know something about what we do and have a point of view on it. I can't tell you how many times I've asked people, 'What magazines do you read?' and they say, 'Umm, let me think…' Enthusiasm counts for a lot. Motivation counts for a lot. You can tell the ones that have the attitude, 'I will do anything to work here,' versus the ones who say, 'I really need to get to work because my dad is going to cut me off any minute.' The lesson that I've learned from this is that my kids are going to have boring, tedious jobs when they're teenagers.

Do you think it's harder or easier to break into magazines than it was five years ago?
There are fewer magazines, but perhaps there were too many. Print is still robust.

So would you say the death knell for print is greatly premature at this juncture?
Radio is a really old medium, but I still use it, and I also use the Internet. The novel is supposed to be dead, but there are more books being published now more than ever. Print is a medium that is still useful and pleasurable to a lot of people. For a long time, magazines were the primary source of news and opinion for many people, so perhaps there won't be as many of those magazines. With fashion magazines, a fashion photograph is its own thing in the fashion world, meaning people inside that world and the reader are excited to see those images and how we put things together. The visual experience of it is a great pleasure that's hard to replicate on the Web. I also believe that people are still going to read the words in magazines, too. The one thing magazines know how to do is make money: We're making less of it, but we're actually operating at a profit.

What do you consider your greatest success?
The staff that I've been able to assemble around me, for sure.

And biggest disappointment?
I was heartbroken when Mirabella folded. It was a small, energetic staff, and we were all very attached to it.

How would you say you've gotten to where you are?
There were many serendipitous moments, but I hope that I've worked hard in between them.

Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY. She writes the 'Lunch' column.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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