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So What Do You Do, Sally Singer, Fashion News/Features Director, Vogue?

The Yale-educated, beauty school dropout on working with Anna Wintour, Michelle Obama's icon status and her 'fluke' career as a fashionista

By Diane Clehane - February 18, 2009
More often than not, those who rise to the top in fashion began plotting their careers around the time they first learned to dress themselves. Sally Singer is an exception to that rule: While her consuming passion for fashion fueled a lifelong love of sewing, along with her voracious consumption of magazines since childhood, her path to the rarified environs of Vogue was anything but premeditated. "I didn't think of it as a professional choice, in part because I didn't know anyone who worked in fashion; I didn't know how people got their jobs in magazines," says the editor, who is a regular front-row fixture at fashion shows in New York and Paris.

Somehow, Singer's stints editing books in London and waxing lips at a San Francisco beauty school all led her to landing one of the most coveted jobs in fashion: working for Anna Wintour. ("A great boss.") As a result, her expansive and intellectual view of the world extends well beyond an interest in fashion's next big thing and the celebrity du jour -- and that, she says, is precisely the point. Her advice to fledgling fashionistas is astonishingly practical: "Know something else and bring that with your interest in fashion to a magazine. It's not enough to just love fashion," she counsels. "You have to have a much broader interest in culture, even if all you'll be doing is pinning clothes on a model."


Name: Sally Singer
Position: Vogue fashion news/features director
Resume: Joined Vogue in 1999 from New York, where she served as fashion director. Prior to that, worked at Elle, British Vogue and the London Review of Books, respectively.
Birthdate: March 21, 1965
Hometown: "My family moved a bit, but I basically grew up in Oakland, California."
Education: UC Berkeley (undergrad); Yale University, American Studies
Marital status: Married to novelist Joseph O'Neill; three children
First section of the Sunday Times: "Of the stuff you get on Saturday, the book review. For five years, I worked at Farrar Straus & Giroux as a book editor, and so I always go to the book review first. I read it the way people who work with books do. I look at which companies have gotten reviews -- not just what has been reviewed. On Sunday, I read the news section first."
Favorite TV show: "Charlie Rose. It's probably the only one I watch. It's the only thing that I actually know when it's on. I don't have TIVO or OnDemand. I don't even have cable. The thing I love about Charlie Rose is that it's one of the few places where there's an extended discussion about something, and I like that."
Guilty pleasure: Movie theater popcorn
Last book read: "I just read Antonya Nelson's new collection of stories. I think she's very, very good. She's kind of a new spin on Ann Beattie. That's my equivalent of television --- some people watch Brothers & Sisters, and I read Antonia Nelson. I read a lot of fiction. I probably read two to three novels a week."

Did you always want to work in fashion?
I always loved clothes and making clothes. I sewed all of my clothes with thrift store things mixed in throughout high school and even college. I was fanatical about home sewing. I didn't come from a family with the means to actually purchase anything that would constitute fashion, nor do I come from a family where anyone was involved in the culture of designer ready-to-wear.

Because I made my own clothes, I always cared about fashion and always knew what every designer had done, as reported in the pages of Vogue, Interview and Paper. I always followed what was happening and did my interpretation of where I thought things were going. I didn't think of it as a professional choice, in part because I didn't know anyone who worked in fashion; I didn't know how people got their jobs in magazines. But I knew the masthead of every fashion magazine. By the time I was 11, I could tell you who the bookings editors were. I did send a handwritten letter to Andy Warhol when I was 12 because I wanted to work at Interview.

[Fashion] was a way of making myself interesting in the world. It wasn't something one would do professionally. I come from a family -- my father is a mathematician, my mother is a psychologist, my brother and sister are doctors -- which one doesn't do commercial things. So the idea of being a historian specializing in reconstruction to civil rights and black history was what I was raised to do. My idea was [that] I would work at a research institution, teach a small class load, and get a chair some day.

What happened?
I was in graduate school when I realized I was too much of a dilettante. I was into New York too much -- I was at Yale, but I was always in New York. I just needed a break. I needed to figure out who I was, so I went into book publishing. It was fantastic. It allowed me to think quickly and instrumentally about text, but to have a kind of long relationship with writers; to have a complex relationship with subject matter -- particularly with nonfiction. From there, I went into book reviewing and editing -- I was at the London Review of Books. It was only when Alexandra Shulman asked me if I would go to British Vogue that I thought, "Wow, I could go to a Vogue." It was a fluke. She saw in me things I hadn't seen in myself but were there. I left Berkeley at one point to take a semester off, because I started very young and skipped a lot of grades. I went to beauty school. I did the California curl, the Marcel wave and learned to wax ladies' lips. I didn't finish. I realized that I wasn't great at haircutting. It allowed me to have a lot of practical knowledge of beauty culture. It's been this extraordinarily useful thing.

So this amalgam of experience has been helpful.
Definitely. Knowing how to sew has helped me enormously in understanding clothes when they come down the runway -- how they work, why they work and when they don't work. If you know how to sew, you know about fabrics and textiles and how they should be cut. I've known how things should be properly made since I was a junior high school student. Having gone to beauty school, I actually do have a basic knowledge of what people do... if they've really got it or they don't -- because some people have it, and I don't. I should never wax a person's lip or eyebrow again. I was terrible, and it's a terrible thing to be terrible at.

"Anyone who is interested in clothes right now knows the clothes almost as soon as I do. That changes the way you report on clothes and changes the way you show clothes. It makes what we do more relevant than ever, because you actually need someone to edit it down for you."

It's an interesting detour given all that came before and after.
I think everything you do in your life can come together. I was at London Review of Books, and I had done a piece for British Vogue about Jay McInerney because I was an American living in England. They offered me a job as a culture editor when Eve McSweeney (who I now work with at American Vogue) came to New York to work at Harper's Bazaar with Liz Tilberis [in the early '90s]. I followed her to British Vogue. I loved it [at British Vogue]. Suddenly, the disk drive of information in my head about clothes, style and photographers -- and every credit I ever read and remembered from every fashion magazine from the time I was 10 -- was all useful. I was getting paid to go into the recesses of my imagination. British Vogue was a fantastic experience.

What's the difference between the culture at British Vogue versus American Vogue?
It's more similar than I would have imagined it to be. When I worked at British Vogue, it was at a time in which British fashion was having a very big moment. John Galliano was going to Paris. [Alexander] McQueen was starting at Givenchy. There was a lot of excitement. A lot of the fashion at the time that was successful commercially was very lifestyle-driven (which is what the English can often do well) -- clothes that don't come from the street, they come from the garden and how people live. It was all about wearing your pajamas or a slip dress with combat boots to work. It was very feminine, girlie and fun. There was a lot of interaction between the features and fashion staffs to put forward that vision. That was the birth of [designer label] Marni. We were wearing the rose prints with the striped T-shirts. Meanwhile, you had Oasis and Blur hitting it big, and the Brit pop thing. It was just a good moment to be there. It was a small staff and small budgets to do things -- bigger budgets than anyone else in England, but small budgets in comparison to what America does.

When I came to American Vogue, I had this perception that it had far more staff, far more resources, and far more divisions between the different parts of the magazine. Since I've been here, we've sort of merged features with fashion features because it used to be two people, and now it's me. Through issues like 'Power,' 'Shape' and 'Age,' we've done more stories in which the fashion side of the magazine and the feature side of the magazine have to work together to produce features that are relevant for both. We do have more staff, and it's a bigger magazine read by far more people. [American Vogue] has a far broader vision because it has to. The pleasures of working here are quite similar. [British Vogue editor-in-chief] Alex Shulman and Anna Wintour are not alike in any way, in that Alex comes completely from features and Anna comes first from fashion. Alex is a writer; Anna is a visual genius. But the pleasure is the same. It's really fun. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't.

There's been some criticism of the magazine. Cathy Horyn wrote in The New York Times that Vogue isn't as relevant as it once was. What's your response to that?
I was in India when Cathy's piece came out, so I didn't read it at the time; I can't comment directly on what she said, but I obviously disagree wholly with that. When I started at American Vogue, Style.com hadn't even started. There's now far more information in the world about fashion. You couldn't know the name of the 14-year-old Eastern bloc model the day after she appeared in the Prada show, unless you were at the show. When I was at New York and you had to shoot a look from Ann Demeulemeester, you had to go to the showroom, put the pieces together, and Polaroid them. There wasn't even a look book, let alone a Web site to show you how it was worn. It's changed completely. Anyone who is interested in clothes right now knows the clothes almost as soon as I do. That changes the way you report on clothes and changes the way you show clothes. It makes what we do more relevant than ever, because you actually need someone to edit it down for you. You need people now not to tell you what was at Prada, but to tell you why it was at Prada and how you're going to wear it. American Vogue is very good at explaining to American women -- and by extension, women around the world who want to dress like American women -- why they should wear what they wear, and how they should wear it.

For the last two years, in [American Vogue's] "View" section in and echoed in the fashion features, we have said: Buy less, buy better, and don't think fast fashion is the fix for your life. We've done stories on women who only have an edited wardrobe, because they don't want to have more than they need, but what they have is good. So I have to say we've been putting it out there -- issues of sustainability, issues of value, issues of thoughtful shopping -- for about two years now. It might not be something that people are ready to listen to, but it's been there. There's so much relevant information that keeps you caught up in the drama of the season and the fun of fashion and the beauty and the romance of it. Grace Coddington's shoots are always about that, but also push you to think harder about why you're buying what you're buying, and who to invest in now. We put it out there every month with features on people that I certainly think are relevant.

Like your March cover subject Michelle Obama?
We had Michelle Obama in over a year ago. We had Valerie Jarrett. We had the McCains and we had Sarah Palin first. When that story broke, we had done her. The conservative news networks were trying to get our picture of her because they didn't have any other pictures of her. No one else had bothered with this woman.

I do think we're out there first -- not just for the sake of being first. I won't put a collection in just because I have to have an exclusive first when some young person is having a collection, and there's some hype around it. I won't do those in "View." I'll maybe wait until it's the season when the person has done their best work. It might be their first season; it might be their third. I think the same with the features coverage -- we don't have to do every hot young actress and every new person who makes it on to the national stage. We do the ones [who have] a story behind them that might push them forward, for better or worse. In the case of Sarah Palin, there was enough out there [to] be part of culture conversation that's happening at dinner tables around the country, if not around the world.

We did Alice Waters for "The Edible Schoolyard," not because she's a celebrity chef, but because she did something else with it. We worked very hard with Alice to bring "Edible Schoolyard" to people's attention five or six years ago.

It's our mission to be as relevant as possible, and yet to keep up the dream of Vogue. For some, Vogue can only be relevant as a dream. They want to get their news somewhere else. They want to see the couture in Vogue. People come to us with all different expectations. Overall and every month, we try to match all of them in some way. I'm always thinking about it, because my mother and sister do not read Vogue for the fashion -- they could not care less. They wear what they wear, and they look perfectly nice. My mother makes her clothes. They're thrilled that we had Nancy Pelosi first. They're thrilled when we do a medical piece that has real information.

For some people, and I imagine Cathy [Horyn] might be one of those people, it's a Steven Klein picture. It's the picture that pushes it out -- shabby fur on a cliff. The pictures that push the aesthetic issue of Vogue, taking it to some place that's maybe darker or sexier than the more wearable fashion stories. It just depends where you get your kicks.

There's this sense that the line between fashion and news is often blurred in pop culture. I'm fascinated by how this is happening in the way Michelle Obama is already anointed a fashion icon. How do you see that evolving?
The thing about Michelle Obama is she's an unwitting fashion icon. She has to be one because she's beautiful, she's tall, and she dresses well. She's young and she's the First Lady, so whatever she wears is interesting. The fact that she's chosen to pick such independent, interesting, and -- in many cases-- emerging designers as the people from whom she buys clothes is exciting. It's going to be watched and commented on by people the world over, regardless of whether she invites it or not. Ditto her husband. Anything [Barack Obama] does is interesting because he's just gorgeous and young. It wouldn't have been the same with John McCain because he's old. [The Obamas] accept their iconicity and obviously enjoy it to a certain extent, and they know how to use it well.

Do you think they're going to leverage that even more?
I think he has a lot of work to do. She also has a lot of work to do. There's nothing silly about this couple. They do not seek celebrity for celebrity's sake. They are celebrities by virtue of how amazing they are. That is a new paradigm for America. We have had so many people who want to be celebrities, and have come out of this era of reality television in which being famous for fame's sake matters. Finally, we have people who are famous because they are really interesting, smart, and attractive on their own terms. [Michelle Obama]'s not a size zero. It's genius. When I saw her in that Jason Wu dress, I thought, "I hope all those Hollywood actresses realize they don't need a giant necklace and cantilevered cleavage to go to an awards show." That night I thought, "Thank God someone understands -- just wear something you look pretty in and get through it." I think it's only good that she's made the business of American fashion look so interesting, so diverse and so exciting right now because fashion needs all the help it can get.

With fashion being fodder for so much of TV and movies these days, what's your take on fictional representations of the fashion industry?
I don't watch any of the shows about fashion. I've never seen Ugly Betty. I'm the person who didn't read or watch The Devil Wears Prada. It's for no other reason than: For me, it would be like going to work. I have the good fortune to work in this industry, so I want to see Slumdog Millionaire and Frost/Nixon or watch Charlie Rose. I get my fashion at the office. I don't need to see it anywhere else.

I wanted to get your take on some of the same things I asked Andre Leon Talley when we interviewed him: Anna Wintour is the subject of so much coverage. Why do you think people are so fascinated by her?
Because she is the most powerful person in fashion, because she's so good at what she does, and [because] she's been so good at what she does so for long. When she was at New York, she was amazing. When she was at HG [the former House & Garden], all of her ideas about lifestyle and the relationship between home and closet are so relevant now. She understood the celebrity thing before anyone in high fashion really did. She just has it -- and she has it without talking a lot about it. I think that's what people are fascinated by. She's not someone who is writing books, giving lots of interviews, or putting herself out there, and people are racing to catch up. That's what sustained [the interest] over the years -- the sheer 'How does she do it?' Like the Met Ball [which Wintour chairs annually]: It's just an act of precision and care and work. She just is on every detail. She has a vision, and it's going to be realized. She knows what it is. She can delegate people to help her realize it, but at the end of the day, she's going to make it happen. I think that's fascinating. The cracks usually show for people, and they don't show for her. It's the same with her look. She always looks perfect and always looks appropriate.

How is she as a boss?
She's fantastic because she's clear. The thing about Anna that's so good to work for is she knows what she wants. She doesn't need to be shown five things to get the one she wants. She's clear from the start. It's your job to listen, and if you have objections to the final vision -- if you're someone who can think through to the end of a project at the start -- it behooves you to voice them. She listens, and you have that discussion then. What I love is that it's always been completely clear. There's no tricks, deceptions or emotions. It's just work. It's rigorous and interesting and forward-thinking.

It's New York Fashion Week: How do you think the economic climate is going to affect covering the shows?
It behooves none of us to be doom-and-gloom about this. The business of fashion goes on. To simply worry about how we got into this slump and how bad it's going to be doesn't help the designers to have confidence to design wonderful things. It doesn't help the retailers come and buy things for their stores, and it doesn't help the editors get inspired to do the pictures with whatever their budgets are now. We need to keep the industry going because it's huge in [New York] and in the world, and because fashion is one of the great elixirs -- a great, fun thing people can do to pick themselves up at whatever level they choose to engage in it. I would hope that the backbiting between industry professionals on who got it wrong begins to subside, and that people who do wonderful work get recognized. That doesn't mean everyone has to be recognized. I don't think there should be some critical washout giving fabulous reviews to collections that are half-thought-out. It's time to celebrate clothes with value-- everything has been done with care, regardless of the price point. That can be an Italian yarn sweater that's been really well-cut now favored by Mrs. Obama from J.Crew, or it can be a crazy loose-gauge mohair extravaganza from Rodarte. What we will see and should see is a movement away from cynical gestures in the name of luxury, and a kind of bland acceptance that that's kind of great stuff, too.

Covering Fashion Week is a physical marathon for someone in your job: How do you get through it? What do you carry around with you?
I've never been good with carrying stuff around because whenever I try to do that, the PowerBars are gone by 11 in the morning. There's a Korean nail bar/hair place called Hair Party on 28th and Madison, and it's open 24/7. You can have a pedicure at two in the morning. During Fashion Week, that's the ultimate thing -- that you can clean yourself and get going again at five in the morning. That's key for me.

How do you keep track of it all and take in all the information and imagery? Andre [Leon Talley] told me he doesn't take notes. If it's great, he'll remember it; if it isn't, he doesn't.
That's absolutely true, but I do take notes. I always have a notebook. When you start in New York and a month later you're in Paris, it's nice to go back and remember the line of a dress you particularly liked. I take fewer notes now, because I don't feel I have to take every look down. The [notes] I take are the ones I know I'm going to need a month later.

The other half of your job in features involves the celebrities you choose for your covers. How does that play out?
There's a group of celebrities who have a relationship with the magazine and appear frequently, so we always know the release dates of their projects, and we see [their films] early if we can.

I thought the images from the story on Reese Witherspoon [in the November 2008 issue] were beautiful.
Reese is a great actress for us to do because she's game to do interesting things, and she tends to be in really good movies. I just did Anne Hathaway for January because I loved Rachel Getting Married, and it seemed like the right time to do her. Blake Lively from Gossip Girl -- we did her in the center of the magazine when the show launched, but it seemed like the right time for her. In February, we often do a young, New York person. I think we did the first Sarah Jessica Parker cover in February. I did a Kate Bosworth cover in February. That's the month where we often take a risk on a new person. Then there are certain actresses that people are fascinated with, like Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie. The public just loves them. I understand why people love celebrities and clothes -- they can bring all these narratives to it. It's often the imperfect celebrities who get the biggest responses.

What piece of advice would you offer someone just starting out who's looking to work at a fashion magazine?
It's not a great time to go into magazines. People who often want to be in fashion magazines love magazines, but they love them to the exclusion of the rest of the culture in the world. They do media programs or communication courses [in college]. I always say, get a real education in a discipline with some history and weight behind it. Be an art history major. Whatever you're doing, do it to the utmost. People waste a lot of time thinking about the social operations of things and waste a lot of time growing up and half-paying attention to what they're reading in college or high school. I would say: Whatever you're doing, pay attention when you're doing it. Magazines reward wide-ranging curiosity and intelligence. People that want to consume information at a fast and ferocious level do well at magazines. To be really good at fashion, it's not about what you wear. Looking good in clothes is fairly interesting, but that doesn't help you.

I think most people would be shocked to know that.
If I only took an interest in what worked for me, everyone would be in an A-line skirt and a cardigan. [Laughs] I always think people need to have a vision of fashion outside of themselves, and that should include a couple of other things, too. It could be music culture. It could be anything, but it's good to bring a few things to the table before you get into the narrow world of fashion, because you will be found out at some level.

How you say you've gotten to where you are?
I have no idea. It makes no sense. There's nothing in my biography that led to this. I really should have been a civil rights activist or I should be working for Amnesty International. It probably reflects the deeply shallow nature of my inner life. I still pinch myself. I don't know how I got to American Vogue. I couldn't even begin to trace the steps that landed me here, but I did.


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

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

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