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So What Do You Do, Nina Garcia, Marie Claire Fashion Director & Project Runway Judge?

The fashionista discusses her exit from Elle, dishes on filming Runway, and sizes up her next career move

By Diane Clehane - January 20, 2010
"What it took to be a fashion director five, 10 years ago has completely changed," says Marie Claire's fashion director Nina Garcia. "Today, you need more skill sets, and part of it is having a television persona. It has become so important to have that ability to go on television, on be on Twitter and be the 'face' of a magazine."

While working at Elle, Garcia became something of a poster girl for the fashionista-as-television personality phenomenon, boosting the magazine's brand with a mass audience by appearing as a judge on the surprise hit Project Runway. And she considerably raised her own profile in the process. When Garcia exited Elle in 2008, the behind-the-seams drama surrounding her departure was breathlessly covered by everyone from WWD to People. The attention helped make her a full-fledged pop culture personality. At the time, some fashion industry insiders speculated that she had let her burgeoning television career overshadow her day job. But Garcia got the last word when she landed at Marie Claire -- and took her moonlighting gig as a Runway judge with her.

Name: Nina Garcia
Position: Fashion director, Marie Claire; judge Project Runway
Resume: Joined Marie Claire as fashion director in September 2008. Spent 13 years at Elle, rising to fashion director in 2000 and held the position until April 2008. Previously worked as an assistant stylist at Mirabella. Got her start in fashion working in Marc Jacobs' public relations department in the early '90s. Author of two books, The Little Black Book of Style and The One Hundred: A Guide to the Pieces Every Stylish Woman Should Own (both HarperCollins).
Birthdate: May 3
Hometown: Barranquilla, Colombia
Education: Studied at Boston University; graduated from The Fashion Institute of Technology with a degree in fashion merchandising
Marital status: Married to David Conrod; one son, Lucas
First Section of the Sunday Times: "The front page."
Favorite TV show: "I'm obsessed with Hell's Kitchen. That's the one reality show I can get my husband to watch with me."
Guilty pleasure: "Food"
Last book read: Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson

Did you always know you wanted to be in fashion?
Always. My mother was a very big inspiration. She loved fashion. I loved art in school, and I was very good at drawing. I could sit at the table forever and just dream up collections and draw.

Now you're a full-grown fashionista and a television star. Did you have television aspirations growing up, as well?
(Laughs) None whatsoever, even as a grown-up. But you know what? Television has been a wonderful experience. My aspiration was always to be a fashion editor.

Michael Kors told me he got a lot of flack for signing on to Runway before anyone knew how it was going to be received. It took a big leap of faith. What do you remember about those early days? How did the people at Elle decide to put you on the show?
The people at Elle had me and someone else in mind. It was really the producers who made the choice at the end. I was a little hesitant to be involved on a personal level because my mother had terminal cancer, and I needed time to spend with her. I wasn't really sure what I was getting into. I agreed to do it if the other editor would pick up the days I couldn't be there, because the producers were really set on me doing it. We did it, and when that season ended, they focused on me. It was really the producers who made that choice.

How did you know the show was a hit in fashion's inner circle?
It was during Fashion Week, and everyone kept asking me about the show. It was like an obsession. That's when I knew. Then I was at a movie theater and somebody said my name, and I thought I knew that person, but it was a fan. I thought, 'My God, this must a hit if someone recognizes me.'

Being a fashion editor at a national magazine is very demanding. How do you juggle it with your TV gig?
I just work longer hours. Here's the thing: I love what I do for the magazine, and I love what I do on television. When you do the things that you love, it's not bad. It's about being very organized.

"I really did think it was important to bring [Project Runway] back here. New York is the center of fashion of America. The quality of judges is better."

Tell me what an average day is like for you when you're shooting Runway and working at Marie Claire.
It's a four-week shooting schedule, and the show shoots every two days. At the magazine, I come in at nine, and I leave when we're done. The show usually starts taping around 11 o'clock and ends around seven. I try to pop into the office before the show, and afterwards, I go directly home when I can. If there's an industry event I have to go to, I'll sometimes go all made up and 'camera ready.' (Laughs) The show shoots for four weeks. A lot of it is summer weekends that I have to sacrifice, but it's a joy to do it.

You and I spoke several times when you were exiting Elle. It became a tabloid story, and it got a lot of press. You went from being a 'civilian' to becoming a bonafide 'personality.' Were you surprised by how much coverage your departure got?
I was pleasantly surprised. I noticed that I had a lot of fans in the industry and on the outside.

There was a lot of behind-the-scenes drama that was being reported when you left Elle. What can you tell us about what really happened?
That story is old news. That is old and done, thankfully. (Laughs)

The other big story surrounding the show at the time was that it was moving from Bravo to Lifetime. Then it went from being in New York to Los Angeles. How is the show different, and how is it the same?
I think the show is the same. The fact that we moved to Los Angeles was very controversial because the schedules were difficult for Michael and I to be there. The producers are very smart to keep the show as in tact as possible, and they've been very sensitive about that. However, the move to Los Angeles threw a wrench in all that because it was impossible to coordinate people's schedules -- Michael [Kors], Tim [Gunn] and I all have jobs in New York. The relocation of everyone to L.A. was almost impossible. Having just wrapped the seventh season, which is with all of us back in New York, I can tell you it's the same. I really did think it was important to bring the show back here. New York is the center of fashion of America. The quality of judges is better coming out of New York. I'm not discounting the excellent talent and judges in L.A., but New York is really where it's at.

"I love to speak to women and answer their questions on fashion. I wish there was a way to get closer to the public."

Project Runway has spawned an entire genre of fashion reality television. Do you watch any of those shows?
I don't really watch the other shows. Sometimes I'll watch Top Model.

Did you see any of Isaac Mizrahi's show [The Fashion Show] on Bravo, which was something of a Runway replacement?
No. But I watch Ugly Betty.

Do you think Runway has played a major role in having fashion be such an important part of pop culture right now?
Runway was a phenomenon. It just struck it a chord. It's really about the talent and the process of creation. It's very clever and was really the first of the genre.

There were some reports that you had a development deal with Harvey Weinstein. Are there plans to give you your own show? Would you want one?
I don't have a development deal, but the one thing I have learned is never say never. I will consider things as they come.

You've also written several books on fashion. Are there more in the future?

Is that something you enjoy doing?
Very much, because it's very close to what I do in the magazine, so I love doing it. I love to speak to women and answer their questions on fashion. I wish there was a way to get closer to the public.

What about Twitter?
(Laughs) Not with a three-year-old. At this very moment, I have yet to find the time. Maybe when my son goes to school. I've thought about it. I'd love to do it, but I wouldn't want to do it in a half-baked way. If I'm doing it, I'm going to really do it.

What advice would you give to someone looking to get into fashion magazines today? It's a tough time to be in publishing.
Yes, it is. This industry will probably evolve even more. I also think that people [who] are looking to get into the business are more equipped than we were back then. They have more skill sets -- they use Twitter, they blog, they have all these other skills. If that is your dream, then follow your dream and do not give up. You have to be very consistent and tenacious. Publishing is a wonderful, wonderful industry. I think there will always be room for talented people, incredible images and incredible writing.

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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