The first time I encountered Nina Garcia, it was through her books: small, illustrated and perfectly curated style books.
Then I learned she was a Project Runway judge – a reality TV show so successful it’s been going on for a decade. But she is, first and foremost, the Creative Director at Marie Claire and is one of the people I love to follow on twitter.
In a few words, I found Nina’s career very unique and interesting. This tranquil way of finding balance between all of her activites, two kids and the way she evolves with the times. I told myself that fashion week would be a great moment to go visit her in her luminous offices…
What your dream job was when you were a child?
I grew up in Colombia, in Barranquilla, Colombia, which is an industrial port in the Northwestern tip of South America, and there, to me, fashion was really only being a designer. I didn’t know that fashion could be all these other jobs. But I loved fashion from the beginning. I thought that was my dream job, and I would spend hours sketching. I was lucky that that was always clear.
How did you find fashion? Did you buy magazines?
Yes! There was one magazine that would come. It was a foreign magazine called Vanidades. It is still around. And then my father was older, my parents were older, I was the youngest child. By the time that I was born, my parents had all of this time, and my dad really loved to travel so he would pull me out of school for two months and we would go to Europe and we would come here [New York]. So here is where I would see it all: I would see the magazines, I would see the fashion.
What were your parents doing?
My father had an import business. By that time he was not retired, but he could travel, and part of his job was traveling for business, so it was easy.
My mother never worked. She loved fashion and her closet was this oasis of color and shapes and prints and high-heeled shoes that I was dying to wear, and it was all in a walk in closet that I had no access to. So I think that that also peaked my interest, like when you can’t get in somewhere. I remember it was like Ali Baba’s cave! There was jewelry, and there were colors, and there were clothes, and heels, and all you want to do is go in there.
I think also in South America the culture is very much about a woman putting herself together. Women get dressed, women wear lipstick. My mother would not leave the house without lipstick. It was impossible! They get their hair done, it’s very much in the culture, it’s very dressy.
So would you say that your upbringing changed the view you view fashion now?
I think it helped. When I moved to the States, I think there was a little bit of a culture shock because even though I had been here many times, and I thought I was American and I thought I understood this culture, when I came here I was like “woah! No, I don’t know anything.”
So, what happened? Your dream of fashion was being a designer, right? You had no other information about what it was?
No, and there were no designers in Colombia. I think there was one woman, who was the mother of a friend of mine, who worked and had a store. I thought she was the coolest thing! She has a store, and she works, and she sees fashion. I remember that being the one role model.
So, then I came to America, to boarding school here. The situation in Colombia became really bad, because of the drugs. It was the late 80s, there was a lot of kidnapping, there were a lot of insecurities, there was a lot of violence. And, whoever could leave was going to leave. So I came to study here.
How old were you?
I was fifteen. But I would go back to Colombia for the breaks. Then I just focused on school.
But when I left school and I started to think about what my career would be, I really felt I didn’t know. There was a disconnect, but I always felt the fact that I was not American and that I had a different perspective was extremely helpful when I started working. It gave me a different point of view. I’m not saying that my point of view was better than anybody else’s, it was just that I saw fashion with a different eye, and I thought that was a plus, and I really believed that was a plus, so it was a plus! You have that confidence. You know, I was bringing something else.
And so, did you study fashion?
So I went to Boston University. My father was very adamant that I needed a career that was not just fashion design. In a way, he was right. So I went to University, and I did liberal arts, and then after I finished I moved to New York, and I went to the Fashion Institute of Technology [one of the biggest fashion schools in New York]. I studied fashion and fashion merchandising. By then, I realized that I wasn’t cut out to be a designer.
How did you realize that? The same thing happened to Scott.
Because I saw real talent! I was like “Woah! These people have talent” and I had this appreciation of that. I knew deep down that I wasn’t that creative as a designer. You know, FIT was great. I think I also was very hungry to work, and to have internships, and I did a lot of internships.
What was your first internship? Do you remember?
Oh my god, my first internship was not very glamorous at all. It was at a place called Simplicity Patterns. I don’t know if you know what that is, but many years ago there were magazines that would sell you patterns. It makes me sound like I’m ancient.
They’re still around!
I worked in one of these places, I was archiving magazines and putting the patterns away. And then my second internship was the pivotal internship, and I got an internship at Perry Ellis, and that was Marc Jacobs’ grunge collection.
Oh my god!
I remember walking in there, and it was just an amazing moment. Marc was at his pinnacle. I met a lot of people there that are still in the industry. Robert Duffy was there then. Josh, who is the president of Bergdorf Goodman now, used to be in account sales. A lot of the people that Marc still works with were there at the time, so it’s kind of crazy.
And so you just saw all of this?
I was an intern. I was in the closet. I was checking the bags and I was putting the tags and I was counting the socks from the Birkenstocks, and making sure everything had a sock, and the thousands of little chains. So I had to make sure that when it went to Vogue, there were five chains… You know, packing and unpacking things. The closet!
I would greet the editors. I would see the editors, and I would offer them something to drink. I was really an intern. And, I mean life is a circle, I remember meeting Carlyne [Cerf de Dudzeele]. Carlyne, at that time, was the editor of Vogue, and I remember she came into the showroom and she was wearing head to toe Chanel, and she was full of this enthusiasm, and I just thought “Wow! She is amazing, she is amazing.”
It was at that time also when she did that cover for Vogue…
Oh, it was beyond! I mean she is still beyond! All of my girls I think are obsessed with her still, but back then I remember being like “wow!” She really impressed me.
By then, I think I was like “that job sounds really interesting.” I had never thought about going into the magazine business, but having that interaction with the editors, I thought that seemed very interesting because they really get to see everything. So I began to have an interest in that. And then later, many years later, Carlyne worked with me at Elle. So it really became full circle and we became good friends. It was like a dream come true. So then from Marc, he left Perry Ellis, took a little time off and I threw all the networking I had done by being an intern and got another assistant position at a magazine. And that was Mirabella; that was how I started in the magazine world.
So, you started as an assistant there?
I started as an assistant.
As what type of assistant?
To an editor.
Slowly, I became like an Associate, and I had a small market. And then I moved to Elle. And in Elle I spent thirteen years. And there I really felt a connection with that brand at the time because it was French, it was foreign.
Carlyne was there, Gilles [Bensimon] was there; it was a very fun time to be in that magazine. There were no rules.
So, at Elle you spent all that time, so what position did you start at?
I started as an Associate with a little market. Then, I moved up to Senior Fashion Editor, and then in 2000 I became the Fashion Director of Elle. And it was fun, it was really good.
And so after Elle, did you go to Marie Claire?
Yes, after Elle I came here in 2008.
What is the role of Creative Director and what does your job entail here at Marie Claire?
Well the job of Creative Director is really looking at the magazine from cover to cover. It is choosing the right photographer, meeting with photographers, meeting with the right stylists, giving the magazine a point of view.
Do you think that it is still possible today to climb the way that you were able to in this industry? Or do you think that things have changed?
I think that things have changed… for the better sometimes.
I do think that if you have the drive and if you want to make it into the magazine business, there are some steps that you have to take. There are internships and there are ways to network, but I also think there is such a huge opportunity and I see this new generation of women and I am so proud.
There are so many other things that you can do that there are no rules, you can have your website, be successful, write your blog. That is unbelievable! Had that been in my generation… I don’t know if I could have even done it, to be honest. But I think that it is fantastic that women are so entrepreneurial, that they are so driven, that girls, even young girls, can have a point of view and write about it. I think it is great that there are no rules. I think that we are really living in a fantastic moment.
So how did the show start? Did they go to you directly? I’m really curious about how it happened, because it started when you were at Elle, before Marie Claire.
Well I was very skeptical to do the show.
One day in the office suddenly I heard there was this idea to do a show on fashion, and I was like “Reeeeeally? Such a bad idea” Who cares… TV…. And I was petrified of TV. The producers came in, they met with several people at the magazine. At that time, my mother was really sick in Colombia.
And they came, and asked “What do you think of this idea? Are you interested?” and I was like “I don’t know if people are going to get it, it’s such a small business, it’s so closed…” I kept saying, “I don’t know, and I don’t have the time. Frankly, I don’t have the time to do this. I’m flying to Colombia every other week to be with my family. I don’t want to do it, I’m not interested.” I found every reason not to do it.
But the more I resisted, and the more I was like “No…”, the more I was just being myself, I think that’s what they liked, that I was so myself and I didn’t really care. The more they wanted it. So I said “Ok fine, I will do it, but I will share the space, because I can’t be here, I have to travel and I have to go back, so I will share it with another editor. She can do half, and I will do half.”
And Michael [Kors] was in, that I knew. That was big. I was friends with Michael, I knew he was very smart, clued-in. I knew Heidi, we had already worked with her several times before, I had a really good connection with Heidi. So the people were ok. But after the first episode I thought, “I will never work in this town again.” But fine! You have to take a chance, because if you don’t take a chance, then you will never know.
And so, how did it work with Elle?
This deal came directly from the publishing side. This was not the idea of the Editor, or the Creative Director, or any others this side of the magazine. I have to give credit to the publisher, because it was the publisher’s idea to have it be another platform for the magazine. And it was a brilliant idea! It worked.
And how did it feel? So your name started to become meaningful for more than the fashion industry.
Well, I think that when I realized the show was a success was when I went to the shows, and all of a sudden I had every editor from every magazine, I had Hamish, Anna’s daughter Bee, everyone was like “What’s this with the show!?” And I’m like “What, Project Runway?” “Yes! Who’s winning?!” Then I knew that if they’re watching, everybody else is watching, because this is such a small business. It’s so competitive, and at the same time very critical.
So, then I knew the show was really good. And it started growing and growing and the magazine started to do very well as well. The magazine got a lot of exposure from the show. And so did I, I can’t say that it was only the magazine.
How did you deal with that attention?
I wasn’t prepared for that kind of attention. I think there are some people that love that kind of attention. I really wasn’t prepared, and I am still not prepared. But it’s ok, I don’t think it changed me, I think it just made me realize there are so many other things… there are so many other routes. At that point, had that show not come about, I think I would have continued doing the magazine and not thought about other things that I could do and other venues that I could work, so that really opened my eyes.
It did create a lot of tension within the magazine. That was the unfortunate part of it. For as much as, yes people love the attention Elle was getting, others didn’t like that I became the face of the magazine. There was an editor that was very upset that she was not part of that conversation, so it created a lot of animosity politically within the magazine, which I thought was too bad. In retrospect, it was good because it also made me look at other things that were interesting, and I started doing the books and it opened another life for me.
I bought all of your books before I even knew about you. When did that start? When was the first book?
The first book must have been 2007! Because I had my first baby! I was writing the book and I was pregnant, and working at Elle, and I felt like I was having two babies! I was like: I don’t know what’s more stressful! The book, or the real baby?! And I was moving. All at the same time.
How did the idea of the book come about?
I don’t know, I just loved, and I still love, communicating with the reader. I love editing, I love communicating what I see or what I’ve learned. We would do the magazine, and I was like, “why can’t I write a book?” Everything that I know, let’s just put it into a book! And by that time I was already on TV in 2004, and people would ask me “What should I wear? What should I do? What’s fashion like? What are the rules?” So I thought, I have that information, I just have to sit down and put it together.
I know I am doing that now…
It’s so much work.
If you want to do it good, and I think your books are great. I’m sure it was a ton of work.
It was, and you know, I felt very strongly that I didn’t want the books to be dated with pictures, and I wanted an illustrator. If I can’t get Ruben [Toledo, a very famous fashion illustrator] to do the illustrations, I will not do the book. It was down to that. And it was wonderful to work with him, he made all my words come to life in the most incredible way, so I was very lucky.
And then came other books! But the one that I enjoyed doing the most was The One Hundred, because it was really about editing a wardrobe, or editing the pieces that we all love and are obsessed with. And maybe there is a season where you will stop wearing them, but they will come back. That was a lot of fun.
And not only do you have the books, but you also have social media as another way to communicate with people. Was that something that was strategic or did it just kind of happen?
I think it also started with the show. Did it happen naturally? No, not naturally because I don’t think that social media is part of what my generation used to do, but I started seeing the importance of it especially with my program, I thought, “I need to find out what they are thinking about my comments, about the other designers… I want to know!” And then, it connected to the fashion so much, I was watching the shows and here’s the editor. I want my readers and my followers to see what I’m seeing. So, then that became a pleasure to do. It really is a pleasure for me to show that.
How do you decide which platforms to be engaged with, and which ones to hold back on?
Well I can’t do it all, but I do think Instagram, I do think Tumblr, I do think Twitter, I do think Pinterest are probably the most important platforms for fashion. To get the news, to communicate the news, to know what’s happening.
How do you work on these different platforms? Your twitter feels very personal. Do you have people helping you?
I think the team here [at Marie Claire] helps a lot; I’ve got a great group of editors that help. I can’t do it all, but when I am at the shows, it is me. And when I am at the showrooms, it is me. My twitter is very personal. For my Facebook a lot of it also has to do with the show. So, we try to do it all. But it is a lot and I need help! I need the help of my editors, which I do have.
Do you feel like you have ever made any mistakes on social media?
Oh, please! All the time! And I can’t see, so I can’t really write, so I get very excited and make a lot of spelling mistakes! A lot!
I think the other thing that’s so great is that you communicate so well with both your English speaking audience and your Spanish audience too.
Yeah, that’s important to me. Because I realize, not everybody knows I’m Colombian, even though my last name is Garcia, like that should be a big giveaway. But I like to communicate, and I go to South America a lot, and even though I feel very American, I still feel very South American. I also feel it’s very important my kids speak Spanish and they know Colombia, and they also feel very part of my culture.
When you speak in Spanish with your Twitter audience, do you fear that the English-speaking people will not understand what is going on? Do you do that very naturally without thinking?
I do it without thinking and I’ve never had any backlash with that. The contrary, I think that it’s been very positive. People embrace it, people get very excited, people are like, “We didn’t know you spoke Spanish. We are so proud.” Especially in America there is such an enormous number of Spanish speakers. So it’s been great. I love it actually; I want more of that.
Did you ever have some social media backlash? Twitter can be so harsh sometimes.
I think I had an incident with the circus, over an elephant or something. I got carried away and I’m like “Oh, I’m at the circus, and here’s the elephant!” They were like “Cruelty to animals!”
How do you deal with that? Just let it go?
Let it go.
You don’t know when it’s going to fall!
But it happens!
In that kind of case is it like, just don’t look at it?
Don’t look at it.
And not respond?
Right. Also, when I say something on TV that people don’t like or like a designer that is a favorite of theirs, I get a little bit of that. “Oh, she was mean to so-and-so!”
That’s one of my questions. I always feel like the way fashion is portrayed on TV can sometimes be a caricature. You know, it’s very different to what we actually live. How do you make it work for you?
It’s tricky, TV. Because you have given the power of editing to someone else. So if I say “I love your hair but I’m not crazy about your necklace” they are going to edit “I love your hair,” down to, “I’m not crazy about your necklace.” They are going to pick the negative. But I do think that you have to be yourself. That’s why people love Michael so much, because he’s very natural I think. I feel I’m very frank in my everyday. Maybe they portray me a little tougher than what I am because of my delivery. Like I said, I might say something positive but they are going to pick the negative.
Do you ever want to control more in editing?
At the beginning it really upset me. At the beginning, I was mortified. I remember going to a dinner party and someone looked at me and was like “You are the mean judge, you are a bitch.” I left in tears. So at the beginning, yes, I think it bothered me. But as the show grew and the show changed, I think it’s gotten a lot better. Once you sign up to do this, there is no putting that genie back. Unless you are the executive producer of that show, and you have complete control, and you get to see the dailies every day it happens, you have no say.
How do you find that balance between what you want to do and what you’re doing. Do you ever feel like you should just do TV?
Yes, I’ve thought about it. I mean, I’ve thought about it because I think that when you start doing TV, and if you have an gent they will say, “Oh, forget that magazine job, come to Hollywood. We’ll make so much money!” But the balance is that I really like to do what I do. Yes, I love TV, but I’m an editor at heart. So this is my fuel, this is my passion. I love the shows, I love the readers, I love putting a magazine together, I love finding that obscure photographer that nobody has looked up and making beautiful pictures, and… I just still love that. So if I can do both, I am very happy.
Do you have a big team of people that are always with you, at the magazine and also with the show?
My editors, you know, they are always with me. We work very closely. I love to mentor young talent. I feel like I can spot the girls that I really like, and I like to find new people to work with me. I think they give me the energy; they’re the eyes and ears for me. So I’m very careful, I really like to work with people that I like. And I like to promote them, and I like to make their dreams come true. So I feel very close to my department.
How does a magazine work with all of the changes we’ve seen in fashion and technology?
Everybody knows that it’s a multi-platform situation. Where before we only spoke to our readers, now we have an opportunity to have a dialogue with those readers. We still are trying to catch up, I’m not going to tell you that it’s perfect, but it’s interesting to be able to communicate with those readers.
When I started in this business, we used to go to Europe and we wouldn’t be able to see photos from the shows for two weeks. This is why editors were there with a notebook making little sketches, and now you can see it instantly, so everything is moving so quickly. I don’t think there are any seasons anymore, everything is immediate. Instagram, it’s all about instant, has to be immediate.
Do you think it’s going to change Fashion Week?
Eventually I do think it will change. It has to. It’s become too quick to advance. It’s like feeding the hungry beast. And we get bored very quickly.
And it makes our jobs, as Editors of a magazine, even more interesting because we have to be even more creative and curate the magazine even more so.
You oversee all the platforms for Marie Claire?
I don’t, but I work with everybody.
Do you get together to say: “What’s our message?” Is it something where you feel like you have to be even more conscious than before in what you’re saying?
Yes, absolutely you have to be more conscious. And we have to again, be even more of an editor because I do think that the problem of having so much information is that you have too much information.
How do you balance all of this with also being a mother of two?
I don’t know! Um, how do I do it? I have an incredibly supportive husband, for that I am very lucky. He’s a great father. My kids are my priority and for many years I think I didn’t think it was possible to do it all, and I thought that if I had kids early on I was going to be losing focus of. I mean I really loved working, and I thought if I have kids I’m going to lose that momentum.
But the opposite really happens, and this is what not everybody tells you. When you have kids you become more focused. You work, you can do it better, you procrastinate less because you have another interest so you have to get home. So things become more streamlined and I love what I do, but I also love being a mom. I do this and I do it very organized and I spend the rest of the time at home.
The part that really falls through the cracks is my social life, because I have no friends. Nobody believes that I’m ever going to come out of my house again! Once they get there I’m like lockdown! Really, it’s true!
Well something has to give, you know.
It’s the one thing that gives, I mean really to be honest with you, I’m being very frank, no friends.
Do you do anything for yourself?
Do you exercise?
Sometimes! I mean, I’m like “I want a facial, I want a massage”… It doesn’t happen, because you don’t have time. And the time that you have you really want to spend with your kids, so that becomes a priority.
And it’s very rewarding, it’s great. It also puts things in perspective, it gives you balance, because being in this industry…it’s very enticing and it’s wonderful and it’s all about change so you can easily get caught up in this.
And it never stops! You are always seeing something new.
Of course! It’s a never-ending… that could happen to me. Show after show after show after show, season, and it’s all about change, all about the new, and you get into this pace, and it’s very hard to step back. Have a personal life. But you have to have that balance, I think it’s healthy.
Would you say that your appearance is a very big part of your job as well? How do you maintain that when you have so much going on, now that you’ve become such a personality?
Does my appearance… I think yes and no. I mean I love fashion, I’m not a slave to the way I look. I think there are other people that are doing that, doing it fabulously. I get dressed to do my job but I don’t really obsess over it. I don’t obsess over it. I think when I feel comfortable I feel confident. That works for me.
What would you say are the biggest obstacles you’ve come up against in your career?
You know, jealousy, competitiveness, cattiness.
Do you deal with that?
You don’t engage. You just take the high road.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
What would be your advice to someone who is aspiring to work in fashion, at a magazine, or maybe in TV?
I think a great way to get your foot in the door is to really work with somebody, have an internship, find a mentor. I think this is an industry of mentoring. You need somebody to give you a chance, and there are a lot of people that will give you a chance if you work really hard and you have a passion for it.
What is your dream for your job in the future?
I just want to be around to see what else happens. I think it’s really exciting, I really do. For the young people that are doing this now, I think it is such a key moment. And I feel very privileged that I am living this moment.
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