It’s Fashion Week in New York, and while most insiders muscle their way to the front row to soak in at what the industry has to offer, one of its most distinguished arbiters is more interested in what her students will see.
Last fall Robbie Myers stepped down after 17 years as editor-in-chief of Elle magazine, one of the fashion industry’s—and the magazine industry’s—top-performing publications. This fall she is teaching fashion journalism to Fordham students. Their first assignment? Get into a show.
“That’s your job as a journalist: Get yourself into places that are hard to get into and get answers to things that are hard to get answers to,” Myers said she told her students. “I’m equally interested as to whether they get in or do not get in the shows, but I’m most interested in what resources did they pull to try to get in. Because that’s the job.”
In some ways Myers takes an old-school approach to the increasingly social media-driven medium of fashion magazines. But at the end of the day relationships matter; talking—not texting—matters. Having been an editor at Seventeen magazine, as well as a staffer at Rolling Stone and Interview, to say nothing of being a mom who just dropped her daughter off at college for her first year, Myers knows a thing or two about youth culture.
“There’s this fear of talking to human beings if they can’t communicate digitally,” she said. “There’s nothing like a human voice, there’s so much misunderstood in digital communication. Being with a human being gives you so much more information.”
As Fordham students fan out across New York City trying to get in to some of the most difficult-to-access fashion venues in the world, Myers said that they’ll see New York in an entirely different light. The resourcefulness and people skills they’ll be using would serve them as well in banking, politics, or any other career path, she said.
“What you don’t get to do can be as instructive as what you do you get to do,” she said.
“They’ll learn to use whatever connections they have,” said Myers. “There’s no one ‘official channel’ to get into the shows. It’s actually human. You have to figure out how to make that connection.”
And that’s just the first full week of class.
In the following weeks Myers plans to walk students through the realities of what the fashion business is and what it isn’t. They will deal head on with body image, advertising, craft, mass marketing, and, most importantly, the difference between being an influencer on social media and being a journalist.
“Everybody has an opinion, there’s nothing you can see on the runway that a consumer can’t see the same second I see it,” she said. “But fashion editors are informed and bring a lot more to the edit.” Influencers get paid to wear clothes, and consumers are beginning to realize that, she said. But the notion of trendsetters is nothing new.
“Influencers have been with us forever,” she said. “Why was the paparazzi chasing Natalie Wood around? To see what she wearing or how she was behaving.”
If a consumer likes what the influencer is paid to wear, then Myers sees it as a legitimate transactional relationship between the influencer, the merchant, and the buyer.
“But as an editor-in-chief of a large magazine, my job was to create editorial that was relevant for my reader. We believed that for Elle, which was journalistic in its approach, it wasn’t pure opinion.”
Myers is serving as an adjunct at Fordham for the Fashion Studies program and the Department of Communication and Media Studies, and said she is particularly honored to be called professor, though she quickly adds that she doesn’t hold an advanced degree. She’d prefer students call her Robbie, but they respectfully do not. They call her professor.
“All I have is 35 years of experience reporting on the fashion industry, where there’s still room for informed voices,” she said.
“One of the things we were talking about in class is the difference between opinion and informed criticism,” she said, adding that diverse and original critics are the future of the fashion industry. “I think smart people want to follow people who have informed, interesting ideas.”
Myers said she also talks about body image with her students, though she hesitated to sum up her thoughts for this article.
“Discussing body positive is something that’s very hard to get into in 800 words, you end up getting single quotes that sound like platitudes,” she said.
Myers said she spent her entire career examining body image. And while she acknowledges that models’ lithe physiques get the lion’s share of attention, she also oversaw content that explored women’s accomplishments. During her tenure, text rivaled image. Fashion spreads could share feature space with a first-person piece by Michelle Obama and an interview with Chief Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
She added that fashion is often the place where the “weirdest kid who gets harassed in class can end up writing” or “where young designers who never felt like they belonged anywhere” are celebrated.
“It’s a very open industry,” she said. “We all need to be responsible for promoting messages giving women and men a broader of idea of what’s beautiful. The models are not the bulk of the magazine.”
In her farewell letter to her staff written last year, she listed the many firsts for the magazine during her tenure, including partnering with Project Runway, which “helped to bring fashion to an enormous audience in the days before Instagram.” There were also forays into augmented reality and virtual reality.
But despite all these innovative projects, or maybe because of them, Myers has always been someone who sees the bottom line as, well, the bottom line. She said she recalls sitting in her office in 2015 contemplating the industry and the fate of print. In conversations, she distinguishes the medium from the brand, adding that regardless of how many images of one sees of Beyoncé on their phone, seeing the name Elle above her face separates that image from the many others.
“Now Beyoncé does very well by herself, but what I’m saying is the consumers are looking at their feed and they’re seeing a million pictures of her, but there’s so much equity in that brand idea,” she said. “When we shot Beyoncé, we got over two billion views.”
When she thinks about the future of fashion magazines, and the future of fashion in general, she questions the effects of constantly evolving technology.
“I wish I could see the future. I tell my kids the next generation is going to think Snapchat is so old and dated,” she said. “Who knows, we may have chips in our foreheads where we just think about somebody or something and it appears in our eyeball. But the big question remains: Do you still want to hear from people?”
For now, the printed magazine remains the flagship for brands like Elle, Vogue, and others, just as the bricks and mortar stores are for the top name designers on Fifth Avenue. Of course, their websites and social media extend their reach to billions. But it’s the magazine cover that generates the most attention.
“I see so many young women in my class who want to work in print,” she said. “Sure, the economics have changed, but there’s still so much equity in magazines for 18- and 20-year-old college students. They understand the difference between digital and print for fashion.”
She said that her “long lens” on the industry helps her screen out the noise and prioritize original reporting, storytelling, and great editing—something she hopes to impart to her students.
“I was at one of the top three magazines in terms of the number of pages we produced every month,” she said. “I really want to give them that insight into the industry.”