Australian-born Laura Brown is the editor-in-chief of American InStyle magazine. After working for US Harper’s Bazaar for 11 years, Brown was tapped to lead the celebrity and style title into the 21st century. She has done so with a unique vision, energy and her trademark humour.
Laura Brown has become rather a girl crush in the Wardrobe ICONS office – her laidback Aussie energy, unfiltered musings, passionate championing of women’s issues and hilarious deadpan wit (her Dirty Laundry celebrity video interviews are addictive) make her the kind of woman we want to grab a drink, chat and a laugh with.
There’s yet another snowstorm raging in New York City, and this one has sequestered the 43-year-old, twinkly-eyed Brown to her apartment. While her boyfriend tries to sort out the fuse shortage, Brown talks a mile a minute about her vision for the future of publishing and why she loves a badass woman. And we get to laugh. A lot.
You’ve definitely put your own imprint onto the new InStyle – was that daunting to do?
When you start at a magazine that you’re attempting to change quite significantly, you’re still not entirely sure who is going to come along with you. I didn’t know if I was going to be any good at it and so I’m ever grateful to the people that showed up for my first issue. You know, Christy Turlington, Pierpaolo from Valentino, Emily Ratajkowski and Michelle Dockery. The people who worked with me and sort of reassured me as well. I knew we had the ideas, but I wanted to be sure that people were going to show up! And when they did it was immensely gratifying and flattering.
But that’s the thing – you do that one issue and it’s great and then you’re bang onto the next issue, so it’s never-ending.
You gotta keep on going, every damn month and every damn day on the website!
Absolutely! Publishing now is so multi-tiered. You don’t just have the print, you’ve got your website, you’ve got your Instagram, and you’ve got so many social media balls to juggle.
Yes, you’ve got your whole nine! But it’s exciting, because you can have a 360-degree idea, which is what I love! In fact one of the best examples was our story on Ellen Pompeo from Grey’s Anatomy and how she fought to receive equal pay with her co-star and ended up being paid something like $500,000 an episode. It was her being really badass and really honest. So I wanted her to wear different things to represent what power could be and then we could do a story and a video with her which is called ‘Own your Shit’.
Yes! I loved her advice. It was so clever and honest and funny.
It was so funny! So I knew from the start that the story and the video were going to co-exist. And the video was going to be the main thrust of it. It was the biggest video we’ve ever done at InStyle, it got 6 million views in my own Instagram. I don’t feel limited, they work together and that’s the real thrill of it.
When you think about InStyle in the past, obviously a competitor would have been another magazine – are there any websites or bloggers who you see as direct competitors?
Honestly no. I don’t even see anybody as a direct competitor, because I see InStyle as something that is completely unique. Yes, there are things that we do that are similar to Vogue or to Glamour. But we have this idea that everybody is invited. We work with multiple women on each issue and I think we distinguish ourselves by the character and kind of community we’re building. If we have great video views, then we could out-do a blog for sure. And when we have a great print story that looks glossy and amazing, we can compete against other magazines. I think as a media brand these days that’s what you have to do.
It’s definitely a pressure and a change that many other publishing houses are having to grapple with.
The industry is transforming very quickly and a lot of people are very nervous about it, but we certainly can’t run magazines like the 1940s studio system. That’s what a lot of them have been doing. You know, our competitors are this, and our photographers are this, and I need an exclusive on this handbag, and I’m like… why? Just get better work! It’s my job to have the best ideas and to execute them and that’s what I’m responsible for and that’s what I’m trying to do.
Who have you worked with that’s made you go all fan girl?
Talent wise? Tilda Swinton. I freakin’ love her, she’s genius and unique and funny. I really, really love her. Joe Biden – for obvious reasons. Stephen Colbert [American comedian and TV host] – I adore him and think that he’s an absolute tonic for this country right now. You know I met Anita Hill [the American attorney and academic who accused US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment] at a conference, and I want to do a story with her. Those kind of ladies. I mean I know a lot of actors, I adore Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, those ladies or anybody involved in Time’s Up. Any grown-up lady who knows their shit I love.
Who do you regard as your personal mentor?
You know it’s funny, but I was such a self-propelled little engine, you know what I mean? I would go to the fashion shows and I wouldn’t know anyone. I moved to New York and I knew one person. My mom obviously supported me in everything that I do, but I’ve never sat at the knee of anyone.
Sometimes there are people who just forge their own way.
Definitely – people ask me if I have a hobby, and I say, no, my work is my hobby.
I suppose when you are producing so much content, you are always keeping your eyes peeled and you absorb everything around you.
Yeah, I love making things, I have to have something to show for myself every day on my website and every month in my magazine, and I think, ‘I made this’ – that sustains me more than anything.
It’s tough putting your vision out there every day. How proud are you of what you’ve achieved?
Call me old-fashioned, but it’s so rewarding. I love my little mini wall [pictures of the magazine in miniature where the next issue develops]. Even when there’s a cover shoot happening and they send me a picture on my phone, I’m saying ‘Make me a mini’ and they’re saying, ‘Laura, the shoot’s still going on!’ I don’t care – I want to see it, I love it so much. My May issue is out soon and it’s on my mini wall. I’m so proud and whenever anyone comes into the room I say, ‘Hey look at that, it’s pretty good isn’t it?’
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Oh jeez, lying down. I don’t know. I’ve been doing InStyle for a year and a half and I love what I’ve been able to do with it. Maybe working on some sort of a brand or building a brand that engages women and lets them communicate and gives them a forum. I don’t know, maybe a bit of TV one day. I think that what I’m trying to do here is what I want to do for the rest of my life and whatever iteration it is. I’m not going to suddenly become a vet!
So what is it that you’re trying to do?
I’m trying to engage, and involve and excite and not make people feel worse, make them feel better, have a woman know that she’s enough and celebrate women who are total badasses. Read something, learn something, you laugh, you think something’s chic, you buy a pair of shoes, you feel better about yourself, you feel confident, you feel empowered, you don’t feel like you’re crap because you’re not the size of a toothpick or you didn’t marry a prince. I’m a farmer’s daughter from Sydney, man, you know what I mean? And I love glamorous things more than anyone, but nobody should feel lesser because this world is foreign to them, because it’s not!
Did you always want to work in fashion?
Kind of, since I was about nine years old. I would style bath towels into outfits! I was always obsessed with magazines and couldn’t think of anything else I ever wanted to do.
And was there a magazine that you read? That you rushed out each month to buy?
Definitely! Back in Australia, especially when I was growing up in the eighties and nineties, we would get everything three months late. I would always go and get Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue on the news stand and I would gobble them up. I was obsessed.
Do you feel lucky that you always knew you wanted to work in magazines? So many people struggle with not knowing what they want to do.
I guess so, but although I was so set on it, I was never like I had a five-year plan… I was never mercenary about it. I guess if you know what you want it gives you a degree of comfort or ease. You don’t feel like you’ve got to chase everybody around.
What do you think drew you to this career in particular?
The great thing about journalism is that it gives you proximity to people who have different careers from you. That’s part of the allure. You can meet a painter or a designer and it’s all under the same roof. It’s kind of a good-weather career for greedy people!
I love that! And tell me, did it feel like a big jump between your role as head of special projects at Harper’s Bazaar and becoming editor-in-chief of In Style?
After 11 years at Bazaar, I was the number two so I was very close to Glenda [Bailey]. I was running features and also doing high-concept covers, I must have done about 120 covers while I was there and I booked all those big portfolios. So I certainly had experience in producing different things. We had a very small team at Bazaar, so we were all very hands-on.
But as editor-in-chief, the buck stops with you – you’re the one that has to make those final decisions. It’s your magazine with your vision. Did that scare you in any way?
Not really! I don’t want to sound like I’ve got some whacking big ego or anything. I think I had a great deal of experience in having ideas where people joined me and we mixed those ideas up and they worked out. And you earn a certain equity with people and a certain level of trust; you come into that with 20-something years of experience and I knew I could produce a magazine.
As you know, the UK InStyle has gone purely online, but for me it’s a sad moment when a print edition closes. What’s the key to staying relevant?
I think it’s energy and making something that’s a bit special. People get very tired of formulas in magazines and seeing the same thing every month. I received a great compliment from a head of a modelling agency, who said, ‘Your magazine feels like a social media magazine.’ Every single page exists on social as much as it does in print, and we get our highest video success when it’s born from our pages. I always say to everybody that print is the root of the tree. Oprah Winfrey showed up for my cover [she was the InStyle cover star for the March 2018 issue]. So people who are knee-jerking about ‘print dying’ are incredibly short-sighted. My ideas have to register in 12 different ways and in 12 different spheres and I’m happy that’s my challenge and I don’t think that it’s anything to be afraid of. You have to run with your ideas and convince people to come play with you – when people feel that spirit, that edge and engagement, they come along.
It’s now become commonplace for magazines to offer an alternative subscription cover. But you’ve taken it to another level, with often three or more covers. What was the reason behind this?
If you involve people in a collaborative way, those people became your de facto publicists. If I’ve given coverage to women, they end up providing for InStyle, so why would I do one when I can do four? The footprint at InStyle in PR is huge, and I’ve enlisted all of these women who are proud to have done work with me. It’s quite simple really, just by being enthusiastic and sharing with people. Or teaching them how to share!
I always think you can tell what the editor of a magazine is like because of how that magazine makes you feel. Whether it makes you feel included or excluded – and you have a very upbeat, humorous and positive attitude.
I’m an only child, I just want friends!
Which influencers or digital media platforms do you think are getting it right?
For me, it’s all about having a voice; people with no voice are nothing, I say that to my team all the time. So I think for me the person that’s nailed it is Leandra Medine from Man Repeller. Leandra started when she was very young and it was simple and clever – setting up a website called Man Repeller about clothes no man would like! Now she’s running a business and it all stemmed from her voice. If you have a great voice then the business will come every time. I really think The Cut at New York Magazine is super-smart, they are brilliant at their social headlines, their content is great. I’ve got friends at Refinery 29 and my friend Sam Barry has just taken over at Glamour – I’m looking forward to seeing what she is going to do, probably something quite newsy. They all distinguish themselves with the traffic because they’ve suddenly got a voice and I really admire that. So voice, voice, voice!
How does your laidback Aussie humour go down with your American audience?
It goes down well, I think. Unless they’re not telling me something! We are just really happy to be here, in New York and to be working. In fact if somebody on my team does a good job I give them a clip-on koala from the airport. There are clip-on koalas all over the bloody office. It makes things lighter. We’re all there to do the job and I’ve got a good sense of humour and I’m really easygoing and I have people around me that can do it, and if they couldn’t do it, then they wouldn’t be. None of this has to be dramatic or stressful or passive aggressive, or any of that stuff. I can’t stand it – I’ve been in workplaces like that and I don’t like it. It’s certainly not what I’m bringing to InStyle so, yeah, a bit of Aussie goes a long way.
If you were to give your young self any advice, what would it be?
You’ll get there!
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