'Devil' Is in the Details

For fashion assistants, loads of grunt work come before glamour

June 28, 2006|By TANIKA WHITE | TANIKA WHITE,SUN REPORTER

In the movie The Devil Wears Prada, which opens Friday, Meryl Streep plays The Devil who saunters through scenes in Prada, Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Valentino, Christian Louboutin and every other big-name designer you can think of.

She sucks down nonfat lattes like fortified water. She terrorizes her assistants, a silver-haired Attila the Hun in stilettos and Versace.

The movie is based on the dishy novel of the same name, which is said to be a roman a clef, revealing for the uninitiated what life is like at top fashion magazines such as Vogue.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Today section misspelled the name of a defunct high-end department store. The correct spelling is I. Magnin.
The Sun regrets the errors.

But how true-to-life is the film, in both its depictions of the insanity that is the glossy-fashion-mag biz and the utter, jaw-dropping fabulousness of the couture clothes?

We asked four fashionistas who have worked their way up, in most cases, from lowly fashion assistant (the position Anne Hathaway's character struggles to master) to some of the most enviable jobs in fashion.

Their overwhelming opinions: Most bosses aren't nearly as impossible as Streep's monstrous character. There's a gem of truth in everything. And all that glitters isn't always Cartier.

"I thought the movie was really good," says Constance White, the style director at eBay, whose 15-year career includes stints at The New York Times, and Women's Wear Daily and Elle magazines. "One of the reasons I thought it was good is that it was an accurate portrayal of what happens inside fashion, what happens behind the scenes at a fashion magazine. But it's not the whole story."

The fashion industry is glamorous, former fashion assistants-turned-high-powered-fashion editors say. But like Andy Sachs - the character played by Hathaway - a ton of grunt work comes before you even glimpse the glamour.

"When I was 21, I got a job as an assistant [at Conde Nast], and I did everything minus cleaning the floors," says Sasha Charnin Morrison, fashion director at Us Weekly magazine. "And I would have done that if they asked me to. But I didn't care because I loved it."

Assistants must be expert "schleppers," says White.

"One of the things that will make the movie resonate is that there's these universal truths. One is that in glamorous industries where the stakes are high, if you want to get to the top there is a lot of schlepping," she says. "You've got to be willing to work for free. You've got to be willing to get the coffee. You've got to be willing to get the dry cleaning. You've got to be willing to babysit. That is true in fashion, Hollywood and movies."

Accomplishing tasks that have nothing whatsoever to do with fashion or journalism - and doing them with aplomb - is par for the course if novices want to get ahead in the business.

Katie Meyer, fashion market editor at Glamour magazine, remembers those days all too well.

"There were a few times when I was an intern when I had to run out in the rain to Starbucks and get 12 coffees," says Meyer, who worked various fashion-related jobs at Allure, Harper's Bazaar and Seventeen magazines. "And they weren't even for the person I was working for."

The upside of being a glamorized gopher? The clothes. The shoes. The jewelry. The handbags.

In the movie, Andy shows up at Runway magazine to apply for a job working for Miranda Priestly (Streep) - the most influential fashion editor in the business - wearing the wrong shoes, wrong coat, wrong sweater and the absolute wrong hair.

But by the end of the fashion-heavy film, she's sleek-haired and red-lipped, toting lattes in Gucci and Chanel, and navigating the treacherous terrain of Priestly's glossy magazine in 4-inch heels.

Her enviable makeover makes perfect sense, fashion editors say. The pressure in the magazine business to be stylish and on-trend is unavoidable.

"I have so many shoes I can't even count. ... It's thousands. Seriously," says Charnin Morrison, who is partial to Prada, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Chloe. "It's part of my job to look good. I have to do it. So if I have to take out a loan to do it, so be it."

White - whose personal closet is filled with Helmut Lang, Diane von Furstenberg, Tracy Reese, Marc Jacobs and Jean Paul Gaultier - says most fashion assistants in Hathaway's position can't afford such luxuries.

"Maybe a junior editor might be making $20,000 or $30,000. That's a salary that can buy maybe two handbags," she says. "And a high-fashion dress is easily $10,000."

That's where "gifting" comes in handy.

"Designers will say that's why they'll give a jacket or a dress to a lower-level editor," says White, "knowing that she can't buy it and still pay her rent."

Then there's borrowing from "The Closet" - a perk many of the women found too good to pass up at their first jobs.

"I was about 13, and my stepmother was, at the time, the creative director at Vogue," says Charnin Morrison. "And I so I got to see the Vogue fashion closet. When I saw that, I decided right then and there that, no matter what, this is what I want to do."

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