How Not to Be a Character in a ‘Bad Fashion Movie’
About 10 months ago, Laura Brown put on an emerald green suit and walked into an East Village art gallery, where two rows of benches lined the walls of a square, high-ceiling room. She took her seat in the front row.
It could have been a scene in what Ms. Brown calls a “B.F.M.,” or “bad fashion movie” — a phrase she began using several years ago to describe the fashion editor archetype: elitist, egomaniacal and downright “Devil Wears Prada”-ish. One day earlier, the publisher Dotdash Meredith announced that Ms. Brown’s job, editor in chief of InStyle magazine, had been eliminated.
In her “B.F.M.,” the scene would have played out like this: A fallen editor makes her first public appearance at a fashion show, striding into a den of whispers and side-eyes, as steely as ever.
Except that Ms. Brown was just about the furthest a mainstream fashion editor could get from Miranda Priestly’s ilk. She didn’t show up that day wearing sunglasses and a cool smirk. She wore beachy waves and a jaunty smile. She bear-hugged some seatmates and made them laugh in between looks.
When people asked about InStyle, she didn’t say “I left,” which is what fashion people often say after being fired, Ms. Brown said. She had no interest in “going away for a while to, like, collect myself and then announce my next thing.”
Besides, she knew “the power of magazines is not what it used to be.” Many years ago, social media leveled the playing field in fashion; in today’s front row, top editors are typically sandwiched between Instagram personalities and famous friends of the brand. In this case, Ms. Brown was all three at once.
“I knew what equity I had earned,” said Ms. Brown, who is 48 and deeply Australian, while having lunch last month at the deeply Parisian restaurant Le Voltaire. “My worth did not depend on being the editor in chief of InStyle.”
“A Nice Lady Who Eats Spaghetti”
But, oh, what power those fashion magazines once held. Raised in Sydney by a single mother, Ms. Brown waited tables as a teenager at a seafood restaurant, where she learned to banter with grown-ups for tips. Without the internet, reading magazines felt like “springboarding” herself into other people’s worlds, she said. Working for magazines was all she ever wanted.
She moved to New York at 27, one week before Sept. 11, 2001. This was still the age of imperial editors, though budgets were already shrinking. Ms. Brown had only been working at Talk magazine for a few weeks when she learned the magazine was folding, midway through producing a young Hollywood photo shoot by Melvin Sokolsky. (The concept was oiled-up actors hatching from eggs.)
In 2005, after brief stints at W and Details, Ms. Brown began working at Harper’s Bazaar. The magazine’s then-editor, Glenda Bailey, favored theatrical photography, like Rihanna lounging in the mouth of a shark, which she called “coups.” One of Ms. Brown’s early “coups” involved sending “The Simpsons” to Paris with Linda Evangelista (more than a decade before Balenciaga’s created its own “Simpsons”-take-Paris episode).
Bazaar is also where Ms. Brown began befriending some very famous women. “I distinctly remember a cheese board with sweating cheese,” Jennifer Aniston wrote in an email, describing her first interview with Ms. Brown at the Beverly Hills Hotel. (Ms. Brown later elaborated: “This wad of Brie was getting sweatier and sweatier, about as sweaty as I was. We just ignored it the whole time.” There was another elephant in the room: Ms. Aniston’s very recent separation from Brad Pitt. “I remember saying to her, ‘That sucks.’”)
Ms. Brown’s powerful enthusiasm somehow made these women feel calmer, shifting the center of gravity away from them and making them feel less alienated. Michelle Pfeiffer said she met Ms. Brown while promoting a fragrance, carrying around samples to editors’ offices in a Ziploc bag: “Laura was bouncing on the couch like an 8-year-old, immediately diffusing any nervousness I had.”
Kiernan Shipka met Ms. Brown when she was 12, while Harper’s Bazaar filmed a tour of the “Mad Men” actress’s high-end closet. “I’m getting ready in my bathroom, and the brightest energy just barges through the door,” Ms. Shipka, now 23, recalled. Last month they found themselves at a restaurant, drinking Champagne and dancing on the booths to Whitney Houston. “There’s no pressure to perform around her,” Ms. Shipka said.
Befriending these women wasn’t complicated, Ms. Brown said. She wanted them to feel welcome; in turn they saw her as a rarity in fashion. “A nice lady who eats spaghetti,” Ms. Brown said. She wasn’t one of the “pointy people,” another term she deploys for a certain kind of fashion person: exclusionary, intimidating, obsessed with punching a “sandwich card of chic” (and also, she said, with wearing pointed shoulder garments).
“‘I’m wearing this, therefore I am chic,’” said Ms. Brown, whose own uniform leans toward floral tops and high-waist, wide-leg jeans. “‘I have this body, therefore I am chic. I’ve been invited to this party, therefore I am chic.’ That’s not very imaginative.”
“When I was younger, I used to think everybody in New York fashion was on some sort of superhighway. More connected, more glamorous and smarter than me. And then you get in the room and you’re like, ‘Oh,’” — and here, she practically cackles — “‘this is not Mensa.’”
On Not Chucking Wobblies
Ms. Brown was named editor of InStyle in 2016, after 11 years at Harper’s Bazaar. Her first cover was Emily Ratajkowski, wearing a Virgil Abloh-designed white tee printed with “In” on the front and “Style” on the back. The message was: “Everybody’s invited to the party,” Ms. Brown said. Even when that party takes on end-of-the-world vibes, as it did in 2020.
Yet the chaos of the pandemic and racial reckoning galvanized Ms. Brown, who leaned into covering the work of activists (and friends) like Tarana Burke of Me Too International and Ayọ Tometi of Black Lives Matter.
Travel restrictions meant instead of attending fashion weeks or advertiser trips, “you could buckle back down to the journalism itself,” said Ms. Brown, who put Dr. Anthony Fauci, Stacey Abrams and Deb Haaland on InStyle’s covers (both print and digital) throughout 2020 and 2021. (When The New York Times asked nine of the industry’s most influential fashion magazines about their racial representation, InStyle was the only publication willing to answer questions.)
But in November 2021, InStyle ownership changed, as the company Dotdash acquired Meredith. Two months later, InStyle’s print publication ceased — along with Entertainment Weekly and others — and Ms. Brown was dismissed.
While she was concerned for younger people on her team, Ms. Brown felt relatively “sanguine,” she said. She didn’t “chuck a wobbly,” which is, apparently, an Australian term for “freak out.” (She also had a wedding to plan: In April, in Hawaii, she married a 31-year-old writer named Brandon Borror-Chappell, whom she met as a Sunset Tower Hotel waiter, in front of a whole lot of famous friends, while wearing a taffy-pink off-shoulder custom Valentino gown.)
“So maybe I’ll get fewer handbags sent to me,” Ms. Brown said, before suddenly turning serious. “If you’ve earned your stripes and done the work, you take it with you. You don’t just fly off into space.”
To some extent, she was also prepared. Two years earlier, she decided to register a company, Laura Brown Media, and start thinking about her next moves.
Those moves are more clear today: Ms. Brown will release a podcast in early 2023 called “So Seen,” made with SeeHer (Ms. Brown advises or serves on the board of several nonprofits, including this one, which is devoted to portrayals of women in marketing and media). She is executive-producing a film about the fashion world with Bruna Papandrea, a producer of “The Undoing” and “Big Little Lies” on HBO. She is consulting for luxury brands. She is working on a collaboration with the French brand Sezane.
At a dinner celebrating that collaboration in October, Ms. Brown was, true to form, straddling the roles of host and court jester, doing funny little dances and making rapid introductions. (Laura Dern calls Ms. Brown “the grand connector. There’s no conversation anyone ends around Laura Brown where she’s not like, ‘You know who you need to know?’”)
Sezane had rented a TriBeCa apartment for the candlelit dinner, filling a wall-size bookcase with dozens of new sweaters, which, toward the end of the night, were offered to each guest. At first, the actresses and supermodels and stylists hesitated. But once Ms. Brown began slinging the knits at people like a human T-shirt gun, all pretenses were dropped. Women piled sweaters into their arms. Nobody was overly cool about it. And there was something very Laura Brown about that.
“I always kind of had a good sense of what fashion worlds I wanted to be in and what ones I didn’t,” she said. “The pointy ones I’m not so interested in. I like color and creativity and generosity and warmth.”