By Raquel Laneri
Portrait by Joe Carrotta ’17
When Nina Garcia walks into the Hearst Tower and rides the sleek, modern elevators to the Elle magazine offices, she can’t help but get emotional. “It feels like coming home,” the editor-in-chief says.
Garcia, Marketing: Fashion and Related Industries ’92, made her name at Elle, spearheading its fashion coverage from 2000 to 2008 and bringing a brash sensibility to the glossy that made it edgier and more youthful than American competitors Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, known for their unapproachable hauteur. Elle was also the place she worked when she became a household name as a tough-love judge on the reality series Project Runway, which debuted in 2004 (and is still on the air). But after a very public ousting at the magazine in 2008, Garcia spent 10 years at rival Marie Claire, stalking Elle from afar like, as she once told the website Business of Fashion, “the boyfriend you’re always pining for.” Now Garcia is back where she belongs. This time, she’s running the show. “It feels really great,” Garcia says. Also: intense. If Elle was like an old boyfriend before, now it’s more like a (very needy) husband. When Garcia first left the magazine, legacy publications barely acknowledged the internet. Now, in addition to landing cover stars, brainstorming story ideas, and keeping up relationships with brands and designers (to secure garments and exclusive interviews), Garcia has to ensure that every piece of “content” that appears on the website—not to mention Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter—adheres to the brand she has established, one she defines as “bold, colorful, optimistic, sexy, and smart.” “The hardest part is finding enough hours in the day!” she says. But if anyone can deal with the demands of the 21st-century magazine, it is Garcia. After all, the editor has long been ahead of the curve. She jumped on the reality-TV bandwagon early with Project Runway, and fired up her social media accounts before it was de rigueur. She has more than half a million Instagram followers—far more than InStyle editor-in-chief Laura Brown (230,000) or former Teen Vogue editor and well-known millennial influencer Elaine Welteroth (300,000). That kind of reach and openminded approach is what prompted Joanna Coles, then chief content officer of Hearst Magazines, to lure Garcia back to Elle. “She understands the multiplatform world and embraced it early on, becoming one of fashion’s first social media influencers,” Coles said in a statement. “Nina is a force of personality, and she’ll bring her energy, her unique sensibility and style to Elle, a brand she knows so well.” “Nina is someone who makes you excited to come to work every day,” says Martin Hoops, Elle’s design director. “She encourages collaboration, has impeccable taste, ardently welcomes new ideas, and inspires the people around her to push themselves in the best way possible.” Ninotchka “Nina” Garcia grew up far away from the New York—or for that matter, European—fashion world. She was born in 1965 in Barranquilla, Colombia, a bustling port town and cultural center that nurtured writers including Gabriel García Márquez, as well as the singer Shakira. “The fashion in Colombia was always vibrant,” she recalls, but to see haute couture, Garcia had to go to the newsstand in her town’s international hotel. Every month, she would beg her father for money to buy such treasures as Paris Elle and American Vogue, cutting up the pages and creating her own collages and magazines, and dreaming of a glamorous life of clothes and beauty. When she was 15, Garcia—out at a restaurant with friends—got caught in the middle of a mafia shooting. Cocaine cartels were taking over the city, and Garcia’s parents decided to send her to the United States, where she joined her older sister and enrolled in a tony all-girls high school in Wellesley, Massachusetts. “My parents always encouraged me to work hard and emphasized the importance of education,” she says. Garcia attended Boston University and later went to Paris to study fashion design at ESMOD . But she felt the pull of New York, and enrolled at FIT with the more pragmatic goal of studying fashion merchandising. Because she was an international student, she was prohibited from getting a job during her time at FIT. But the college helped place her in various internships, including a life-changing gig at Perry Ellis, then run by a rebellious young designer named Marc Jacobs. “I worked in their fashion closets, helped the public relations department, and greeted guests,” she says. “It was an incredible scene, with Keith Richards, Steven Meisel, Christy Turlington, and Naomi Campbell showing up at the showroom.” Garcia’s time at Perry Ellis also coincided with Jacobs’s visionary 1992 “grunge collection,” which shocked the fashion world with its tattered flannel shirts, knit beanies, and dissolute attitude. “It created such a huge convulsion—he was fired,” Garcia says. “I still remember the faces that I saw backstage.” (Even Jacobs booster and legendary fashion critic Cathy Horyn was aghast, though she has since reevaluated her initial pan.) Garcia adds: “At the time I wasn’t aware that I was witnessing such a big moment in fashion history.” Working so closely with the media at Perry Ellis pushed Garcia to pursue a career in magazines, and she landed a fashion assistant job at the now-defunct women’s magazine Mirabella. By 2000, she was named the fashion director of Elle. The media landscape has utterly transformed since Garcia’s first go-round at Elle. But she has handled the shifts more adroitly than most. At FIT, she learned to “say yes” to everything, and that hard-working, up-for-anything attitude has put her in the forefront of social media and, of course, TV. When Project Runway debuted back in 2004, the concept of a reality show, let alone a competition-based one, was brand new. “I had no idea [it] was going to be such a success—I was actually quite nervous to go on the show,” Garcia says. “But I felt it was an opportunity that I needed to take advantage of. “The show has exposed so many to the ins and outs of fashion,” she adds. Runway, which is gearing up for its 17th season, has also helped spur the democratization of fashion, making audiences crave runway-worthy clothes and trends and pushing the industry to make them more widely available. “Fashion is much more accessible to people all over the world,” Garcia says. “You no longer need to spend an obscene amount of money to have the latest styles.” Or, crucially, have a stick-thin figure. “Just look at Christian Siriano,” Garcia says of Project Runway’s greatest success story, who took home the gold in Season 4, and has since filled his runway with plus-size models. “He leads a successful fashion brand that’s a red carpet favorite of today’s top celebs,” such as Saturday Night Live’s Leslie Jones, voluptuous Mad Men star Christina Hendricks, and Whoopi Goldberg. That new, inclusive approach to fashion, which Garcia herself has helped pioneer, is what she, as the first Latina editor-in-chief of a major American fashion magazine, wants Elle to embody. So far, she’s made an effort to keep Elle’s pages reflective of the world. Recent cover stars include Mexican- American pop star Selena Gomez and Kim Kardashian, and its fashion spreads have included a diverse array of models, of all different colors and body types. “I think every industry can benefit from diverse minds, and I’m proud to be Latina and to be able to bring a unique perspective,” she says, adding that she hopes more fashion magazines and companies hire different voices. “Those are all things I want to make sure we emphasize in each issue.”