Today, we get an impassioned interview with Chioma Nnadi, who is a fashion writer for American Vogue.
What I love about Chioma her fresh and authentic take on fashion and her insatiable curiosity. On top of having one of the most interesting journeys I’ve heard, she’s one of the nicest girls I’ve ever met.
Okay, I’ll let Chioma take over here and I want to thank her a million times over for confiding in us as it’s never easy to switch over to the other side of the interview.
And a big thank you to Vogue for opening its doors to us…
What is your title at Vogue?
What did you study and where?
I studied English and French Literature at Manchester University in the north of England.
So, how did you become a writer? What were you doing before Vogue?
When I was in college, I was very much into style magazines. This was before there were blogs, so there was no other way to get news other than reading magazines. There was one called Trace and they did an issue on Brazil and I was really obsessed with Brazil at the time. I was so taken by it, I ended up writing them a letter. I decorated it and I painted it; I put a lot of work into that letter. I was super young, like 18 or 19. So I sent it off, forgot about it, and then I opened the magazine 6 months later, and there was my letter photographed in the magazine.
When I left college, I was lucky enough to get a position with Polly Vernon on this newspaper called The Evening Standard. It was great, I worked there on the features desk of their magazine and I would write all kinds of things—anything you could imagine.
Then I went to New York on vacation and I stopped by the office of Trace after I sent them the letter. The editor-in-chief said it really touched him, and he offered me a job. I was just there on vacation, but I thought, “Okay, yeah, why not, let’s do it!” So I moved the following year to work for Trace. I worked there for 2 and a half years and I wrote about everything from art to music to fashion, but I always gravitated towards the fashion. Initially I had thought about being a stylist. As much as I like dressing myself, conceiving a fashion story is so much more than you’d imagine, it takes vision and I knew I couldn’t do it. A friend said I should write, and I thought, all right, I’ll give it a go.
At the time, I started to read American Vogue. All of my favorite fashion writers were in the pages, like Sally Singer, Mark Holgate, Sarah Mower, Lynn Yaeger—everybody that I admired was writing for Vogue. You can read a lot of fashion magazines and get the information, but with Vogue you get the what and the why—the bigger picture–and that resonated with me. It was quite different from the world I was in because I had started working at a music magazine call The Fader after Trace. I really admired the way Fader did things, it’s very documentary style, it’s very undone and very much about discovery. I was the style editor there for 5 years.
How did Vogue come into the picture?
A friend of mine told me there was a position at Vogue and suggested I apply, although to be honest I didn’t think I had a chance! I remember going to interview thinking, “I’m just going to pretend that this is a meeting.”
Until I got to the last interview, I didn’t think that it was really happening. But when it actually happens it was like, oh they’re really interested in hiring me, why would they want to hire me? I think I brought quite a different perspective.
So, how do you improve your writing?
Reading. It seems like such a basic rule, but reading always helps with your writing.
Also just having an opinion. When you write something you have to have an argument. And that’s the leap I had to make at Vogue, figuring out what makes something important now.
And also coming up with ideas. You want to be able to convey the big fashion messages of the season in a way people can relate to. You want to give them some point of entry into what’s going on. There is a lot of information out there but narrowing it down, that comes in the editing process.
Another big part of a job as a writer is coming up with ideas and pitching them to the team. What is that process like for you?
I think you can’t always predict where a story will come from; a lot of the process is about bouncing around ideas. Sometimes you’ll have a kernel of an idea and then after a discussion you’ll be able to flesh it out into a bigger story. I think it’s very much a collaborative process; we meet quite often to talk about what we’ve been seeing out in the world in terms of fashion and style.
But for me the pitching process is quite scary, because you don’t want people to think your ideas are terrible. And often you’ll have 10 ideas and maybe there’s one that makes sense. It also comes with time.
Are there any techniques that you’ve found have helped you?
It starts a lot with the interviewing process– you don’t want to get the standard quotes, getting a good quote is really important.
I need to have the outline of the story in my head. There’s nothing more intimidating than staring at a blank page. Sometimes just putting words on a page gets it done faster.
What about your writing environment?
I don’t think there is an ideal writing environment. The ideal writing environment needs to be in here [points to head] and you need to feel good about your story.
When you’ve slept a lot, that’s great. When you’re not hungry or thirsty. Rested and well fed, that’s the best.
So we have to ask, what was it like the first time you met Anna?
The good thing was I wasn’t nervous because I had no time to prepare. They called me and said can you come in this afternoon and it was a Friday and I was wearing jeans. And I said, “Well I’m wearing jeans…” and they asked that I came in anyway. So I ran and bought shoes because I was wearing really ratty shoes. They were cheap shoes but at least they were new looking. And the whole time I was just thinking, “I wonder what she thinks of me, coming in and wearing jeans.”
I thought it would just be a cool story to tell my grandkids, that I met Anna Wintour.
What do you think the benefits are of being at Vogue?
You get the access. And being around people that are really exceptional at what they do is really inspiring. You learn so much.
Do you feel pressure being at Vogue?
At the end of the day, you can only do your best; you’re hired because of what you bring. And I’m very fortunate that I get to do something I love.
What’s your role during fashion week?
During fashion week my colleague and me, Esther Adams, support the Fashion News Director Mark Holgate, Contributing Fashion Editor Sarah Mower and Fashion News Editor Holt with daily coverage of the shows. The first time I had to review a show was a little scary –weighing in on fashion in that way is quite daunting, but it also comes from discussion since it’s the Vogue view. Also the time constraints take some discipline. It’s been really been good training for me as a writer.
Are there any writers that inspire you? Do you have a mentor?
I’m lucky enough to work with Mark Holgate. The fashion news team is a pretty tight knit crew. We work hard but we also like to have fun. He always encourages us tow rite about the new things in fashion that we’re excited about.
What’s the best piece of advice he’s given you?
He’s always saying, “Don’t over-think it!”
What’s an average day like at the office?
I don’t really think there is an average day, it really depends. During fashion week nothing is average. It could be working on a magazine story in the morning and filing something for web in the evening, or maybe doing an interview in the afternoon. When, say, Resort is showing, we’re out of the office quite a bit on appointments. Maybe there’ll be a new designer who will come in and show their work, or we’ll have some meetings.
What’s the most difficult part of your job?
There’s always a desire to make something perfect, and at the end of the day we’re working on a monthly schedule or a daily schedule so there are some restrictions to that.
And what do you enjoy the most?
For me the most exciting part about the job is in discovery. I like featuring an under-the-radar designer hat you might not expect to find in Vogue. It was one of the reasons I started reading Vogue in the first place.
Also, I’m a real nerd about fashion, and for me just being in an environment where I can totally indulge and say things like, “what do you think about this pink? Or these shoes?” Being around people who are just as nerdy about fashion as me is really exciting. At the end of the day I’m not saving lives. We’re not writing about world politics. We’re writing about shoes, bags, dresses, hats.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
People who want to get started in fashion writing always ask how do I start, I ask them well what magazines do you read? That’s why I was attracted to Vogue, because I enjoyed reading it.
It’s important to think about what appeals to you, what you enjoy and love and then how can you get into the industry. It’s so important to feel that this is a place you’d want to work. Make a list of the places that you want to work, so you start in your own world.
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