As part of my summer internship series, I decided to add an element of interviewing. And who better to interview than an ELLE editor?! I had the awesome opportunity to sit down with Leah Chernikoff, editorial director of ELLE.com, and get some great advice! Leah’s the boss lady of the site and in learning of her professional background, one can definitely understand why. Before ELLE, she was the editorial director of Fashionista.com and prior to that, she reported for the New York Daily News. She also freelanced for the Wall Street Journal, TODAY.com, Bon Appetit, and NYMag.com.
Told you she was impressive! Read on to discover her past uncertainty about her career path, first fashion experiences (spoiler: it includes Rihanna), and tips for interns everywhere.
Thanks for sitting down with me. I really wanted to do this for my blog. I first thought of it a few weeks ago and was like, ‘No I must do this before I leave!’ You’re here at ELLE.com. I’m here at ELLE.com. Did you always want to have a position such as this one? What did you want to do at my age?
LC: I really had no idea. The subjects in school that came most naturally to me were always humanities so in college, I majored in English literature. I went to a liberal arts school and I just didn’t think about what I was going to do after…at all.
A bunch a girls that I went to college with were from New York and I think they just knew more than I did. Like, you have to intern every summer and I had no idea. I had done one internship and just luckily, they had a job opening for an administrative assistant. It was in this nonprofit education in their NY office after school so I got it and just moved to New York and like I worked there for almost three years and I was bored.
I decided – well, I thought also that I just have to go to law school. That seemed safe. I hated the LSAT’s – I just never took them and I was dating this guy in law school and he was like if there’s anything you think that you’d like to do more than this, try it first before you do this. I applied to this little nonprofit documentary writing program in Maine of all places and I got a scholarship. It was only a semester long. So it wasn’t like going to journalism school, I didn’t rack up debt, it was only a couple thousands dollars and I did an internship there, then I came back to New York and I just hustled, hustled, hustled. I got a job to pay the bills and I just pitched.
AIA: Yeah, I saw that you worked at Fashionista.com and the New York Daily News and was like ‘oh that’s so cool!’ I also noticed that you studied nonfiction writing and so I thought you wanted to be an author or something. But you just said you didn’t know like…at all.
LC: No idea.
LC: Well, I’ve always loved – I listened to the radio a lot. I loved NPR. I loved that long form storytelling and I loved nonfiction stories. But I had no idea and it was just like wherever took me. Like whoever hired me I was just like yeah.
AIA: So you were willing to do anything. That’s a good thing!
LC: Yeah yeah yeah! I mean, I think in the beginning, it’s good to be like okay let’s try it!
AIA: Whoever takes you, takes you.
LC: Yeah. It wasn’t like the New Yorker was going to be like, “We’ve been waiting for you.” You just have to try a whole bunch of things. And don’t be too precious about it. Like, it’s great to have standards and it’s always great to be ready to do whatever.
AIA: When did you know you’d be working in fashion?
LC: That happened completely by accident. I got a job at a magazine that folded 2 weeks after I got there. So that was a nice reality check of New York media! And that’s when I freelanced a lot. I ended up working for the New York Daily News for almost 3 years. I was at the features department which covered everything from like food, fashion, entertainment, tv, movie, books, like everything. And I just liked fashion a lot. The first week I started was fashion week. And they didn’t know what to do with me because I was brand new and they were so busy. So they were like: oh, you’ll just go to shows for us. Tell us what you see.
AIA: So how were your first fashion experiences like?
LC: One of my first full time days, and I was sitting in for my editor, so I was sitting front row at the BCBG show which is the first show of New York Fashion Week and I was sitting across from like Rihanna.
At that time, Rihanna wasn’t too cool to show up to a BCBG show. And I was like, how’d I get here?! And I liked it! And another thing, I was into Project Runway and they needed to do like video stand up after the show to sort of recap it. The girl that was supposed to do it got sick so I just like..filled in! They thought I was funny so I kept doing fashion stories! Then, Fashionista had an opening and I applied and ended up there. Yeah, I didn’t set up to do it.
AIA: I read that you assigned people to do fashion shows at Fashionista, do you do that here at ELLE.com? What’s the process like?
LC: It’s sort of about maintaining relationships with PR. The ones that are really important – the ones that are advertisers are the ones that you need to play nice with. I need to show up. Some of the smaller designers where it just looks nice for ELLE to be represented there, it doesn’t necessarily have to be me. If I can’t do it, then I decide which editors. At Fashionista, we tried to go to all the shows where I’d bring out lots of freelancers and just go through and assign out every show and I’d go to the bigger ones so that the PR would see me there and know I was there. In fashion, you probably have learned it’s a very sensitive industry with a lot of delicate egos. You have to make sure that everyone is happy. Yeah, you have to do your best.
AIA: How do you get into contact with the freelancers – do they contact you or do you have a set for each fashion week?
LC: No, it always changes. I mean it’s all a network of people that I have recruited – that I trust, that have freelanced for me in the past. It’s usually writers that I use throughout the year. I used to bring everyone in and be like we have to spread out and attack.
AIA: Spread out and attack – I like that!
LC: ‘Cause there are like 300 shows that week – it’s crazy!
TS: So crazy. How many do you cover then?
LC: It’s sort of different because at Fashionista, we used to actually write about the shows and review them and talked about what we saw. Here we don’t. No one cares. Our audience is so big like no one wants to read a really specific fashion review. So I’d probably go to like 3 shows a day.
AIA: I see that you know French, oui? Has it ever come in handy in this industry yet?
LC: Oh yeah! I’m in Paris twice a year. It’s really helpful – it’s dusty though! I lived with a French family when I studied there so it was good then but it’s still like very useful.
AIA: Who was your mentor?
LC: Most of my mentors are like peer mentors. My co-editor when I started at Fashionista, Lauren Sherman, – is still one of my good friends. And also someone if I’m weighing a career decision or a tough work decision, I’ll ask her about it. Same with Jessica Gross who was at that first magazine that I said that folded – she’s a writer and I met her there. Same thing, I’ll ask her about any sort of difficult career decisions. And then my friend Jo Piazza who’s maybe like a year or two older than me so still not someone who I consider a mentor in the way you think that someone’s older than you but she definitely had a lot of experience in journalism. She was the one who was at this magazine, so even though that magazine did not work, I’ve met people that have helped me throughout my career so you know, doing this kind of thing, everywhere you go is super important. Because people will remember you and then they’ll answer an email or pick up the phone. It just makes a big difference. Jo is the one who helped me get my first clip at the Daily News, and then helped me get another one and then the other editor saw that I was reliable. So I kept getting more assignments and eventually they hired me.
AIA: What do you look for in an intern?
LC: Someone who has a great attitude, that makes a huge difference. Just somebody who’s willing to do anything. Like, no task too small, no task too big. Someone who asks the right questions and someone who can really pick up a lot quickly. Someone who can look at the way that things are being done and just someone who does the research, I guess. And then someone who just has great ideas. Think a little bit out the box. Wherever you are in your internship, I always think that it’s a great idea to learn that place really deeply and then you’ll have a sense of ‘okay you did this so I think this might work,’ you know?
AIA: Definitely. What’s your advice for interns then?
LC: Well, one is to do what you’re doing! Just ask everyone for 10 minutes to talk to them. Ask them for some advice and get to know them a little bit. Learn as much as you can and know that even if you think you’re doing a menial job, you’ll be learning a lot and I think it’s really just about making as many connections as you can. Like, even just making sure that every interaction that you’re doing is with a great attitude because out of every intern, that’s the thing that stands out. It’s like: ‘Oh! They were great, like always willing to help.’ That kind of thing. I remember that.
AIA: What are some things interns should know coming into the fashion industry?
LC: I guess they should just be ready to work. It’s not as glamorous as you might think at first. I mean I guess it sort of depends on what your vision of glamour is like. But you know getting to see a part of a fashion shoot – I think that’s really cool. I think expecting that you’ll be styling a shoot is… just have realistic expectations. Just be willing to put your head down and work hard. Before going into fashion, I think every intern should brush up on the industry. Know the big designer names. So when someone mentions someone and you don’t know who it is, you don’t feel like…who? Know the major players, know why something is a big deal – that kind of thing.
Hope you all enjoyed this segment! The next two weeks will basically be Internship Central posts (I’m talking style posts, videos, and more interviews!) Again, special thanks to Leah for agreeing to share her words of wisdom.
- Photos from ELLE.com