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-ceilinged room. She took a seat in the front row.

It could have been a scene in which Ms. Brown calls a “BFM” or “bad fashion film”—a phrase she began using several years ago to describe the archetype of the fashion editor: elitist, egomaniacal and downright “Devil Wears Prada“-ish. A day earlier, publisher Dotdash Meredith announced that Ms. Brown’s job as editor-in-chief of InStyle magazine had been eliminated.

In her “BFM,” the scene would have played out like this: A fallen editor makes his first public appearance at a fashion show, strides into a cave of whispers and sidelong glances, as steely as ever.

Except that Ms. Brown was only about longest a regular fashion editor could get from the likes of Miranda Priestly. She didn’t show up that day wearing sunglasses and a cool smile. She wore beachy waves and a delicate smile. She hugged some seatmates and made them laugh 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 e.g. collect myself and then announce my next thing.”

Besides, she knew, “the power of blades isn’t what it used to be.” Years ago, social media leveled the playing field in fashion; on today’s front row, top editors are typically sandwiched between Instagram personalities and celebrity 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 deeply Parisian restaurant Le Voltaire. “My worth didn’t depend on being the editor-in-chief of InStyle.”

But oh, what power those fashion magazines once had. Raised in Sydney by a single mother, Ms. Brown waited tables as a teenager at a seafood restaurant, where she learned to tease adults about tips. Without the Internet, reading magazines felt like “jumping” oneself into other people’s worlds, she said. Working for magazines was all she ever wanted.

She moved to New York at 27, a week before September. 11, 2001. This was still an age of imperial editors, even though budgets were already shrinking. Ms. Brown had only been working at Talk magazine for a few weeks when she found out the magazine was it foldmidway through the production of a young hollywood photography by Melvin Sokolsky. (The concept was oiled actors hatching from eggs.)

In 2005, after short stays at W and Details, Ms. Brown began working at Harper’s Bazaar. The magazine’s editor at the time, Glenda Bailey, preferred theatrical photography, like Rihanna lounging in the mouth of a shark she called “coup.” One of Ms. Brown’s early coup involved to send “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 to befriend some very famous women. “I vividly remember a cheese board with sweaty cheese,” Jennifer Aniston wrote in an email describing her first interview with Ms. Brown at the Beverly Hills Hotel. (Ms. Brown later elaborated, “This rag 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 split from Brad Pitt. “I remember saying to her, ‘That’s too bad.'”)

Ms. Brown’s strong enthusiasm somehow made these women feel calmer, shifted the center of gravity away from them, and made them feel less alienated. Michelle Pfeiffer said she met Ms. Brown, while promoting a fragrance and carrying samples around to editors’ offices in a Ziploc bag: “Laura jumped on the couch like an 8-year-old and immediately diffused any nervousness I had.”

Kiernan Shipka met Ms. Brown when she was 12 while Harper’s Bazaar filmed one trip of the “Mad Men” actress’ high-end closet. “I’m getting ready in my bathroom and the clearest energy just comes through the door,” said Mrs. Shipka, now 23, recalled. Last month they found themselves in a restaurant, drinking champagne and dancing on the booths to Whitney Houston. “There’s no pressure to perform around her,” Ms. Shipka said.

Making friends with these women wasn’t complicated, Ms. Brown said. She wanted them to feel welcome; on the other hand, they saw her as a rarity in fashion. “A nice lady eating spaghetti,” said Ms. Brown said. She was not one of those “pointy people,” another term she uses for a certain kind of fashion person: exclusionary, intimidating, obsessed with hitting a “sandwich card of chic” (and also, she said, with wear pointed shoulder garments ).

“‘I’m wearing this, therefore I’m smart,'” said Mrs. Brown, whose own uniform leans toward floral tops and high-waisted, wide-leg jeans. “‘I have this body, therefore I am chic. I have been invited to this party, therefore I am chic.’ It’s not very imaginative.”

“When I was younger, I used to think that everyone in New York fashion was on some kind of freeway. More connected, more glamorous and smarter than me. And then you walk into the room and you’re like, ‘Oh,’— and here she almost cackles – “this is not Mensa.”

Ms. Brown was named editor of InStyle in 2016 after 11 years at Harper’s Bazaar. Her first cover was Emily Ratajkowski, wearing a white t-shirt designed by Virgil Abloh with “In” printed on the front and “Style” on the back. The message was: “Everyone is invited to the party,” said Ms. Brown said. Even when that party gets doomsday vibes like it did in 2020.

Still, the pandemic’s chaos 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 that instead of attending fashion weeks or advertiser trips, “you can buckle down on journalism itself,” 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 asked the New York Times 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 changed ownership when the company Dotdash acquired Meredith. Two months later, InStyle’s print publication ceased—along with Entertainment Weekly and others – and Ms. Brown was fired.

While she was concerned about younger people on her team, Ms. Brown felt relatively “sanguine,” she said. She “didn’t forge a wobble”, which is apparently an Australian term for “freak out”. (She also had a wedding to plan: In April, she married a 31-year-old writer named Brandon Borror-Chappell in Hawaii, who she met (who serves at the Sunset Tower Hotel in front of a whole bunch of famous friends while wearing a taffy pink off-shoulder custom Valentino dress.)

“So maybe I’ll get fewer handbags sent to me,” said Ms. Brown said before suddenly becoming 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 started thinking about her next moves.

These measures are clearer today: Ms. Brown will release a podcast in early 2023 called “So Seen,” made with Look at her (Ms. Brown advises or serves on the board of several nonprofits, including this one, devoted to the portrayal of women in marketing and media). She is executive producing a film about the fashion world with Bruna Papandrea, producer of “The Undoing” and “Big Little Lies” on HBO. She advises for luxury brands. She is working on a collaboration with the French brand Sezane.

At a dinner celebrating this collaboration in October, Ms. Brown was, true to form, straddling the roles of host and court jester, doing funny little dances and making quick introductions. (Laura Dern calls Ms. Brown “the great connection. There’s no conversation anybody 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, and filled a wall-sized bookcase with dozens of new jerseys, which were offered to each guest toward the end of the night. At first the actresses and supermodels and stylists hesitated. But once Ms. Brown began to hurl the knit at people like a human T-shirt gun, all pretense dropped. Women piled sweaters in their arms. No one was too cool about it. And there was something very Laura Brown about it.

“I always had a good sense of which fashion worlds I wanted to be in and which I didn’t,” she said. “I’m not that interested in the pointed ones. I like colors and creativity and generosity and warmth.”

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