SINGAPORE, July 6 — It was the 10th anniversary release of The Devil Wears Prada last Friday. The movie’s success, though not foregone, was ripe. It hit the big screen at a time when the once-exclusive doors to the high fashion industry were more accessible than ever: Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi had worked with Target for the first-ever high-low fashion collaboration. That was soon followed by H&M’s collaboration with the Godfather of high fashion, Karl Lagerfeld. The runway was at store near you, and you could actually afford it.
Reality TV shows like America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway had also paved the way for the movie. For the first time, we were given backstage passes to the business, production and layers of the fashion industry, and we were entertained and addicted. Suddenly, we all knew the atrocities of sending a badly hemmed dress down the runway or how to tell if a budding model had the edge to make it. The vernacular of the fashion world had become mainstream.
The rise of fashion bloggers, arguably led by Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist, broke the final mystique and glamour. For the first time, fashion was being written, documented and critiqued by “ordinary” people for the layman. Anyone with a camera, a keen eye and Internet access could be a fashion editor. On the back of the democratisation of fashion, it was no surprise The Devil Wears Prada was an instant hit. It ticked all the right boxes — young, bright, provincial ingenue trying to pursue her dreams in the big city, one of the most iconic tyrannical bosses in film history, juicy insights into the legendary Anna Wintour of Vogue (whom the book is based on), the glitzy setting of a high fashion magazine and an endless spread of fashion porn.
Fast forward a decade, I doubt anyone could buy the fantasy of The Devil Wears Prada.
The fantasy of the book
In the movie, the mockup of the upcoming issue of the magazine Runway, also known ominously as The Book, is sacred. The Book is only completed after editorial meetings, photoshoots, and endless discussions of, say, which belt should be used. The devil is in the details and everyone slaves to make The Book perfect. Perfect, of course according to the exacting demands of the editor-in-chief, Miranda Priestley (played by Meryl Streep).
Today, a magazine does not have the luxury of being just a book. With falling advertising revenue and readership, diversification is not an option. E-commerce, online content, social media presence, TV shows... fashion magazines have had to reach far and wide to keep their readers’ attention and, more importantly, advertisers happy. The editor of a fashion magazine today is less of an artisan of The Book but more chief operations officer.
Runway’s lack of any digital presence would have been glaring today. Miranda Priestley would have been less of a formidable visionary of fashion and more of an editor from the old world who refuses to acknowledge that the golden era of print was over.
‘How much is this costing me?’
In today’s challenging climate, editors of print magazines are under pressure to keep costs low. Even back in 2007 when I first joined a top young women’s fashion magazine as an editorial assistant, the editorial team was lean. While I had to assist the team with their administrative tasks and take the editor’s calls (and once in a while, her coffee), I was also expected to write for the magazine. These days, in efforts to cut cost, teams are leaner than ever. Some local publishing companies have done away with sub-editors, and writers are expected to sell and produce advertorials, produce video, online and social media content. Every member of an editorial team is expected to do more than ever.
So to have not just one but two assistants to pick up your calls, hang up your coats and help you remember people at a party a la Devil Wears Prada? That was silly but a fun fantasy to relish 10 years ago. Today, it’s a painful reminder. To spend US$300,000 (RM1.4 million) on a photoshoot, and then decide to throw it out (as seen in the movie)? That doesn’t make you an uncompromising editor; it makes you an inefficient one who’ll probably be out of a job soon.
One of the reasons The Devil Wears Prada was culturally significant for its time is because it captured a generation of millennials’ fear of losing their identity to their job. Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) could barely have a meal with her father, and risked her relationship and friendships to do her job. The entire workforce of Runway was made of willing slaves, all seeing their rites of passage as some necessary, sadistic course that must be taken to make it in the industry.
That was when jobs at a fashion magazine were coveted and revered, despite its notoriously measly pay. Today, print publishers face the challenge of trying to convince fresh graduates that they can provide career growth and longevity. Not an easy sell when it’s common knowledge that print writers have less market value than writers with digital experience, and major brands like Cosmopolitan and Seventeen have ceased operations in the past decade.
Andy’s epiphany and final decision to leave Runway wouldn’t have been triumphant today. Most of us would have wondered: Why didn’t Andy just quit and freelance from the get-go? — TODAY
*Cheong Kamei went from editorial assistant to become the former editor of a women’s fashion magazine. She gave it up a la Andy in 2013 to open her own cafe.