She’s the chicer, cooler older sister you wish you had — one with all the ins on the best stuff, one you want to have a glass of wine with. Sure, Eva Chen’s the first Asian American editor-in-chief in the Condé Nast publishing empire and the youngest EIC at a major American fashion publication, but don’t let her trailblazing, history-making ways intimidate you. The Lucky magazine #girlboss is redefining what it means to be an editor in the 21st century and leading the charge for print to thrive in an increasingly digital world, one hashtag at a time.
Eva Chen has just returned from a trip. “I took a very long, long, long vacation,” she says. “It was approximately three days.
“But it was my first time really and truly away,” she quickly adds. At a destination spa in the Poconos, Chen says she tried fly-fishing, took an upside-down yoga class, attempted to meditate (“which is the opposite of my personality, so it was 25 minutes of agony”), went wine tasting to sample local Hudson Valley and Pennsylvania vintages, and finished two books. “I know you’re not supposed to be like, I accomplished a lot on my vacation,” she says, “but I do feel like I accomplished a lot during my vacation.”
Even during a short getaway, Chen is a to-do-list-checking master. But that just may be her modus operandi, especially since her ascent to the position of editor-in-chief of Lucky magazine, Condé Nast’s publication devoted to shopping and personal style. On any given day, six floors above Times Square, Chen may be finishing up one of her more than a dozen appointments, responding to hundreds of reader emails, getting primped for a photo shoot, holding a biweekly mentoring interview with a young future editor, or sifting through hundreds of photos, trying to decide, perhaps, which photo of Dakota Fanning should be the one to grace the cover of Lucky’s September 2014 issue.
These are just a few of her duties as the top editor, a position she describes as “four simultaneous jobs.” But the post ultimately comes down to making choices on stories and photos that will connect to the fashion magazine’s readers. If her choices result in an increase in the number of subscribers and website visits, that will surely make the publisher and advertising sales people happy. And it just might please her boss, the notoriously hard-to-please Anna Wintour.
But even here, in the rarefied publishing air at 4 Times Square, headquarters for the Condé Nast empire (which includes titles like Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Bon Appétit), there’s one person whose opinion may hold even more sway: Chen’s mother, who follows her 34-year-old daughter on Instagram. The other 200,000-plus followers of Chen’s social media musings are eager to weigh in, too, on everything from pictures of her outfits (accessorized with her signature peace signs), the beauty products she’s gone through, her famous fashion friends who stop by her office, and her shoe-bag combo for the day posted on the commute to work. Chen gets thousands of comments, and she wholeheartedly welcomes the feedback.
“I’m cultivating Lucky into a lifestyle brand,” says Chen, “and I want people to get a sense of what it’s like to be a magazine editor.”
It was the summer of 2013 when Condé Nast’s Artistic Director and Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour tasked Chen with rebranding Lucky and relaunching its website. In the process, Chen not only became the youngest editor of a major U.S. fashion magazine but also the first Asian American to hold the top editorial position at a Condé Nast title. Lucky, originally modeled after Japanese shopping publications, had changed the fashion magazine formula when it debuted in December 2000, but was hit hard by the 2008 recession and in need of a boost. Chen, who started as a beauty writer at Elle magazine in 2002 and spent seven years at Teen Vogue as beauty and health director, as well as special projects editor, now works directly with Wintour on the direction of Lucky. “She is the pre-eminent magazine editor, so to learn directly from her has been a great privilege,” says Chen.
But where Vogue is aspirational, Lucky is accessible, and that’s a reflection of Chen. As part of a younger generation of technologically savvy editors and writers (she organizes the twice-a-year Lucky Fashion and Beauty Blog conferences, a.k.a. FABB, that connects everyday style bloggers to celebrities, models and stylists), Chen knows the importance of stepping into the spotlight and actively making connections both in person and online. Her Klout score, which measures a person’s online influence on a scale of 1 to 100, is more than 70 (which is generally considered celebrity level). And from 2013 to 2014, Lucky saw a 34 percent growth in its social media footprint.
With the help of the virtual world, Lucky is being talked about again, as it brings in a new demographic. Currently, the average reader of the magazine is 38 years old, but according to Condé Nast metrics posted online, users of the website, for which Chen is still trying to work out the bugs from a recent redesign, are younger and more affluent. A year into her tenure, the total circulation of Lucky is at 1.1 million, and the website gets 22 million hits a month. As of May 2014, Lucky had added 18.7 percent more pages to its publication, with a 2.1 percent gain in ad pages and 41 new advertisers, including high-end luxury retailers Fendi and Louis Vuitton.
And it’s not just the advertising. Unlike most fashion magazines where high-fashion runway photos are staples, the editorial pages of Lucky are filled with street style shots and street style-inspired spreads. Fashion and beauty bloggers contribute regularly, and there is a distinctly more multiethnic look to the faces on the pages. As soon as she took the helm at Lucky, Chen asked the casting director to find a more diverse selection of models, and the change was evident from the start. Chen’s debut issue, September 2013, alone featured the Asian faces of fashion director Anne Keane, photographer Phil Oh, blogger Esther Quek, TV host Alexa Chung, magazine editor Caroline Issa, and models Pan Yan, Bonnie Chen, Tao Okamoto, Chanel Iman and Liu Wen. Chen is especially proud of the recent May issue, which features a particularly cool looking Indian model, Natasha Ramachandran, in a summer beauty spread called “A Look of One’s Own.”
“There are so many stylish women on social media that will redefine what beauty is,” says Chen, citing YouTube makeup sensation Michelle Phan and super bloggers like Aimee Song. “I hope that has a trickle-down effect. I’m really inspired by what they’re doing.”
Chen herself should be added to that list. When she posts a picture on Instagram previewing this cover story for Audrey and soliciting questions, she gets more than 600 likes within 10 minutes. Her followers want to know everything from where she got her adorable Hello Kitty iPhone case to how good her Chinese is. One follower writes, “Thank you so much for being so relatable — you’re a role model, and sometimes it makes me tear up when I think about you and other Asian American creatives … being visible for the little Asian American kids right now. They have you all to look up to, and that’s really something.”
“I always wanted a sister,” says Chen, whose only sibling is an older brother. “I think that’s why I always gravitated towards fashion and media, so I can be the older sister and dispense the advice.”
Fashion and journalism weren’t always in the cards for Chen, however. Growing up in New York’s Greenwich Village with a Taiwanese mother and a Shanghainese father, Chen was an English and creative writing major on a pre-med track at Johns Hopkins University when she decided to change directions and pursue journalism. Her parents — whose immigrant story is fairly typical, with her father working at a restaurant in Chinatown before starting his own business, “making everything happen so that my brother and I could go to the best schools we had available to us” — were shocked and confused, but not necessarily disappointed.
“The lack of perceived stability [in the media world] can be intimidating,” says the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism alum. “My parents are very supportive because they truly want me to be happy. I think it helps I don’t ask them for money for groceries,” she laughs.
Despite having gone to an Upper East Side all-girls school with few Asian classmates, Chen has always embraced her Asian-ness, having served as president of the Asian American Association and then as vice president of the Chinese Student Association in college. “I’m always the first to say I’m Chinese American, first-generation American, child of immigrants, and my parents made everything possible for me,” she says. Her family speaks “Chinglish” at their regular get-togethers, where they still eat Chinese food “like almost every night.” And even someone in Chen’s position is not immune to your typical immigrant parent’s, shall we say, reticence to compliment.
“My parents’ generation of Asian parents are not the kind of people to say they’re so proud, or ‘good for you,’ or ‘congratulations.’” Chen adds, good-naturedly, “My mom very kindly sends me a critique of the magazine every single month. Yeah, she does that. It’s very Asian. Which is at once comedic and yet also still hair-tearing-out-y.”
That being said, Chen admits that if a young woman comes up to them at a restaurant and starts gushing, her parents “find it kind of bewildering, but I think secretly gratifying, even though I don’t think they would ever tell me that to my face.”
One way her parents are atypical is in their silence about her having kids with her British husband, Tom Bannister, whom she met while studying abroad at Oxford her senior year. “They see how I’m putting literally every fiber of my being into this position,” she says. “I’ve been at this magazine for nine months, which is about the time it takes to give birth to child, and I think they know how tunnel vision I’ve been about that.”
Being Asian has “always been a part of who I am,” says Chen. “I think in the fashion and media industry today, there are so many people pretending to be something they’re not — personality-wise, image-wise, lifestyle-wise. And for me, I am who I am. I’ve never really had a reason to question that. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve never had to ask myself, ‘Did I not get this because I’m Asian?’”
Recognizing the tie to the growing Chinese market abroad, Chen sees fashion as being quicker to embrace the Asian face, not just the designers but in the modeling industry as well. She cites Liu Wen, whom she considers a friend, and Korean American Soo Joo Park, whose blond locks kicked off a trend. “But there are still not enough,” she says, adding, “The fact I can name every Asian working in fashion — is that a good thing or bad thing? I don’t know, but it’s a fact.”
But if fashion still has a ways to go, Hollywood, in Chen’s mind, is woefully in the dark ages. Though she calls herself “a very even-keeled person,” she speaks passionately when the conversation turns to the lack of Asian faces in Hollywood. “You know that classic icebreaker question: Who would play you in a movie? And I’m always like, ‘Well, I don’t know, maybe Morgan Freeman, maybe Melissa McCarthy.’ Because there aren’t enough Asians.
“It makes me really angry,” she continues. “I don’t understand how it’s still OK for certain shows to have humor that’s directed against Asians that would not be OK for many other ethnicities.” She mentions one sitcom with an unflattering Asian male character (though she admits she hasn’t watched in a few years, she says, “I watched that show once and I had to turn it off … I was horrified”), as well as a tech industry-based series that offends her “feminist streak” by its lack of female representation. “There’s one woman; she has a secretarial role,” she says. “That kind of thing I find outrageous, especially because I know so many strong, smart women in tech who are just changing the world.”
Chen hopes that Hollywood will one day catch up to other industries, like hers, that have more Asian Americans in positions of power. She can’t wait to sit down someday with Janice Min, the former editor-in-chief of Us Weekly who is now running The Hollywood Reporter. Chen has also recently chatted over lunch with Joyce Chang, the newly minted editor-in-chief for Self magazine.
Asian American women specifically, says Chen, start with a handicap of appearing quiet and passive. “It took me 30 years to get comfortable with myself. You have to work harder to be heard. Standing up for yourself is the hardest thing to do.”
When Chen first landed the coveted EIC title, it was the minority designers who were among the first to reach out to her. Of course, she knows them on a first-name basis: Jason (Wu), Phillip (Lim), Carol and Humberto (Lim and Leon, respectively, of Kenzo and Opening Ceremony). And on the occasion of her Audrey photo shoot — which marks the first time she’s gracing the cover of a magazine — she called in only Asian American designers from the Lucky closet.
As she’s getting her hair and makeup done for the shoot, dressed in a chic sweater and Topshop heeled loafers that she’s already shown to her Instagram followers on the way to work, she is multitasking, a mock layout of the next issue taped on the adjacent wall. And who could blame her? In addition to editing the monthly magazine on a day-to-day basis, Chen is responsible for coming up with new ideas for the brand. (Condé Nast just announced a spin-off e-commerce platform, with Chen as its chief creative officer.) And yet she insists on nine hours of shut-eye a night, something she has previously called her secret to staying sane.
During a time when the magazine industry is in flux and struggling to stay relevant in a digitally fragmented world, Chen remains, as always, “glass half-full.” With each post and hashtag, she’s bridging the gap between consumer generations and breaking down barriers.
“For me, it’s been about bringing a fresh perspective,” says Chen. “Lucky’s a magazine about shopping, but it’s also a magazine about personal style. I think that’s the elusive thing that everyone’s trying to figure out right now.
“And we don’t talk down to you,” she adds. “The voice that Lucky pioneered was this friendly, accessible, we’re-your-best-friend voice. If you see us in real life, we’d invite you to sit down with us and have a glass of wine or go shopping with us.”
Though Chen admits she may be losing readers of a certain demographic — she cites a letter from a 52-year-old first-time grandmother who says she no longer identifies with the content — for every one letter like that, Chen gets three letters from 20-somethings who are discovering the magazine for the first time or former subscribers who are rediscovering it. “Every letter that I get like that — I’m not gonna lie — brings a tear to my eye and makes me so, so, so happy,” she says.
Chen still remembers being a 21-year-old intern at Harper’s Bazaar, walking through Times Square, with its tourists buzzing and giant billboards flashing, and passing by what was then a newly built Condé Nast Building, with aspirations of being part of the story- telling going on inside.
Thirteen years later, ensconced on its sixth floor, Chen looks like a pro, seamlessly changing from one outfit to the next for her photo shoot. But she retains the spirit of that 21-year-old intern, as she acknowledges that she’s still learning on the job. “I feel very grateful to be even in this position,” says Chen. “My entire career has been a great risk and a great adventure.”
Story by Ko Im, with contributions by Anna M. Park and Ada Tseng.
Photos by Conan Thai.
Makeup by Brian Duprey, hair by Chris Lospalluto.