I have to be honest. I am not a fashionista, so I didn’t know anything about Laura Brown when she was named editor-in-chief of InStyle magazine last August.
But with all of the buzz surrounding Brown’s appointment, I took a look at her Instagram account and was surprised by what I saw. Here was this ultimate fashion insider jetting off to Paris for the shows and hobnobbing with fashion icons like Giorgio Armani, Diane von Furstenberg and Karl Lagerfeld, yet she seemed anything but unapproachable in the way that some fashion people are. Always mugging for the camera or hugging someone, I saw that Brown loves pasta, likes to goof around with her comedian boyfriend Brandon Borror-Chappell and isn’t always dressed to the nines.
The Australian is also an unabashed supporter of women. Prior to the presidential election, Brown posed in a Hillary Clinton sweatshirt, and after the election, she posted photos of herself at the Women’s March on Washington, proudly wearing a pink pussyhat.
Curious about how this funny, down-to-earth and unpretentious person got to where she is in an industry full of people who want to be seen as serious, elite and perfect, I requested an interview with Brown and was awarded an hour of her time in February during New York Fashion Week.
As I enter Brown’s small, modest and neat office, a Time Inc. publicist introduces me as Christine Champagne (which is my name in case you didn’t catch my byline), and she gets up from her desk to greet me with a smile and a hug. “They used to call me Champagne Brown back in Australia,” Brown tells me as I set up my digital recorder on her desk, immediately confirming the impression I got of her via Instagram—she is warm, welcoming and funny.
I am here to talk about her background and how she rose to the top of the magazine game (Brown is the first Australian to run a major New York fashion magazine). I immediately learn that Brown spent the first few years of her life on a dairy farm two hours outside of Sydney. “My father Richard Brown was literally Farmer Brown. He had dairy cows and was the closest thing to a dairy celebrity,” she says, explaining that he would travel to all the big cattle shows with his livestock.
Her parents split up when she was five, and Brown and her mother Lola left the farm and moved to Sydney, where she had a humble upbringing. But Brown never felt limited in her ambitions. “I had delusions of grandeur from a young age,” she says.
It was in 1988 while Brown was watching a broadcast of the International Woolmark Awards, which were being handed out to the world’s top fashion designers at the Sydney Opera House, that she realized her calling. “It was a big hullabaloo. Australia, especially then, was deeply invested in having international validation, having people from Paris come to Sydney. I just thought it was the most glamorous thing I had ever seen,” she says. “I was 14. I loved fashion before that, but I remember it crystallizing then.”
Obsessed with magazines and viewing them as a way into the fashion world she so wanted to be a part of, Brown enrolled in Sydney’s Charles Sturt University when she was 17. “In college, when everyone was spending money on pot, I’d be buying American Vogue and American Bazaar,” she says.
Eager to get out into the real world, Brown, who was doing internships at magazines throughout college, left to work full-time at Australian Family in her last year, and she was awarded a B.A. in arts and communications after completing her degree by correspondence. “The good thing about the degree is it was very vocational—they wanted you out there in the world,” she says.
Australian Family eventually shut down, and Brown next went to work as a production editor at a Sydney fashion magazine called Mode, where she was constantly offering to write. “I would put my hand up for the news pages, or a trend page, and I would sit there after work and do it. It got me in the door,” she says. “I was learning with each issue.”
She was at Mode for two years, saved some cash and moved to London when she was 21, sharing a flat with five roommates, “one of whom lived under a piano in the living room.” Her goal was to amass a portfolio of international clips, and Brown spent the two years her visa allowed her to stay in London freelancing as much as possible while working jobs at an advertising agency, the BBC and Australian Consolidated Press.
Brown paid to fly herself to Paris to cover fashion shows, sneaking in when she didn’t have credentials. While she sits in the front row like a boss nowadays, Brown didn’t have a great view of the runway back then. “I was sitting so far back I was just seeing torsos,” she says, noting she took photos with a disposable camera.
As driven as she was, Brown didn’t necessarily have a grand plan as for how her career would progress. “I would just propel myself to whatever I could. I didn’t get hysterical about it. I didn’t write lists or anything,” she says, describing herself as a surfer who moved from one thing to the next.
While Brown was in London, Mode had become the Australian edition of Harper’s Bazaar, and upon returning to Sydney, she took a job at the magazine as features editor. She didn’t plan to stay in Sydney for good, though. Her heart was in New York City. She had popped over to visit the Big Apple during her stint in London, staying at Manhattan’s Hotel 17, and knew she had to find a way to live in the city. Interestingly, what Brown remembers most vividly from that trip was eating at a diner. “I went to a diner, and I was like, ‘This is a diner! I can get pancakes. It’s like a movie!’ I was just like, ‘What is this movie that I’m in?’ “
Of course, it was more than diner pancakes that drew Brown to New York City, a place that she viewed as the epicenter of creativity. “I thought New York was this kind of amazing superhighway where everybody was more brilliant and more creative and more clever and more stylish than me,” she says, adding, “I didn’t look down on myself. It’s just that, I’m from here, and it is up there—New York was my Oz, and that’s totally a pun!”
After saving up $5,000 in American money, Brown left Sydney and moved to New York City in September 2001, just days before 9/11. She was admitted to the country on a foreign journalist visa and was writing for magazines outside of the U.S., sending her checks back home to Australia for her mother to deposit in her bank account.
She was excited to get a job at Tina Brown’s Talk, but it didn’t last long. Brown recounts being at a photo shoot with actor Gabriel Macht for the magazine. “He was oiled up and pretending he was emerging from an egg,” Brown says. It was a fun shoot until Brown got word that Talk was folding. “I just said, ‘Everyone, eat the catering.’ “
Brown’s career path would also include stints as senior editor at W and articles editor at Details—another magazine that went kaput—before she joined Harper’s Bazaar, the magazine gig that put her on the map. “I went straight into the loving arms of [Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief] Glenda Bailey,” Brown says, “and I stayed there for 11 years.”
Starting at Harper’s Bazaar as articles editor, Brown rose to executive director and during her time at the magazine, she landed big interviews with Janet Jackson and Hillary Clinton among others and booked covers.
Brown excelled at producing visuals, working with the likes of artist Cindy Sherman and director Pedro Almodóvar—”I love to collaborate,” she says—and often blending pop culture with fashion. In one of her most memorable contributions to the magazine, Brown made fashion stars out of The Simpsons when she produced a Harper’s Bazaar style feature that depicted the animated characters posing around Paris in haute couture with an animated version of supermodel Linda Evangelista.
Given her outgoing personality, it was a natural step for Brown to host Harper Bazaar‘s digital series The Look and In and Out of Fashion with Laura Brown on the Made2Measure channel. She was also a judge on Bravo’s The Fashion Show, upping her profile.
Brown’s flair for social media also helped spread her recognition. She first took to Instagram, which she calls “the magazine of your life,” while she was at Harper’s Bazaar to give people a glimpse into the fashion world. “What’s always fascinated me about this glamorous universe is it’s like a pond, and there’s ducks in a pond, and they’re gliding around and gliding around. But I’ve always seen the legs. You know what I mean? So I like to make [fashion] a bit more human,” Brown says.
As for how authentic she is on social media, Brown can’t imagine being anyone but herself. “I eat pasta. I have hangovers sometimes. I come from Australia. I didn’t have any money when I grew up. I have an uncynical view of how exciting things are [in this business],” she says. “It’s important for the ones coming up below me to see real girls can succeed, and it’s really important to me to be open and not just be like a bad fashion movie.”
Brown, whose editorial skills, as well as her social media prowess, won her the editorship of InStyle, is encouraging of those who want to work in magazines, but she points out that people entering the business have to realize that a magazine is not merely printed matter. “We are a brand. We are a communication brand, and we are 360. Print is fed by online, and we have to be very special and beautiful because we’re out once a month. Working on a magazine is a digital enterprise as well as a print one,” she stresses. “There’s no distinction anymore. So you can’t come in and be like, ‘Oh, I have to work online?’ Of course, you do.”
Our hour is up, and Brown is off to see a Marc Jacobs show. “Marc Jacobs needs me!” she declares, then says, “Well, he doesn’t really need me.”