One-on-one with the woman who put Rihanna in a fibreglass shark

A poster child for modern fashion publishing, we chat with international editorial powerhouse by way of the antipodes, Laura Brown

Following on from our recently unearthed and never-more relevant interview with Kiri Nathan, we’re back in the archives of Fashion in Focus, the podcast launched by Showroom 22 in lockdown 2020 to touch base with tastemakers from every corner of the industry and take stock of fashion’s past, present and future.

At the time, Laura Brown was the editor-in-chief of InStyle and was setting the standard for Covid-era pivots, creative directing cover shoots over Zoom and quietly painting a picture of an iPhone contacts list to rival Anna Wintour herself. In this exclusive excerpt, the New York-based, Australia-born fashion authority, editorial mastermind and celebrity fave shares insights on fashion publishing, female empowerment (spoiler: she hates the word), and getting Rihanna inside a fibreglass shark.

On no-bullshit bosses: 

“The 11 years I had at Harper’s Bazaar with Glenda [Bailey, former editor-in-chief] would have been equivalent to 50 years anywhere else. She was really pushy, really no bullshit, and very dramatic at the same time. She would ask the most outrageous things of you. And then, if she got it 10 percent of the time, it would be a victory. She was hard for some people but I think there are just certain characters that work with certain characters. She’s really indefatigable and she’s very stubborn. But that’s how she’s had her life and career. She’s seen and navigated through things for years and years and years that, if I’d faced them I would have wilted. She’s the most tenacious woman I’ve ever met. I used to call her ‘Tenacious G’, and she had no idea what Tenacious D the band was, so I had to explain it.”

On her most famous Harper’s Bazaar cover:

“This story perfectly sums up the Glenda-Laura dynamic. Glenda had come from Marie Claire, and she’s a trophy. I like to torture people, but she’d be like, ‘Would she swim with sharks?’ And I was the one that had to manage expectations and be like, well we’ll see. So we had been talking about sharks, and I happened to remember that it was a 40th anniversary of Jaws. Do you remember that image? There’s a big, fake shark, and it’s a young Spielberg in super dorky shorts, big white ankle socks pulled right up, and kind of just effing around in the mouth of this shark. I always loved that. And I always loved taking those popular culture images that subvert the idea of something – in this case, the idea of the scary shark – and seeing where we could go with it.”

On putting Rihanna in the shark: 

“I knew when I was talking to Rihanna’s people that it was good. I knew it was layered. I knew that there was a way to make it glamorous, and for that to make sense. But the execution was pretty funny. We made this shitty looking shark in…I think it was in Long Island. It was very obviously a fibreglass shark and it had fake blood all over it. Then they drove it down to Tampa, where the aquarium was that we were shooting at. When they actually shot it, it was in a hallway against a backdrop of black garbage bags, and Rihanna has this red neck cushion under her, and the whole thing looks ridiculous. But then, thanks to the wonders of Photoshop, we pop it in the ocean.”

On fashion editor camaraderie:

“It’s that little tacit understanding that you have with the people in the same boat as you. I get on with every editor here [in New York]. I mean, I wouldn’t say I’m gabbing it up with Anna, but who is? But you end up sitting next to each other at an event and you just…it’s a massive download. Like, I have this outlet to gossip or go on about the industry or my life or whatever, with somebody who implicitly understands, while we wait 20 minutes for this show to start. And then you might not see them again for months on end. It’s really weird but I like it.”

On dealing with egos: 

“I think something that’s served me well is I don’t envy anyone. I don’t want to be them. I always say I’m respectful, but I’m not reverent. And I learned that from getting to know Karl Lagerfeld. When I first met him I was absolutely shitting myself. And then I walk in the room and he’s like, “Do you want to see my bathroom?” And we become fast mates, because we just spar. And at that point I’m like, ‘Well, I deserve to be in the room, too’. I’ve never lost my appreciation of people, but the mythologising I don’t do anymore.”

On owning your place:

“I always thought that New York was a super highway where everyone was more clever, more brilliant, more connected, better looking, and more brilliant than me. And then you get here, and you work a few years and then you’re in a meeting, and then you’re running the meeting and you’re like, ‘Hang on – is this the girl from the farm?” And the blinds sort of come up on your eyes. Being from Australia or New Zealand, we’re self-deprecating and you have to get over that. I have real ownership over what I do now. And now I’m the one telling other women all the time, ‘No, you can be proud of what you did. You had a good idea, you achieved something’. But I had to really work through a lot of that behavioural stuff that we come to the States with, that we bring with us from home.”

Laura Brown, a selfie in Australia

On female empowerment:

“I have a lot of feelings about this. I loathe the word empowerment, I think it’s so patronising. And I also think all these women’s conferences – and I’ve been to a great many – actually reinforce the glass ceiling by talking about how hard it is. I don’t spend a lot of time acknowledging what my own perceived weaknesses are in the world. I’ve had the benefit of coming up in the fashion business, which is not like some boys’ club, but my bosses are all still men. And I think a lot of those women’s platforms come about in a really limp, milk toast kind of way, which is pandering to women who just want to go and have their picture taken with Arianna Huffington or whatever, you know what I mean? You’ve seen it. It’s just panels, it’s useless. It’s just a lot of gibbety gabbity.”

On instigating InStyle’s Badass issue:

“It was 2018, and Trump had announced the ban on trans people in the military. I came into the office and I was fucking pissed. Obviously we all were, it was so outrageous. And I said to my features team, ‘We need to find a trans woman who’s serving in the armed forces and we need to interview her’. We found a woman called Jennifer Peace, and she’s served in every tour of her generation since Kuwait. She had had three children and was married and all of a sudden she was potentially going to get chucked out of the armed forces. As I was reading about her, I was just like to myself, ‘What a badass’. And the idea for the Badass issue was born.

“I put Serena Williams on the cover of the first Badass issue along with a Badass 50, and corporate were like, ‘Badass?  Can’t you call it changemakers?’ And I’m thinking like, can you just stop marketing and second-guessing for one minute and accept that it’s Badass? That’s what it is, and it’s been awesome. It’s the strongest thing we do. I mean, no woman dislikes being called a badass. If you work in a grocery store or you are curing cancer, it is such a point of pride for women.”

On being labelled ‘a breath of fresh air’:

“Obviously, it’s lovely to hear. But sometimes I’m like, why am I considered so unusual? Why am I the different one when I’m kind, fun, clever, and have ideas I can execute? Why is that such a departure from the norm, and why am I told that all the time? I find it a bit of a bummer.”

On her A-list besties:

“It’s the mythologising thing again, but a lot of these women like Jen Aniston – I must have done six, seven, eight covers with her over the years – and I think that you do [as women] develop a sort of shorthand. I’m close with Christy Turlington now, but when I first met her, my God, I think it was like 1997 or something. And she was doing some yoga tour in Sydney, and I turned up with a bad haircut and a hangover and she was all glorious. And I remember confessing to her that I had a hangover, because she was so nice. And now, 20-something years later, you just end up in each other’s worlds, because they are just ladies. And I really love the broads.”

Listen to the full conversation with Laura Brown here.