Style Editor Merle Ginsberg Talks Fashion
Journalist John Wisniewski Meets with Merle Ginsberg on Fashion, Her Inspiration and Trends
The legendary Merle Ginsberg is a woman wearing many hats, including fashion editor, blogger and television personality. She has served as a judge on the first and second seasons of RuPaul's Drag Race and also appeared on Bravo's Launch My Line as a contestant. We met up with the fashion icon to talk about her passion for fashion and where the industry is headed.
1. Why did you choose the fashion industry, Merle?
A: I don't recall ever being conscious of "choosing" it. It chose me. Look, does anyone really know how this works? How your passions become your passions? How they change and morph over the years? My mother's mother was a seamstress. She was so good at it that when my mother was a teenager growing up in Philadelphia, my grandmother would go downtown, look in the store windows, sketch the most fashionable dresses – then make them for my mom! I went to elementary school in New Jersey with a bunch of rich hotel owners' kids – they all had the coolest clothes – whatever was trendy at the time. I never could. So I started babysitting, doing little jobs here and there, so I could make money to make clothes that allowed me to "keep up with" my friends. That's how it started. My mom took me to department stores, window shopping. They seemed like the most glamorous places in the world to me. In 7th grade, girls had to take Home Economics – it was mandatory. The minute I got into sewing class, it all came so naturally. Not long after that, I was making all of my own clothes. I loved it. It was highly creative work, and it took all of my focus. I also began reading fashion magazines at a pretty young age. And I had relatives, aunts and uncles, in New York City, so we'd go there every few months. It all combined to make fashion loom very large in my life. I remember sketching designs from a very young age. I probably should have been a designer – but I loved books and reading. I had a very big life inside my head. Writing flowed very naturally for me, I was writing poetry as a kid (still do). The pull from both the outer life – clothing, design – and the inner life – words, ideas, poetic prose – mutated together, and I wound up a fashion journalist. Though I do write about many other aspects of culture, that's probably the one I'm best known for. There were many other careers I considered (still do, which is rather humorous at this point). First, I wanted to be an actress. Then a puppeteer. Then a teacher. Then a college professor of literature. Then a TV host, an interviewer. Somehow or other, I've wound up being able to do all of it – to some degree.
2. Any current trends in fashion that you see?
Fashion is made up of trends. It is ALL TRENDS. So, I really don't understand the question. ALL I see are trends.
You kind of can't miss them. In February, when the fall 2023 fashion shows commence in NY and Europe, the entire trend palette will shift. But right now – winter 2022/2023? Sequins. Silver. Maxi coats. Leather everything. The color pumpkin – or any shade of orange. Neutrals. Off-whites, cream colors. Monotone outfits. Solids – prints have virtually disappeared. Knitwear. Leopard (I know, we're all yawning – but leopard is now a neutral). Flared cropped pants. Platform shoes, patent leather everything, obviously fake vinyl coats and bags. I could go on for days. No, months. For men now, it's all about color, clingy suits (that's been going on for decades now), metallics, flocked fabrics for black tie, tonal colors worn together, longer coats, leather everything, dress shoes that look like sneakers – AND INCREDIBLE EYEWEAR. Maybe the most important accessory now is WEARING GLASSES. Tinted glasses indoors, at night. Lots of aviator frames with tinted lenses. Lots of clear rectangular frames as well.
3. What's it like working at Los Angeles magazine?
I had never worked at a city magazine before I started working at Los Angeles magazine in January of 2019.
I started as a freelancer there when my great old friend and the world's best editor (seriously) Maer Roshan became editor in chief. Maer was born for this job. He had been the editor of New York Magazine for years, had worked closely with Tina Brown at Talk, ran The Daily Beast, and created digital properties Radar and The Fix, both of which he sold to major media companies. He grew up in Los Angeles. We became friends in the heyday of the New York media (the 1990's), then both moved to L.A. He also did a stint of freelance editing and writing for The Hollywood Reporter when I was style editor there (I was there from 2010 to 2016).
Maer is the perfect combo of traits for an editor in chief to have: he's fast on his feet, funny as hell, has brilliant insights into story ideas and writers to fulfill them – he hires excellent people. And he also happens to be kind, decent and a very loyal friend. He very quickly assembled a great team to take over this magazine - some from its original staff, some people from THR, Vogue, LA Times, NY Times, Bazaar, etc. Total pros.
His version of the magazine really shocked this town. LA magazine had always been a rather bland book: "LA's Best Walks," "LA's Best Restaurants," etc. Glorified lists. He remade it as a combo of New York Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter and a big-city newspaper. Both the magazine and website have improved a million fold in all areas. We've won awards and gotten a ton of press. I was hired as full-time style editor in March 2020, right as the pandemic hit! We all have worked from home for almost 3 years. I can't believe we pulled it off. LA Mag was owned this whole time by Hour Media, based in Detroit. That company is known for small-city magazines that are fairly generic – that is NOT the magazine we produced. We were very lucky to have recently been taken over by an L.A.-based consortium of major lawyers called Engine Vision Media. We're going to be based in DTLA and have bigger budgets, bigger scope – it's all very exciting.
My job there is to produce fashion pages, be on top of major trends, and write stories on not just style and beauty but cultural subjects (art, awards shows, celebrity interviews, plus humor pieces) as well. I do it all: write, edit, research, style fashion shoots. I cover major fashion shows and events in Los Angeles, but often attend them in New York as well. I'm sure it all sounds terribly glamorous to anyone outside media, fashion or entertainment. I realize that this March 2023, I will have covered OSCAR FASHION ON THE RED CARPET – for thirty years!!! I think I'm considered the absolute expert on that topic. It might be a dubious achievement – as I originally wanted to be a novelist, poet and professor – but I'm still loving what I do.
Clothes – creating a visual manifestation of one's aesthetic and inner life, everything one's learned in a lifetime – to me is a full-time art project. I don't paint on a canvas, I don't design clothes or furniture – I design myself every single day when I get up. I ponder what I'm doing that day and evening – consider my mood, the weather – then put together an outfit, hair and makeup in my head. Sometimes I have an hour in which to do this. Sometimes ten or twenty minutes. But I always put all the creativity time allows into it. I don't understand anyone who doesn't.
The Hollywood Reporter was a different challenge than I've faced anywhere else in my career – and
I've always had jobs that were really the domain of two people. At W Magazine, I worked for a monthly magazine AND a major daily paper, Women's Wear Daily. THR is a weekly entertainment business magazine – but the editors there treat it like it's Vanity Fair every week. I also worked for THR.com constantly – was the senior style editor of both. I also got to interview actors, designers, doctors, trainers, and more. I wrote some pretty out-there stories: "Butts Are the New Boobs," "Meet the Mocktress: the New Actress/Model Hybrid," "Meet the Stromo: Hollywood's New Straight Gay Guy."
I LOVED THE STORIES I wrote – but it was BRUTAL work. A Vanity Fair–style story or essay EVERY WEEK. When I was there, the editors were extremely TOUGH and demanding – not a lot of empathy, and very low salaries. It was a job I adored and was thrilled to have – I got amazing feedback from peers and the public – won awards – but the burnout factor was HUGE. For six years, I was not in great health, always exhausted, lived in terror of the editor in chief (a very exalted creature but a total ballbuster) – and had absolutely NO LIFE. ALL I did was work. I look back on it fondly – I went to Europe twice a year for fashion shows and fashion ad calls – I went to the Oscars, Golden Globes, SAG Awards, Cannes Film Festival, Emmys every year I was there. So I got a TON out of it. I also gave a ton: almost my whole soul to that job.
4. What was it like being on RuPaul's Drag Race?
A: Well, it was certainly the last thing I expected! I did a lot of "talking head" stuff for The Today Show, GMA, CNN, Extra, Access Hollywood, even Entertainment Tonight, around the late 90's going through about 2015. They had me on talking about celebrity style when I was a writer for magazines like W and Harper's Bazaar. I don't think the major networks took Hollywood style seriously until there was suddenly a clamoring for it. At the same time, I found myself covering it at W, Bazaar and The Daily Beast. This is what led to RuPaul's Drag Race. Because being on TV didn't phase me – I rarely got paid for it! – I found myself saying bolder and bolder things on talking-head interviews on these morning and evening entertainment shows. One of the outlets that always interviewed me was World of Wonder, headed by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey. I'd known them a bit in NYC, went to East Village clubs where RuPaul performed sometimes.
Somewhere in 2008, I was freelancing and rather bored. A ton of new budding cable shows were asking me to audition for fashion-oriented reality shows. I got better and better – but never landed any of them. Finally I was just over it. When I got an email from someone at World of Wonder in the summer of 2008 about auditioning for something called "RuPaul's Drag Race," I thought it was a joke. Even though I knew Randy and Fenton, I didn't write back – What do I know about drag? I thought. Not only that – drag was TOTALLY OUT. And I live in West Hollywood! All of my gay friends told me how passé drag was – that they'd NEVER go see it.
Weeks went by. Another email came. This one said, "Perhaps you didn't see our first email? RuPaul would like you to come in and meet about being a judge on RDR." By then, I realized I was being rude and set up the meeting. I had absolutely NO INTENTION of being on this show. It sounded silly, and I'm a rather serious journalist. Then I went to WOW's offices in Hollywood, was brought to a conference room with Ru, someone turned on a video camera – and we proceeded to just chat for an hour. Never talked about the show. Ru and I just shot the shit for some time – about everything you can think of: politics, pop culture, psychology, television, books, art.
By the time I left that room I knew I had the job – if I wanted it. I hadn't wanted it when I went in. But by the time I left, it was a whole other situation. I found RuPaul SO compelling, so quick witted, so sharp, such a fascinating thinker, that I thought, “I'd follow Ru anywhere, let alone do a show with them.”
That's how it started.
A few weeks later, I was on a set in Burbank, in about 110 degrees, having no idea what this would be. The judges only shot on days when there were no challenges. The queens shot their challenges on one day – then the judges would come in the next day and watch them compete. They'd show us video so we would have an idea of what the competition was. Right away, I fell in love with all the queens (though we didn't fraternize with them off camera at all), loved the crew (learned a ton about hair and makeup) and the camera people. Santino Rice was sort of a queen himself – an utter diva – but even being around him was humorous. Ru's lines were so genius that I felt like I was getting funnier and smarter for being around them. Even though there was NOTHING LIKE IT on television, I had a strange feeling it was going to be a hit. I mean, we were doing take after take and laughing our asses off – so SOMEBODY ELSE HAD TO THINK IT WAS AMUSING – right?
I paid tons of attention to my own outfits. I had a designer friend make a lot of them because I didn't want to wear anything "normal." I knew understated would not cut it on this show! It was also my very first experience with wigs, hair extensions and clip-ons – and I've never gone back. If I hadn't done that show, I can tell you, I'd have some very shitty hair days. I no longer ever do.
The first season, we had zero expectations of what this show would be. I mean, ZERO. We wrapped shooting in August 2008. We first aired in February of 2009. Everyone I knew or worked with told me this show would ruin my career. I honestly didn't care because I'd had so much fun shooting it. I got to sit and work with Kathy Griffin, Debbie Reynolds, Ariana Grande (didn't know who she was at the time) – and loved working with WOW exec producer Tom Campbell, a real unsung talent, who helped give Ru lines.
Sometime after we first aired, I was in Whole Foods and I heard someone say, "AND DON'T FUCK IT UP!" And I knew right then we were a hit. But the show was too entertaining not to be. To this day – 12 or 13 years after we first aired – I have people come up to me all the time and get gushy!
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