Christene Barberich is the editor-in-chief of the award-winning fashion and shopping website Refinery29.com. Prior to launching R29 in 2005, she held posts at Gourmet Magazine, The Daily (the official publication of Fashion Week), CITY magazine (for which she earned an ASME nomination for General Excellence), and The New Yorker. Her fashion and design writing have appeared in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, Departures, Dwell, and New York Magazine, among other publications. In addition to her editorial work, she has provided brand consulting and copy-writing for a mix of fashion and lifestyle clients, including American Eagle & Aerie, Prada Beauté, Nike, Nine West, Yves Saint Laurent, and others. She lives in Brooklyn.
Q: Please share with us the story of how your professional journey began and has brought you to where you are today.
A: I grew up on magazines, Seventeen was like my bible, and I just always knew I wanted to be an editor and work in that world. Before I even graduated from college, I started sending resumes to the various magazines at Conde Nast, Hearst and Hachette. Amy Levin Cooper, Art Cooper’s wife, who was the editor-in-chief of Mademoiselle at the time, was like my idol. I remember interviewing there when I was 21 and just praying I would see her in the hallways. I had a series of assistant roles at magazines like Worth and The New Yorker, but my editorial training really began when I became a research assistant at Gourmet. I was there for four years, and it was my own form of intensive journalism school but centered around premium lifestyle content—travel, cooking, and extraordinary personalities—which is what I loved most. Fashion was always a huge interest, but for some reason, I found it too limiting to focus on just that. While I think it’s important to have the experience a big established publishing company can offer, I felt restricted in a lot of ways to try new things, move quickly (publishing moves at a glacial pace!), and make my own mistakes. I later left Gourmet to launch the design and fashion magazine CITY with John McDonald. As the editor, that was my first experience with complete creative freedom. Choosing my team, grooming young writers, working with extraordinary photographers and designers. It was professional bliss. By year two, we were nominated for an ASME in the General Excellence category, which was a huge thrill given we were such a tiny niche publication. Several years later, I left CITY and began free-lancing at The Daily with Brandusa Niro. Besides Gourmet, Brandusa and that experience was extremely influential. I think in a lot of ways, she prepared me the most to be an editor-in-chief. She taught me how to be fearless and to use my sense of humor, which, at that time, I rarely did. She also impressed the unending value of an excellent headline. Looking back, so much of what we did at The Daily had a digital feel—fresh and immediate—so I felt quite confident about making that transition when we launched Refinery29 in 2005. The internet was a totally different world back then and what we were doing was truly new and different. But I still feel, in many ways, that our brand vision is the same as it was from day one: To be the world’s destination for all things relating to personal style—from providing global trends and high-brow inspiration right down to the resources you need to apply that inspiration to your life and make it your own.
Q: I love the quote “the bigger the vision, the smaller the first step.” Right now, what is the big vision you have for your career?
A: To continue to grow and develop as an editor and creative leader and to extend that expertise to Refinery29′s voice and vision. When we have our editorial meetings on Tuesday mornings, I often look around the conference table and feel such a powerful purposefulness in what we’re doing together. We have a very talented, collaborative team and I always want to set the best example I can for them…and our readers.
ON Career Transitions
Q: I don’t feel like this topic is talked about enough in business news. Professionals get laid off, fired, resign or change careers all the time–which can obviously be a difficult transition at first. What was the hardest career transition in your life and how did you grow from it?
A: I think deciding to leave Conde Nast and pursue a much less corporate professional experience. My parents thought I was crazy after working so hard to get there, and giving up all that financial security, but I knew I needed more freedom in order to discover what I was really capable of. This kind of shift—from traditional environment to a role that was much less defined but much more independent—was probably the greatest professional risk I ever took, and it’s shaped me immensely. There’s always worry and doubt and deliberating as you’re building something new, but the pay-off, when you see your vision begin to take form and have an impact, is so well worth it. When it comes to career, I have always listened to my heart, and if something doesn’t feel right, I just can’t pursue it. It sounds corny, but I think it’s what yields the most personal satisfaction and fulfillment. And I just never want to be someone who says, “I wish I hadn’t always played it safe…I wish I had done that.”
Q: What do you believe makes a great brand?
A: Authenticity, clarity, and the right mix of people who have the tenacity to bring it to life, no matter how hard it gets.
Q: What do you feel separates your brand from your competitors?
A: All of the above. And the fact that our editors really love what they do and that translates through to the content and every aspect of our business, from advertising to commerce. There is a real virility and vibrancy in our work that never ceases to excite me.
Q: What are you most passionate about, and how do you incorporate it into your career or everyday life?
A: Probably choosing and training exceptional talent. I can see potential in people, sometimes in the smallest things, and I’m not afraid to put in the time and effort in order to help bring that out. It’s incredibly rewarding and is one of the things I love most about my work. I also love listening and learning from my team and the way that they can surprise me, which is essential in our work…they inspire me everyday.
ON Taking Risk
Q: Usually reaching something great or grand in life requires taking a risk. What has been your greatest risk so far and how was it rewarding?
A: Taking on the challenge, against all odds, of making a digital site so much more than just a digital site. When I look at Refinery29, I don’t just see another online fashion source, I see a community and a vital world of discovery. Mark Golin, the editor of People.com, once told me that when you look at our site, you can see that “the lights are on and someone is home.” Everyday, that is my goal…to make sure the lights are always on and that we are home.
ON Time Management
Q: Online calendars, emailing ourselves, post-it notes… I’m still struggling to find the best way to manage my time and to do list? What’s your method?
A: I make lists incessantly. Being so entrenched in a digital world, people often think it’s crazy that, in addition to my Google calendar, I still use a paper Moleskin agenda…but I have it for lists. Beside every week ahead is a list of the things I want to accomplish…it just helps me to get my thoughts and priorities straight. I derive a great amount of satisfaction from checking things off.
Q: Oprah has that great section in her magazine “What I know for sure”. What do you know for sure?
A: In life and work: That kindness begets kindness. To always say thank you (and mean it). And to know that failure is a huge part of the road to success…never fear it because one cannot exist without the other.
Q: Who are your favorite designers?
A: In the present: Miuccia Prada, Jil Sander, Phoebe Philo, and Rachel Comey. From the past: Jean Muir, Yves Saint Laurent, and Elsa Schiaparelli.
Q: What’s your best fashion buy ever?
A: A black cashmere Jil Sander cardigan that I’ve had for a million years. Whenever anyone asks me this question, it’s the first thing that pops into my head. It is honestly like the root of my whole wardrobe.
Q: If you were to write a book, what would it be about?
A: It would be called Forty Something and it would be a collection of profiles, essays, and tips from super cool and inspiring women in their 40s doing incredible things. For so many women I know, it’s really a huge time of self- discovery and totally choosing and owning your path in life. I would love to show how turning 40—across all cultures and crafts—is something to be really excited about, not something to dread and fear.