‘The Chat Room’
Fashion’s New Power Clique
Each member of this tightly knit group of fashionable twentysomethings has taken a nontraditional path to success—and they’re rising fast up the industry’s ranks. Lauren Sherman reports.
“My ladies DEFINITELY run this motha fucka,” was the caption accompanying a recent Instagram post by 24-year-old Leandra Medine, who runs the popular fashion blog The Man Repeller. Medine’s ladies, in this case, were Scott Stringer’s press secretary/girlfriend of Terry Richardson/Girls star Audrey Gelman; Claire Distenfeld, the owner of popular a Manhattan boutique called Fivestory; and Emily Weiss, founder of successful beauty website Into the Gloss.
Medine’s statement might’ve been in jest, but it’s not so incorrect. She and her contemporaries—all, for the most part, well under 30—are part of a rising group of fashion It girls who aren’t content with a Vogue assistant title. Fueled by an entrepreneurial spirit, these up-and-comers are forgoing personal assistant jobs and time in the fashion closet to do their own thing, often straight out of school. They all happen to be great friends as well, meeting either through work, or simply growing up in New York and being a part of that very specific scene. “I think there's a certain fearlessness that's really being encouraged in women right now, to break the mold, to ‘lean in,’” says Weiss, 28, who launched her highly acclaimed—and wildly popular, with more than 300,000 unique users a month —beauty site in 2010. "You don't necessarily need a superior's approval anymore, or to be "knighted" by the fashion industry," she adds. "You can get that validation from your customer, if you know how to connect with her. The feedback loop, the conversation and engagement, is what really matters."
While Medine’s star may shine the brightest—her first book, Seeking Love, Finding Overalls—will be published September 10—Gelman’s stage is inarguably bigger. Best friend of Girls creator Lena Dunham, the self-proclaimed “political junkie,” 26, spends her days managing media relations for New York City comptroller candidate Stringer. Moving seamlessly between fashion, politics and art, she’s even rallied Medine, Distenfeld, and Weiss to co-host an August 6 fundraiser for her politico. (Others on the committee include Dunham and Scarlett Johansson.)
Indeed, it’s clear that each woman’s mission is nudged along by public support from the others. Beyond the almost-constant stream of Instagram photos and Twitter mentions—from Cote d’Azur vacation shots to glamorous pie-eating sessions—Weiss has featured Medine consistently since Into the Gloss’s launch, including an in-depth feature on the grooming routines of the blogger and her husband. And Medine is sure to mention Fivestory frequently in the press.
The latest of the clique—which is self-named The Chat Room, because of a continual group text between several (but not all) of the members—to rise into prominence is fashion designer Rosie Assoulin, 28, a Brooklyn native whose mother-in-law is Roxanne Assoulin, the creative director of Lee Angel jewelry. Assoulin’s first-ever ready-to-wear collection, which debuted in June 2013, was covered by WWD, Style.com and, unsurprisingly, Medine, who wrote a glowing review of the collection on Manrepeller.com. “It is rare that a new designer debuting her first ever collection could breathe such fresh air into the lungs of fashion–but it’s possible,” Medine said. “My one disclaimer here is that the new designer in question, Rosie Assoulin, is also one of my friends–and to know Rosie is to know these clothes.”
A former Oscar de la Renta and Lanvin intern, Assoulin credits the success of her friends Distenfeld and Medine as inspiration in launching her own business. “They started something in an industry that had never heard of them before,” Assoulin told WWD in June. “They came from nowhere, and both were telling me, ‘Rosie, do it. You’d be crazy to do it, but even crazier not to.’”
“Nowhere” is a slightly inaccurate descriptor, especially concerning Distenfeld, 27. The daughter of longtime luxury goods importer Fred Distenfeld, it’s no secret that her Upper East Side concept-boutique Fivestory is funded by her family fortune. So whether or not brands said yes to her on the first try—she has claimed in the past that they didn’t—she had enough industry connections (and presumed cash) to eventually get them to pay attention.
Medine’s wealth is also well-documented, from her 450-person wedding at the St. Regis to her father’s wholesale jewelry business. It certainly helps that she had the means to skip the typical editorial assistant gig and focus on making money off of her own blog, long before The Man Repeller's Dior sponsorships started rolling in. “Frankly, I do wish I'd have gathered some traditional publishing experience but I got very pleasantly used to pitching stories to myself, writing them, and either editing them or having someone I really trust edit them,” Medine says. “I hope that I'm carving a dent into the fashion world in a way I'd have never been able to at a traditional staff job, but I guess that sort of thing only ever really reveals itself much later.”
Weiss, for one, is seen as more of a paid-her-dues type. Known as the “super intern” on the hit MTV reality show The Hills, she went on to assist Vogue stylist Elissa Santisi. “I love to build things, and I love to touch every part of a project, which is all to say, I'm a pretty passionate entrepreneur,” Weiss says of her decision to launch Into the Gloss. Still, the advantages were there: Weiss’s model looks helped her become a street-style star, and legitimized her blog before even the first story was published.
Of course, all the money and beauty in the world means zilch if there’s not talent to back it up. Indeed, there is a distinction between these young women and the fashion It girls of the past: they want to work, and they want everyone to know that they’re working. “They are all women challenging their respective formats,” Medine says of her friends. “I think ultimately all these women have a streamlined idea of where they would like their industries to migrate and are doing an excellent job pioneering the change.”
And in the case of this notable group of women, it’s important to remember: there’s strength—and power—in numbers.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Into The Gloss receives more than 300,000 visitors a day. The correct figure is 300,000 visitors a month.