NEW YORK — About 10 months ago, Laura Brown put on an emerald green suit and walked into an East Village art gallery, where two rows of benches lined the walls of a square room with a high ceiling. She took her seat in the front row.
It could have been a scene in what Brown calls a "BFM," or "bad fashion movie" — a phrase she has used to describe the fashion editor archetype: elitist, egomaniacal and downright "Devil Wears Prada"-ish. One day earlier, publisher Dotdash Meredith announced that Brown's job, editor-in-chief of InStyle magazine, had been eliminated.
In her "BFM," the scene would have played out like this: A fallen editor makes her first public appearance at a fashion show, striding into a den of whispers and side-eyes, as steely as ever.
Except that Brown was just about the furthest a mainstream fashion editor could get from Miranda Priestly's ilk. She didn't show up that day wearing sunglasses and a cool smirk. She wore beachy waves and a jaunty smile. She bear-hugged some seatmates and made them laugh.
When people asked about InStyle, she didn't say "I left," which is what fashion people often say after being fired, Brown said. She had no interest in "going away for a while to, like, collect myself and then announce my next thing."
Besides, she knew "the power of magazines is not what it used to be." Many years ago, social media leveled the playing field in fashion; in today's front row, top editors are sandwiched between Instagram personalities and famous friends of the brand. In this case, Brown was all three at once.
"I knew what equity I had earned," said Brown, who is 48 and deeply Australian, while having lunch last month at the deeply Parisian restaurant Le Voltaire. "My worth did not depend on being the editor-in-chief of InStyle."
'A nice lady who eats spaghetti'
But, oh, what power those fashion magazines once held. Raised in Sydney by a single mother, Brown waited tables as a teenager at a seafood restaurant, where she learned to banter with grown-ups for tips. Without the internet, reading magazines felt like "springboarding" herself into other people's worlds, she said. Working for magazines was all she ever wanted.
She moved to New York at 27, one week before Sept. 11, 2001. This was still the age of imperial editors, though budgets were already shrinking. Brown had been working at Talk magazine for only a few weeks when she learned the magazine was folding — midway through producing a photo shoot of young Hollywood types.
In 2005, after brief stints at W and Details, Brown began working at Harper's Bazaar. The magazine's editor at the time, Glenda Bailey, favored theatrical photography, like Rihanna lounging in the mouth of a shark, which she called "coups."
Harper's Bazaar is also where Brown began befriending some famous women. "I distinctly remember a cheese board with sweating cheese," Jennifer Aniston wrote in an email, describing her first interview with Brown at the Beverly Hills Hotel in California. (Brown later elaborated, saying, "We just ignored it the whole time." There was another elephant in the room: Aniston's recent separation from Brad Pitt. "I remember saying to her, 'That sucks.'")
Brown's powerful enthusiasm somehow made these women feel calmer, shifting the center of gravity away from them and making them feel less alienated. Michelle Pfeiffer said she met Brown while promoting a fragrance, carrying around samples to editors' offices in a Ziploc bag. "Laura was bouncing on the couch like an 8-year-old, immediately diffusing any nervousness I had," Pfeiffer said.
Kiernan Shipka met Brown when she was 12, while Harper's Bazaar filmed a tour of the "Mad Men" actor's closet. "I'm getting ready in my bathroom, and the brightest energy just barges through the door," Shipka, now 23, recalled. Last month they found themselves at a restaurant, drinking Champagne and dancing to Whitney Houston. "There's no pressure to perform around her," Shipka said.
Befriending these women wasn't complicated, Brown said. She wanted them to feel welcome; in turn they saw her as a rarity in fashion. "A nice lady who eats spaghetti," Brown said. She wasn't one of the "pointy people," another term she deploys for a certain kind of fashion person: exclusionary, intimidating, obsessed with punching a "sandwich card of chic."
"When I was younger, I used to think everybody in New York fashion was on some sort of superhighway," she said. "More connected, more glamorous and smarter than me. And then you get in the room and you're like, 'Oh,'" — and here, she practically cackles — "'this is not Mensa.'"
On not 'chucking wobblies'
Brown was named editor of InStyle in 2016, after 11 years at Harper's Bazaar. Her first cover was Emily Ratajkowski, wearing a Virgil Abloh-designed white T-shirt printed with "In" on the front and "Style" on the back. The message was: "Everybody's invited to the party," Brown said. Even when that party takes on end-of-the-world vibes, as it did in 2020.
Yet the chaos of the pandemic and racial reckoning galvanized Brown, who leaned into covering the work of activists (and friends) such as Tarana Burke of Me Too International and Ayo Tometi of Black Lives Matter.
Travel restrictions meant that instead of attending fashion weeks or advertiser trips, "you could buckle back down to the journalism itself," said Brown, who put Dr. Anthony Fauci, Stacey Abrams and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland on InStyle's covers (both print and digital) throughout 2020 and 2021.
But in November 2021, InStyle ownership changed, as the company Dotdash acquired Meredith. Two months later, InStyle's print publication ceased — along with Entertainment Weekly and others — and Brown was dismissed.
While she was concerned for younger people on her team, Brown felt relatively "sanguine," she said. She didn't "chuck a wobbly," which is, apparently, an Australian term for "freak out." (She also had a wedding to plan: In April, in Hawaii, she married a 31-year-old writer named Brandon Borror-Chappell, whom she met as a Sunset Tower Hotel server, in front of a whole lot of famous friends.)
"So maybe I'll get fewer handbags sent to me," Brown said, before suddenly turning serious. "If you've earned your stripes and done the work, you take it with you. You don't just fly off into space."
To some extent, she was also prepared. Two years earlier, she decided to register a company, Laura Brown Media, and start thinking about her next moves.
Those moves are more clear today: Brown will release a podcast in 2023 called "So Seen," made with SeeHer. (She advises or serves on the board of several nonprofits, including SeeHer, which is devoted to portrayals of women in marketing and media.) She is an executive producer of a film about the fashion world with Bruna Papandrea, a producer of "The Undoing" and "Big Little Lies" on HBO. She is consulting for luxury brands. She is working on a collaboration with the French brand Sezane.
At a dinner celebrating that collaboration in October, she was, true to form, straddling the roles of host and court jester, doing funny dances and making introductions.
Sezane had rented a Tribeca apartment for the dinner, filling a bookcase with dozens of new sweaters, which, toward the end of the night, were offered to each guest. At first, the actors, models and stylists hesitated. But once Brown began slinging the knits at people like a human T-shirt gun, all pretenses were dropped. Women piled sweaters into their arms. Nobody was overly cool about it. And there was something very Laura Brown about that.
"I always kind of had a good sense of what fashion worlds I wanted to be in and what ones I didn't," she said. "The pointy ones I'm not so interested in. I like color and creativity and generosity and warmth."