By Kenneth Richard | The Impressionist
Fashion is full of paths and success stories with many intertwining, but none as distinctive as founder and editorial director of The Little Squares, Debra Scherer’s. Having started on a path of editorial at US Vogue, Scherer soon found herself crossing not only the boundaries of her role but the ocean as well to become fashion’s first true intercontinental editor-at-large working at Italian & French Vogue. Along the way she worked with many legends, wore many hats, and picked up many skills, including that of art direction and photography to compliment her editorial and writing gifts. She has evolved to be an original and singular voice in fashion communications and a hybrid writer, creative director, photographer, publisher, entrepreneur and fashion icon. The Impression sat with Debra to discuss her distinctive career, unique voice, her new publication The Little Squares, the landscape of fashion media today, F. Scott Fitzgerald and radio.
Debra, thanks for chatting. You have quite the background. Can you share a bit about it and how you came to form The Little Squares?
I worked for many years at Condé Nast here in New York and overseas. I started as an assistant at American Vogue right when Anna Wintour first took over. I worked with some of the most talented people still to this day like André Leon Talley, Grace Coddington, Candy Price, Carlyn Cerf De Dudzeele, and Polly Mellen. It was a great way to learn really fast right out of school. Then, I went to work at Italian Vogue in Milan when I was 22. Because it is such a small staff, you got a chance to do everything whereas with a US magazine, they have so many departments like the fashion department and the features department and the shoe department. Everything is much more broken down in the US whereas with Italian Vogue we were a staff of only a few people, so everyone answered their own phone and everyone did a little bit of everything. I was the only American there at the time and Karl Lagerfeld had just done his second collection for Chloé. He had done this flapper, 1920’s collection. So of course we got back to the office and chatted about doing these 1920’s stories and said, “Oh, we should do a story about F. Scott and Ella Fitzgerald.” The features editor was literally walking up and down the hallway saying “Does anybody know anything about Fitzgerald … You’re American! Have you ever read Fitzgerald?” I actually had and was really into Fitzgerald so I said, “Yeah, I’ve read everything.” So he said, “Ok. You write a story about their style and their life.” I had come from the fashion department and at American Vogue, if you work in the fashion department you didn’t even speak to the writers. There is such a separation of church and state. So I said, “I’ve never written anything before.” So he said, “Just give it a try and if it’s good we’ll publish it and if not, not.” So, I sat down with paper and pencil and after doing some research, I wrote a story. Then they said, “That was great. What else do you want to write?” (Laughs) I was always in this peculiar space where I was halfway between fashion and features, which is very unusual, and there are not many examples of that coming from the publishing side.
At Italian Vogue in the early 90’s, you could do stories on theoretical architecture or anything you could think of because we were not doing stories about what was the trend. We were developing the swipes for those creating trends. Italian Vogue then, and still to this day, is more a B-to-B magazine. It wasn’t to the general public as much as it was for the industry, and not just for the fashion industry, but also for the design industry. Everything we did was influential. It was really amazing as it was such a small team. We would all hang out in the art department after hours along with Anna Piaggi. It was all cut-and-paste and an amazing creative moment.
Then after I was there for 4-5 years, I moved to Paris to work for French Vogue. I really was primarily in the fashion department but I was still considered the the bridge between departments because I was able to talk to the people in features. I wasn’t writing as many stories as before but I would still go to those meetings and pitch stories that I thought we should write about. It was a time in fashion where it was post-grunge, sort of destroyed and stripped down. It was a tough time for French Vogue. It was difficult to figure out what Vogue does during a time when heroin chic is the thing. How do we present ourselves? How do we still be Vogue even during this time?
When I was with French Vogue I began working with the photographers on fashion shoots. When I came back to New York, I worked for three main magazines at Italian Condé Nast with Franca Sozzani; L’Uomo Vogue, Casa Vogue and Vogue. The magazine I placed the story in was very dependent on the type of story it was. If it was about Diane Von Furstenberg, then it would go in Vogue. If I were going to do a story about a house or a garden, it would go to Casa Vogue. So, it was always those three magazines, using the same team, and from that I became a true editor-at-large. I started taking the pictures myself, coming up with and pitching ideas, and doing the production. I had a good eye and I liked to go into people’s houses and get into their world. If you show up with an entourage, people don’t let you in as much, so it’s better if it’s just me or me and one assistant. The fewer people you have, the better it is. It was during that period that I formed The Little Squares as my side production company, just to pick up on that work and also to work with brands on the side.
So what does The Little Squares represent and focus on?
Because of the digital movement, I began experimenting with film and started turning my interviews into videos; taking my stories from not just space, like numbers on pages, but into time. We take any kind of commercial product and do something creative with it and have it tell a story.
That’s what The Little Squares is. When I work with outside clients, it’s usually always with someone who is starting their own company and it’s really personal to them. Those are the kinds of stories that I tend to do. Even if I want to do a story on an idea, I think about what person could I do the story on who will illustrate that idea. That’s how I pick who I want to do a story on.
What does The Little Squares do in the way of advertising for clients or other agencies?
I think that advertising itself has changed so much and I know that they want so much for advertising to feel like editorial. That has a lot to do with technology because people don’t have that much time to focus on things anymore, so you want to draw them in through these stories. Advertising is so pre-planned. We, on the other hand, take a very documentary approach. An editorial approach is a stronger approach in that sense, to be heard and not get lost in all the noise of all the media that is out there.
My work tends to be pretty pictures. I can take a beautiful picture of even the most technological thing ever like a portrait of a battery from Thomas Edison’s laboratory.
When I do an interview, it seems like I’m having a conversation with you, it seems like I’m there, but I’m not. I am inside the camera. I’m not having a conversation with you at all. I’m listening to every single word that the person is saying and trying to pick out that one little thing that they might not even know they said and I can bring it back to that and keep it going and forcing it down that road rather than the road that they thought they were going down. Through editing, I make people more beautiful and sound smarter than they actually are. The Little Squares fictionalizes non-fiction in a way. It’s documentary, but it’s fictionalized documentary.
You have watched the whole media landscape change in all directions. What’s your take on technology and media today, specifically fashion media?
I think that it’s a mess. The fashion industry has always believed itself to be avant-garde and to be current. That is no longer true. They have always considered themselves to be the walking embodiments of everything that’s new in the world and they are not so much that anymore. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have value and that people are not creating beautiful things. What I am saying is that they are no longer avant-garde and they don’t feel very comfortable in the new role that they are in, which is to be sort of a niche thing.
What I would really say about the industry is that it is like a gerrymandered district in the sense that the industry itself has been taken in pieces by all the other industries. Hollywood has taken its piece, now technology has taken their piece, private equity has taken their huge piece, the music business takes their piece when they need it and I don’t know what’s really left in there for the industry itself. The people who are still in it dance with the other industries. It’s really about how fashion is relating to other industries now. I don’t think fashion itself could exist by itself anymore. That is something that has changed a lot.
A lot of my opinions are formed by watching other media that is not fashion because fashion media is the slowest to come around. In terms of fashion specifically, it is especially hard on them because it is such a visual thing and that is what is being affected the most. There has been a lot of experimentation, like Show Studio and Nowness. I think that they are all doing great things, but they are not really going to be what the future is going to be. I’m not saying that I know what that is either, I think asking those kinds of questions are good. Everybody does what they feel comfortable doing. A really interesting comment this week on Twitter was that advertisers at this point just really want to be associated with something that is considered cool. It’s not about the numbers anymore, it’s all about association. Whatever their definition of “cool” is. That’s good news to people like Vogue and that’s why people still buy print advertising in Vogue, because it is their fear of missing out. Vogue has become an anointer of power. That is what Vogue is. I’m not even sure they need to have an amazing web presence. Vogue has become more about power than it is about fashion, especially the power of Hollywood and the power of politics. But do we really need Vogue to be the one to have the breaking news online? No! They were never really doing that anyway. They are not reporters. They only do stories that they love. That’s the difference between Vogue and Vanity Fair, Vogue is never going to do a story that is a take down about someone or something, because if you are in Vogue, that means that they are anointing you as amazing and you get to be in our fun, secret club, whereas Vanity Fair will do a huge story about somebody and say terrible things about them. But to be in Vogue to begin with is to say that you are one of us, you are chic, you are all the things that being in Vogue means.
We are excited to announce that with the publication of Issue #2 of our print publication, along with all of the digital video content, we are launching a show in collaboration with Tunein Radio. We recorded the first couple of episodes in their studio out in Venice Beach and they are producing the show for us. I love having the stories being told in these different media as they all add new dimensions to the storytelling process and really showcase the different kinds of work we do.