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'Devil' Is in the Details

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the movie The Devil Wears Prada, which opens Friday, Meryl Streep plays The Devil who saunters through scenes in Prada, Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Valentino, Christian Louboutin and every other big-name designer you can think of.

She sucks down nonfat lattes like fortified water. She terrorizes her assistants, a silver-haired Attila the Hun in stilettos and Versace.

The movie is based on the dishy novel of the same name, which is said to be a roman a clef, revealing for the uninitiated what life is like at top fashion magazines such as Vogue.

But how true-to-life is the film, in both its depictions of the insanity that is the glossy-fashion-mag biz and the utter, jaw-dropping fabulousness of the couture clothes?

We asked four fashionistas who have worked their way up, in most cases, from lowly fashion assistant (the position Anne Hathaway's character struggles to master) to some of the most enviable jobs in fashion.

Their overwhelming opinions: Most bosses aren't nearly as impossible as Streep's monstrous character. There's a gem of truth in everything. And all that glitters isn't always Cartier.

"I thought the movie was really good," says Constance White, the style director at eBay, whose 15-year career includes stints at The New York Times, and Women's Wear Daily and Elle magazines. "One of the reasons I thought it was good is that it was an accurate portrayal of what happens inside fashion, what happens behind the scenes at a fashion magazine. But it's not the whole story."

The fashion industry is glamorous, former fashion assistants-turned-high-powered-fashion editors say. But like Andy Sachs - the character played by Hathaway - a ton of grunt work comes before you even glimpse the glamour.

"When I was 21, I got a job as an assistant [at Conde Nast], and I did everything minus cleaning the floors," says Sasha Charnin Morrison, fashion director at Us Weekly magazine. "And I would have done that if they asked me to. But I didn't care because I loved it."

Assistants must be expert "schleppers," says White.

"One of the things that will make the movie resonate is that there's these universal truths. One is that in glamorous industries where the stakes are high, if you want to get to the top there is a lot of schlepping," she says. "You've got to be willing to work for free. You've got to be willing to get the coffee. You've got to be willing to get the dry cleaning. You've got to be willing to babysit. That is true in fashion, Hollywood and movies."

Accomplishing tasks that have nothing whatsoever to do with fashion or journalism - and doing them with aplomb - is par for the course if novices want to get ahead in the business.

Katie Meyer, fashion market editor at Glamour magazine, remembers those days all too well.

"There were a few times when I was an intern when I had to run out in the rain to Starbucks and get 12 coffees," says Meyer, who worked various fashion-related jobs at Allure, Harper's Bazaar and Seventeen magazines. "And they weren't even for the person I was working for."

The upside of being a glamorized gopher? The clothes. The shoes. The jewelry. The handbags.

In the movie, Andy shows up at Runway magazine to apply for a job working for Miranda Priestly (Streep) - the most influential fashion editor in the business - wearing the wrong shoes, wrong coat, wrong sweater and the absolute wrong hair.

But by the end of the fashion-heavy film, she's sleek-haired and red-lipped, toting lattes in Gucci and Chanel, and navigating the treacherous terrain of Priestly's glossy magazine in 4-inch heels.

Her enviable makeover makes perfect sense, fashion editors say. The pressure in the magazine business to be stylish and on-trend is unavoidable.

"I have so many shoes I can't even count. ... It's thousands. Seriously," says Charnin Morrison, who is partial to Prada, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Chloe. "It's part of my job to look good. I have to do it. So if I have to take out a loan to do it, so be it."

White - whose personal closet is filled with Helmut Lang, Diane von Furstenberg, Tracy Reese, Marc Jacobs and Jean Paul Gaultier - says most fashion assistants in Hathaway's position can't afford such luxuries.

"Maybe a junior editor might be making $20,000 or $30,000. That's a salary that can buy maybe two handbags," she says. "And a high-fashion dress is easily $10,000."

That's where "gifting" comes in handy.

"Designers will say that's why they'll give a jacket or a dress to a lower-level editor," says White, "knowing that she can't buy it and still pay her rent."

Then there's borrowing from "The Closet" - a perk many of the women found too good to pass up at their first jobs.

"I was about 13, and my stepmother was, at the time, the creative director at Vogue," says Charnin Morrison. "And I so I got to see the Vogue fashion closet. When I saw that, I decided right then and there that, no matter what, this is what I want to do."

At 29, Meyer, of Glamour, is a bit younger than other high-powered fashion editors, so her take on fashion is more contemporary than couture.

In her world, The Devil wears Tory Burch and Goyard, not Prada.

"I'm still young in this, in that I can't go super crazy on clothes and things," Meyer says. "I'm a classic girl. I love an 'It' bag, but only if I know it's going to be around for awhile."

Meyer - who isn't above running into J.Crew or H&M; - says that to establish a wardrobe like the to-die-for one worn in the film by Streep takes years and years of careful buying.

"When you've been around a long time you accumulate an amazing wardrobe, and it takes time and it takes money," Meyer says. "I hope to get to that, but I really can't afford it right now. But if you're buying one or two pieces a season, eventually you're going to have this great closet."

And a "great closet" looks different for every fashionista.

Melissa Payner, the chief executive officer of Internet-fashion-hit Bluefly.com, has been in the fashion business for 26 years, and her closet is full of big name designers, classic looks and fabulous talk-pieces - every stitch of which, from the coats to the 4-inch heels, is black.

"I'm not loyal to a designer. I love fabric and texture and interesting silhouettes," she says. "But I'm very head-to-toe black. My sister calls me Morticia."

But unlike Streep's scary management style, Payner's disposition is not quite so dark.

"The fashion world is a place where everybody seems to take themselves a little bit too seriously," says Payner, who started her career working as an assistant at I. Magnim, a defunct, West Coast-based fashion store, similar to Saks Fifth Avenue or Neiman Marcus. "It's kind of absurd, we're not doing brain surgery. We're not nuclear physicists who are going to save the planet."

Payner says no one would ever call her The Devil, even if she does sometimes wear Prada.

"I have an open door policy. I've never yelled at anyone. I've never raised my voice," she says.

In fact, if anyone ever made a movie about Bluefly, Payner's closet-borrowing, coffee-schlepping assistant would be the antagonist.

"She's the devil in my life. She bosses me around much more than I would ever tell," Payner says. "But she's great, and we have a wonderful relationship. I need someone like that because my life is so crazy."

tanika.white@baltsun.com

An article in yesterday's Today section misspelled the name of a defunct high-end department store. The correct spelling is I. Magnin.The Sun regrets the errors.
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