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Essence editor prepares for Fashion Week

Constance White, a well-known player in the world

Constance White, a well-known player in the world of fashion, was recently hired by Essence Magazine as its Editor-in-Chief. She hails from Baldwin. Here, she poses in her midtown office. (August 3, 2011) Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

Constance C.R. White's arrival at a Fashion Week show always causes a flurry. As the veteran journalist heads to her front-row seat, publicists urgently whisper into their headsets: "Constance is here." A given at shows of top designers, White can propel -- or jettison -- an up-and-comer.

And now White, 51, who has lived in Baldwin with her husband and three children for the past 16 years, has a big pulpit from which to broadcast: Essence Magazine, where she was named editor in chief in March. With some 8 million readers, Essence is a features and fashion bible for African-American women, and White's appointment is likely to elevate both her status and the magazine's.

It's a crown jewel job for a fashion journalist and the competition was fierce, says former Essence editor-in-chief Monique Greenwood. "Basically every African American woman above the level of managing editor applied," says Greenwood, who calls White "the epitome of the Essence woman . . . she'll make inroads into the world of fashion that the magazine never had before."

Designers agree. Tracy Reese, the African-American designer whose dress White wore for our photo shoot, says, "She is spiritually grounded, incredibly stylish and is well-versed in the business of fashion." Adds Carmen Marc Valvo, "I couldn't imagine a better choice for the job. Her in-depth knowledge of both the fashion and publishing industries is unparalleled."

White, who grew up in England and Jamaica (the island), has more than 20 years experience in editorial jobs at Women's Wear Daily, W, The New York Times and Elle magazine. Most recently, she was style director for eBay, and, in 1998, she wrote "StyleNoir: The First How-to Guide to Fashion With Black Women in Mind" (Perigree Trade).

But perhaps it was White's first job in journalism that resonates most with her now. While attending New York University, White worked at Ms. magazine as assistant to editor-in-chief Gloria Steinem. "Gloria was very glamorous and extremely busy," recalls White. "In her offices there were piles and piles of papers with requests for interviews, awards ceremonies, strategic work. My big shining moment with Gloria is when I said, 'What I'll do for you is separate your piles into what's urgent, what's a priority and what's important.' And I do that for myself today."

White now finds herself beyond busy with a schedule that runs like a military operation, divided into 15-minute increments. And like Steinem, White has a far-reaching goal. "I want to celebrate and affirm black women and help them live their best lives and give them solutions."

So, as White prepares for Fashion Week in her new position, we somehow infiltrated her schedule to talk about fashion, her personal style and, of course, her big new gig.

How did you get interested in fashion?

As an adult I was interested in journalism rather than fashion. When I graduated college, I had been writing for papers in the Village about music. I didn't want to leave New York, and in researching I felt that I would have to work at a trade paper. . . . I researched and applied to Billboard and this thing called Women's Wear Daily, which I knew nothing about. My first beat was fur. . . . But the thing about covering fur is that all of sudden it was a perfect time, the perfect beat in a sleepy area of fashion that suddenly took on national significance. It was politically incorrect, people were throwing red paint at people wearing fur. It was good for me as a journalist cutting her teeth.

What would you say about your own style?

I like to dress easy, not take a lot of time. My style is classic, conservative with elements of whimsy and eclecticness. One of my favorite outfits is a pair of black skinny pants, a tuxedo jacket, a mustard colored T-shirt and some African beads -- somewhat of a staple. I'm in a color period now.

You're always extraordinarily fashionable in a very individualistic way during Fashion Week. Is there a serious game plan for how you dress?

I do have a game plan. My goal is for my clothes not to be a source of stress. I've made a list of outfits and I look at each day and plan what I'm going to wear, paying particular attention to my footwear as I might be on my feet for 15 hours. I want to look fashionable and it happens organically.

Do you have a big closet at home and what are your favorite things in it?

It's a generous closet, but I do not even know how much stuff I have. I love my Jean Paul Gaultier pieces even if I don't wear them. They represent my own style in one piece -- beautifully classic, beautifully eclectic with something unexpected. I have a pair of Lanvin boots I adore, and I love my T-shirts. They're modern pieces of clothing you can wear with Lululemon exercise pants, a long beautiful skirt or under a jacket. I'm not a fashion snob and particularly now, beautiful design is available at any price.

Do Long Islanders have a defined style?

I think there is a L.I. style and it's been formed by the family orientation of life on Long Island mixed with the sensibilities of the men and women who go to Manhattan. A typical look begins with designer jeans -- it's a look rather than a name brand -- the jeans could cost $200 or $20. Then maybe Tory Burch flats, a Coach handbag and great cotton knit top with some sort of embellishment or fabric manipulation or some interest. If you went to Atlanta or even Queens or Brooklyn it's a very different look.

Given the chance to go on a crazy shopping spree on L.I. where would you go?

If money's no object then to the Americana Manhasset. If money is an object then to one of the fabulous outlet malls like Tanger.

Do you have any advice to women generally on how to look their best from a fashion standpoint?

Don't try to wear every trend. Check them out and then pick the ones that work for you. Sometimes women overlook fit, so take the time to find something that fits well, please take a look in a mirror at your back. Get alterations, there are so many affordable tailors at dry cleaners on Long Island. Having the right fit can change a basic pair of black pants. People will say, 'Wow, did you lose weight?'

Name one thing you are buying this fall.

A pair of flat boots which are knee high but not over the knee. I've been looking around and there are definitely some good ones.

OK so you've written for big mags, newspapers, been eBay's fashion honcho and then you're tapped to be editor-in-chief for Essence. Tell us how all this happened and how it feels?

I got a call. It was a great call, and I responded immediately. I'm a subscriber; I've grown up with Essence. It means so much to all black women and to get that call, to be considered for that position, I felt a mixture of pride, humility and excitement. At first I didn't feel the enormity of it.

What's your day like now?

Long and busy. The average day is 12 hours and it might go longer. They include working with copy, reading manuscripts, looking at words and visuals, working with my editors, hearing from readers (White reads a huge amount of reader mail), traveling, meeting with readers and learning what they want in the magazine. I'm very involved in all areas, maybe a little bit more in fashion because it's very important, but work, wealth and beauty are huge.

Can you talk about the direction you hope to take the magazine?

We want to bring more top writers to the magazine. Essence has always been known to nurture and bring to the forefront top writers and top photographers. I want to focus on education, which is extremely important to readers who have children and are interested in the community. We'll feature more how-tos on beauty and style. And we want the magazine to be an escape for the readers. Essence is a very strong brand and we're not in a situation where we need to reinvent the wheel. You can't go in and mess with that, but my goal is to take it and build on the foundation that exists.

Has anything surprised you about your job?

One surprise to me is the extent to which the readers know the magazine back-to-front. They could do my job. They're intimate with it, and it's stunning to me to think that you can go anywhere in the world where there's a large black population and Essence is known in a way that every brand wants to be known . . . in a positive way.

So, do you think you made the right move going to Essence?

I think it's pretty wonderful to work for Essence, Time Inc. and the opportunity to work with Martha Nelson (the company's editorial director) -- it all stands for journalistic excellence and it is an honor to have the opportunity to serve and celebrate my readers. Was it the right move? I've had some incredible jobs. Before I took this job I was sitting with my husband (Denrick Cooper) over morning tea. I was asking him, 'Is this the right move to make? Do you think this is my best move?,' and he knows me best, he knows my heart and where it lays. He started out the door and just stopped and said, "I think this job, out of all the jobs you've ever had, is the best fit for you."

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