Kim France of Lucky Magazine and Girls of a Certain Age
“Lucky” once stood for good fortune–but thanks to Kim France, founding editor-in-chief of Lucky Magazine, this five letter word has come to represent one of the fashion industry’s leading publications and the go-to shopping guide for the fashion obsessed everywhere. Kim’s passion for writing lead her to pursue a writing career after college, landing her roles at 7 Days, Elle, Sassy, Spin, and New York to name a few. Following this list of awe-worthy accomplishments, Kim turned her vision for a fashion and commerce focused publication into Lucky Magazine. Despite criticism from within the magazine industry, Kim stayed true to her vision. Her commitment to her audience soon made Lucky one of Condé Nast’s most successful ventures. After more than a decade as editor-in-chief at Lucky, Kim left the magazine and returned to her love of writing. Kim is now the writer behind the blog Girls of a Certain Age, where she shares her whit and wisdom as a fashion insider.
From working as an editorial assistant for just $14,000, to becoming the editor-in-chief of Lucky, Kim France has changed the face of the fashion magazine industry and is living proof that tenacity can turn dreams into reality.
Full name: Kim France
Current title/company: Writer/editor and blogger for Girls of a Certain Age
Educational background: BA from Oberlin College
What was your first job out of college and how did you land that position?
I was an editorial assistant at 7 Days, which was a New York City weekly that existed only for a couple of years in the late 80s. It was edited by Adam Moss, who is now the editor in chief of New York Magazine, and a lot of people got their start there. I always wanted to be a writer, and had contributed to both my college and high school newspapers. I had gotten an internship at a weekly paper in Seattle—where I had moved after graduation on a bit of a whim. But I really missed all my friends in New York. A friend’s mom had a friend who was an editor at 7 Days, which was just launching, and said they were looking for assistant-level hires. I sent in my resume and clips, and flew to New York for an interview. I got hired for $14,000 a year and was thrilled out of my mind.
Prior to founding Lucky you wrote for Elle, Sassy, Spin, New York, and many others. Take us on a brief career bio. How did you transition from those staff writer and editor roles to where you are today?
After 7 Days, I was hired as staff writer at Sassy, which was completely fantastic and probably the most fun I’ve had at a job. Three of us wrote the whole magazine, so there was no room for stressing over every little word. You just had to crank it out. During Sassy, I started doing a lot of freelance writing as well. To subsidize my really tiny salary, for one, and also as a way for me to write about music, which had become a serious interest. This helped lead to my next job, which was editing the entertainment coverage at Elle. It was great experience working with editor Amy Gross (who is brilliant and went on to serve as editorial director of O for many years).
Then the editor of New York at the time, Kurt Andersen, offered me a job not dissimilar to the one I’d had at Elle, but with more of an opportunity to write. When he left New York, I quit because I thought it might be fun to write full-time—something I’d never tried. I got an editor-at-large gig at Spin and was writing tons of other places too. It was really stressful, though, because unless you have at least one really sizable contract—and Spin wasn’t paying the big bucks—you are always hustling for work as a freelancer. About two years in, Conde Nast came knocking and I got hired to do Lucky.
When it began, Lucky was a revolutionary concept. What inspired you to start a fashion publication that was so focused on commerce? Tell us about the process of starting a magazine: getting funding/investors, hiring staff, graphics, recruiting advertisers, etc.
The idea to start a magazine about shopping belonged to Conde Nast. James Truman, who was the company’s editorial director at the time, called me in for a meeting, and it turned out we had a lot of the same ideas about what could make an idea like that work. The notion wasn’t to make a magazine based on commerce, but to make one that truly put the reader first: at the time, making sure featured items were actually available to the reader was not a priority at fashion titles, which bugged me. Shouldn’t that be the whole point?
I was hired for four months to work on a handful of dummy pages with a bare-bones freelance staff, and if the big bosses liked it, we’d get permission to create a test issue. If that was a success, we’d launch. I worked with an outside graphic design team on the test issue’s look; when we got the green light, I had my own art department. Hiring a staff was fun: we looked for people who loved shopping, but were not absolute slaves to fashion: Lucky was about having fun with clothes and dressing yourself as opposed to just freaking out over what the same handful of big names sent down the runways each season. As for ads, Lucky had its own publisher—as all Conde Nast titles did at that time—who was responsible for that side of the business.
What is the most important thing you learned when starting Lucky that has carried on throughout your career?
Never be afraid to admit what you don’t know.
Lucky quickly became a huge success, with circulation now well over one million copies, yet it initially received quite a bit of criticism from within the magazine industry. How was it to be the editor at the beginning? How did you respond to that criticism and stay true to your vision?
The one thing that always helped me stay true to Lucky’s vision was that from quite early on, the readers were with us, and totally got it. If all of Lucky’s various critics within the media didn’t like what we were about, that was something I could live with. As for answering my critics, I’m pretty strict about not letting myself do that. You almost never come off well.
What kind of skills or characteristics do you think were vital to your success as both as a founder of a new magazine and as an editor?
Decisiveness is a really big one. Changing up the concept for pages, or sections, or the look the entire book mid-stream is always part of a startup. But taking the time to make certain that once a decision gets made in your office, it stays made is huge.
What was the best part of your job as editor-in-chief of Lucky? What was the most challenging?
The best part by far was assembling and working with such a fun, smart, and collaborative staff. Fashion magazines can be real minefields, and knowing that I’d created an environment where people looked forward to coming to work is something I’m very proud of. The most challenging part was dealing with the growing pressure to find outside sources of revenue for the title once ad page revenue started declining, which is an industry-wide challenge at the moment. Magazine editors should get to do what they do best, which is be editors. Increasingly they’re being called upon to be businesspeople too. The revenue models are much fresher and intuitive online, and now I’m having fun creating my little business. But at the time, in that context, it was just a huge drag.
Over the years Lucky’s online media presence has grown significantly. Are there any unique challenges that come with online media when compared to print media? What challenges did you experience as an editor through this transition?
Helping magazines find their identity in a crowded digital environment is beyond challenging. I’m thrilled it’s no longer part of my job!
The magazine industry is demanding and highly competitive. How did you respond to being in such a cutthroat environment? Do you have any advice for someone who hopes to pursue a career in this industry?
As a writer, I learned early on that it’s a good idea to write put editors first, and publications second. If you’re doing a story for your dream magazine, but your top editor is arbitrary and indecisive, or puts you through endless and pointless rewrites, you’re not going to wind up with a story you’re proud of. The same thing goes for staff jobs: the top magazines have some of the deadliest office cultures. Having said this, I feel compelled to add that this is not a uniformly cutthroat industry—plenty of titles have very normal, non-dysfunction work environments. It’s not all The Devil wears Prada!
Given your demanding career and schedule, how did you find time for balance?
I created no balance for myself while I was at Lucky! I was deeply pathetic at it. That’s a big reason why I chose a new endeavor that is fully portable. Also, the hours are mine to set, which makes balance infinitely easier to maintain.
Since leaving Lucky you started the website, Girl of a Certain Age. Is there a story behind the name? What motivated you to start your site?
Girls of a Certain Age is a play on the phrase Women of a Certain Age, which is used to describe women who are no longer middle aged, but not quite ready to be classified as senior citizens. Girls of a Certain Age, by comparison, are suspended somewhere between their younger adult years and middle age. We know we’re grown ups and we take our grown up responsibilities seriously. But the youth culture that shaped who we are remains a part of us. And we haven’t all defaulted to mom jeans.
I started it because I wanted to have a little fun with writing but I knew I wasn’t interested in doing any magazine projects just yet. The idea of something involving the web interested me, and I liked the DIY aspect of starting out with a blog. So many really successful web destinations—Man Repeller, GoFug Yourself, Cup of Jo— all started small and built big, loyal followings just by being true to their creator’s personal visions. I know from experience that’s not necessarily the name of the game when you’ve got somebody else’s money backing you.
Girls of a Certain Age covers everything from home decor to feminism. Can you tell us who you have in mind when writing? Who are you hoping to reach?
I’m thinking of women, like me, who came of age in the late 70s and early 80s, which was a time when rock and roll, new wave and punk all intersected, and our society was beginning to see a shift as far as how women were viewed in the popular culture. But I know that women who are both younger and older enjoy the blog, and I think that’s in part because I’m writing from the perspective of a former fashion insider, but one who always considered herself an outsider’s insider, if that makes sense. I want the reader to feel included, and like I care about her taste and her thoughts, which I do. And like if we met, like we’d be friends.
What is a typical day like for you in your current role as a blogger?
I write in the late afternoon and evenings, and leave the day to chill out or kick around the city a bit and check out stores to see what looks interesting. I’ve got a little café around the corner where I’ll take my laptop and work, because I know the staff and some of the regulars, and a girl craves human contact from time to time! My schedule works out so that Fridays I don’t really need to be at the computer all day, so that’s when I schedule my lunches and meetings.
Other than writing and managing the site, what other projects have you been involved with since leaving Lucky?
Even though I swore I was done with magazines for good, I have accepted a couple of writing assignments recently.
Considering all you’ve done, do you have any goals you’re still striving to achieve?
I’d like to write a book. And to train my dog not to jump up on guests when they walk in the door.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers and journalists?
Do the grunt work without complaint and people will notice you, and think you’re a hardworking sort who could be capable of bigger things. Make like you should immediately be writing 1000-word features or styling shoots, and you will endear yourself to no one.
Best moment of your career so far?
There hasn’t been any one big whopper, but a lot of smaller, stellar moments: seeing my byline in Rolling Stone typeface for the first time. Having former Sassy readers tell me how the magazine changed their lives (it happens to this day). Looking to my left when I was standing offstage at an Amnesty International concert in Paris and realizing Bruce Springsteen was right next to me. Lucky reaching one million circulation. And best of all, recently, being profiled in the New York Times after I launched Girls of a Certain Age!
What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Never say never.