R.J. Hernández's ‘An Innocent Fashion’ Is Like The Devil Wears Prada, but Better

We know how these stories go. The protagonist, a young, plucky and privileged, educated — if insecure — white woman, gets the job of her dreams at a glossy and learns the world of magazine publishing isn't all that she imagined it would be. She is aghast at the reality: evil figureheads, backstabbing coworkers, corporate politics, and little-to-no opportunity to grow. But she ends up learning something about herself in the process.

An Innocent Fashion. Photo: HarperCollins

"In contrast, my protagonist isn't a privileged white woman, but a queer person of color who is struggling within this world, because he doesn't fit in," Hernández tells Racked. His first novel, An Innocent Fashion (HarperCollins, July 5), casts a light on these oft-ignored stories. The story was informed by Hernández's experience working in the editorial departments at a number of fashion magazines.

Hernández speaks of the fashion world not as a weary veteran, but as a critical participant. After graduation, he interned at Vogue and went on to work as an assistant at Elle and W. He left the world of full-time office work, but continues to work on projects on a freelance basis, and An Innocent Fashion was borne after he left the magazine world.

The narrator of Fashion is Yale graduate Ethan St. James, a new intern at much-revered fashion magazine Régine. When we meet Ethan, he's depressed, isolated, immensely stressed, reflecting on the irony that only the elite can access New York City rooftops to throw themselves from.

The story reveals, in deft shifts between time periods, that Ethan was born Elián San Jamar and grew up hungry for more "beauty" than his blue-collar Texas childhood offered. He gets a full ride to Yale and finds all the glamour he hoped for in the form of two new friends: Madeline and Dorian, who are beautiful, wealthy, and connected. When the friends move to New York, Ethan comes to understand that he can't escape his background and that his identity places certain limitations on his ability to succeed.

Parallels between the protagonist's story and Hernández's are clear, if not obvious. The author, 26, is a Cuban-American Yale grad from Miami, the son of a retired teacher and an airplane mechanic. When Hernández moved to New York City, he started working in fashion under the pseudonym Seymour Glass, borrowed (lifted?) from the hero of J.D. Salinger's Glass family stories. Hernández tells Racked that as a kid, "I'd had the idea that to be as American as possible was to my benefit and in my best interest. So I wanted to change my name for years."

"I started going by Seymour Glass, and no one ever asked me about it, because evidently people in the fashion industry don't read J.D. Salinger."

Salinger's Seymour Glass is a brilliant, sensitive, introverted type who returns from war and kills himself in the hotel where he's staying with his wife. Before Hernández started at Vogue, he had been reading Salinger's Nine Stories, in which Seymour features prominently. Hernández was drawn to this melancholy character, he says, with such a beautiful name. "The sound of it, the implications of glass, and the idea of hiding in plain view, behind glass. It came to me at the right time, right when I was considering what to call myself."

"So I started going by Seymour Glass, and no one ever asked me about it, because evidently people in the fashion industry don't read J.D. Salinger."

In Salinger's fiction, Seymour Glass is incredibly disillusioned — critical of materialism and greed and the elitist society in which his wife is ensconced — and this makes it an especially apt name for a writer who learned that his idealistic image of the future wouldn't pan out.

"I'd always gotten by on my curiosity and my creativity and my passion for being stimulated and exploring new ideas, I realized the currency of this new environment was none of those things."

Like Ethan, Hernández "learned very quickly that my enthusiasm in that world was worth very little. Whereas before I'd always gotten by on my curiosity and my creativity and my passion for being stimulated and exploring new ideas, I realized the currency of this new environment was none of those things. It was, in a lot of cases, physical beauty, wealth, social connections."

One of the motifs in this novel is the recurrence of Ethan's fantasies of how certain events will go. He envisions being noticed and rewarded for his singular talent and vision. This is something that Hernández finds common among the millennial set: "Trying to be the star of something is so paramount to us."

At Régine, Ethan is forced to shed his illusions. He works hard with little reward, revering his higher-ups with a youthful idolatry. Unlike the characters of Prada — the evil boss figures we know too well — the individuals populating Hernández's world are complex and surprising. With his insight and careful attention to detail, characters go past fulfilling familiar archetypes. They're real: complicated, contradictory, and capable of generosity and goodwill as well as hurt.

This is the reality, Hernández says. One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding the fashion world is that everyone is "stupid or mean. Yes, some people are, but that's only because there are stupid and mean people in the world at large, and of course, some of them work in fashion."

One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding the fashion world is that everyone is "stupid or mean. Yes, some people are, but that's only because there are stupid and mean people in the world at large, and of course, some of them work in fashion."

Hernández goes to great lengths to stress that his message is not that fashion magazines are bad. When he "started seeing the cracks in my dream, it wasn't anybody's fault." Instead, he understands his experience as a process of learning about corporate America and shedding some naiveté about the world. "I just started to realize that the world around me was hostile in ways I hadn't expected. The particular world I had chosen, which I thought would be exempt from those hostilities, presented these devastating realizations about hierarchies of people and where I fell in them."

He goes on: "A magazine's masthead is kind of the ultimate metaphor for a hierarchy within a society. You have people literally at the top, and then people who aren't even featured, but who are working very hard." This isn't exclusive to magazines, he adds. Hierarchies are inherent to corporate culture. But he adds that "in fashion now, there are a lot more jobs that resemble cogs in the machine than there used to be."

Hernández says he wrote An Innocent Fashion in the midst of a deep post-graduate, post-Vogue and -W depression — a kind of crisis. He said, "I was in between things and didn't really know what to do with myself. I had really only come up with this one plan, which didn't seem to be affording me the kind of life I wanted, and especially not the kind of mental life I wanted for myself."

Post-graduation depression is so common to the experience of young people. At his college reunion, Hernández spoke with fellow alumni about how the book was borne of his dark time after graduation, and he was struck by how so many people — consultants, lawyers, artists — spoke of similar experiences. "It seems like the world is set-up to depress you!" he says.

"Fashion is an ornate mirror held up to the world," Hernández writes, "and the world is all rot and ash."

But writing was his escape. "Expressing myself through that medium gave me reprieve from my anxiety," he said. He would write for days on end in a dark, boarded-up apartment, with no clock on his computer and his phone powered off.

For Hernández, writing has always been a refuge, a means of taking care of himself. He's kept a daily journal since he was young. Early in his magazine career, he realized he hadn't been keeping up with his notebook for weeks. Not writing down his thoughts, he says, meant not having thoughts. "That terrified me. That was the beginning of my realization that what I was doing was… hurting me. Parts of my mind were atrophying."

Early on, Ethan expresses his despair and his disavowal of beauty. "Fashion is an ornate mirror held up to the world," Hernández writes, "and the world is all rot and ash."

Hernández's relationship with beauty has changed over the course of his career. "Wanting to be happy, for me, is just wanting to be surrounded by beauty. This means something different for everyone. And beauty manifests in relationships and life experiences." He laments that with the onslaught of social media, scrolling through feeds diminishes the beauty of any one image: "It used to be that an image was sacred; now people spend less than a half-second appreciating an image while their scrolling with their thumb on Instagram."

"There are people who are always hungry for the next thing, but I've learned that thinking about one thing at a time is a good goal."

The process writing and publication of An Innocent Fashion aligned more with Hernández's creative process than magazine work ever could. Books are meant to stand the test of time, whereas magazines aim for continually renewing relevance — and Hernández has learned he's "the kind of person whose best ideas evolve with more time. There are people who are always hungry for the next thing, but I've learned that thinking about one thing at a time — and focusing on having one unique thought per day — is a good goal."

When asked why fiction was the right genre for the story, Hernández stressed the subjectivity of anyone's memory. "Everybody's story is a kind of fiction anyways. How we remember things is basically made up. It's never really what happened."


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