Photography: Ally Lindsay
Narratives developed around the fashion industry are typically superficial, exclusively depicting white upper echelon editors who were born into money and slid into comfy careers with a sea of connections they inherited from parents. This story archetype made for a fantastic drama with The Devil Wears Prada, but it fails to acknowledge the reality of a much more complex community of creatives where intersectionality is a determinant of how quickly you rise to the top.
In An Innocent Fashion, author R.J. Hernandez flips this standard by telling the story of Elián San Jamar who transforms himself from a blue collar American-Cuban into Ethan St. James for a top internship at acclaimed fashion magazine, Régine. Using the fast-paced, flamboyant fashion industry as a backdrop to highlight personal and social struggles, Hernandez’s darkly humorous novel outlines the familiar millennial conflict of sacrificing our values for success.
Just how far are we willing to go until we’ve become someone else entirely?
Ahead of An Innocent Fashion’s official release on July 5, we caught up with the rising queer author to talk about his highly anticipated literary breakout.
How do you feel about the novel’s comparisons to The Devil Wears Prada? To me, that observation is too easy.
I was worried about people thinking it would just be a Devil Wears Prada 2, when what I had set out to write was something that used fashion as a backdrop to think about class, racial identity, gender, sexuality—things that, to me, are all embedded in my experience of the fashion industry, but are often erased from narratives about that. It usually ends up being about the same types of characters who aren’t very complex. Fashion is rarely seen as an opportunity to explore the complexities of the modern human. It’s just its own separate world where the only thing people care about are that it’s exclusive and full of ‘edgy fashionistas.’
Superficiality in fashion is sprinkled throughout the upper tier, and the more complex, interesting people without money or connections are hustling on levels, below.
I think people are attracted to fashion for different reasons. There are people attracted to it because they’re creative and appreciate beauty with a capital B, in a bigger sense. But then you get people that often times, on the other crest, are more concerned with who’s who and what trends are in or what people are saying, and it emulates that old, cliché notion where really dumb people talk about other people, but smart, complex people talk about ideas. I feel like the fashion industry is divided that way, too. The thing that’s associated with the fashion consciousness is what some insignificant person, who starred in a forgettable summer blockbuster, wore to some equally insignificant award show—that’s what people are clicking on most.
I can’t tell if you love or hate fashion.
I like the potential fashion has. There are so many things I loathe about it, and what makes me the most furious is knowing the gap between those can be bridged. What I feel is really lacking is conviction about ideas. A lot of what happens in fashion is because a bottom line needs to be filled, and it takes on a meaning quite distant from what is exciting about fashion. It’s discouraging because there are people with really great ideas, but those people are often not the people screaming. As in politics, fashion is just another screaming match where people with the most money or clickbait stories are the people who end up recognized. But it’s particularly upsetting for me as a person who values aesthetics to see that play out in fashion. I don’t want to feel ashamed when I tell people I work in the fashion industry. I don’t want to feel like I’m aligning myself with values that I’m actually working to fight. But do you work from the belly of the beast or attack it from the outside? Often if you’re too quiet, your fight isn’t heard.
How do you hope An Innocent Fashion will change this conversation?
Hopefully it will change the conversation about fashion to highlight issues of class, gender [and] racial identity, which are so embedded in the experiences people have in the industry. My background has affected my ability to succeed, but in fashion, there’s an interesting interplay between what you’re born with and what you bring to the table. Some people are naturally at an advantage and others aren’t—you see that in terms of intelligence, beauty, wealth, connections. But fashion adds this extra element, aesthetic, when you’re playing with not just these values, but what they look like—you can make yourself more beautiful. Fashion is an interesting backdrop of a salient metaphor for what happens in every other field. What’s happening everywhere else is happening in fashion, but you can see it because people are wearing those values. That creates another dimension with which to view the human condition and human societies. They take on colors, they take on shapes.
There’s a level of human behind the novel that I love, but it’s still laced with the drama that people have come to expect from the fashion industry—like in the beginning, when Elián is contemplating suicide.
Hopefully some of it can be seen as funny, but in the way the inevitable downfall of every earnest human is funny. It’s like a sad, pathetic truth—the tragedy of that. I’d like a reader to not feel as sympathetic for the main character in the beginning as they do at the end. He seems a little bit outrageous and self-pitying in the way millennials are often criticized for being. It’s just another testament to this idea that despite what a person looks like, you don’t know the whole story. There’s a lot more going on.
What inspired you to write this story?
I didn’t start writing it with a novel in mind—I started writing because I was in the deepest depression of my life, followed by a period that should’ve been the most joyous, which was graduating and ascending, or ‘ascending,’ to what I thought was going to be a life that was everything I had dreamed of.
And it wasn’t?
Vogue was my first experience out of Yale and, I guess, you go in with the naive expectation that a piece like that is going to resemble the vision of the place in your head. I had all these associations of it as glamorous and beautiful and full of creative people doing photoshoots and making all these colorful, brilliant worlds. So when I showed up and realized that in fact Vogue, like every other office, was just an office, it wasn’t so much a testament to anything wrong with Vogue so much as what was wrong with my expectation of adult life. I thought, ‘Now my glamorous life is going to start.’ An Innocent Fashion is not a condemnation of Vogue or any other magazine I worked at. If anything, it’s more a condemnation of what those places represent of life as an adult at the pinnacle of capitalist America. It was a depressing realization.
But in this state of depression, you wrote an incredible novel.
I wrote it in an apartment with the windows boarded up, I would block out the light and work without knowing the time of day. I prefer to write for long periods of time if I feel like I have a lot of things to say and then maybe sleep for long periods of time if I feel like my brain is tired, rather than be at the whims of my own prejudices about what it is that people are supposed to do when they know it’s 6 p.m. versus what it is that they feel they should do.
So writing this for you was an escape from sadness?
Yeah, I’ve been writing stories my whole life. Over several winter breaks, I stayed at Yale by myself to write. I wrote a novel then that no one ever knew about. I’m an only child, so I would write to escape. My first one was about the son of a con-artist who discovered his father was responsible for this crazy web of intrigue in Italy. But when I was in this depressed period after Vogue, what I escaped to were my memories because anything I could write about in the world was not attractive to me. I had so much despair and feelings of hopelessness toward the world, so to escape to something better meant escaping to my memories—remembering a time when it felt like I had realized the dream. So really I was boarded up, but what I boarded out was a lot less attractive to me than what I was reliving in my head.
Are you officially over New York?
I’m over it, except as a practical, transient thing. I don’t have all of my dreams here. I don’t see this place as the vessel for the fully realized life that I want, the way I did once. I’ve never necessarily felt like New York was the best home for me being that I’m very slow-minded. I really like taking my time with almost anything that I do. I am not fast paced. I would much prefer to think about one thing for a period of several weeks. One of my biggest goals is to come up with thoughts that seem original. And I can’t do that to my standard if I’m trying to keep up with other people. If I think about one thing for a whole day, then maybe I’ll have one good thought.