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Samira Nasr, a fashion first at Harper’s Bazaar: ‘I just want to bring more people with me to the party’

Samira Nasr is the first woman of color to serve as editor in chief of Harper's Bazaar. (Kelly Marshall for The Washington Post.)

Over the course of three decades, Samira Nasr has run a well-paced marathon through a fashion system filled with flamboyant egos and prickly temperaments, all while maintaining a low-key reputation as someone with integrity, impeccable taste and a commitment to hard work. She is also terribly skilled at her job, which has been to tell visual stories using clothes and accessories. In July, she claimed a victory and stepped into history when she became the editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar — making her the first person of color to lead the fashion glossy in its 154-year history.

After months of tweaks and overhauls — and pandemic setbacks — the March issue, which debuts online Wednesday, is wholly her own.

Nasr didn’t come calling for the job at Bazaar, and she wasn’t a rumored favorite. In fact, Nasr, 50, assumed she’d reached her final stop as the fashion director of Vanity Fair under another groundbreaking editor, Radhika Jones, who is the first person of color at its helm.

Instead, Nasr was recruited not long after Bazaar’s previous editor, Glenda Bailey, announced her departure in January 2020. As part of her application, Nasr was asked to reimagine Bazaar, and just as she began this professional exercise, the world abruptly changed. She was forced to define the magazine’s role in the midst of a deadly pandemic, in a time of economic decline, during a summer of civil unrest and in the storm of a media environment filled with accusations of everything from insensitivity to blatant racism.

So Nasr began with the fashion. Stubbornly. Defiantly. Joyfully. She would make no excuses for celebrating luxury because luxury, Nasr says, is freedom. It’s the ability to make choices about how one looks, what one does, where one goes.

Her version of Bazaar considers a reader’s interest in fashion in the context of a broader intellectual curiosity. Fashion is a tool for building an identity, and you don’t toss out bits of your identity from one season to the next. Perhaps one bit of your personality gets tucked into the back of the closet. Another just becomes a cozy base layer.

Nasr’s pitch was a winning one. In June, while tending to her son on the playground, her phone rang and Kate Lewis, chief content officer of Hearst Magazines, which owns Bazaar, offered her the job. And someone with a different kind of life story than all the other editors before her was suddenly afforded space in the corner office.

“I remember in my early 30s my mom telling me to bring all of me into the room. And that is something that has really stuck with me. And so when I allowed myself to dream about what my vision would be, that comes back to me, like, bring all of yourself to it,” Nasr says. “I notice when I walk into a room and everyone looks a certain way. I notice those things. I always marvel, even on social media, when people post pictures of all their friends, when everyone looks the same. I’m always like, ‘Wow.’ I think any sort of marginalized people notice those things.”

“It’s something we, I, just notice,” Nasr says. “I am acutely aware of my presence when I walk into a room. I’ve always had to be.”

Nasr (pronounced NAW-sir) is kind. People remark on this because fashion is an industry in which folks find this trait remarkable. She is neither a pushover nor human pablum; she is simply someone who doesn’t see any reason to be cruel by action, omission or nonchalant indifference. She has tried to consciously acknowledge people instead of looking through them.

The reasons for this attitude are many. People’s entire lived experiences are responsible for shaping who they ultimately become. Nasr’s story includes being a child of divorced parents who lived with her father; a latchkey kid who grew up in the modest Montreal suburb of Pointe-Claire along with an older brother; and a woman who describes herself as a person of color, with all the complexity that implies. Her father, who has since passed away, was Lebanese. Her mother, who has remarried, is from Trinidad. The United States called her Black when she moved here, and she eventually became a citizen. Her complexion is brown; her dark hair is curly; and she speaks in gentle soprano notes. She had to sort through precisely what to call herself because she didn’t want to offend someone by shunning a description or offend someone else by claiming a particular biography that wasn’t hers.

“I was always aware of my differences. It wasn’t just how I looked or how my hair looked. It was like: Who’s at home? Who’s making me lunch? If my dad made us lunch, it was like some weird, you know, a bunch of vegetables in a thing. It just wasn’t like a peanut butter sandwich,” Nasr says, laughing at the memory. “My brother was like, ‘I think I went to school once with a can of sardines, a hard boiled egg and a cold tomato.’ ”

Fashion's racial reckoning

In her 20s, she followed her brother to New York to study journalism at New York University after finishing an undergraduate degree in philosophy. She had seen a news magazine cover that featured “a sunset and the top of a mosque with a hand holding a rifle.”

“All of the imagery out there associated with Islam is terrorists and killers and murderers. And I know this other Islam of beauty and compassion,” says Nasr, who isn’t Muslim but many in her family are. “And so I thought, ‘I need to go to journalism school because I need to become a journalist because I need to tell the other story of Islam.’ ”

In search of extra money, she worked as a fashion gofer for Mary Alice Stephenson, who was a junior editor at Allure magazine. “We kind of grew up in the industry together, even though she was working technically for me at times,” says Stephenson, who wound her own way through the glossy magazine world before leaving to start the Glam4Good Foundation. “The fashion industry was boiling over with characters and flamboyant egos. Samira was calm, cool and collected.”

“That steadiness was really something empowering,” Stephenson adds.

Nasr never presumed there were spaces in which she didn’t belong or might be unwelcome. She plowed ahead, from Allure to Vogue and elsewhere, occasionally experiencing the tiny paper cuts that people don’t really feel until they look down and realize they’re bleeding. She was the exception to rules she didn’t really notice — until one day, while she was still an assistant, someone at a meeting made her individuality into a peculiarity.

“Someone said something about my hair. And then I was kind of like, ‘Where is this coming from? My hair isn’t messy. This is just what it looks like.’ And then I’m looking around and seeing that everyone had these, like, perfect blond locks. And then I’m like, ‘Oh, wait a second. They think my hair is messy because my hair just does not do that.’ ”

I felt a wave of shame like, ‘Oh my God, my hair is messy.’ And that’s when I started wearing my hair back all the time,” Nasr says.

It was a moment of careless unkindness, a way of noting that an unspoken rule — stupid, pointless, insidious — has been violated.

“I’m fortunate to have a network of friends, most of whom don’t work in fashion, who are of every size, shape, color. And you sort of go back to your tribe and realize, like, ‘I make sense.’ If this ends tomorrow, I’m good, like, I’m fine,” Nasr says.

She is sitting in her office in Hearst’s New York headquarters. Her curls spiral freely. The walls are white with empty white bookshelves. A white orchid, only recently added, occupies one corner of a cabinet because every fashion office needs flowers. A cup holds an arsenal of freshly sharpened pencils, a studiously analog statement in this digital age.

Bazaar, with a circulation of about 753,000, exists in the shadow of Vogue with its larger readership and its iconic editor in chief. But Bazaar has been responsible for a fair share of luxury fashion’s visual and literary legacy.

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From 1936 to 1962, Diana Vreeland served as the magazine’s fashion editor while blossoming into a famous sage of fashion wit and wisdom. The editor in chief for much of that period, Carmel Snow, coined the enduring phrase “New Look” to describe the post-World War II style created by Christian Dior — the style that was deemed to have resurrected French fashion.

Bazaar has published some of the industry’s most memorable images, including the black-and-white photograph taken by Richard Avedon of the sharp-featured model Dovima posed languidly between two elephants. The magazine was the home to the early writings of Truman Capote and a showcase for artist Man Ray and photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. And before “The Devil Wears Prada,” there was “Funny Face,” a film based on Avedon and Vreeland during their time at Bazaar.

Over the years, Bazaar’s fortunes have risen and tumbled, reaching their modern zeitgeisty zenith under the leadership of the late Liz Tilberis, whose debut issue in 1992 implored women to “Enter the Era of Elegance.” Like every legacy print publication, Bazaar is having to find a new way — and a new talent pool — in changing times. Both Vogue and Vanity Fair have only recently had Black photographers work on their covers. Bazaar has not. Yet.

“As with many industries, I feel like magazine publishing has tended to be insular. It nurtures and rewards people and grows them,” says Hearst’s Lewis. “And the history of magazines is those people typically are White. And that’s not going to lead us to change.”

The March issue stars Megan Thee Stallion, photographed by Collier Schorr. Nasr’s initial impulse was to hire a Black photographer to shoot this Black woman. But she also recognized that there was more to Megan’s story than race. “Megan is about female empowerment and body positivity, and those are a lot of the themes that Collier explores in her work,” Nasr says. “And I was really curious to see [Megan] through a gay, female lens.” For future issues, Nasr has her eye on a roster of young Black photographers, including Shaniqwa Jarvis, John Edmonds, Texas Isaiah and Philip-Daniel Ducasse.

March also includes a story about the Hermès Birkin, a portfolio celebrating the cultural impact of the Studio Museum in Harlem and a piece by the novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge, who also serves as the magazine’s features director.

I really wanted a Black woman in that role,” Nasr says. She hopes to bring some of this era’s most provocative female voices to the magazine and “I wanted them to know that their text would be safe and that the person editing them would understand their stories.”

“I’m not saying that all White editors don’t have the capacity,” Nasr adds. “I’m just saying there’s something about seeing your likeness, or knowing that person will really see you, that kind of opens the gate and allows for a little more trust.”

Greenidge, in turn, is commissioning pieces that look at Carnival, the impact of the GameStop financial debacle on Black investors and the marking of death in Ghanaian British communities.

“I don’t have any of the sort of preconceived notions about” fashion magazines, Greenidge says. “One of my favorite quotes about reading and about writing in general is that an excellent measure of a piece is, if after you read it, you have to talk to somebody about it.”

She adds: “That’s a slightly different kind of engagement than, ‘This is going to get a million clicks.’ ”

Nasr is tearing up. She’s working from her home in Brooklyn and she’s reaching for a handkerchief. She’d been talking about the challenges of the past week — nothing specific, just life as it is right now. Her son, Lex, whom she adopted as an infant, is now 7 and is tackling the hurdles of virtual school, and that requires her attention. She can also get a bit emotional recalling her childhood and her father, or after reading an essay by Greenidge on the legacy of love, or after contemplating what it means to be a “first.”

Nasr is “emotionally open,” Stephenson says, “but never overly emotional.”

She’s willing to be fully seen in a way that feels made for person-to-person contact rather than through an endless scroll of social media posts. She doesn’t carry herself with aloofness or grandeur but rather like someone who still has faith that simple, hard work is rewarded. She still has faith in luxury, too — but as something to be collected, not discarded.

“It’s so hard, especially now, to talk about luxury in a way that feels like the intent is to bring joy and delight and amusement, as opposed to it being something that is so aspirational and fantasy-driven that it becomes almost aggravating,” Nasr says. “I want to bring humanity to it.”

Doing so isn’t so much about the brands that are featured in the magazine or the photographs of expensive frocks in modest settings. It’s about whom fashion is trying to delight, whom its bouncers welcome through the door.

“I feel like I’m rolling up to their party and I’m just like, ‘Plus 20,’ ” Nasr says. “I just want to bring more people with me to the party, because I think that’s going to make it more interesting.”

“I’m here and I brought some friends,” she says. “I hope that’s cool.”

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