In the wake of Anna Delvey, enter Emma Salahi of LOVE Magazine. Proof that making it in fashion needn’t cost you a stint in behind bars... And for those of you who didn’t already know: confidence is an expensive glass of champagne.
As I make my way to Shoreditch House, following the maps on my phone because I don’t know where I’m going, I’m shocked to find myself somewhere familiar. As an East Londoner born & bred, it takes me quite seriously by surprise to realise how often I’ve just walked past the unmarked entrance of this infamous member’s club. I’ve been told to wait at Reception and so I oblige; pushing through the enormous and, frankly ominous, front door that ushers you into the high-ceilinged and low-lit hallway. My musings over how all the leather and metal make the foyer feel more like the village’s favourite sex dungeon than London’s most exclusive hangout, are soon interrupted by my interviewee’s arrival.
Just under a month ago, my partner sent me a picture with the attached message: “In Evening Standard Magazine, look who it is”. Gazing out at me from the pages of that week’s ‘Flashbulb!’ feature was the unmistakable profile of an old friend and the accompanying text: “Emma Salahi wasn’t far behind in her fuchsia heels and matching hair band, as she sipped champagne with Dame Vivienne Westwood, Charles Aboah and Camilla Lowther.” Now, I’m impressed two-fold. Firstly, with my partner for recognising Emma at all given that the brunette with a camera around her neck that I used to know is now sporting peroxide blonde and a glass of France’s finest. Secondly, of course, with Emma for being papped rubbing shoulders with Dame Vivienne Westwood and making it look so bloody natural.
Andy Barnes Photography ©
She approaches me in the sex dungeon, sorry Shoreditch House, looking just as glamorous as she did in the photograph despite, or perhaps because of, coming straight from work. When I met Emma nearly 8 years ago we were both fresh out of sixth form and starting an art foundation at London College of Communication, yet to turn nineteen. Emma arrived from Norwich, doe-eyed and with a broad, toothy smile that betrayed her fizzing anticipation of the city before her. Seven years on, and although still very slight, there is nothing Bambi about her. Emma Salahi is both Production Manager and P.A. to the Editor-in-Chief of Love Magazine, Katie Grand. Ostensibly, we’re meeting to finally catch up. In reality, I’m about to grill the living daylights out of the girl in an attempt to find out exactly how she got there.
There’s something about being a ‘Plus One’ in any given setting that makes it innately difficult to ever truly be at ease. Whether stone cold sober or countless drinks deep, there’s an ever-present and foreboding sense of responsibility that nags and permeates your every move. The nervous energy I’m bringing to the table is almost obliterated by Emma’s deferential self-assurance. The casual confidence with which she waltzes through the room and settles into the cushions of her chosen wingbacked armchair is the sort that I am only capable of possessing within the walls of my own home, on the sofa and in pyjamas, clutching a spoon and a tub of Haagen-Dazs. It’s right about now, after ordering a glass of (you guessed it) Ruinart Brut that Emma politely informs me that she is in fact, of all things, feeling slightly nervous. It’s disarming to say the least.
In this scenario, as I would imagine in almost all other scenarios, Emma’s outright honesty is a treasured gift and has the tendency to inject any conversation with a welcome, unanticipated relief. On a totally selfish note, she may as well have taken a little white flag out of her tiny purse and started emphatically waving it around to signify that she’s cool with surrendering the secrets of her success, however sinful they may be. Although Emma’s declaration of apprehension took me by surprise, I admit that her refreshing truthfulness didn’t. My abiding memory of Emma is one of a girl who wore her heart on her sleeve and perhaps that’s what has left me so curious about how she got here. If I know anything about the fashion industry, it’s that ruthless doesn’t do it justice.
Emma picks up where we left off. “When I was studying the photography foundation, I hated being forced to be creative… I hated having a deadline, I didn’t want anyone else to tell me what to do or when to do it.” I gently remind her that she works for a fashion magazine and her nose wrinkles as she laughs, she insists that it’s more fluid than it seems and that at LOVE, where the permanent team only numbers around ten, everyone works closely together and there’s nothing about it that feels corporate in the way you might expect. I question Emma on her decision to pass on the well-trodden path of a Fashion BA, particularly given that her portfolio was so suited and her objective crystal clear:
“I always believed and wanted to prove to myself that I could do it without a degree, for some reason I’ve always said that to myself.”
Instead, she dropped out and eventually took up a position as Sales Assistant at Dior which she held for 2 years, all the while building upon her own styling portfolio on the side. When she decided to take the plunge and apply for an internship at LOVE she was doing so without any industry contacts but the full and necessary support from her parents, whom she has always shared a close relationship. “I would be nowhere without my parents and that’s the bottom line. I think parents should invest more in rent than a degree, it’s just a reflection of the times. I don’t think, especially with creative degrees, that employers give a shit about them. It might bring you contacts, but all you need is a foot in the door and to work fucking hard… I think in the fashion industry, you just have to survive. You just have to last long enough for people to take notice”.
And survive she did. After a successful internship, Emma was kept on as a fashion assistant and was promoted to her current role late last year. There’s a danger that all this sounds relatively easy read aloud but I can confirm that after an hour chatting with Emma, hearing the phrases ‘cut-throat’, ‘breaking point’ and ‘thick skin’ each on more than one occasion, it sounds as close to ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ as I was expecting. Except this isn’t a melodramatic movie, it’s Emma’s everyday reality and one that (unlike Anne Hathaway’s Andy) she had envisioned for herself a long time ago and has worked perilously hard at achieving. None of Emma’s rise has been accidental. In fact, I get the impression that nothing about her is. She’s quick in our conversation to label herself ‘lucky’, emphasises this more than once and heaps praise on everybody around her but the truth is sitting right in front of me. Emma has always been a grafter who possesses the good sense to follow her gut and, judging by the way our hostess’ eyes and smile linger after her every order, she’s unwittingly enamoured a few people along the way.
If you ask me, calculated is a word paired far too often with cold, and perhaps that’s where Emma most notably breaks the mould. As I suspected, her meteoric rise in this breakneck industry hasn’t come without its kickbacks. She confesses that late last year, just before being offered her promotion, she actually felt that she’d hit rock bottom. “The fashion industry is obviously renowned for being one of the most difficult, hardest, bitchiest places that anyone could work in and (she laughs) I honestly didn’t realise that it could be so hard! I think there’s only a handful of people that can cope with it biologically… And it’s given me social anxiety, y’know? It’s really not for the faint hearted, and I was constantly trying to keep up with the idea of perfection”. What’s abundantly clear, however, is that for Emma the collective costs are well worth the reward.
“I literally do pinch myself every day… how have I managed to get this far? As a teenager I remember using LOVE as my inspiration and copying the shoots from the magazine, recreating them in my own way. It’s so surreal that I’m working here at this magazine that I’ve always looked up to and genuinely always loved so much”
Naturally, there’s unadulterated pride in her reflections of the last few years, and although the costs are great I can assure you that Emma is no passive victim. Shout Stockholm syndrome all you like, but Emma has established herself amongst the people she always looked up to. And she achieved this by playing to her strengths: “I’ve always felt like an outsider, I am an outsider, but I don’t get upset about it anymore. I think I don’t fit in for a reason. I think the chaos of a magazine needs someone to be quite thorough and exacting.”
I recently listened to Guardian Columnist Hadley Freeman reflect on the unfolding criminal trial of Anna Delvey (real name Anna Sorokin) in New York. For those not in the know, Anna Delvey is a Russian-born con artist now sentenced to up to 12 years in prison for theft and grand larceny, amongst other things. In her desperation to break into the City’s fashion and art world that she so looked up to, she took on an alias and peddled a backstory that had her positioned as a German heiress, set to inherit a fortune which she intended to use to create an exclusive members club. Freeman commented “The truth is that a lot of people who end up in the art, fashion world also come from humble backgrounds. Not everyone is going to be an heiress in this world, a lot of people have worked their way up. There’s no reason why she wouldn’t have fit in if she’d just been honest about herself and she didn’t need to steal to be in that world. If she had just actually gotten a damn job and worked as a fashion assistant at Vogue, or wherever, she could’ve been a part of this scene and charmed people.” If ever there was proof of the veracity of that statement, it would be Emma. The antidote that the fashion and art world perhaps need after Anna Delvey. Emma saw it, she wanted it and she got it. She’s taken the industry by the neck and given it a good squeeze. And she’s not letting go yet.
Words by Sarah Blaikie