Photo: Courtesy of Nancy Chilton/BFA.com
In our long-running series “How I’m Making It,” we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
For the last two decades, Nancy Chilton has had the kind of fashion career you watch play out on the big screen — perhaps in a film loosely based on the screenwriter’s experience at a blue-chip magazine, or in a documentary detailing the high-glamour of a significant industry event. Had “The Devil Wears Prada” been remade in the last 15 years, Andy Sachs would have been tasked with making a phone call to Chilton herself, confirming logistics for the forthcoming Met Gala.
As chief external relations officer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, Chilton is, indeed, at the epicenter of fashion lore. Since she first joined The Met in 2006 (then as a senior publicist), Chilton has served as the Costume Institute’s quasi-gatekeeper in a very literal sense, leading the press surrounding 15 years of exhibitions that frequently broke attendance records.
Through her tenure, her responsibilities have taken on something of a figurative role, too. In interviews, she’s described the scope of her position to be that of “managing the Costume Institute’s reputation,” communicating head curator Andrew Bolton’s vision with excitement and brevity, even if that vision is still in its earliest stages. This, she says, was a skill she honed in her seven years at Ralph Lauren, where she served as the senior director of publicity for the Ralph Lauren and Polo Ralph Lauren brands, as well as for Mr. Ralph Lauren himself.
“He was a demanding boss, but a kind and caring boss, the kind who doesn’t get on the elevator with someone and not say, ‘How are you doing? How’s your job?,'” she remembers. “He wanted to know and be in touch with everybody who worked for him.”
After a brief detour to London, she made her way to The Met in 2006 for an interview with Bolton and former curator-in-chief Harold Koda. Needless to say, it went off without a hitch: A decade and a half later, Chilton has become as inextricably linked with the Costume Institute as Bolton or Koda themselves.
In June, it was announced that Chilton was set to bid adieu to her time at The Met; she would remain at her post until the end of September, overseeing this year’s Met Gala. For her next move, Chilton is branching out on her own with NAC Consulting, her own strategic communications consulting firm. It’s no doubt she leaves the Costume Institute in good hands, if only because its audience has grown significantly since Chilton’s first day on the job.
“I feel there’s a hunger on the part of the public who have become more sophisticated in their knowledge of fashion because of what they see on the internet,” she says. “There became this voracious appetite for that kind of intelligent analysis of what fashion has been and can be.”
Ahead of her departure, we caught up with Chilton to hear how she transitioned an early career penning press releases for RVs into one at the pinnacle of fashion publicity, where no detail is too small, no guest list is too thorough and no May commences without the Met Gala.
Tell me about the origins of your interest in fashion, before you pursued it as a career. Do you have a first fashion memory?
Well, it goes back a long time to my grandfather, who was kind of the ultimate Renaissance man. He collected Nakashima furniture. He did LSD in the Sixties. He was amazing. But he used to take me back-to-school shopping at Bergdorf’s and Bendel’s, and we’d have the best time.
One day, we were in the children’s department at Bergdorf’s and I was trying on this bell-bottom pantsuit — this was in the late Sixties — and Bernadine Morris, who at the time was the New York Times fashion critic, came up and started chatting with my grandfather and said to me, “Oh, I love your outfit. Could my photographer take a picture of it for the Times?” Which she did, and I was all excited. And then Senator Javits’ wife and two daughters came in and they tried on the same pantsuit. Guess whose picture got in the New York Times? [Laughs] But Bernadine was super sweet. She mentioned me in the story and sent me the picture. Twenty years later, I worked with her when I was in publicity at Ralph Lauren.
Walk me through your career path from the time you first entered the workplace to when you landed at Ralph Lauren, where you were for upward of seven years.
I was always interested in fashion, but I never thought it would be a career for me in any way. When I was in college, I wrote for the daily newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun, about arts and culture; I learned a lot there, but had no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated.
I started working for a friend’s mother — she was a fashion designer named Gloria Sachs who did a lot of cashmere and Irish imports. That lasted briefly. Then I worked at HBO, at the beginning of HBO’s life, basically copying press clippings and delivering them to executives. I was like, ‘Okay, I can’t do that anymore,’ so I went to work at Burson-Marsteller, which was the biggest PR firm in the world, and got great training in how to write press releases in your sleep, crisis communications, media training… But I was working on accounts like RVs and ceramic tile and moving materials, so I knew I needed to change gears. And then, my upstairs neighbor went to work in HR at Ralph Lauren. I gave her my resume, and it coincided with them looking for a director of publicity. And that’s how I ended up at Ralph.
What lessons did you learn in your time at Ralph Lauren that you still carry with you today?
It was an amazing place to work, and it was during a period of incredible growth for the company. Beyond the usual fashion cycle, he was launching new products, new fragrances, Double RL… It was just one thing after another.
I worked closely with him for a number of years. He taught me so much about relationships — always writing the handwritten thank-you note, always staying in touch with people, even if they’re leaving their job. You never know where they may end up, which has been so true in my life, because I’m still working with people today I worked with when I started out at Ralph who have landed in different places across the fashion landscape. I learned a ton from him, always setting the bar high and looking for excellence and quality in everything you do.
How did the opportunity with The Met come about?
I left Ralph because I just had my second baby and my husband was transferred to London, so we moved. It was really hard. We were only there for two years. When we came back, I was freelancing and getting ready to do something else when I read Diana Vreeland’s autobiography that she wrote with George Plimpton. It was so inspiring. I knew I wanted to go back into fashion in some way, but I wanted to do something different than work for a fashion designer and do fashion shows. I thought publicity for the Costume Institute would be the perfect thing.
I knew someone who worked in the director’s office, and she introduced me to the person who had the job before I did. Months went by, and then the position opened. I sent in my resume and met with [former curator-in-chief] Harold [Koda] and [head curator] Andrew [Bolton]. I’ve had a great working relationship with them ever since.
You’ve been with the Costume Institute for 15 years, a tenure that can be considered in stark contrast with so much of this industry, in which creatives move around jobs in order to progress in their career. What has it been like to stay rooted in one place for so long? How has the Costume Institute — and your role within it — changed?
Like the rest of fashion, it’s cyclical. There’s not fashion shows, but there is an exhibition and a gala. Usually, we’re on the first-Monday-in-May cycle, except for this year, which threw us all for a loop. [Laughs]
I came into a senior publicist role, but because of my job at Ralph, I thought in a wider, broader way than that. I understand the role was about the reputation of the Costume Institute and its curators, that I’m there to enhance and protect. I think I was able to move into different areas because of that, part of which were the opportunities we explored and that came our way — working on “The First Monday in May” as an executive producer, working on the books that Vogue has done about the Costume Institute exhibitions and galas, working with sponsors… I was able to expand and broaden the role beyond what it was when I first got there.
At the same time, the Costume Institute was growing dramatically. Fashion and art museums were also becoming much more expanded. I think a lot of that is due to the Alexander McQueen exhibition. The battle that Harold and Andrew have always fought is convincing people, whether it’s museum trustees or art critics, that fashion is an art form. And McQueen helped get that message across and bring more people to the realization that, yes, certain fashion is art. Not all fashion is art, but in the same way that not all photography is art. It broadened the acceptance and created this hunger for knowledge about the history of fashion that has very much become a global phenomenon.
You’ve described the scope of your role at The Met to be that of “managing the Costume Institute’s reputation,” as well as “communicating what Andrew’s dreamt up next.” How have those priorities played out in both day-to-day and longer-term senses?
One of the most interesting and challenging things about my role has been creating interest and demand and knowledge about something that actually doesn’t exist yet. Because of the way the cycle runs — and I’ll use a May opening as an example — we announce what the exhibition and gala are going to be at the end of Paris Fashion Week, so early October. We have to pull images and information out of Andrew, who’s early on in the curation at that point, and get the word out in October. We do a press conference typically during February fashion week, either in New York, London, Milan or Paris. There’s organizing all of that, getting the speakers, getting the press, getting everybody in the room.
And then, from there, we’re just full throttle until May, telling the story of what this exhibition is going to be. Usually, we have catalog images that help us, and we have assets that we create from Andrew’s presentations. But we’re telling the story about something that’s intangible. And until we can get the bodies in the room — which we usually do the morning before the gala at the press preview — we’re creating information and content out of not that much.
Once the exhibition opens, it’s managing that. A typical exhibition runs three or four months; once that first-Monday-in-May buzz subsides a week or two later, the challenge becomes, “How are we going to keep interest in this exhibition going, so people are going to continue to want to come see what’s on view here?”
How did you decide to embark on your own, and what can we expect from NAC Consulting in the future?
Well, I’ve been rather busy for the last few months. [Laughs] I haven’t had much time to devote to it, but I have a lot of meetings set up with a variety of different people. Strategic communications is going to be the focus, across fashion- and art-related fields. It’s one of those high-risk, I hope, high-reward propositions. And we’ll see where it takes me. I’ve talked to a number of people who have done similar things and gone out on their own, who have all said to me, “It was the best decision I ever made.” I’m cautiously optimistic.
What role have mentors played throughout your career in fashion?
I’ve been lucky to work with some amazing people throughout my career. At Burson-Marsteller, I worked for a guy named Bob Feldman who would say things like, “Come to me with solutions, not problems” — little things that you remember for the rest of your career.
At Ralph, I was working with [former executive vice president, senior adviser and senior creative director of Ralph Lauren womenswear] Buffy Birrittella, whose background was in journalism. She met Ralph when she was a reporter at DNR — Daily News Record, which was the brother publication to Women’s Wear Daily back in the day. She was the one I’d always go to when we were writing the line sheets for fashion shows and press releases. I learned a ton from both her and Alexander Vreeland, who was my boss there for a while, about how to manage Ralph’s publicity directly with him and how to care about the reputation of the brand and the people you’re working with.
Working at The Met has just been a gift; Harold and Andrew have been two brilliant curators to work for. They speak in soundbites about fashion so intelligently, which is something not a lot of people can do. And I’ve learned so much from working with Anna Wintour in terms of how you think ahead and how you message with brevity.
What were some of the most significant changes you’ve witnessed in the industry since you first started?
When I first started in fashion, it was a really long time ago. [Laughs] The first big exhibition that I worked on was Poiret: King of Fashion, which opened in May of 2007. Back then, we had hard-copy press kits, like literal folders with paper in them. We sent out hard-copy invitations. There was hardly a digital element. We gathered all of the print-media press clippings and put them in clip books that were the size of New York City phone books back in the day.
I mean, there was no livestreaming. Instagram wasn’t invented. YouTube and Facebook and Twitter were babies. There were no influencers. There were no content creators. There’s a whole new playing field now. But in the end, certain things that are important have stayed the same, and that’s to communicate effectively using words and images and to build strong relationships. I think those two things, in the field I work in, have remained important, and I don’t think that part’s going to change. It’s just the platforms — the platforms have changed and the attention spans have gotten shorter.
If you were to go through the highlight reel of your career, what would be the big moments that stand out to you?
The Met Gala every year. The day starts for me, usually, at nine in the morning, with the press preview of the exhibition. Then you change your shoes, change your dress and go to the Met Gala that night. Those are amazing every year, as are the launches we do in different remote locations: the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Vatican during a snowstorm, the Musée d’Orsay for the launch of About Time as everyone was debating the pandemic and if we should even do the event or not.
The opening of the Anna Wintour Costume Center in 2014, when Michelle Obama came and did the ribbon cutting, was an eye-opening experience, getting to know a whole different zone of people — her advance team, her PR people, the Secret Service and how they operate.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out and looking to follow a similar career path?
Never underestimate the value of writing skills. Being a good writer will help you in every phase of your job, whether it’s writing emails, press releases, social media content, anything. The ability to use images to tell stories is important. And the third thing would be building relationships with people, which has been hard the last year and a half. But to continue to grow and nurture relationships, both with people you know and people you’re just meeting, is an important aspect of a career that will make it more satisfactory and successful.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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