Christene Barberich is editor-in-chief of the award winning fashion site, Refinery 29, which launched in 2005. The site currently reaches over 2 million unique visitors a month and has just added Miami into their roster of local markets. Previously, Christene held positions at Gourmet Magazine, the Daily Front Row and The New Yorker.
What was you role in launching Refinery29.com? Were you the Editor-in-Chief from the beginning?
I actually began as a fashion-editorial consultant of sorts, but that only lasted for about a month. Very soon in, we all realized—Philippe von Borries and Justin Stefano, our co-founders—that this new digital endeavor needed 200% from all of us, including Piera Gelardi, our creative director, who also came onboard full-time early on. We nurtured the company on our own for several years before things really began to take off. I think that time was really critical in getting the recipe. I feel really fortunate that I had that time, flying somewhat under the radar, to take risks and explore what we could do editorially and digitally. In 2005-2006 when we launched, there wasn’t much to compare ourselves to, so having that open playing field was great. We still do tinker, experiment, and take risks, we just have a lot more people keeping tabs on things.
What was your idea behind making the site stand out from the ever expanding world of blogs?
It really all sprang from this idea that I wanted our site to be the friendly but authoritative source for fashion and style news. I felt there was a void out there in the market where women could go for challenging fashion content that wasn’t arrogant or inaccessible. Right now, my biggest challenge bringing our global channel and our six local channels together seamlessly is ensuring that our content always possesses that perfect mix of big visual eye candy, breaking or irreverent style news, different personalities and voices, strong trends, and, of course, lots of resources. If there was one thing, well, really TWO things that link all of our content together, it’s that it’s packaged in a really aspirational way but it’s also inviting and spawning conversation. Engagement is a good indicator if content is resonating in a positive way.
Are you surprised by how large the blogosphere has grown?
No. In fact, I think it’s really only the beginning. This is such an exciting time for digital because we have yet to see all the innovations and new voices that have yet to be discovered. The web and what you can do with it is so full of possibility…you must be incredibly agile and creative to keep up and provide outlets to users that are compelling. Most importantly, to selectively use all the new technologies emerging in a way that’s unique to your brand and your audience. We challenge ourselves everyday to ensure readers are feeling fulfilled, and we are pushing the envelope conceptually and digitally. I like to tell our editors that our site and content is a living, breathing thing and that it needs constant tending to because it’s always in a state of change, just as our readers are. If you recognize this and don’t get too comfortable with things, the site stays fresh and vital. I’ll even risk turning a few readers off in order to try new things. You can’t be afraid to fail, because the good news is you can course correct something in an instant, and, to me, that’s how you distill your own formula for success. But again, it’s always changing, and we have to stay readily adaptable while maintaing our own strong point of view.
Which blogs did you consider your peers or your competition when you launched? How has that changed? Who are they now?
That’s so hard, because no one was really doing what we were doing or wanted to do. I love and loved other blogs and sites for different reasons: Style.com for its Fashion Week and party coverage, Susie Bubble for her self-expression, Tavi for her voice, the Sartorialist for his point of view and Huffington Post for its variety. But we wanted Refinery29 to pinpoint and deliver a mix of all of those things, putting service, shopping, and resources at the heart of it all, so readers could feel truly fulfilled. That goes for many of our advertising programs as well. I am very involved with conceiving our custom campaigns to ensure they speak authentically to our readers. Advertising can be an incredible resource and creative channel if it’s packaged in an imaginative way and understands who the consumer is.
How would you describe your editorial voice?
Spunky, smart, stylish, and always with a point. I challenge my editors daily to be the reader as much as they are the editor. Do you love this content and find it useful or fulfilling? What’s the takeaway? Most importantly, what makes it Refinery29 as opposed to a competitor?
What are some of your favorite posts?
Lord, that is so hard. There are SO MANY! If I had to narrow it down, I would say I still obsess over our How To Get Shot By The Sartorialist infographic. It was so ahead of its time, we still get asked about it. And it’s so sad that we had a glitch with our commenting and lost all the original comments, which eclipsed 200 or so. I always refer back to our My Style column, which profiles interesting women in their homes among all their most loved possessions (the one about Jane Herman is pretty spectacular). Our New York editor at the time, Kristian Laliberte (he is now senior editor), produced this brilliant feature in tandem with our creative director, on New York’s coolest subway routes. It features all original photography and really shows why our local content is so distinctive and exemplary. It really provided a window into our readers’ everyday NYC world. Katie Hintz-Zambrano, our San Francisco editor, recently did an excellent feature on the best style at the Google offices, which was really fun and unexpected, revealing a much different side of that Silicon Valley world.
Any of our Shoe Stalking features during Fashion Week or a piece we recently did called Wrist Wars where we photographed a ton of people’s mix of bracelets in our office. And, of course, pretty much anything by Connie Wang, our Global Editor. I adore her voice, and she always writes from the heart, whether it’s about expensive ugly sweaters or the Marc Jacobs show. She’s got that eye, and she’s such an inspiration to me and our readers. But again, I hate to exclude anything or anyone. We produce more than 60 stories a day, so it’s hard to be selective!
How is your personal style reflected in the site?
Well, I would say I’m the fashion snob of the bunch, if you could even call it snobby. I’m just drawn to good quality and have a serious shine for certain designers, but it has absolutely nothing to do with price, it’s about construction and value and whether or not there seems to be some real love in a garment. I think readers can relate to me though, because even though I love beautiful things, I find much of mine at crazy discounts and at my favorite hunting ground, the Salvation Army. I do believe in investing in pieces that really speak volumes about your personal style and make you feel amazing. Save up for those Nicholas Kirkwoods if you feel like you’ll wear them forever and they will make you smile just to look at them. That high-low mix and that feel-good feeling is really what Refinery29 is all about. Dispelling the mystery and fear of not being cool enough and helping readers, me included, to tap into his/her personal style. Fashion is so boundless in how it touches everything in our lives and how it can shape not only what we wear but how we feel about ourselves. I love that and love that our site explores this tirelessly, and with such genuine passion.
In what way are your readers able to give feedback or interact with the site?
In any way possible! Connection and community is a vital component in what we do, and there’s really no point to even existing if we don’t communicate with readers. Whether through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, commenting, emailing editors directly, or attending events in our local markets, engaging with readers is the life-force and drives everything we do forward. For me, it’s what separates digital from print, and if you’re not going to activate and participate with your community, what’s the point of being online?
How does Reserve work, your online shop on Refinery29.com? Do you sell merchandise or link to other ecommerce sites?
We originally conceived Reserve as a more tailored deal-driven resource that not only accessed wonderful designers and vendors that we already knew our readers loved and wanted, but that took things a step further in creating more of an experience around a shopping opportunity. We are really committed to exploring what we can do with shopping on our site, and Reserve is only one facet of that. We’ve just completed a fantastic Holiday collection of custom collaborations, all limited-edition products made exclusively for Refinery29 readers by designers we support, including Clare Vivier and a new line I love called Samudra [http://reserve.refinery29.com/holiday-edition]. We have a handful of other shopping-related features launching in 2012, which will reaffirm Refinery29’s presence as a full-service shopping destination. But across the board, whether it’s a shopping tool or product, it has to be curated especially for our readers or it really doesn’t make sense for us.
What’s in store for 2012?
More local markets, including our first outside the U.S. (London!), more innovative and interactive content and site features, more shopping, more readers and more quality control. As we grow, I am incredibly watchful of quality and ensuring what we do is as good as it can be, speaks to our roots and still sincerely to the reader. That to me is the real gold.
In what ways are you hoping for the site to grow?
Because I feel like we’re the everywoman site—our reader really is ageless in her love of great style—I would love for us to reach more women outside of the big urban markets. I want to share what we do with so many more people, because at the end of the day our content and commerce is intended to make women everywhere feel empowered, inspired, and a part of a community that loves personal style.
Do you have a favorite topic to write about?
Thrifting. Everyone at our company—and many of our readers, too—know how obsessed I am with thrifting. It’s pretty nuts. And no matter where I go, Palm Springs, Coral Gables, who cares, I will find something special. From a pair of vintage Chanel tuxedo trousers in Phoenix to a vintage Claude Montana jumpsuit in Long Island, my finds are fairly unbelievable. I think I have this fear that all the really great pieces from the ’60s and ’70s are going to disappear, so I have to get them while I still can. But I give away much of what I find, so it’s not like I’ll be on Hoarders anytime soon.
If you weren’t a fashion editor what would you choose instead?
I would rescue, rehabilitate, and re-home dogs. Right before we launched Refinery29, I was fostering dogs, and I really miss it. It was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done, and I can’t wait to have time to commit myself to that again.