We are excited to continue with our Black History Month Series. Today, we’re featuring InStyle‘s Fashion & Beauty Editor, Kahlana Barfield Brown. This fashion and beauty crush, consistently slays for the ‘gram with her killer diverse style, so it was only right for us to catch up with her to give you the inside scoop.
Kahlana has always been a trendsetter and fashion enthusiast. Of her penchant for style since childhood she stated, “I’ve always been a fashion girl, literally, since I was a little girl. I Just had a difference in style, and appreciated style. My grandmother is the most stylish woman I know.” Kahlana’s grandmother imparted wisdom about etiquette, how to present yourself, and told her that appearance is a form of self-expression. “And so, that’s always been me. Even in high school, I was always very different. [If] everybody was wearing one thing, I was wearing the opposite.”
Many of us start college wondering when our career dreams and aspirations will come to fruition. Such was true for Kahlana at Howard University. She told herself, “When I start my career, I want to be going to work every day feeling excited to be at work. I want to be in a creative environment, and I just thought about it. I subscribed to all the magazines because like I said, I’ve always been a fashion girl, and since high school I had all the subscriptions.” The fashion maven ultimately decided to remain on the communications track and major in journalism. She wanted to have her degree in writing and then translate that into penning stories for a fashion magazine. “I figured that out when I got to my sophomore year and then I started doing internships.”
The reoccurring theme that seems to persist with our Black History Month Series is to intern, intern, intern. Kahlana wasted no time getting busy interning as she was eager to get a clear focus on her career path. Of her start in the working world she stated, “I did my first internship at a newspaper in Seattle in the advertising department and that’s when I knew that I did not want to work on a newspaper. That’s why I always say do an internship because it really puts you in the day in the life of what that job will be. So at first, I thought, ok maybe there’s a style section in the Seattle Times, and I thought that could be an option for me.” But Kahlana did that internship and soon realized it simply wasn’t creative enough for her. “It was a great opportunity, and great experience, but it just wasn’t for me.”
Though it was common to step into a paying job subsequent to graduation, Kahlana banked on the life of interning, in hopes that she would be duly rewarded for her sacrifice. “You know, I get it, when you graduate after four years, you’re ready start making money, but sometimes it’s about sacrifice. You can take this money now, and be stuck for a lifetime in a job you don’t like, or you can sacrifice and live off of a little, knowing the end result is much greater, once you finally land your dream job. All my friends were walking into jobs after we graduated; everybody, everybody had jobs, everybody had interviewed during their senior year, and graduated walking into their job.” As we all know, fashion doesn’t work that way. It’s still rare to apply for a full-time position at one of the world’s top glossies and get hired immediately. “It’s such a competitive industry that you have to get your foot in the door and people need to see your work. So, I had to intern with my degree.”
Kahlana continued, “I had applied for an internship with Suede and InStyle while I was at Howard and I had come up to New York and interviewed with InStyle, but never heard anything back. Suede hired me to be an intern in the fashion department. They literally wanted me to start the day after graduation.” So immediately after Kahlana graduated—with her family still in D.C. for her graduation might we add—she moved right to New York City. “I started my internship the next day after graduation. It was amazing because it was just such a cool environment. Even though I was doing very administrative tasks, I was basically the runner; the messenger.” At that time, Suede was a start-up magazine, without a budget for messengers to bring pieces from their photo shoots back and forth and to pick up samples. So Kahlana was their city-cruising go-to, heading to brands like Jacob the Jeweler to secure pieces for upcoming shoots. “I would literally have to walk, go pick it up, and bring it back to the office. It was 100 degrees outside and our offices were in the middle of Times Square. It was a grind!” As expected, this work was far from pretty and glamorous, but Kahlana was unbelievably inspired. “I always saw the long-term goal. I was so happy.”
Interning can be a very daunting task. At times you may be assigned jobs that many find undesirable. However, Kahlana demonstrated that it’s your execution and drive that truly set you apart from the rest. Here’s one example she shared, “There was a very senior editor, who had just moved to New York from Canada. He was moving his stuff and my job for one day, he said, ‘I need you to go to my apartment and stay there while movers bring my stuff and I want you to check off the list’. So I basically had to inventory the shipment of his personal stuff being brought to his apartment.” No part of this work was fun and it was an all-day affair. Kahlana knew it was something she had to do, so she completed the task with a smile on her face. For her, it was and still is all about a positive attitude. “I was so happy to have a chance to absorb anything I could possibly absorb about the magazine business, and about the fashion business. I was just honored to be there. I went out and got a lot of lunches.” Laundry was also on the agenda and Kahlana made sure her supervisors knew she was never above doing the menial tasks. Her humility separated her from the rest. “Who is hungry for it?,” she asked. “Nowadays, a lot of young girls, they don’t want to do anything, they’re afraid to get their feet wet. They come in and they just want to start writing a week after interning.” Kahlana reminded us that we all have to crawl before we walk. She still tells young women who reach out to her that interning is key. It gives you an opportunity to prove yourself, as well as learning the ropes of a publication, seeing the ins ands outs of it firsthand, and ultimately, helping you to get your foot in the door. “It’ll give you an opportunity to make relationships with editors, but also more than anything, you have to be thirsty, you have to be hungry, you have to keep a smile on your face. To me, those things are simple, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t inherit these things. They come in and just feel entitled.”
Although Kahlana was content with her internship, she demonstrates that sometimes it’s better to step outside of your comfort zone in order to affect the change you’d like to see. She explains, “While I was at Suede, InStyle called me for an internship, which I had interviewed for several months before; I just thought I didn’t get it. Although Suede was really cool, InStyle was a much bigger magazine, and I had the experience at Suede. I thought that having a black girl go into mainstream media was important; our voices need to be heard.” From her point of view, Essence and Ebony were made for us, but having a seat at the table at magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE, InStyle, and Vogue will make sure our stories are told to the world. It’s something we deserve as much as anyone else. “So I thought this was a great opportunity, I didn’t even think twice about leaving. They actually didn’t have a position for me in the fashion department when I went, and I was a little disappointed because I really wanted to be in fashion, but it was a blessing in disguise because I ended up being a general intern.” Kahlana floated between various departments, shifting between art, beauty, fashion, photo, and more. In this structure, she learned the ins and outs of the publishing business and got some serious face time with different editors. “I happened to fill in for the beauty director’s assistant at the time who went on vacation for two weeks. They asked if I could fill in to be her assistant for those two weeks. So I was just like, this is my chance to really show her what I have and that I could be a better assistant.” She was really impressed with Kahlana’s work, so she stresses the importance of making an impact whenever you get that big chance.
When all is said and done, and you know you’ve done your best, it is important to leave your mark. This reigns true for the beauty editor. “Fast forward, I had been applying for jobs and nothing was sticking. I had done a million interviews and I wasn’t getting any of the jobs. I had applied to a job back home in Seattle at Nordstrom’s.” Her backup plan was to work for Nordstrom if she had to move back home. It’s a Seattle mainstay for all the fashion hopefuls in the city, so she headed back to her hometown after accepting an offer there. She needed the money, even though that would make things a bit harder in her personal life—she was in a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend at the time. “I was making decisions based on the moment, instead of long term. My last day at InStyle, I passed around thank you cards; I gave to all the editors I worked with who had been so kind to me, and just everyone that I worked with. I wrote a hand written thank you card just to thank them for the opportunity.” The beauty director asked Kahlana if she’d move back to New York City if a job opened up. Her response? “Of course I would”. So they exchanged information and a week later, Kahlana got that Time Inc. call. She hadn’t even started the job at Nordstrom!
After paying her dues, she landed her dream job, and began to flourish within the company. “I started as a beauty assistant and worked my way up to assistant beauty editor, to associate beauty editor, to senior beauty editor, to beauty director. I’ve been here for many years, and it’s really rare for editors to stay at one place so long.” It has been the most amazing journey, but every step of it has required hard work. “There were years when I just wanted to be the first one in my office and the last one to leave. I’m gonna be the first face people see and I’m gonna be the last face, so people know ‘that girl works!’. I didn’t want anything handed to me, ever; I wanted to earn it.” As a black woman, that’s the mindset many of us have in a business that’s not only competitive, but slowly and surely becoming oversaturated with the proliferation of all things digital.
Aside from being an Editor-At Large, Kahlana expands on the responsibility she has, as an African American, working in mainstream media. Of her position she stated, “For most of the magazines, there’s one [African American], if that, represented. I think we have a responsibility to change that or help in any way that we can. I always hire black interns because it’s important to add some color to these offices.” Diversifying her workplace is paramount because with authority comes responsibility. Someone helped Kahlana along the way, after all. Media representation is key to her as well. “So for me, it’s making sure more of our stories are heard, and making sure that more of our people are featured in the magazine. That’s been super important to me and I think that there has been change; seeing a beauty story talk about our skin type and our hair. Doing stories on black actresses who deserve to be featured just like any other magazine.” We acutely understand the absurdity of even needing to push this, but we still need incredible amounts of change in this regard. And things will never shift unless we make them happen. “I have a responsibility to bring that to InStyle and to anything that I do.”
Her proudest career achievement to date, was when Viola Davis graced the cover of InStyle for the first time. “Seeing a dark skinned beauty that looked like me was empowering. I look at Viola Davis and I see myself”. This also led to an article she wrote, where she discussed the affects of colorism, which we encourage you to read here.
Here’s Brown’s advice to those looking to pursue a career in fashion: “Own who you are, be yourself, live your own truth. People say, “I want to be just like you” I say no, use me as inspiration, but create your own path, so that your path is uniquely yours. No one could ever be that.”
And Kahlana encourages interns to be bold enough to ask for advice whenever possible. “My generation of girls, and a lot of girls who are editors, and were the same age, we were all cut from the same cloth. We all worked very hard, we all got to work early in the morning, we stayed at work late, we networked, we weren’t afraid to ask for mentorship. If there was an editor that we saw ourselves through, one we thought could be that voice, could give us the guidance, or give us any insight to help us progress in our career, we weren’t afraid to reach out and ask for help.” And most importantly, they all worked incredibly hard. None of their successes came overnight and to say the grind was real would be an understatement. “We didn’t make a lot of money starting off. When I started at Suede, I made $15 a day; it was just a lunch stipend. In New York, $15 is barely enough money to have lunch, but I made it work.”
Well said, Kahlana! We hope you found this just as inspiring as we did!
Thoughts on this doting editor?
Keep up with Kahlana on IG @KahlanaBarfield