In mid-June, Stephen Gan, the founder and editor in chief of V magazine and the creative director of Elle, was eviscerated on Diet Prada, the Instagram feed popular in the fashion industry. Many of his former staffers told the editors of the feed that he was racist, homophobic and sexist.
One recalled Mr. Gan — known for his close associations with big industry names like Karl Lagerfeld and Hedi Slimane — ordering an intern to be fired because Mr. Gan didn’t like the way he walked. It was too effeminate.
Another remembered Mr. Gan saying that Alicia Keys, on the cover of V with an Afro, “looked primal.” A third claimed that he paid a Black female employee a settlement after she began tape recording meetings with him in the office.
In a statement Mr. Gan gave to Diet Prada, he said it was “ludicrous” that he, a gay Asian man, would be singled out for homophobia.
He followed it up with a post on V’s Instagram account saying that he was committed to “acknowledging my shortcomings,” though he declined a request to be interviewed for this article, calling the claims “rumors.”
The fashion industry, which has long considered elitism and exclusion to be core values, is going through a painful transition. Bad behavior there tended to be not just forgiven, but also romanticized in the name of creative genius.
Anna Wintour, fashion’s most famous power broker, inspired “The Devil Wears Prada,” a best-selling book that depicts a queen bee fashion editor as the personification of evil. So she showed up to the premiere of the blockbuster movie version in Prada, the perception of nastiness only adding to her mystique.
Recently, after the publication of an unstinting memoir by Ms. Wintour’s longtime colleague André Leon Talley, who is Black, she apologized for “publishing images and stories that were hurtful and intolerant” in Vogue.
Over at Harper’s Bazaar, the perennial runner-up of American fashion magazines, where Mr. Gan had a second job as its creative director from 2001 until 2018, Glenda Bailey, the editor in chief, long positioned herself externally as the so-called nice editor, parlaying her Mancunian accent and bustling manner into a mumsy image.
But internally Ms. Bailey was known for burning through staff members, dozens of whom complained in recent years to the human resources department of Hearst (its parent company) about what they regarded to be verbally abusive behavior, according to six former employees at the magazine and two Hearst executives.
Efforts by management consultants who were brought in by Hearst to work with Ms. Bailey on her behavior never got more than temporary results, the executives said.
Late last year, Ms. Bailey’s employers came to the belief that the #MeToo movement was going to give way to a broader reckoning about bad boss behavior and reached the conclusion that after almost 19 years, Ms. Bailey’s role needed to change, according to two people with knowledge of the situation who were not authorized to speak publicly by Hearst. (Ms. Bailey did not respond to a request for comment for this article.)
Soon after, Hearst announced that Ms. Bailey was “stepping down” and being made a “global consultant” for Harper’s Bazaar’s 29 editions worldwide. Four months later, the U.S. edition of Harper’s Bazaar hired Samira Nasr, its first Black editor in chief in its history.
In part because V, unlike Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, is an independent fashion magazine known for its campy, risk-taking ethos, some were surprised Mr. Gan himself would come under fire.
In response to questions for this article, Mr. Gan, through a representative, sent a lengthy email to The New York Times. His statement did not respond directly to any of the claims made by his former staff members, but said that V’s mandate was to celebrate “uniqueness and champion individuality.”
That is largely true.
Musical artists of color like Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys and Missy Elliott, who sold millions of albums but never got American Vogue covers, got covers of V, which was also the first major fashion magazine to feature Beyoncé in that spot, in 2004.
Mr. Gan also said he could not have “published a scantily clad Ashley Graham or put Hunter Schafer or Lizzo on the covers of V and produce these shoots with an editorial team that thought I’d be judgmental on how they themselves looked.”
The magazine has had few Black employees in significant creative positions over the years. More than half a dozen people who worked at V over the last decade said that Mr. Gan seemed to favor his male employees and marginalize women, although nearly everyone was subjected to lacerating comments.
“He had little to no regard for the people who worked for him,” said Ricky Michiels, a former photo editor at V who started in June 2017 and quit four months later with no job lined up. “We were all disposable.”
Natasha Stagg, who worked at the magazine from 2012 to 2016, by which point she was its editor, said: “We connected over our love for tragic figures and pop culture and impossible personalities and fantasy fashion, but I always felt sort of analytical when I was talking about those things, and I think Stephen was totally just in it.”
“There was a kind of performative quality to his behavior,” she said, adding, “It was like a cartoon — in my mind it was even a little comical, except that it shouldn’t really be funny.”
Carolyne Loreé Teston came to the magazine as Mr. Gan’s assistant in 2015 after three years at Baron & Baron, one of the industry’s most well-known ad agencies. She cried last week as she talked about her concerns over discussing her former boss publicly. “I don’t want to hurt him, I don’t want to dance on his grave,” she said.
But having quit her job there in 2016 after just eight weeks, she believed a reckoning was nevertheless in order.
“It was like ‘The Devil Wears Prada,’” she said “Everyone was afraid of Stephen.”
Mr. Gan’s career really began in 1991 with the start of Visionaire, a publication that was neither fashion magazine nor art object but something in between. It was founded by Mr. Gan, an art director; James Kaliardos, a top makeup artist who had been his classmate at the Parsons School of Design; and their friend Cecilia Dean, a former model and erstwhile connector and ideas person.
The 1998 “Light” issue was designed by Tom Ford and Gucci and took the form of a sleek light box for viewing 24 slides by artists like Andreas Gursky and Sam Taylor-Wood. The 3,300 copies, which sold for $425 apiece, quickly became collectibles.
In 1999, Mr. Gan and his partners started V, a consumer fashion magazine that looked like the love child of Interview and W and became a showcase for photographers such as Inez van Lamsweerde, Steven Klein and Mario Testino.
Two years later, Ms. Bailey, who’d achieved great success editing Marie Claire, took over Harper’s Bazaar and hired Mr. Gan as her creative director. It was a choice that “brought her immediate credibility on the runway,” as David Carr wrote in The Times.
As part of his deal with Hearst, Mr. Gan, who is now 54, was allowed to continue running V.
He became close friends with Hedi Slimane, art-directed ad campaigns for Chanel and hosted parties with Chanel’s designer, Karl Lagerfeld, and his young godson, Hudson Kroenig.
Over the years, Mr. Gan also became more and more interested in mainstream pop culture, while Ms. Dean and Mr. Kaliardos veered further into the art world.
In 2014, Mr. Kaliardos and Ms. Dean split from Mr. Gan. They took Visionaire; he kept V (along with the SoHo offices). “It was like parents getting divorced,” Ms. Stagg said.
Hannah Huffman, who worked as an office manager and photo director at the magazine from 2015 to 2018, believed the sole reason she was hired at the magazine was her appearance. “I literally walked into the office, Stephen came into the conference room, looked me up and down, said, ‘OK,’ and then walked out,” she said. “It didn’t matter what else was going on or if I was a qualified human.”
Assistants regularly worked 11-hour days and were called in for meetings on weekends.
Mr. Gan “wasn’t a screamer,” said Sara Zaïdane, a market editor at the magazine from 2016 to March 2020. But that didn’t stop him from engaging in what she regarded to be abusive behavior, dressing her down and humiliating her in front of their colleagues. “He liked to have an audience.”
“I was in charge of the credit lists,” Ms. Zaïdane said. “And in the spring of 2019, I put Saint Laurent on a list when we had another shoot entirely of Saint Laurent. In my mind, it made sense to have another look. We gave highest priority to brands that spent the most money on ad pages, and they were one of our biggest vendors, but he decided to take 15 minutes in a staff meeting to tell me I was disorganized and that Karl Lagerfeld’s godson could do my job better than me. So that was what he felt: I was less qualified to do my job than an 11-year-old.”
Another time, Mr. Gan walked into the fashion closet and noticed that the clock wasn’t working. “He just went off, saying I had no attention to detail, that my apartment is probably a mess because I can’t even see things when they’re right in front of my face,” Ms. Zaïdane said. “He said my time at the magazine — that the clock was ticking. And he said this with a whole group of people standing around.” (Both anecdotes were confirmed by another staff member who worked contemporaneously with her.)
Mr. Michiels was one of several former employees who came to believe that Mr. Gan favored male staff members. “It was so ironic,” Mr. Michiels said. “Here’s a guy who idolizes women’s beauty and bodies, but the women in his office he couldn’t even bother saying good morning or thank you to. With me and Hannah, If we ever had a problem — maybe I sent a call sheet too late — she would take the brunt of it, even though I was the senior person and was at fault. No matter what, it was Hannah’s fault.”
Booty Shorts and a Dinosaur
In the summer of 2016, Mr. Michiels and Ms. Huffman hired an intern who wasn’t thin. “Steven said, ‘Who hired her?’” Mr. Michiels recalled. “He said she didn’t fit V. He was appalled that we would hire someone who was not stick thin. It had nothing to do with her work ethic or anything, it was strictly based on looks. He never even talked to her.”
Mr. Gan suggested firing her, they said. Ms. Huffman and Mr. Michiels refused — “She wasn’t even being paid!” Mr. Michiels said — and soon left their positions.
In 2017, Bianca Collado finished her sophomore year at Hunter College and took an internship at V. Five weeks in, she wore what she described as a “halter top with high-waisted jeans and a little jacket over it” and no bra underneath.
That day, a catered lunch was being served in the office, she said, and Mr. Gan walked up to her.
“He’d never even spoken to me before and the first words out of his mouth were: ‘What makes you think you can wear that here?’” Ms. Collado said. “He was looking at my chest as he said this, and I didn’t even know what to say. I think I replied, ‘I didn’t realize it was a problem,’ and he said, ‘I don’t ever want to see you wearing anything like this ever again.’”
Ms. Collado thought it was ridiculous. “The boys wore booty shorts and cut-up crop tops to the office,” she said. She quit that afternoon.
By then, the industry was facing pressure to diversify after several years in which designers like Dolce & Gabbana and Celine had staged fashion shows all but devoid of Black models.
None of this prevented Mr. Gan’s career from progressing at Hearst, where he moved from Harper’s Bazaar to Elle, which is edited by Nina Garcia, in 2018.
There are conflicting reports about Mr. Gan’s future at Elle. On June 15, WWD reported that his contract, expiring soon, would not be renewed. Two days later, Mr. Gan said he was still employed. And the allegations against him don’t pertain to his behavior at Hearst.
Some of Mr. Gan’s colleagues, particularly those who are a little older, say informal and cutting humor on the basis of appearance, race and sexual orientation is endemic to the fashion business, and that if Mr. Gan is being held to account for his comments, then few working in fashion are safe.
But Mr. Gan’s younger employees argue that it is possible to be openly gay and homophobic; to be both a champion of women and Black celebrities, and an abuser of women and Black people whose demeanor and appearance does not comport to rigid standards.
As one of the industry’s most prominent people of color, Mr. Gan has himself been the brunt of racist jokes over the years.
A few years ago, a staff member sat next to him at a dinner with Mr. Lagerfeld. The designer regaled guests with wisdom about the benefits of having Mexican housekeepers. Later, Mr. Lagerfeld sent Mr. Gan a gift, a sculpture of a dinosaur with a message written down the center: “Made in China.”
Funnily enough, Mr. Gan, who was born in the Philippines to Chinese parents, didn’t like it. He gave it to another editor on staff.