Career Profile: Lucy Sykes, Author and Fashion Designer

As Lucy Sykes, former fashion editor and designer and current novelist, was walking around New York City, she noticed a trend. Everywhere she looked there were boutique fitness studios, fancy gyms with eucalyptus towels and people clad in athleisure. Sykes’ novels have always been inspired by her societal observations, so fitness became the subject of her next book. She and Jo Piazza co-wrote their first collaborative novel, “The Knockoff,” based on the print-to-digital revolution in journalism. Their newest novel, “Fitness Junkie,” is based on the popularity of the health and wellness industry. We discussed fashion, fitness and everything in between.

Lucy Sykes

What inspired you to write your novel “The Knockoff”? What was your career path?

I was inspired to write “The Knockoff” because I felt it was outrageously compelling as my contemporaries and I were going through the print-to-digital revolution in our own real-life careers.

What motivated you to write “Fitness Junkie” and what can we expect?

I walk everywhere in New York. Two years ago it became apparent there was a “Fitness Girl” movement. Wherever I looked walking the streets would be “Fitness Amazons” in brights, blacks, sheer, cut outs and always very tight workout clothes. It was not just how the clothes looked, the girls were fierce, strong and fit. A trend? A cult? A movement? A book.

You were previously fashion director at Marie Claire and fashion director for Rent the Runway. Glossy, the magazine where Imogen Tate and Eve Morton work in “The Knockoff” seems to be an amalgamation of the two. How did your own experiences impact the book, if at all?

I have worked in fashion for more than 20 years. I started my career after drama school at Harpers and Queen in London. I worked in the United States for Harper’s Bazaar,  Allure and Town & Country as a fashion editor then Marie Claire as fashion director. I also consulted on design for Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, so it was a big combination of all of that. My family is in the business so it’s around me all the time. Rent the Runway was very different culturally. What was happening to me professionally was happening to all my peers — the switch from old-school magazine world to the Wild Wild West of digital — and I am still on this fascinating learning curve!

A central theme in “The Knockoff” is how technology, social media, and cyberbullying influence people personally and professionally. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen?

Instagram: the positive and the negative. A colleague who is a big photographer mentioned to me the other day how lonely and sad she was — and I gently mentioned that, because her Insta looked so fabulous, maybe no one would know she felt bad.

The reply was that her “Insta friends” were there for her more than her real friends. We know in real life the more close relationships we have the happier we are, but the higher your Insta count goes up, the fewer connections we make in real life. I find this fascinating. The power of creating a profile and then trying to compete in real life is impossible. Professionally, Instagram has been the best tool for me over the last few years — it has helped me as a communicator and inspires me constantly.

Do you relate to any of the characters in “The Knockoff” and “Fitness Junkie”?

Well, Imogen Tate from “The Knockoff” feels quite close — but again it’s all a combination of who and what is around me. I also felt it was time for a heroine who was older than 40. I do relate to Janey in “Fitness Junkie” as I have myself gone through a fitness transformation which has been awesome and, to top it off, I lost 11 pounds!

What has been the biggest challenge and, on the flip side, the biggest reward of writing and publishing a novel?

It’s so hard. It’s so fun. Perseverance and creativity are it for me. Having a strong story that you are obsessed with is key, as you are going to be discussing this subject non-stop for a year!

I worked with three different talented writers before I got the combination with journalist and author Piazza. I was turned down by two agents for “The Knockoff” before I met Alexandra Machinist and Luke Janklow at Janklow Nesbit who listened and laughed and, well, that got the ball rolling. Never give up.

What is a workday as Sykes like? Please walk me through a day!

Coffee I make at home Italian-style on the stove — about two mini pots first thing, then I make crepes for my boys, walk to school and drop them off. I have another quick coffee with the mums usually at Buvette, and then I walk very fast to Flybarre or Bari Studio for a class. (I always just make it.) I am a “Class Girl.” I hate the gym and love the energy, perseverance and the fun of classes. I try to go to Trader Joe’s in Flatiron every other day. The people who work there are so friendly and helpful. I am addicted not just to the healthy, delicious food but the free coffee and feel-good vibes I get from wandering the aisles for half an hour. It’s my New York City meditation moment. Then I work either at Soho House or at my home office trying to write, doing interviews, answering emails and being on conference calls, including at least one call to the United Kingdom a day.

I have meetings in the afternoon, take a few taxis around the city, collect the kiddies from school and make them dinner. If I am not going out, which I do a couple of times a week, then I’ll watch a show like “The Handmaids Tale.”

You wrote “The Knockoff” and “Fitness Junkie” with a coauthor, Jo Piazza. How did you meet and what is your process for writing a book together?

Piazza is a colleague of my brother, a writer named Tom Sykes. They knew each other back when Tom ran P6. We met up again through work and she gave me her recent book. I liked it and was looking for a writer. I asked her to collaborate, and I was extremely lucky she said yes because she has been a fantastic talent and has elevated both novels.

 What are the most important characteristics someone needs to have to be successful in your role?

Respecting and believing in the power of collaboration, talking others up and bringing your best self to the table.

I have a very small but massively meaningful note Mary Shanahan, the uber-talented creative director of Town & Country, sent Paul Cavaco, the fashion director at Harpers Bazaar and my former boss. Paul had generously recommended me for a job, and she wrote to thank him for the connection. He gave me the note 15 years ago, and I still have that precious piece of thin, white cardstock on my home desk.

What’s the biggest lesson you learned from your career path and how did you learn it?

The biggest lesson is honestly to be yourself. The reason you are there is because you are different. You are original. You are not there to say nothing. You are there for your opinion. Be sensitive, but speak up. Use that place deep down inside when you have a conflict and you are not sure. If you just want to be “liked,” you are not sitting with me because no one who has an opinion is liked by all.

What is one thing that you wish you had known when you were starting out your career?

I wish that I had better computer skills! I was lucky I had manners and did not mind hard work — those were the two things that got me through. Talent is a plus, but without a strong work ethic, forget the fashion industry!

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

There are two pieces of advice I think about often. The first is Nike’s mantra, “Just do it.” The second is the Roald Dahl quote, “To be good at anything you must be obsessed.” Just keep going even when horrible things are happening and you are receiving (and probably sending) crazy emails. Extreme stress at work can be very depressing and uninspiring. Just keep going and turn up.

What is your business advice for other young professional women?

I was lucky my mum owned her own business and my dad worked for her; it was normal for me and my sisters to have careers. I never had to compete with a man for a job, probably because I work in fashion. I would tell my sons as well as my nieces to find their unique place and stick to it. It does not matter what gender you are.

Image via Lucy Sykes/Shane LaVancher