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2011 March 29

The Assistant Files, Vol. 4: Seth Plattner, Elle

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(NEW YORK) They're the gatekeepers, sanity-restorers and overall organizers for some of the most important fashion figures around: The Assistant Files is back in action with a guy guarding the schedule, phones and classified details of the formidabe editrix at the helm of a major fashion glossy. But it's not Sergio 2.0: this assistant extraordinaire traded creative writing for fashion journalism, enjoyed a brief stint in the world of motivational speaking and endured an unexpected immersion in the men's fashion market along the way. This week, meet Seth Plattner, 27, the polished pointperson for almost four years to Elle editor-in-chief Robbie Myers.

How did you end up in this gig?
My four-year anniversary at Elle will be on April 23. I was a senior in college at NYU working at Saturday Night Live as an intern in the script department. I was told my entire time there that they'd have a job for me; then I graduated, and they didn't. I'd put all my eggs in one basket, and then I had to leave New York because I couldn't find a job quick enough. I went home to Arkansas for the summer. My friend and I decided to move to Denver, and I was there for seven months just skiing and being a bum while working for a motivational speaker, Brad Montgomery. It was fun to watch, but it was just something to do while I was in Denver. Brad was a very high-energy person. He brought me in to help out with his speeches and newsletter. I knew I was ready to move back here, so I put the alert out to all of my friends. One was a photo assistant at Elle, and the day I left Denver she told me the editor-in-chief needed a new assistant. I did the phone interview in the car while I was driving home from Colorado, passing through Fayetteville. Then, it was the worst storm the Northeast had seen in 20 years, so a flight to New York to meet Robbie that should've taken me four hours took me 22. When I walked into my interview, Robbie said, "Well, you made it, so at least you're resourceful." I flew back to Arkansas on a Sunday and I got the call about the job the following Wednesday.  So I uprooted and couch-surfed in New York for six weeks until the roommates I'd made plans with were ready to move into an apartment.

How has your job evolved over the last four years?
About two years ago, my title was changed to assistant editor on the masthead. It came at a time when Robbie and I were both at an understanding that I was still her assistant, but I was ready for more editorial responsibility. Robbie definitely made that call; I didn’t push or beg for it. I trusted her judgment. Before that happened, though, I’d only been at Elle for three or four months when Robbie and Joe Zee called me into her office and told me they thought I was a stylish guy, so they were giving me the men’s market. I had no idea what that meant! I’d never worked in fashion, but that’s not something you turn down; you see it as an opportunity. About 30 to 40 percent of my time can go towards market matters, especially when there’s a shoot going on.

How did your first foray as market editor go over?
I totally botched my first shoot. I had to call in items for Josh Brolin. I didn’t know the contacts or the way to actually call in clothing, I hardly knew anything. I called in one rack, thinking it would go great. The stylist walked in and was like, “This is it? For a celebrity, we usually have at least one rack of denim.” It worked out, and they used some items I’d pulled, but I did not do a good job. I have no qualms admitting that. I’ve learned a lot since then. Now, I’m the go-to guy for all of the men’s celebrity profiles we shoot, or whenever we throw a male model into the mix to switch up the dynamic. I went to Milan last season. It helped immensely to meet all these people I’d been emailing with for years.

What’s an average day like when you’re closing an issue of the magazine?
I’m one of the first people in the office, and I arrive between 9 and 9:30 in the morning. I open Robbie’s office, get her newspapers, and put out any magazines I think she’ll want to read. Robbie loves Allure, and she always, always reads New York and The New Yorker. Anything brilliant people read, Robbie reads. Then I revisit my notebook and make a list entitled “RM” of things to discuss with Robbie. I go through her box of things she has to approve internally, including text, layouts and “passes," I organize it all. I’ll clean up her desk, too, if things have gotten a bit discombobulated. Then she gets in and the gates are open. For shipping, I get everything before Robbie—which is nice, because I get to see everything that goes in the magazine. When Robbie approves things, it all comes back to me and I redistribute. Sometimes I will actually think about what the day’s going to entail when I’m dressing. If we’re in the thick of shipping, I’ll dress down a bit, because I’m running back and forth all day. Same goes if there’s a shoot happening. Robbie heads out around 6 or 7 p.m., and I wrap up shortly after that.

What’s Robbie’s preferred mode of communication with the Elle editors?
She works better when she can sit down with an editor and bounce ideas back and forth. She has at least five or six meetings with editors in the office each day, and those can range from 15 minutes to two hours. She can get to an issue quicker if she talks it out rather than exchanging 50 emails.

Beyond myriad in-person meetings, what's Robbie's deal?
At her heart and soul, Robbie is an editor. In life, not just on the pages of the magazine. Robbie just knows how to hone in on what’s really core. One of my favorite parts of my job is getting to watch her edit. She just picks up on things I don’t pay attention to or even know that they exist. To see her grab a Sharpie marker and edit a layout or a piece of text is pretty remarkable. She’s given me so much advice about my personal life, family and relationships; she gets you to look at what really matters. Robbie can help you edit out all of the bullshit that’s clouding your judgment.

Do you know much about your predecessor as Robbie’s assistant?
For a while I was called “the new Jen,” and I know her old assistant was here for about a year and a half. I talked to Jen a lot before she started, and I heeded a lot of her advice. She typed out this huge document about how to do the job. I took it as a guideline, but Robbie and I had to find our own groove together. You have to function well yourself; if you don’t do things in a way that works for you, you’re going to shut down. You have to have all pistons firing at all times.

What’s your dynamic like with Robbie?
From the beginning, I’ve always respected Robbie, but I’ve never been fearful of her. Obviously, in this industry, there are people who expect their assistants to cower. Robbie really wanted to help mentor and teach me. If I had somebody yelling at me to get things done all the time, why would I want to continue to do those things in a thoughtful, well-executed manner? The fact that Robbie doesn’t treat me like that makes me excited to keep her on top of her game and work hard for her. In the end, she’s working hard for me, too.

Is Robbie involved much with the 43 global editions of Elle?
People assume she is, and there’s an international Elle committee that meets every year in Paris which Robbie is very involved in. But when there was all that hoopla about that actress’ skin being lightened on the cover of Elle India, people were writing to Robbie about it, and she has nothing to do with that.

Does Robbie have to contend with complaints and criticism like that often?
Well, I do! God, I field phone calls every day from people who are upset that we still shoot fur, and that we still have cigarette advertising. People are always going to complain about something, but what are we supposed to do? If we stick up for one thing, we have to stick up for everything, so it’s better to just play a neutral ground. People can get really heated and will ream me out for things I can’t do anything about, so I tell them to email or write to the appropriate contacts. Sitting there and yelling at me on the phone isn’t going to do much of anything.

How many unsolicited calls and emails for internships and jobs do you typically handle?
For internships, I get about 10 to 15 emails a month, and the same number of phone calls monthly. There are probably about five people calling each month because they want to work at Elle. We have an editorial assistant who just started here, and she simply cold emailed about coming in for an informational interview. We brought her in and another assistant editor and I talked to her for about half an hour.  A few weeks later, someone on staff put in their two weeks’ notice, we recommended her and now she’s working at Elle. Don’t be afraid to do it, but just understand that there’s a lot of competition out there.

What’s the wackiest surprise that’s landed in Robbie’s inbox?
There are lots of interesting items; my favorite are definitely the fashion pitches. Someone sent an idea aimed at larger women who want to wear sleeveless shirts but are concerned about their arms being shown. So she’d designed these flow-y arm sleeves that could be pulled up to the biceps. They were the most awful thing I’ve ever seen, and I passed the pitch all around the office. Look, it’s ambitious, and God bless her for pitching it to Elle, but it was just too funny. People also send in their modeling pictures...people who aren’t necessarily the modeling types. We also get writers sending in story pitches, and I always try to write back to those saying we’re not taking submissions but will keep their work on file.

Does Robbie respond directly to queries as well?
She will correspond herself sometimes, if she feels compelled. Look, you have to be accessible to your consumers or they won’t want your product. Elle would feel like this strange, ethereal office to our readers otherwise.

Where does Robbie do lunch?
I'm very friendly with the maître d’ at Bar Americain in midtown. It's her go-to spot for lunch, and really, all I have to do is say, “It's Seth in Robbie Myers’ office,” and they have her table ready at 12:30 or whatever. I don’t know what she eats when she gets there, though!

Any vintage Robbie haunts?
I can say that she never goes to Michael’s. I think that whole editorial crowd is a bit much for her. When she takes someone out, she wants it to be about the person she’s with and giving them the attention they deserve – not the environment.

What’s the story behind Robbie’s signature hair style?

As long as I’ve been here, Robbie has had that style. I’ve watched her do it herself. She can put it up in like two seconds. She’s got those great bangs, too. Her hair is so pretty and voluptuous when it’s down, but she doesn’t wear it out in public often.

What calls always get put through to Robbie?
Her husband, her kids and her babysitter. And our CEO.

Who is Robbie’s best friend at Elle?
Robbie has worked with many of the editors here for years now. A few of our senior editors, like Lisa Chase and Laurie Abraham, are longtime friends of Robbie’s. I’ve watched them have conversations, and they can start talking about Jersey Shore and end up discussing the most existential piece that just ran in The New Yorker. They’re all so intelligent and well-informed, you just have to sit there and listen, because God knows what you’re going to learn. Robbie has cultivated a staff of people that are really good at what they do, and they all like each other. A staff that functions as a family? This is definitely one of them here at Elle.

What is Robbie’s relationship with Anne Slowey like?
I view them as sisters. They’ve worked together forever. They each have such strong outlooks on life, and they can go back and forth on a subject and get really heated on the topic. And then, it just abruptly ends and there’s a moment of calm. Robbie pops into the room: “It’s not true, trust me.”

How about Robbie and Joe Zee?
I don’t know how anyone can not get along with Joe. He’s so vibrant, and he’ll talk to anyone. That’s another pairing which is really interesting to observe. Joe is so insanely creative, and Robbie is there to step in and shape the idea up.

How involved is Robbie with the Elle art department?
She knows when a picture’s off or a layout isn’t working. But she brought in our design director, Paul Ritter, for a reason. He’s a visual genius. Robbie trusts him, and she defers to him. There are many times where Robbie will sign off and say, “This is great—I trust Paul,” because he just knows what looks good.

How are the new digs, just two blocks from the old
Elle offices, treating you?
It’s cleaner and brighter. I think it works better for a magazine atmosphere. It was a big change to move from 1633 Broadway to the Time & Life building, and people that had offices now are out in the open floor plan. At the beginning, everyone had to adjust to the privacy difference. In my old space, I was in a nook all by myself, and there was no one sitting around me, so I like being able to turn around and talk to someone.

What are the biggest misconceptions about your job?

That whole Devil Wears Prada notion will haunt assistants for the rest of their lives! As much as you wanted to watch that movie and think that Miranda Priestly was horrible, people still watch it with such fascination. When people see that movie, and Anne Hathaway is running around town picking up dry cleaning and searching for advance copies of Harry Potter and crap like that? Robbie would never, ever have me doing that. She wouldn’t think it’s appropriate for me to get involved in her personal life that way. I’m always quick to jump to Robbie’s defense, not that I think she needs it. Yes, I’m on call. I have a BlackBerry and I’m there to answer her whenever she needs me. But Robbie’s never going to email me late at night and have me bring something odd to her apartment. I do remember once when Robbie was freezing at a lunch and she asked me to bring her the sweater on her office chair—and the restaurant was a block away. I was happy to do it. 

Really, now: How "real" was The City, MTV’s NYC spinoff of The Hills?
We would film for four or five hours in the office, two or three days each week, and they would cut it down to like two minutes. It was a very, very small glimpse into what life is like here. There’s drama, sure, just like at any job. But when you’re dealing with a bunch of incredibly creative types, people are going to butt heads. Besides, there are tons of times at a magazine where everyone is just sitting around typing away at their computers, and that just doesn’t make for good TV!

How did your cameos on the show come about?
I’ve been friends with Erin Kaplan, our former PR director, since I started here. Erin was the first person who called me the moment I sat down at my desk four years ago and said something like, “Okay, we have to talk about Robbie,” and my response was, “I don’t even know who you are.” We worked together very closely, and for a very long time. It felt natural to bring me in, so the production team approached me because they’d seen me interact with Erin around the office. A lot of the things I do for Robbie are sensitive and proprietary, so I had to be very, very aware of what I could and couldn’t do on-camera. At the end of the day, I was more concerned with how I was representing Robbie than how I was representing myself or Elle.

How did you celebrate Olivia Palermo’s departure on the show?
She sort of functioned as an editor-at-large for accessories, and look, the girl is beautiful and she can dress well. As is typical in this industry, people move around a lot. When the show ended, she was a spokesperson and stuff, and I think that worked better for her. We were all sadder when Erin left!

Any wacky fan encounters?
Yes. Sometimes I would go on Twitter and check the trending topic on The City to see what people were saying about me. The craziest run-in I had was actually in the airport in Memphis while I was transferring flights on the way home to Arkansas. I went in line to get a pulled-pork sandwich at my favorite restaurant in the airport, and some guy tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was on the show. I was kind of dumbfounded that this was happening in the Memphis airport! The guy’s girlfriend was standing off to the side, giggling. I also got recognized in Milan, standing outside a show. This girl came up to me and just started freaking out and screaming “Oh my gosh, The City! The City! Can I get a picture?” I was mortified, because there were all of these major fashion editors around and she was shrieking about me.

What about being spotted locally?

NYC is such a fashion-centric place, I’ve been recognized when I’m out and about. It hasn’t annoyed me, I thought it was very flattering. I thought all of this about The City would’ve died down by now, but I was riding the subway the other day and I’d noticed some skinny, young fashion guy. I got home and saw an at-tweet to me that said “just saw @sethplattner on the train, too scared to say hi.” I thought that was cute, so I re-tweeted and said “I don’t bite.” That stuff is few and far between, it’s not like I’m being stalked. It’s been relatively tame.

Is there an unofficial time cap on this job?
Robbie and I are always in conversation about my future and my interests. I don’t think I’ll be ready to move on until I know exactly what it is I want to do and where I want to go. The opportunities are tremendous here: I’ve been to Milan, I attend like 30 shows during New York fashion week, I get to write for, which is prestigious in and of itself, and I’ve gone on some great press trips, even. What is there to complain about? If it weren’t for the fact that I want to eventually make more money, I would be happy working for Robbie for the rest of my life—or being attached to her in some way. The thought of moving on and not being around Robbie every day is heartbreaking. We have such an amazing relationship, and it’s not just this whole place of egotistical editors that turn their noses up at everything and everyone.

What are your long-term career bucket list items?
That’s the million-dollar question! I vacillate daily between wanting to go into screenwriting and finishing my collection of short stories. I’ve been working on them for like four years, and I add to them when I get my little bursts of inspiration. I just want to be involved with something creative. When I was in college, I wanted to be a novelist, but then I realized I don’t have the patience or dedication to do one story over 300 pages—and that’s when I found short stories, which is definitely more my medium.

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