T&C’s EIC Stellene Volandes

It’s always a special interview when we get to sit down with a great Editor-in-Chief of a magazine we love. So when we got to chat a Friday morning away at Sant Ambroeus with someone who is both a favorite person of ours and an Editor-in-Chief, we were particularly enthralled.

Town & Country‘s newly minted EIC – Stellene Volandes – is one of those unicorns in publishing who somehow multitasks while also giving everything and everyone the time and attention they deserve. With a brand like T&C, it’s no wonder she appreciates both the ethos of a brand as well as the remastering of one. What does she think the new potato is? Hacking heritage…AKA not “dismissing the past,” but “remixing it.” This is just a taste of the awesomeness that is your upcoming Thursday morning read – that and Volandes’ favorite waffle at the Beverly Hills Hotel…

What would be your ideal food day?

It would include the waffle at the Beverly Hills Hotel coffee shop, a slice and a Coke from Pizza Wagon in Brooklyn and baba au rhum anywhere. I get asked three questions constantly. Where to stay in Santorini (Perivolas); What’s a no fail jewelry gift (Elsa Peretti); and where do you go for Greek food? So I am going to dream in Greek.

I’d start with a biscotti with dried fruits from Seven Star bakery in Bay Ridge. I grew up with them and she also makes trays of cheese pies that are great for parties. I’d have a iced frappe coffee with no sugar from Souvlaki GR (they don’t open until lunch but my friend Tina the owner might help me out) and a yogurt with quince from Milos Cafe.

For lunch I’d go to Milos where the prix fixe lunch is one of the best deals in the city. I think their Greek dips are my favorite, and that tomato salad is one of the great food mysteries of Manhattan. Where do they get them like that all year round? I’d have Loup de Mer for main course, and I might ask Tina to send over the Zucchini Croquettes from Souvlaki GR. We order them in at lunch at T&C!

For dinner, it’s always Avra – a Volandes family tradition. I’d start with a Barbayanni Ouzo on the rocks. Then the Marouli and Feta Salad, the Beets with Garlic Sauce, the Spanakopita that might be the best in the city, and then I’d ask for the Spicy Bifteki Skewer with fries and grilled vegetables on the side. It’s on the lunch menu only, but tell them the Volandes’s sent you.

For a little after dinner Mastiha Liqueur and baklava, I’d stop in at my friend George’s place Under the Bridge on 59th Street. It’s pretty new and has great, simple Greek food. I used to wait on the bus stop with George in Brooklyn (but even if you didn’t, he makes you feel like you did). That’s always an ingredient in my dream meal.

How do you practice beauty from the inside out? 

To set my day right, I come here [to Sant Ambroeus]. I get a coffee and walk through the park with that coffee. When I do that, I find my whole day just goes better. Part of what makes me happy is going out in New York – going to dinner with friends and seeing shows – but I think it’s important to balance that with going home, watching guilty pleasure TV, reading and just staying in. The idea of that balance between taking in everything New York has to offer (and being around friends, family and colleagues, which makes me so happy) with some downtime is the perfect formula.

Ideally, I go to boxing class at Punch Fitness where the cares of the world get side-kicked away and where the great energy and humor of the trainers – especially Vando – also puts me on a great course for the day.

What beauty products can’t you live without?

I am an oil convert and it’s all thanks to Beauty Director Jamie Rosen. It began with Rodin Face Oil and I also love Chantecaille Rose Face Oil. I just renovated my bathroom and immediately stocked it with Aesop everything in the geranium fragrance. There is also always a good variety of Frederic Malle fragrance – my current favorite is Noir Epices. My Roger Vivier bag is always full of Tom Ford lipstick (Revolve Around Me is my new top color), Chanel lip gloss in Giggle, Bobbi Brown mahogany liner, and Chantecaille powder. I sit right near Jamie in the office and that part of the 33rd floor is like a cult fragrance heaven! It’s a beauty discovery every time I go get a cup of coffee in the hall.

You really love theatre. How do you think that factored into what you ended up doing?

Yes. For my sixth birthday I went to see Evita…by my request. From very early on, theatre was something that my family and I did together to celebrate, but was also very much a part of my everyday life. I have a niece that I bring to theatre all the time and one of the things that I really want her to learn is that it’s not just a special occasion thing to do. We live in New York, and theatre should be a part of our everyday lives, as much as it can be.

I went to Vassar – because Meryl Streep had gone there – and they had a really strong theatre program. They take the whole experience of being in the theatre so seriously, so you need to do stage craft, set design – all aspects of the theatre, not just acting. And that completely terrified me – the thought of having to build a set. So I went to the first day of the Freshman drama class, and the professor, who has this really wonderful background and was a legend there, said “If anybody is scared off about building a set, then they don’t belong in the theatre.” And I said, “Good point.” (Laughs) And I became an English major! The two go hand-in-hand. Theatre and culture are definitely a part of the Town & Country world, but also public speaking is something I really enjoy and I have to think that’s because I played Antigone. So I channel my high school theatre self whenever I have to do a presentation.

What’s you personal definition of good content?

Good content for me has to be about discovery, so the reader is either discovering something completely new or the writer is showing them how to look at something they already know in a new way. At the core, that’s good content.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? 

I’ve had such strong mentors – especially in publishing – so I’ve gotten such great advice over the years, and have been so lucky to learn by example working next to Richard Story at Departures, and working next to Jay [Fielden] at T&C. I’ve really watched them navigate such strong content and businesses – and in a changing landscape – while also having wonderful families and being wonderful, upstanding men. I think that combination is very important to me and has been the model.

Someone told me [when I became Editor-in-Chief] – in an effort to keep my feet on the ground and not let it all get to me – to always remember that people will laugh a little bit more loudly now at my jokes, and maybe I’m not really that funny. You do have to think about that. That always sort of keeps me in check.

The other thing someone told me is to remember to have fun, because when you’re not people can see it in your pages. And I really believe that. I think when you see the September issue you are going to see the product of a staff that is completely serious about what we’re doing, but is also having a lot of fun.

What are the worst pitfalls a publication can make?

I think for a magazine – but really always – you have to remember that there is someone reading this magazine. You can’t forget the reader and the reader’s experience in how you select your stories and how you lay out your pages. Magazines are such a wonderful and big business, but for a reader it’s a one-on-one conversation, and I think for me that’s one of the most important things. I think about how a reader is going to open this magazine, what pages will make them stop, what pages are presenting something completely new to them, what pages are teaching them something, what pages are going to make them laugh and what pages are going to make them think. I think remembering and servicing the reader is key – then everything else falls into place.

How do you like to mix what’s iconic and what’s new? 

At T&C some of that is completely natural. You have a magazine that’s 170 years old that has never been more relevant, so that ethos of the iconic and the discovery is who we are. We’re iconic but hopefully in every issue there’s something that surprises you. I think it comes naturally – we don’t even think about it. But when I was doing jewelry pages for example, I always wanted to feature a piece that would be immediately recognizable as a wonderful legacy piece of jewelry, but also introduce the reader – who is a devoted jewelry client – to a new talent. Some of it is a thoughtful combination of iconic and new, but a lot of it is just in our blood at this point.

What does high/low mean to you? 

It’s about trust. I always say, if you are coming to New York, and you ask a friend where you should go out to eat, and they only tell you to eat at Per Se and Le Bernardin, you’re going to think they have great taste in food, but I’m not sure you’re going to completely trust them. If someone says to go to Le Bernardin but to also go to an amazing little place on Avenue A called Il Posto Acanto, then you trust that person, because it becomes this complete knowledge of the market. For us at T&C, high-low is really about the authority. We know our readers trust us and we want to maintain and earn that trust. I always talk about the L.L Bean Boat Bag. The wealthiest people in the world still use an L.L Bean Boat Bag. That is an example of a beautiful, perfect product – and the fact that it is not $10,000 does not negate the fact that it’s a perfect product. So, for me, that’s what high-low is about – it’s about trust.

What advice would you give to a brand or a restaurant that is looking to become iconic? 

I think knowing who you are and staying true to that, despite everybody in your ear telling you to cater to this group or that group, is the key to being iconic. If you look at brands like Hermes, Cartier and Brunello Cucinelli, they have a very clear company and brand ethos – and that defines them. It’s about knowing that, delivering that to your client, and helping them understand that. I think it’s also about speaking to your client intelligently in any way you speak to them. People are smart. I say this word again, but trust is so important because it breeds loyalty. In order to become an icon, you need loyalty. Never betraying that trust – whether it’s in your product or your prices – is a really important thing, as is respecting your clients and being nice to them. I come in here [to Sant Ambroeus] a lot and I’m greeted at the door like this is my family. And you know what that does? It makes me want to come back.

If you’re trying a new restaurant what’s the first thing you look for that makes you really like or dislike a place? 

I like when they seat incomplete parties. I’m going to order drinks, we’re all going to order drinks, the table is ready…seat us! And that’s the first reason sometimes if I’m going out with a large group of people I always go to the same places because I know they will seat an incomplete party.

Where do you love to travel? 

With my job, I am on the road a lot. There are places that I feel are my second cities – LA is one of them. What I love about traveling to the same places all the time is that you start to feel like you have your places in those cities. I love discovery, but there is also a wonderful sense that you’ve gone to a city enough and you’ve carved out your own places within that city, so it does feel a little but more like home. Paris feels like that to me now – I walk into Castiglione and it’s like walking into Sant Ambroeus. I love that. It is part of why I go to Greece every summer too – I land in the Athens airport and I know exactly where I’m going to go and get my iced coffee there. Greek iced coffee is a very particular iced coffee and no one makes it here! It’s this thing called a Frappe, which is like a Nescafe mix. Whoever made them here, it could be the new Greek yogurt. I go straight to this bar right off of baggage claim, get my iced coffee and go wait for my island flight. That sense of familiarity after I’ve had a really wonderful but busy year feels right.

What’s the “new potato” for you right now?

Hacking heritage is the new potato. Look at Hamilton, or the new Gucci. A rich history is a rare thing. We are in a time where creative people are not dismissing the past but remastering and remixing it for the future. Almost every watch and jewelry appointment I go on includes a piece discovered in the archive and rethought for the 21st century. And being a part of Town & Country‘s 170 year history, means we are hacking heritage every single day. I have read that Faulkner quote about the past not being dead more times in the last year than in all my English courses combined. There is a reason for that.

Have you read our interview with W Magazine’s EIC Stefano Tonchi? Also read this interview with Glenda Bailey, Editor-in-Chief of Bazaar.