Olivia Palermo is one of the few figures in fashion who has been able to shape-shift between drastically opposing personas. Many regard her as a grounded tastemaker who takes a streamlined Carolina Herrera-like approach to choosing looks, opting for outfits that are more polished than trendy. It is precisely her aptitude for mixing Zara with Givenchy that lands her on the New York Post’s Page Six best-dressed lists. Yet Palermo is also considered a formidable socialite, since the New York-born daughter of a successful real estate developer (dad) and interior designer (mom) regularly does the art/philanthropic event rounds. In fact, she was first discovered as a woman-about-gown when photographer Patrick McMullan snapped her at a charity event. The benefits of a privileged upbringing helped Palermo snag an internship at luxe party magazine Quest and earned her comparisons to Gossip Girl’s Queen Bee character, Blair Waldorf. In contrast, there are Palermo’s notorious appearances on MTV’s 2008 reality show The City, which, in a “disappointing” (her word) move, framed her as this larger-than-life cubicle bully. The series portrayed Palermo as a villain set up to go head-to-head with protagonist Whitney Port (while Palermo worked at Diane von Furstenberg and Elle magazine). Port curiously ended up marrying a producer of The City last year and has been quiet as of late. Palermo’s profile, however, is bubbling up yet again. Perhaps the biggest news of her career — which has been building since collaborations with Stuart Weitzman, Zac Posen and Aquazzura — has been her partnership with Nordstrom, for which she’s designing a collection for the retailer’s private label brand, Chelsea28 (available in select stores on Feb. 8). It seems Palermo is playing the part of fashion diplomat, debutante and designer—sometimes all at once.
Such multi-tasking is the case when she steps on set in the SoHo studio for her cover shoot with FASHION. The 29-year-old acts as both star and director, quickly negotiating with photographer, stylist and glam squad: She requests a lip colour change (“So I don’t look too precious”), suggests a softer lighting scheme and nixes a select from the clothing rack of ruffles. She also DJs the shoot with R&B and EDM Spotify playlists created by her husband, model Johannes Huebl.
During lunch, Palermo insists she wasn’t born with this taste or tenacity. “I had to work at it,” she says. “I believe everybody has personal style; they just have to find it.” What advice does she give people who haven’t found it? “Looking at runways online and going through magazines is like a map for people who are interested in getting some kind of style. I go through more than 50 magazines a month — sometimes more. I go through seven or eight every time I’m on a plane.” Palermo’s mother worked in the couture department for Doyle’s auction house for 25 years, which was an education in luxury for Palermo. “I would constantly see different forms of beauty,” she says, recalling a vintage velvet black jacket by Givenchy that her mom gave her. “The experience with [my mom] made me think differently because now I always look for different textures. Today, I’m in chiffon, suede and leather. What works for me is doing something more structured at the bottom with pants and skirts, and usually going softer at the top with shirts.”
The mood board for her Chelsea28 collection is an example of her mixmastering. Filled with references from the ’70s, the collection includes caramel-coloured suede shorts, nautical sweaters and a denim jumpsuit. “I kept thinking of the young French girl I saw on the streets, wearing her ballet flats with jeans and a sweater, and her [Vanessa] Bruno bag. I call most of the pieces ‘lifer’ pieces—they are clothes that build a foundation for so many parts of life.”
When it comes to styling herself, Palermo doesn’t compare herself to her fashion peers. This isn’t the case for many media outlets, which thrive on drawing parallels between celebs. For example, the week of the shoot, a number of sites published a post contrasting Gigi Hadid and Palermo, both snapped in the same silk maxi-dress by Self-Portrait.
“I think ‘who wore it best’ is a dated story,” she says, when she hears the news. “It worked 15 years ago, but not today. We need to be supportive of each other. If both women are wearing the same dress, talk about how elegant they are with the way it is styled instead of using ‘versus,’” she says. “It’s so anti-fashion…A designer doesn’t want to see the same two women styled the same way in the same look. Who does?”
When model Essena O’Neill famously reclaimed her perfect-looking Instagram account and told her followers about the filters, number of snaps and the reality behind getting such “perfect” photos, O’Neill surmised that the photos “served no real purpose other than self-promotion.” Palermo disagrees with the blanket statement. “For me, it’s not about self-promoting. It’s about showing people what inspires me. Sure, if you put so much time into it, you’ll get millions of followers because there is a cult for it right now, but you can also enjoy it without obsessing over it.”
What Palermo places a greater emphasis on right now is being a good wife and a good leader. “It’s important in any relationship to find a balance,” she says. “I work through the weekdays and take the weekends off so my husband and I can have time together—especially in the evening. We change it up. We go to the theatre, a play, a stroll in the park, a bicycle ride…as Diana Vreeland said, ‘The eye has to travel.’” Palermo’s eyes are often focused on Asia, where her personal brand is rapidly gaining attention.
Which is why Palermo’s life, and fashion choices, are getting more attention and criticism as of late. For many, facing a closet every morning and knowing that so many people are scrutinizing every seam would bring on loads of Insta-angst. Palermo isn’t fazed in the least, though. “I have no anxiety in the morning when I’m choosing an outfit to wear,” she says. “Whether I was in this industry or not, it wouldn’t change. The only time I sweat about an outfit is if I’m working out. My focus is getting a pulled-together look. That’s all that matters. I dress for myself. Everyone should.”