“Sh-t.” This is Olivia Palermo’s almost inaudible reaction as she knocks over a full cup of green tea on our table at the Crosby Hotel in New York City’s Soho neighbourhood. Hardly the response you’d expect from fashion’s most polished figure, a street-style maven who’s made a career on flawless public appearances and front-row photos. (Case in point: today she’s wearing an olive-green Salvatore Ferragamo sweater, dark Paige skinny jeans and a fur-trimmed silk printed scarf from the boutique at her favourite Paris hotel, Le Royal Monceau.) She delicately mops up the liquid, quickly gathering the composure befitting her socialite status. “I can be so clumsy,” Palermo says with a small smile.
Getting her start, for better or worse, as the social-climbing villain on MTV’s 2008 reality series The City, Palermo has since cannily positioned herself among the sartorial elite. You’d be hard-pressed to find a weekly best-dressed list that doesn’t include her: the flowy, floral-printed Burberry Prorsum look from London Fashion Week, head-to-toe bordeaux outside Peter Copping’s last show for Nina Ricci, the fit-to-a-T Tibi blazer and denim shirt combo on the streets of NYC. Now, Palermo has parlayed this expertise into OliviaPalermo.com, an all-encompassing fashion and lifestyle website with an editorial staff of nine.
But how did the 28- year-old—once written off as a reality has-been—turn celebrated style star and Internet mini-mogul? Take notes.
Hold Your Own
You get the sense that Palermo spent most of her childhood at the adult table. During her youth, the Upper East Sider (think Gossip Girl territory) shuttled between New York City, Greenwich, Conn., and Palm Beach, Fla. “I’ve always been someone who enjoys being around my elders more than people my own age,” she says. While attending super-exclusive Connecticut prep school St. Luke’s, she excelled in academics and killed at field hockey. But what Palermo most looked forward to was tagging along to antique road shows with her mother and her aunt, a former couture and costume-jewellery auctioneer with Doyle New York, who gave Palermo her first taste of the mid-century style she would later famously come to emulate.
While most 20-somethings aspire to the Wang girl look—i.e., don’t-give-a-f‑ck downtown cool—Palermo has steadfastly stuck to structure and tailoring. She’s a front-row fixture at Dior and Valentino, but often eschews head-to-toe runway looks—“How boring!”—in favour of a refined high-low mix. It’s not unusual to see her in Louis Vuitton or Roberto Cavalli with an Old Navy or Zara piece thrown in somewhere, or sporting flashy high-tops and a Birkin. “You can always see it’s my sense of style at the end of the day,” she says.
Even her June 2014 wedding to long-time love Johannes Huebl, 37, a German model, epitomized her style ethos. Forget a tony announcement in The New York Times: in a post on Palermo’s website, the pair revealed the sparest details about their tiny, secret ceremony, describing only her custom Carolina Herrera ensemble. The pieces—a crew-neck sweater with bracelet sleeves and a pair of shorts worn under a high-slit, floorlength tulle overlay—seemed unorthodox, but it was, in fact, a paean to Palermo’s lighthearted aesthetic. It was also some of the most talked-about wedding apparel since Kate Middleton’s McQueen. Her collaboration with the famed NYC designer wasn’t the culmination of a long- standing little-girl wedding-dress dream, however. “I’m very much a fashion person,” she laughs. “It was like going to any other market appointment and finding something I like.”
Seize Opportunities Where You Can
For the length of our interview, Palermo is the embodiment of impeccable but unforced politeness, all envy-inducing posture and exceedingly friendly interaction. This has become her new normal after the years she spent inhabiting her City alter-ego, she of the pursed lips, searing cut-eye and workplace cat fights. It’s no secret that the series’ plotline, characters and, well, everything were carefully fabricated, but would Palermo ever do the career-launching TV star thing again? “No, no, I wouldn’t,” she says, shaking her head emphatically, calling it “a learning experience I got out of the way early.” But what the reality-watching public didn’t catch was an eager then-22-year-old who took advantage of her made-for-TV job at designer Diane Von Furstenberg’s PR headquarters. “Once the cameras were gone and I could go home, I’d stay and sit in on global marketing meetings and really build my education,” she says. “I asked if I could join out of curiosity and being young and wanting to learn.”
Tap the Zeitgeist
After studying media at The New School and taking on a contributing editor role with British Vogue, Palermo saw where fashion was going. “The industry has changed so much in the last 10 years, especially with the move to online,” she says. There were the ever- popular vlogs of the day, but “between online evolving and e‑commerce growing,” she says, it was the perfect time to start her website, OliviaPalermo.com, which launched in 2011. In starting up, Palermo cultivated advice from business-savvy contacts, but ultimately found that following her own intuition helped her capitalize on the gap she’d spotted in the market: a site where readers could enjoy a one-stop sartorial shop conceived by someone they already knew and idolized. When I press her for more insight on her mentors’ initial input, or expectations for her editorial team, she exclaims, “I can’t give away all my secrets!” Despite additional prodding, Palermo remains tight-lipped, maintaining the illusion that the Olivia Palermo brand is truly effortless.
Now, OliviaPalermo.com has grown into a collection of how-to-wear-it features and fashion-week diaries, plus an e‑commerce boutique linking to her must-have items of the season from designers such as Gucci, Marni and Michael Kors. A story on labels to watch sits alongside a Madrid-based florist profile next to a holiday packing list. When I mention the highly curated feel of the site, she beams, genuinely flattered. Palermo deliberately approaches the site like a magazine rather than a personal blog. She uses editor-speak fluently—copy this, advertorial that—noting that her beginnings as an intern at Quest, an NYC-based society magazine, and much on-set experience have trained her well for competing in a crowded e‑fashion space. “I’ve never missed a day of work,” she says.
Palermo is all business when it comes to social media, too. The Twitter account under her name is used solely as a promotional off-shoot for OliviaPalermo.com, while her Instagram feed is filled with street-style photos that reinforce the preppy ideal of Olivia, Inc. (naturally, some of the most covetable items are available for sale on her site). Palermo recognizes the marketing advantage of the social boom, but says she remains devoted to “enjoying the moment rather than enjoying it from a phone.” And a word of advice for fellow fashion-show spectators: ease up on the camera app. “You’re not focusing in the same way as if you weren’t snapping away,” she says. “Designers have worked too hard for you to take 25 pictures. Beautiful ones will be up on Style.com anyway!”
Use Your Powers for Good
Once you reach the upper echelon of fashion recognizability, there’s an (often-underused) opportunity to share the spotlight. While her contemporaries opt for big-name labels on the red carpet, you can count on Palermo to come dressed in a designer not on your roll call—yet. London’s Alessandra Rich and Emilia Wickstead are her latest go-tos. The latter, Palermo says, is “young and evolving. It’s nice to see her fabrics and silhouettes mature within the collections.” She also mentions contemporary brand Tibi’s creative director, Amy Smilovic, as a long-time friend and gushes over Peter Copping’s last designs with Nina Ricci (“It’ll be really exciting to have him in New York, now that he’s at Oscar de la Renta”). Her enthusiasm is palpable. “We really try to give young designers a platform on OliviaPalermo.com,” she says, “highlighting their work and showing our support.”
Even in her forays into design collaborations—one with San Francisco–born sunglasses company Westward Leaning and another with Italian footwear brand Aquazzura—she’s tapped burgeoning talent. “We’re fortunate to get a fair number of requests to collaborate,” she says. “We will continue with that, but at some point it’s important to have everything under our own brand.” Some of Palermo’s down-the-line goals: her own brand of ski wear (she’s been hitting the slopes since she was two), along with hotel real estate investments, much like her mogul father. “There’s a long-term plan to it all,” she says, “but everything comes in stages.” Class dismissed.
Hair: Marco Santini, Ion Studio NYC, The Wall Group.
Makeup: Quinn Murphy, Sonia Kashuk, Target, The Wall Group.
Nails: Geraldine Holford, Chanel, The Wall Group.
Editor: Briony Smith.