In the summer of 1985, Olga Liriano, a model agent, and her best friend Carey Lowell, the model-actress who would go on to marry Griffin Dunne and Richard Gere, were hanging out at a studio in Carnegie Hall, one of the high-ceilinged rooms that housed artists, musicians and writers for more than a century. Lowell was ironing clothes, and Liriano was looking out the window when she noticed a man waving at her. She waved back.
“Carey was like, ‘Who are you waving at?’” Liriano recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t know.’”
The man waved again. Liriano waved back.
“Then there was another man waving. So it’s a short man and a tall, handsome guy. And I’m like, ‘Carey, oh my god. I think that’s Dustin Hoffman. And oh my GOD — I think that’s Warren Beatty.’ ”
She was right. Hoffman and Beatty were gesturing for the women to come up to their studio.
“This is the ’80s, which is why it was so fabulous,” Liriano says. “There were no cellphones, no social media, and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, they’re calling us over. We’re going.’”
They went upstairs and knocked on the door.
“Dustin Hoffman, who was charming as all hell, says, ‘Hi, I’m Dustin. Come on in, girls. We’re rehearsing for a movie [“Ishtar”], and we’re doing a song, and we’d love for you guys to tell us what you think.’”
They ended up hanging out with the guys all afternoon, and Lowell and Beatty, who had exchanged numbers, dated for a bit. At one point, the foursome was walking down 57th Street and drawing stares. “People are looking at us, but nobody has a phone or is taking pictures. Nobody cares. It’s New York City. Everybody is somebody.”
In the years that followed, Liriano became a pretty big somebody: a photo booker and director who worked with some of the most famous photographers and models in the world — Annie Leibovitz, Peter Lindbergh, Steven Meisel, Bruce Weber, the world’s first supermodel Gia Carangi, and later actors like Kirsten Dunst and Robert Downey Jr. She oversaw the visuals at some of America’s most influential magazines (Self, GQ, Mirabella and Harper’s Bazaar) and brands (Abercrombie & Fitch, Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren and Gap). She held titles such as director of the celebrity division at Ford Models and casting director for movies like Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette.”
Chance encounters with celebrities, like Madonna and Duran Duran, were common, while other A-listers — including the artist Jean Michel Basquiat — became personal friends.
By 2001, Liriano was so influential that the New York Times profiled her with a piece titled, “Believe her if she asks you, ‘Would you like to be a model?’ ”
Her world was one of nonstop glamour and opportunity, landing jobs easily in New York’s booming creative economy, its twin industries of media and fashion so profitable they supported generations of artists, writers, models, stylists and designers all in the business of making people beautiful.
But, in 2019, the digital revolution has left those industries in tatters. Magazine newsstands and brick-and-mortar stores look like ghost towns, now that everyone’s reading and shopping on their smartphones — making positions like the ones Liriano used to fill obsolete.
The world is changing and I’m not sure where I fit into it.
– Olga Liriano on how she and other fashion professionals are struggling in the digital age
In 2017, Condé Nast — the once highly profitable publishing titan, famed for its glossy magazines — lost more than $120 million. Since 2007, it has closed Jane, Details, House & Garden, Men’s Vogue, Domino, Gourmet and Golf for Women, making several more, including Glamour and Self, digital only. According to statista.com, the estimated aggregate revenue of U.S.-based periodical publishers has fallen sharply from $46 billion in 2007 to around $28 billion in 2017.
In the meantime, Barney’s has gone bankrupt. Lord & Taylor has sold its famed Fifth Avenue space to WeWork.
Even in a booming economy, which added a whopping 266,000 jobs in November while unemployment dropped to a 50-year low of 3.5 percent, many of New York’s creatives are struggling to support themselves — and they’re finding it a humbling experience.
Liriano, now in her 50s, exemplifies the fallout. Her last major job was three years ago, as brand image director at Nordstrom’s headquarters in Seattle, where she was let go during a restructuring. After that, she moved back to her parents’ home in New Jersey, where she figured she’d regroup and look for work.
She applied for dozens of jobs at fashion companies, by e-mailing designers directly and through LinkedIn. She even spent $200 to have her résumé made more “digitally-friendly.” “Every interview is on the phone or over Skype,” she laments. “I’m like, I’m only 40 minutes away — can’t I just talk to people? I’m of the generation where talking to people was an asset, and we were trained to talk to people and look them in the eye.”
She had maybe four interviews in person and a few digitally, but she mostly applied online and heard nothing back. The rejections piled up and took a toll on her confidence. “I’ve never sold well on paper,” she says. “I’m better in person.” She’d been volunteering at a goat farm cleaning stalls when she had an epiphany: “If I can clean goat poop for free, than I can certainly take a job somewhere. I don’t need a fabulous title. Just do something to stop feeling defeated and deflated.”
In late 2018, Liriano was at the Apple store in Tice’s Corner, a mall in Woodcliff Lake, NJ, getting her laptop fixed. She wandered by J. Crew and noticed a sign by the checkout that they were hiring seasonal help. On a whim, she asked a store employee if there was someone she could talk to about the job.
“A millennial goes, ‘You can apply online,’” Liriano recalls. “I’m about to drive home but then I thought, ‘Screw that.’”
She marched back into J. Crew, found an older employee and said, “I heard you’re looking for seasonal help. I’d love to apply. Can I talk to you about that for a minute?”
After filling the manager in on her background, Liriano said: “Please don’t look at my résumé and think I wouldn’t do this. Because I can do this. So will you remember me?’”
Liriano got the job.
At the time, she thought the work would be seasonal, but a year went by, and she became a fixture at the store, working there four to five days a week, for minimum wage. Her current job offers no benefits, but there are in-store sales contests. Recently, Liriano won a contest for selling “ridiculous amounts of cashmere.” Her prize? A cashmere sweater.
The job doesn’t offer the six-figure salary she used to pull in or perks like sitting next to Andy Warhol at dinner parties or taking Polaroids of up-and-coming models like Christie Brinkley and Iman. But Liriano considers herself lucky because she can live with her parents rent-free. And to her surprise, she enjoys the work.
“I know exactly what I’m being told to do. I’m a sales person and that’s it. I walk in, they tell me what the promotions are. Then I wait for people to come in. I fold the sweaters,” she said. “It’s very Zen.”
As a photography-obsessed student at the all-girls Academy of the Holy Angels in Demarest, NJ, Liriano never shied away from hard work. In the summer of 1980, a friend of her sister’s was working at Elite models as their youngest booker, and she called Liriano, asking if she wanted to intern for a photographer from London named John Stember.
“It was summer, and my friends are going to the Jersey Shore and getting stoned, and I was like, ‘I wanna work!’” Liriano says.
Stember hired Liriano for two summers in a row — her junior and senior years. When she was 19, Stember asked her to run his studio.
“They were gonna pay me like $20,000 a year, maybe less. I would commute every day from New Jersey in my little Mustang. It was enough to pay for a parking garage five days a week.” The plan was to move to New York and go to NYU at night, which she did.
One day in 1982, she got a call from Ford Models. Eileen Ford wanted to meet with her about becoming a model agent.
“I didn’t want to be an agent, but I was already kind of impressed with her. She was a legend.” At the interview, Eileen and her husband, Jerry, offered Liriano a job on the spot for $22,000 a year.
The enterprising Liriano, who had made bank selling Avon beauty products to her classmates at the all-girls school, decided to negotiate. “So I said to Eileen Ford, ‘If you can do $25,000, I’d love it.’”
It was a deal.
Eventually, Liriano moved on to freelance p.r., working with rising actors like Downey Jr. She dabbled in film editing and then became an agent again, working at Click Model Management.
In the Nineties and early Aughts, she toggled between magazine jobs (special-projects editor at Mirabella magazine and Self, director of photography and bookings at Harper’s Bazaar) and modeling agencies (heading up the celebrity division at Ford). Until the end of 2007, the opportunities were abundant. But, with the global economic collapse of 2008, media companies started to shed jobs to cover their losses, and over the next 10 years, cellphones and social media replaced magazines as the way in which people consumed fashion imagery and information. Influencers like Kim Kardashian (Insta following: 153 million) were born and arguably have more power than Vogue’s once-formidable editor-in-chief Anna Wintour (Insta following: 58,400 thousand).
At first, Liriano managed to ride the wave, getting hired by Nordstrom in Seattle in 2014 to oversee their visual team and brand. But eventually, the winds of change caught up with her and so many others like her.
Today, New York is littered with fashion veterans who have nowhere to go. The magazines are gone or shells of their former selves, and with them so has the need for model agents, bookers, photographers and designers. So much is self-driven by Instagram and fast-fashion. Fashion Week isn’t what it used to be. There are still the few models who can command big bucks, but for the most part the industry has lost its big-spending glamour.
For the time being, a minimum wage job at J.Crew has given Liriano a chance to prove herself again. She’s stopped applying elsewhere for now, confident that when the time is right, something else will come along. And she wants her fashion friends, most of whom she has lost touch with, to know about her new job as a store assistant.
“The world is changing and I’m not sure where I fit into the new world, but I know I will,” Liriano says. “My career has been up and down and everywhere. Hard work is hard work. There’s no shame in selling cashmere.”