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Storytelling in Style

How InStyle creative director Rina Stone helps oversee a blockbuster brand

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Rina Stone is happiest when surrounded by scraps. As a child, she spent hours sitting cross-legged on her bedroom floor flipping through fashion magazines—cutting and pasting, creating collages and calendars. Today, Stone (COM’92) is still collecting scraps of things she loves. Fabric and paper, postcards and prints—her office is an evolving gallery of inspiration that Stone, creative director at InStyle magazine, draws on as she helps guide fashion tastes and decipher trends for nearly two million readers.

InStyle, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2014, is one of the country’s most popular fashion magazines. Stone, who arrived at the monthly in 2006, keeps close watch over the newsstand title and its ever-expanding brand universe, including website and tablet editions and social media sites. Every detail matters to Stone, from typography choices to jacket buttons for a celebrity photo shoot—and for reasons beyond aesthetics. “It’s not just about making things pretty,” says Stone. “It’s about telling a good story.” Martha Nelson, the former editor-in-chief of Time, Inc., who hired Stone in 2002 as the first creative director at People, says, “She’s a brilliant designer who has a wonderful eye, but she also sees a much a bigger picture. She has a wonderful sense of story and meaning. That’s what sets her apart.”

New Looks

Stone arrived at InStyle with a reputation for refreshing and boosting some of the top brands in the magazine industry. She got her start at GQ and moved on to art director positions at Us Weekly and Us magazine. She redesigned Sports Illustrated for Women, contributed to a redesign at Entertainment Weekly, and served as design director at the short-lived Talk magazine under famed editor Tina Brown. At People, she designed 300 covers and helped create a new look for the magazine. “It was a massive job, a massive brand,” says Nelson. “And she was able to bring a freshness and modernity to it that was very well received.”

At InStyle, Stone helped spark another transformation. “InStyle was known for its celebrity covers, but it was more about portraiture,” says Ariel Foxman, the magazine’s editor-in-chief. “We decided it was time to tell these celebrity stories as fashion stories that asked, ‘Who is this woman? What is the mood? How is she dressing? What designers are we featuring?’” Location, lighting, props, accessories, hair, makeup—the design decisions to be made are endless, notes Foxman. “And Rina is the fulcrum for the development of each story.”

In a way, Stone has her dad to thank for her big-picture approach to her work. She had her heart set on art school for photography, but he “put the kibosh on that idea.” Instead, Stone went to BU, where she majored in magazine journalism, minored in photojournalism, and earned an internship at Boston Magazine. “The journalism background has been hugely important to my success,” she says, “because I’ve always been an editor’s art director.”

“Rina asks, ‘How can I help you tell your story better, how can we use visuals to make things clearer?’” says Foxman. “Lots of creative directors want to tell a pretty story—and then the editor has to say, ‘It looks great—but it doesn’t make sense.’ Rina never finds herself in that situation.”

Take a recent cover story featuring Reese Witherspoon. “Rina came to me with a big, complex storyboard,” says Foxman. “She wanted to portray Reese on a Hollywood back lot, a reflection of the actress’ current status as a big box office star, a woman in control of her career.”

The story, for Stone, is in the details. “It could be a bohemian look or a classic look, and we can give it that feel,” she says, “from the hair to the makeup down to the handbag you’d carry.” Whatever the look, the creative process is always a joint venture. “When we approach a celebrity,” Stone says, “we want to collaborate and portray their personal style and help them be the best version of themselves they can be.”

The Story Behind the Shoes

Instyle MagazinePart of Stone’s secret to success, along with her ferocious work ethic and endless enthusiasm, is her keen awareness that cover stories are about real people, some of whom have become her friends over the years. Dining in Paris with Cameron Diaz, discussing modern art with Sandra Bullock, talking motherhood with Julianne Moore (CFA’83)—Stone has plenty of favorite memories. Each is a reminder that the fashion details—the 10 racks of clothing and 200 pairs of shoes that need to be gathered and organized before each shoot—are just part of the story. In many ways, celebrities are “like the rest of us,” says Stone. They juggle schedules. They’re parents. They want to do good in the world. Stone helps make sure that message gets conveyed in print.

Witherspoon’s InStyle story, for example, is full of fashion details: a dress and belt by Fendi, a ring by Stephanie Kantis, and favorites from the star’s own closet—houndstooth Dior pumps and a classic Saint Laurent by Hedi Slimane duffel. But readers also receive snippets of Witherspoon’s wisdom—about motherhood and making mistakes and role models. It’s all part of Stone’s big-picture vision: the celebrity and labels capture our gaze, but we also get a glimpse of the real people behind the glitz whose insights and stories can inspire us.

Inspiring InStyle’s audience is an important goal for Stone and her team as they put together the magazine. “It’s sort of a love letter to our readers,” says Alyssa Clare Hoersten (CFA’12), an assistant art director. And “nobody is left out,” says Stone. “We dress very different body types and styles and every ethnicity. That’s why we have such a big readership.”

This approach may come as good news for those who spend more time befuddled than inspired as they stand before their closets. “Everybody can learn to be stylish,” Stone insists. From instructions on styling a Frozen-inspired braid to tips on where you can buy the silk pajamas actress Robin Wright wears in House of Cards, InStyle provides a steady stream of advice.

Even as she keeps tabs on changing trends, Stone never loses sight of the fundamental truth underlying every design decision she makes: Style isn’t just about what you wear, it’s about who you are and how you live in the world. It’s about attitude. “Style,” Stone says, “is important because it gives you confidence.” And that’s precisely what Stone is after—giving readers the tools they need to be their own best versions of themselves.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 edition of comtalk.

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