Fashion was my first real entrée in to the world of art and culture. I have fond memories of working at Barneys, a famed New York clothing store in one of its DC locations. It was in that community that I met Jian Deleon. At the time he was an aspiring culture head while toiling away at a government desk job. Now he lives in New York City and is about to start writing at GQ magazine after working the past few years at the menswear magazine Complex and blog Valet. I find his trajectory highly inspiring so I talked to him about how he turned his passion in to a career and how others might do similar.
1.) Was Valet completely unpaid? You were working a day job while you get your writing career started?
It was unpaid for about a year, then opportunities to make money came up, like branded content. Eventually I proved myself valuable enough to bring on a part-time freelance basis, where I was getting paid on a regular basis as a freelancer. Having a day job to pay rent helped, but I owe my entire career to writing for Valet.
2.) How important was traveling to getting your writing career going? Did you have to go to New York a lot? Would it have been possible just staying in DC?
Valet gave me the opportunity to go to fashion week and trade shows like capsule, and make contacts at PR agencies and other spots. Staying in DC would’ve been possible, but not for what I wanted to do. My motive was always to have a legit reason to be in NY, seeing stuff up close, interviewing stores, designers, and brands, and just ingratiating myself in that world, even if it was on a semi-regular basis. Pete Anderson does that whole travel for trade shows/fashion week and live in DC steez, and it works for some people. But I mean NYC is the nucleus, being in it helps you understand the intricacies of the industry beyond a bird’s eye view provided by the Internet.
3.) Would you have been happy doing another kind of culture writing like music or food etc? Is that still an option for you?
At the end of the day I’m passionate about menswear. I like nerding out about it, I like putting people onto what I’m into. It’s the same for any pop culture writer or music writer, it’s about the “how and why this is good.” A lot of excellent critics of pop culture and food could easily write about clothing. Jon Caramanica for the NYT is an example. I wrote a cover story about a basketball player despite not having any vested interest in clothes, but enough knowledge of his off-court style and favorite brands. So it’s led into other opportunities, but for me, the intersection of clothing and pop culture is where I feel most comfortable right now.
4) Is there a freedom you get from working for Complex that you wouldn’t for say a Conde Nast magazine?
Not necessarily. Every magazine has politics, but when I came to Complex they wanted to cover men’s style in a different way. Each publication has a certain vision from a creative director or EIC that may not always be in tune with what you want to do, but I’ve learned the importance of standing behind my personal vision of what should be covered, how it should be talked about, and most importantly, if our reader will really care.
5) Do you think there may be less room for upward mobility or career advancement working for a publication that’s not part of Conde Nast or another media giant?
I mean, Complex is a media giant in itself. To me the most important thing the Internet has given people is the ability to create their personal brand. Nick Wooster wouldn’t be “Woost God” without Tumblr, Lawrence Schlossman wouldn’t have been hired for Four Pins if he didn’t make Fuck Yeah Menswear. Likewise, I had a very old school approach and wanted to do good work for established names, like Valet and Complex. Once people started noticing the byline and the work, it opened up a lot of doors. It’s led to other freelancing gigs and sometimes even job offers. It’s a career where you get as a much as you put into it, and I mean I literally write or edit every day. I think if you focus more on perfecting a craft, building a distinct voice/brand, and doing good work, people will notice.
6) Did you need to bring outside skills to your writing job such as technical skills with CMS and social media? How important are skills like that for breaking in to modern cultural journalism? Can just being a good writer be enough?
Being a good writer isn’t enough, but it does account for a lot. I’m pretty proficient in Photoshop and have enough Internet-savviness to hold my own in social media, but the future of media is about people who understand why people read what they do, how they get that information, and how to use any platforms to communicate the same message. Being a good writer doesn’t just mean your articles are on point, but you should have enough wit to compose a decent tweet, or know how to engage people via Facebook. It’s all about learning how people are communicating, and using that to your advantage. All good writing is really just mastering the art of communication well enough to get people to listen to what you’re trying to say.
7) How much do you think about outside business opportunities like writing a book or doing some freelance work for other publications?
I’ve actually been working on a novel, and have written for publications like New York Magazine, as well as done copy for brands like Gap and The Tie Bar. All of these opportunities have come up solely from people noticing my work, forming organic relationships with people in the industry, and sometimes they’ll be like “Hey I know a guy that can really tackle this whole menswear thing…”
You can find Jian in upcoming work in GQ magazine as well as here: