“When you start from nothing, everything feels like growth. That's the most exciting part.”
Sarah Harrelson is an entrepreneur in media and publishing based in Los Angeles, California. Her decades-long career in magazines began with an internship at Elle and has included launching the Miami Herald’s section Home and Design, becoming the editor-in-chief of Ocean Drive and Art Basel Magazine, and ultimately founding her own publishing company called Whitehaus Media Group. In 2011, she founded Cultured Magazine, which has since garnered critical acclaim and won several national awards for its exploration of the intersection of art, design, architecture, and fashion. Cultured counts Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Dior, Celine and Hermes among its advertisers and has collaborated with many of the best editorial photographers, including Texas Isaiah, Jamel Shabazz, Chuck Grant, and Gilian Laub. In 2017, Harrelson co-founded LALA Magazine, where she serves as editorial director and publisher. This quarterly publication investigates Los Angeles through a creative lens.
In this interview, Sarah Harrelson shares what motivated her to move to Miami, why she hesitated to start her own magazine, and the business behind publishing a magazine.
TGL: How was your childhood?
SH: I grew up in Rumson, New Jersey. I was the youngest of three and both my parents were entrepreneurs who worked a lot. My family was really young, my mom and dad got married when they were 19 and 20. My mom had an advertising agency and my dad had a software, computer company that he started when he was 23. There was a seven year age difference between my sister and I, and four years between me and my brother, which is significant when you are younger. I started riding horses competitively when I was eight years old, and so I was disciplined and passionate at a young age. I remember spending a lot of time riding and connecting with a rigorous schedule early on.
TGL: What was your relationship to style and culture as a child?
SH: I was always curious and interested in a lot of different things, but my first connection to style was riding horses. I have a distinct memory of Kelly Klein, and thinking she was just so stylish. As an early teenager, I remember noticing the beauty and elegance of the horses. It wasn’t really culture, but it was my first inkling that I wanted to be in the style and visual culture worlds. My brother was in the fashion world a little bit too, so I was exposed to that world early on.
TGL: What did you study in school?
SH: I graduated high school in three years, and I was still riding competitively and traveling all the time. I went to NYU, and I declared political science as my major right away. I specialized in the politics of poverty. I was so in love with my school and my teachers that I used to invite my mom to come to class with me. It was the most riveting experience, coming and listening to this. It opened my eyes to a different lens of other people's experiences. I minored in journalism, but my teachers were so mean, I thought, "Hmm, I don't know about this." I wanted to make a career out of helping people and making change. That didn't last all that long, but I did intern for Governor Mario Cuomo.
TGL: When did you decide to pursue a career in style and visual culture?
SH: At the time, my brother was dating a somewhat-famous editor from Vogue. That was when I realized I was very interested in this world. It's hard for people to understand now how important magazines were in 1992. They were our portal to another world. We didn't have Instagram. Magazines had real power.
I interned at Elle magazine and that was it. That's all I've done for however many years now. I realized early on that I was a visual editor. I loved trying to impact the way a story looked, and I still love that process. I also understood from an early point in my life that how something looks really plays into whether I want to read it or not.
TGL: What was the next step in your career?
SH: Interning at Elle, I thought to myself, "I'm never going to be an editor. I'm going to be 30 before I get a real job in New York." I knew I needed to go to a secondary city where I could climb the masthead. I was willing to move anywhere, and then I got a job in Miami. In less than a year, I became the editor-in-chief of a small magazine there. That's when I realized I didn't want to do just one part of the magazine. I was interested in the whole experience and the bookmaking aspect of it, that’s what I really loved. I stayed there for two years as the editor-in-chief, and then I got hired by Women's Wear Daily, and W in Los Angeles. I think my title was fashion retail editor. I didn't like doing just one aspect at a magazine, so I went back to New York and I worked for Seventeen as their entertainment editor. I did their covers and entertainment section. After that I thought, "I'm never going to do anything with celebrities ever again.” It was draining, but I still enjoyed the experience.
TGL: Was that when you moved back to Miami to work at the Miami Herald?
SH: At the time, my mom was sick and I was married and pregnant, and my husband told me he didn’t want to live in New York anymore. I was like, "What do you mean? My whole family's from here? Why would I ever move?" He said, "Let's go to Miami." We had actually met in Miami. So my son was born in New York and then we moved. At that point I had this career in place, and I thought, “Where on earth will I work?”
My career was so important. I was 26, maybe 27. I have always been so work-focused, it's been an important part of my identity. My husband is a designer and when we went down there, I became interested in design. I went to the Herald, and I spent a year negotiating. I wanted to do a magazine inside the newspaper focused on design and art. I spent a year negotiating to convince them to be a part-owner, and at the end of the year they said, “No, but you can be an employee." So I launched this section of the Miami Herald called Home and Design in 2002. I did that for seven years and it was incredibly successful.
TGL: When you created the magazine, did you speak with advertisers?
SH: I was still not speaking to advertisers. It was the first time that I actually got to see the advertising numbers and learn about advertising and editorial ratios and a snippet of the business side of the publishing industry. I had not previously seen that, which is typical as an editor. It was interesting to me, and it was successful. At that point Knight Ridder was a publicly owned company, so it had to have a certain profit margin or else they would cancel it. It was an added pressure in creating this magazine, but it was great. I had a team of one, and I did everything. I was the editor-in-chief and I wrote the captions and shot the stories. It was a great run for about six and a half years. In that time, DesignMiami also launched, it was called Design.05, and I covered Art Basel.
TGL: Were you already involved in the art world?
SH: I started getting involved in the world of collectible design. Although my mom was an entrepreneur with her own advertising agency, in the last five to 10 years of her life - she died young - she became a painter. She became involved and passionate about the arts, so my parents had art. They had some significant art, but I wouldn't say they were collectors. My mom was the driving force in being interested. They bought some amazing art, but they weren't actively following the art world.
TGL: What was covering Art Basel like?
SH: At Art Basel, we were on the ground, and there were just a few of us. The first DesignMiami was six rooms. It was a really exciting time in Miami, I remember one quote from a story that I did at the Herald and it was this architect who said, “There are only a few cities in America where you can change the skyline.” Miami was booming at that time. It was an exciting place to be and see culture take root and grow, because that wasn't the original identity of Miami.
TGL: Why did you leave the Miami Herald, and what did you do next?
SH: Even though the Herald was so good to me, I hit a point, which all creative people hit, where I was just bored. I knew the formula, it was successful, I'd done it for six or seven years. I'd always been offered to be the editor-in-chief of Ocean Drive. They launched a design magazine, and invited me to be the editor-in-chief of their design magazine. As part of that job, I became the editor-in-chief of the Art Basel Magazine.
TGL: Did you identify as a design specialist?
SH: At that point, I'd really gotten into design and art. I went deep in architecture and collectible design when I went to Ocean Drive and Art Basel in 2007. My first issue was under Sam Keller and then the next year Marc Spiegler was hired. I started collecting in 2010.
TGL: What was working as the editor-in-chief of the Art Basel Magazine like?
SH: That was a pivotal point for me. I feel really lucky to have witnessed those early years at Art Basel in Miami Beach.
TGL: Why didn't you want to start your own magazine?
SH: Working in magazines, most people don't want to start their own. It's too hard. Journalism is hard, it's draining. If you're creative, after doing it for so many years, you feel like you've lost touch with some of that creativity. And that's what drives me. I felt a little burnt out and I wanted to do what I wanted to do.
TGL: What kind of magazine did Cultured start as?
SH: I did the exact opposite of what everyone tells you to do. I had no business plan. I told nobody. I just did it. The first two issues didn't even have the logo. When I started the magazine, I was focused on design. I remember going around and talking to the best design galleries in New York about their collector base, and I realized that it is a really small world. My initial intent was to cover that world and the art world, but I wasn't saying that we were going to be a contemporary art magazine. I thought, I'm not going to figure it all out, I'm just going to start. That was my first experience selling ads, I picked up the phone and called my friends. I didn't know about rates or so many things, but I just did it.
TGL: Who was your first advertiser?
SH: My first advertiser was the gallery R & Co. Zesty and Evan, who are my dear friends to this day, and we're doing a pop-up together next month. The first time I'd said it out loud, I was doing custom books for them on some of their designers. We were sitting in the room and talking about the upcoming DesignMiami. I said, "I'm going to launch a magazine." They asked, "About what?" I responded, "You'll see." And they said, "Okay, we'll advertise." They were my first advertiser. This was in July. I was still busy doing other projects to make money, but I slowly nurtured the magazine.
TGL: What was most exciting about launching Cultured?
SH: When you start from nothing, everything feels like growth. That's the most exciting part. Ten people would buy the magazine, and I thought, "Oh my God, we're doing so well." I didn't even second guess it. I'm always pushing forward. It's my nature. I'm always pushing and growing and pushing and growing. I kept getting positive reinforcement and digging deeper into what I felt was important to talk about and what was important to cover at that time.
TGL: What was important for you to cover?
SH: I wanted to flip the table a little bit. Obviously in journalism, like every world, there's a lot of hard, fast rules on who you cover and when you cover them and how you cover them. There's a lot of people who deem 150 people important and cover them over and over again. I came from a different place, where all my friends are sophisticated. All my friends know a lot. I wanted to tell them something they didn’t know. I wanted to cover people that have never been covered. I have been reading magazines diligently since I was about 15. I have a magazine collection of HG, Vogue, and British Vogue. So many articles are repeated, and I wanted to do something completely different.
TGL: Who was your target audience?
SH: I was not going to a broad audience, I was going to an audience that already knew the art world and already knew the design world. They already knew the players, so what could I tell them? What could I bring to a magazine that they weren't already getting in another magazine? Even at that point, it was a crowded space. You had to have a point of differentiation although, I didn't really think of it like that. I wasn't so interested in how I make something that other people are interested in. I was more interested in feeding my own creative needs and doing what I wanted to do.
TGL: What do you love about working on Cultured?
SH: I want to do what interests me and the people I love. I love meeting people and I listen. One of my stronger skills is listening to people. I love the story of success. I love watching people, meeting them as they curate or are in their first show, and then seeing where they end up in three to five years. That's the most exciting part for me. That's not to say that I don't find the greats interesting, but those stories are told a lot. In journalism it's about what you bring to the story. What are we bringing to it that is new?
I also love learning. I had to learn about distribution and newsstands and circulation and paper and printing and advertising. The last 10 years will probably be the most exciting part of my career, because there were so many things I had no idea about. There are so many things in the industry that you don't learn as an editor, especially when I started, it was really separation of church and state. The advertising department was on the other side of the hall, and you weren't allowed to go over there.
TGL: How did you decide the structure of Cultured?
SH: I started publishing twice a year, then I went to four times a year, and then I instantly went to five because I was too nervous to go to six and five worked, so we've stayed at five.
TGL: How have you adapted Cultured to the digital media landscape?
SH: Cultured is not necessarily a magazine, it's a brand. Four years ago, I started thinking about how to talk to our readership on each digital platform the right way. Are we educating? Are we inspiring? What are we doing? It was the process of defining who we are all over again for each of these platforms. I truly believe we have to do this every six months. Just when I think I have figured out Instagram, they change it. We just launched a podcast.
TGL: What made you want to start a podcast for Cultured?
SH: I didn’t listen to podcasts a year ago, I had no time to listen to podcasts: I worked nonstop and have three kids. Then during COVID-19, I started walking a crazy amount of miles every morning to combat some of this anxiety. I started listening to podcasts, all kinds of podcasts: from Lucas Warner's podcast to self-help podcasts to The New York Times podcast. I fell in love with the format. I find listening really therapeutic. We had a lot of internal discussions about what a Cultured podcast would be, because you don't want to bring something just for the sake of bringing it.
Business is hard today. You need to be doing all of these things, but I wanted to bring something different to it. We started thinking about the beginning trajectory of someone's career, the origin of someone and how they got to wherever they are. Digital is obviously a lot of content. This summer we published a new story every single day. We run the stories from the magazine on our website, but we also run tons of original content as well.
TGL: You also created LALA Magazine three years ago. What was your relationship to Los Angeles when you created this magazine?
SH: I was very interested in LA at that time, and I thought the cultural scene in this city was the most vibrant and exciting anywhere in the US. The city was so different from when I lived here in 1996, when it was a one industry town. I knew so many artists and curators moving here, and the museum scene was developing this incredible cultural depth. I don’t like the city magazine format, so I wanted to create a magazine in the city that looks at what's going on in the cultural scene and that includes young writers, filmmakers, poets and not just young, contemporary artists.
I have three kids and my son was still in high school, so I didn't feel like I could easily move out to LA. I also had my office in Miami and a lot going on there, but I started the magazine and thought let's see what happens.
We bought a house in LA about a year and a half later. My husband's a designer, so we renovated it and then decided whether we both wanted to move or not. I don't like to draw a line in the sand. I try to be intuitive. My intent was always to hire an editor-in-chief of that magazine who could push the rock uphill every single day. I'm emotionally invested in the success and growth of the magazine. I do a lot for LALA, but I really needed someone who was from and based in LA. I wanted someone who understood the fabric of the city in a way that I didn't. It was obviously easier to launch a second magazine, but it's still hard.
TGL: You are an editor-in-chief and a businesswoman. Could you explain more about how publishing a magazine works in terms of business?
SH: I learned that I didn't want to do free distribution. We have always been at the newsstand and subscription based. I don’t believe in giving people free copies. There's so much that goes into creating these magazines. They all feel like little books to me. They also all have value.
In terms of growing the magazine, relationships have been really important to me. I would never have been able to get where I am without strong relationships. I've always believed in over-delivering to our clients. We had a strong events business, and I loved that part of it. I love bringing artists, curators and collectors together and creating dynamic conversations. We are also continually listening to what brands want. We have a small business, so we are able to be flexible.
I have been impressed with how interested some big luxury brands are with emerging talent. We've been able to provide an environment that they feel good about. We have really strong partnerships, so many of our relationships are repeat relationships. Whether it's events or ad pages or digital, you get very close with these people and try to do whatever we can within the Cultured and LALA umbrella to create real value for them.
TGL: How has COVID-19 impacted your magazines?
SH: Putting together a magazine remotely is very challenging, but it has reinforced a couple of things. If you look at the last five or six years in our magazine, I'm quite proud of Cultured in terms of inclusivity, empathy, and diversity across not only the people we cover, but the people we hire. And niche publications are having a moment right now. We were able to pivot and tell different kinds of stories. But there is also content fatigue. You have to be really thoughtful. I read things online every day and the value of the digital movement is not even to be discussed, but I do think the pace is hard to keep up with thoughtfully.
I remember being so offended years ago when people would say, "I read this great article, but I can't remember if it was GQ or Details." Or, "I saw this beautiful story. I don't know if it was Elle Decor or House Beautiful." How could they not know? I want to tell stories that people remember and walk that line of creating constant content, but content that we are proud of.
TGL: What do you do to recharge, inspire yourself, or come up with ideas?
SH: In recent years, I really realized that nature really inspires me. Wherever I am, in the mountains or the ocean, just taking a walk really helps me. Reading quietly inspires me too, but it is hard. I think creative people need to be fulfilled and it takes discipline. I'm also inspired by people and that's been hard for me with COVID-19. I like meeting people, seeing people make work, seeing people talk about materials, and being with people. I am definitely inspired by meeting new people. The big perk of this job is being able to be around a million people and listening to them. I've gone on a few shoots recently, but there were months where I didn't do any photo shoots or events. We had a great office environment and that was taken away too. All of a sudden, I'm just sitting behind my laptop and sending 5,000 emails a day. It's different. And as a mother and a wife, work has always provided me with my identity and kept me in touch with who I am and my interests.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
SH: Charlotte Perriand.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
SH: The best lesson I learned in my 25 year career is persistence. Someone once said to me that I never replied to their email. And I was like, A; I apologize. But B; if I thought about all the people who didn't reply to my first email, I wouldn't have a business. You have to keep pushing. Nothing happens overnight. You have to be true to who you are, but you have to be persistent. It's a lot of work to push things forward and to get noticed and to get people to pay attention to what you're doing. That takes serious commitment, persistence, and time.