In ELLE.com’s monthly series Office Hours, we ask people in powerful positions to take us through their first jobs, worst jobs, and everything in between. This month, we spoke to Alina Cho, host of the lecture series The Atelier with Alina Cho at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, contributor to CBS Sunday Morning, and the 2023 recipient of the CFDA Awards Media Award. After cutting her teeth as a hard news reporter, Cho became the host of CNN’s Fashion: Backstage Pass, where she got up close to the most covetable collections of the time and interviewed the industry’s biggest players. And, as proven by the way she showcases her first big purchase—a vintage Chanel flap bag she happily holds up during a Zoom interview with ELLE.com—she’s just as excited by the fashion world today as she was in her youth. Below, the journalist shares how she shifted from breaking news to fashion, the most surprising thing she’s discovered from her interviews, and the time she received a personalized iPod Mini from Karl Lagerfeld.
My first job
My first job was back when I was in high school, and I was working as a secretary at an insurance company. It was not a glamorous job at all, but I remember feeling really excited about going to work; earning a living, even though it was small; and getting dressed up. The most important thing I took away from that job was learning how to type very quickly. Today, I am probably one of the fastest typers around; I have incredible accuracy, and that all goes back to my very first job at that insurance company.
My worst job
I really don’t think I’ve had a “worst job,” but I will say I’ve done everything in the television business. I started out as an intern, so I did everything from getting coffee for the anchors to writing their scripts. Even during those little jobs along the way, I felt like I was learning something. And I always wanted to be there, because I loved the idea of being in a newsroom. The energy was so great.
How I transitioned from breaking news to fashion journalism
Most people in the fashion industry don’t realize I started my career covering news. I had traveled twice to North Korea; I was in Grant Park the first time President Obama won, and I was feet away from him when he gave his winning speech. I was covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for nearly a year. I was on the air on 9/11 for eight hours.
When I got to CNN, I was told that if you have a great story, pitch it. If they thought there was value in that story, they’d let you do it. I’ve always loved fashion, and I thought, “Why not start covering it?” So that’s what I did. I started pitching stories, and I guess I was convincing enough. I started by doing five shots backstage at Carolina Herrera and Oscar de la Renta, and it morphed into doing half-hour specials from Haute Couture Week in Paris. I’ve covered a lot of ground along the way.
The surprising thing I learned covering fashion
How hard it is to score an interview with a big designer. You have to keep asking. I had the great honor of interviewing Karl Lagerfeld many times, and it was really memorable to be in his studio in the days before his shows. I remember interviewing Donatella Versace in her suite at the Ritz Hotel just before she was about to show couture for the first time since her late brother, Gianni, died; she spoke really movingly about him, which she hadn’t done yet.
I’m always surprised to see designers when they’re off-duty, seeing them in those unguarded moments when they’re warm and friendly and funny and generous, which Karl was and Donatella is. What I have enjoyed the most is getting to know these people and becoming friends with some of them along the way; it’s been a really wonderful part of covering the industry.
On celebrating 10 years of The Atelier at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
It started as a very small talk with Tory Burch for the friends of the Costume Institute. Then I did one with Michael Kors and Aerin Lauder. Harold Koda, the curator in charge at the Costume Institute at the time, took me out to lunch one day and said, “I feel that you bring something special to these interviews, and you really get inside of their minds, so let’s blow this up. Let’s make it a big thing.” My first talk [after that] was with Anna Wintour and Andrew Bolton, which sold out in five seconds. I’ve interviewed so many people since then, whether it’s Pierpaolo Piccioli from Valentino, Nicolas Ghesquière, Grace Coddington, Olivier Rousteing, Michael Kors, or Diane von Furstenberg. I have a list of people I’m after now for the 10th year. It’s been an incredible platform.
My first fashion splurge
I was in Paris for a summer exchange program during high school and—much to the dismay of my parents, who saw the bill later—bought a Chanel purse. I have to say, I had a lot of nerve walking into Chanel and buying a bag. I was 16 or 17 and had no business doing that, but I did. It was well worth it, because I still have it today and still use it. So take that, Mom!
How I decide which pieces to invest in
I recently splurged on a beautiful black velvet Chanel dress that I was coveting for six or seven months. I finally got it, because I knew it would be in my closet forever, so I treasure it. Usually, I have a 48-hour rule: If I’m still thinking about something 48 hours later, then I consider splurging and buying it. But since this one was a bigger ticket, I gave myself seven months to think about it.
Why I started my newsletter, Cho & Tell
I was first approached by Meta, formerly Facebook, a couple of years ago, because they were starting a rival to Substack, and they were recruiting writers. I thought it was an interesting proposition. There are all of these stories I want to tell that maybe I can’t get on CBS Sunday Morning but still have a lot of value, and I figured [a newsletter] would be an interesting way to do it. It’s really about anything that interests me. It could be fashion, it could be non-fashion. I always try to write it as though I’m having a conversation with you, and I try to make it like a little dessert—a quick five-minute read, and I hope people enjoy it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.