USA TODAY Women of the Year honoree Nina Garcia.

USA TODAY Women of the Year honoree Nina Garcia.

Nina Garcia is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women across the country who have made a significant impact. The annual program is a continuation of Women of the Century, a 2020 project that commemorated the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.

The fashion industry has weathered many body blows over the years – the HIV/AIDS crisis, the terror attacks of Sept. 11, wavering economic trends, demands to create a more inclusive culture and increased online shopping.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, piling on nearly two years of disruption to the global fashion industry.

Nina Garcia, Elle magazine’s editor-in-chief and a judge on TV’s popular reality series “Project Runway,” saw an opportunity to share stories of resilient women through the lens of fashion. In an industry some may find frivolous, Garcia and her staff committed to storytelling that reflected the concerns of women, mothers and working professionals during the pandemic.

“It is incredibly important now more than ever to give women a platform, to have inspiration, to talk about conversations that are very important, starting with some that might not be so comfortable to have,” Garcia said. “But I think there is a real responsibility to use our platforms for the better of our world, and especially of women’s lives, and talk about issues that might not be comfortable like domestic abuse, Black Lives Matter, abortion. This is what I feel most passionate about using the platform that we have at Elle to uncover these conversations. And at the same time, be of service to women that love fashion.”

But when it came time to share her story, a deeply personal health challenge, Garcia wanted to espouse privacy. She was concerned about appearing weak, particularly working in a competitive industry, one where she had already shattered ceilings: When Garcia, 56, entered the fashion world, she was surrounded by mostly white and British editors. She was named editor-in-chief of Elle in 2017, she became the first Latina to lead a major magazine.

Garcia underwent a preventive double mastectomy in 2019. Because of a family history, Garcia decided to get genetic testing to check for mutations to the BRCA genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2), which increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. She wasn’t going to tell her employees or readers, but she did, and now describes it as one of the most important decisions she’s ever made.

“I thought that by sharing that story, I would seem like a weaker leader, but something moved me to think, no, I cannot keep this for myself,” Garcia said. “And I decided to share that story, and to be honest with you, that has been one of the most important decisions of my life. Because if I helped at least one woman to have the BRCA test and take control of her health and be aware of how important it is to know about breast cancer and be vigilant about what is your own health, then that’s enough.”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

USA TODAY Women of the Year honoree Nina Garcia.

USA TODAY Women of the Year honoree Nina Garcia.

Who do you look up to?

The person that has been the biggest source of inspiration, and I don’t want to sound cliché, but it really has been my mother. She had a very hard life, but taught me a lot about confidence, taught me a lot about being true to your roots, and a lot about taking opportunities when you have them presented to you. And I think that she made enormous sacrifices letting us go and come to this country to get a better education.

Now that I’m a mother, I can only imagine the difficulty. Her youngest daughter – let go to study in the United States. That was a very selfless thing to do. She didn’t keep me there selfishly because she wanted to hold onto me, but she let me go to have a better life, and I did.

How do you pave the way for folks who are coming up in the industry?

Oh, this is something that I am so passionate about, and I think that’s why I have stayed in this industry for so long. This is part of what I love to do in my job. I love to find the designers, the young editors, the photographers, the talent that is hungry for the experience, that is hungry to find what their next step is or how to improve. Nothing fills me more with pride that when I see an editor that has worked with me, become an editor in chief, or get an incredible job, and there’s many that have including one that is Latina, actually.

It’s just part of what I love about the industry, and it’s also one of the reasons that I still love so much to be part of “Project Runway,” because I know that it’s an incredible privilege and satisfaction to find that new designer, to help them, to mentor them, to help them achieve their dreams, to be candid with the advice to how to navigate the industry.

How do you define courage?

I think that we have seen courage, especially in this last year. All the mothers that have to take care of their families, to have that job in the middle of the pandemic. Courage is when I see all the immigrant Latinos in this country that have to work for very little pay. Courage is what we’re seeing happening in Ukraine today. That is courage. So many stories that we have heard from immigrants, from all the Black people in this country that have been oppressed for so long, that takes courage. To share the stories takes courage.

How do you overcome adversity?

My family is a great source of support. I’m very grateful that I have a nice support system in terms of my family and my friends. It is what is my strength. It’s my yin. It’s my yang. My kids, my husband, my close family. Family is very important for me. It’s part of my heritage, right? That’s what gives me my north star. That’s what keeps me grounded and that is what helps me.

How can fashion help people tell a more complete story about themselves?

Fashion can be used as a language. It’s something that you can use, if you want it, to help you tell the story about yourself. Because before you even speak, when someone sees you, you can use fashion as a tool to tell that story. But it depends what you want to say.

I think the most important thing about fashion is you have to feel comfortable with what you are wearing in order to feel confident, and it can help you feel confident. If you feel that you’re comfortable in your skin, if you feel that you understand how you want to portray yourself, it’s going to help you feel more comfortable.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I think that the biggest advice that I always give my editors or young women that ask me is to say yes to the opportunities that come your way. I think sometimes we are so scared to take a chance on something that makes us feel nervous or uncomfortable because we don’t know how to do it, right? An opportunity might come back and you’re like, no, I don’t know how to do that. I’m going to say, no.

I think say yes because those are the opportunities that really make you grow. Those are the opportunities that are worth examining. Those that make your stomach have butterflies and then make you nervous and doubt yourself. Say yes, say yes. That’s an opportunity to learn.

Is there a guiding principle or mantra you tell yourself?

I think the biggest lesson that I have found is to really be yourself and not try to be anything else. Whether it’s at work, your personal life, to really be comfortable with who you are and your roots and your background, even if you are different. In that difference lies your power and lies what makes you special and to be really proud of that.

My dream is that all of the Latinos in this country feel that pride in their heritage. For me, that was really the guiding light as I was coming up in the business and that was my source of strength. That’s what made me feel that I had something unique to offer, because there were so many talented editors, but I was coming from a different perspective and I was seeing fashion with a little bit of a different perspective. And it was because I was really leaning into my background.

National columnist/deputy opinion editor Suzette Hackney is a member of USA TODAY’S Editorial Board. Contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter: @suzyscribe

Explore the project

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USA TODAY’s Women of the Year: Elle’s Nina Garcia inspires via fashion