When R.J. Hernández set out to convey “the scope of dreams, love, and the fashion industry,” as Kirkus’ reviewer puts it, in his debut novel, An Innocent Fashion, he had no idea that it would expose an industry that so many people have learned to idealize. “It’s so funny that people are familiar now with this world that, for such a long time, was just my world,” he says.
The book is a fictionalized translation of Hernández’s personal notebooks. After graduating from Yale, Hernández worked at Vogue—experiences that inform the character of his protagonist, Elián San Jamar, who renames himself Ethan St. James as an undergraduate. In Ethan’s world, Vogue becomes Régine, but the characters that populate its offices stay the same. The author confesses that he’s “always kept a notebook because I have a really horrendous memory.”
Like many wide-eyed newcomers to Manhattan, Ethan watches a dream decay before his eyes. The fabulous life he thought he would have at a fashion magazine, where his outfits could burst with color and eccentricity, is instead replaced with constant bullying. His fascination with Beauty is in fact what sets him aside from the rest of the characters—but he is systematically reminded of the industry’s hierarchy and told not to think. It is true that Ethan is not the typical protagonist. He’s not as concerned with the world of fashion as he is with reconciling his Mexican heritage with the whitecentric fashion industry and understanding himself in light of his roots and passions. Ethan is entirely similar to many 20-somethings who feel lost in a metropolis that so systematically rejects them.
In the end, Hernández has written a novel that compels us to ask ourselves whether our dreams are worth the enormous sacrifices we are asked to make by those standing in our ways. Michael Valinsky is an editorial assistant at Kirkus Reviews.