The Etymology Of An ‘It Girl’ — One On One With Olivia Palermo

Olivia Palermo
Dolce & Gabbana
GOLD RING: Pamela Love

Photo Credit: Scott McDermott







Olivia Palermo
DRESS: Max Mara
CAPE: Carolina Herrera
SHOES: Stuart Weitzman

Photo Credit: Scott McDermott

I was never quite sure what an “It girl” was — until I met Olivia Palermo.

The idea always baffled me. What was this “it” factor the tabloids spoke of? What did having “it” mean? It should have been an easy question to answer, but honestly, unless you’re a New Yorker, it is a bit of a conundrum.

Collins Dictionary describes an It girl as “a fashionable and attractive young woman, especially one who is well known for attending social events and having influential friends.” Cambridge Dictionary basically states the same: she’s “a famous young woman who is known for going to a lot of parties and social events.”

But. The phrase does have legs. It was allegedly coined by the early 20th-century Hollywood screenwriter Elinor Glyn in reference to Hollywood sex symbol Clara Bow, though the current use dates back to the 1960s. It has withstood the test of time, remerging shiny and new despite never having actually gone anywhere. Traditionally, these It girls were socialites, but they could be models, actresses, DJs, or designers. And recently, thanks to the new Hulu series Queenmaker: The Making of an It Girl, this type of girl is back in the national conversation more than ever nationwide.

And Olivia Palermo has most definitely always been an It girl. I mean, come on … she’s a fashion darling, entrepreneur, and international style authority with porcelain skin and fabulous hair. But she also has something else, something untouchable. And now, I think I finally know what that “it” is: confidence.

Just a few days after her Haute Living cover shoot at The Carlyle hotel, Palermo is at home in Manhattan, lying in bed with back spasms. But because she’s incredibly well-mannered and polite, she hasn’t canceled our conversation. She and I have gone through a slew of topics in record time; even so, I can see her smiling (metaphorically) through gritted teeth, a well-bred, mannered lady through and through.

At the moment, we are, by and large, discussing what she needs to do on a daily basis to feel good. There’s a lot: a daily Tracy Anderson Method, Pilates, or Natural Pilates workout; a good manicure (from Plaza M Spa, of course); facials; trips to her nutritionist. Basic maintenance, as it were, in her opinion.

These things make her feel good, right? But does she need them to feel confident?

The answer, of course, is a resounding hell, no. “Well,” she says dryly (and here, I imagine her as a 1920s-era starlet, cigarette holder in hand, inserting the word “honey” in front), “since I was born, I’ve never had a lack of confidence.”
I’m in shock. For someone so very much in the public eye, someone who is constantly dissected by the media (though in her case, quite positively), someone who lives in New York City, where even therapists have therapists, it’s a pretty bold statement — but 100% believable. I have not an ounce of doubt that she means it.

“That’s something I’ve never had a problem with,” she confirms. “I’m jokingly saying that, but I’m also dead serious.”

I express my surprise and note that she’s a rarity, especially here in the Big Apple, which, for most folks, has sharp teeth that tear before one even tries to take a bite. It’s a place that can wear you down quickly if you’re not tough enough to hack it. Her advice: “Go get a massage in a nail salon. You’ll feel a lot better.”

Palermo isn’t being rude. Again, she’s unfailingly polite. But despite her fragile Audrey Hepburn-esque façade, the woman is made of steel. It’s how she’s managed to create and operate an empire for the past 15 years, after all. So, believe me when I say that, though her confidence is part of the recipe to her success, it is certainly not all of it. She is far more complex than that.

Olivia Palermo
COAT, SKIRT, BELT & TOP: Michael Kors

Photo Credit: Scott McDermott

“It’s a part of me, and I’m sure somewhere, somehow, it had a positive effect on who I am, but I think there’s a lot more to me than just confidence,” Palermo declares.

Palermo is the ultimate onion: a driven entrepreneur and style authority whose curatorial approach to fashion has solidified her as an industry tastemaker. She is both the founder and chief creative officer of Olivia Palermo Group Inc., which includes the e-commerce platform She has worked with some of the world’s most iconic fashion and beauty brands both behind and in front of the camera, as both a creative consultant and ambassador. She is a philanthropist and a designer, a daughter, a sister, a wife.

And yes, she is also an It girl, although you’ll never hear her refer to herself as such … out loud, that is.

“Of course, I have [associated myself with that term] — it’s just not something that I would say first person. I wear many, many hats, and that’s one of them,” she admits.

Outside of being the very definition of an It girl and having that “it” factor, she’s okay with the phrase. “It’s a part of history, something that’s been in place for a really long time. You know, just like anything in culture and pop culture, you have different titles, and the meaning of it slightly changes with the more modern times. I don’t have an issue with it, but I also don’t have that many feelings on it,” she says.

When you’ve maintained a career in the public eye for as long as Palermo has, perhaps the fact that she is still being referred to as something — however flattering — that her 20-something self might have worn like a badge of honor isn’t quite so appealing at 37. Not when she’s accomplished so much in the interim. She’d prefer to take those other epithets, thanks very much — the ones that she’s actually earned.

Olivia Palermo
TOP & PANTS: Giorgio Armani
HEADBAND: Lele Sadoughi

Photo Credit: Scott McDermott

Ultimately though, Olivia Palermo just doesn’t care. She’s maintained a career in the public eye for 15 years by being herself, flicking the fickle and sometimes unforgiving nature of public opinion away like an errant gnat.

“You know, I’ve been fairly fortunate. I really love the industry that I’m in, and I work with incredible people. We all really inspire each other and highlight each other. I think that overall, it’s nice to have a level of respect with the peers that you work with in your industry; it keeps you motivated and excited,” she says.

I press her here. Because Palermo is very much the kind of person who makes headlines every time she wears a stellar outfit out in public (which is often) or, for example, gets a haircut. I reference a recent article from Harper’s Bazaar that declared, “Olivia Palermo’s new bob signals summer.” That, I say to her, is a lot of pressure.

But not for Palermo. “[That kind of press just] gives me a chance to share the joy and the respect I have working with the team of people that I do — medical physicians, dentists, dermatologists, my hairstylist. And we all take inspiration from each other, you know? I think that when you’re doing something that inspires people [no matter who you are, it has to be a good thing].”

Olivia Palermo
SWEATER & SKIRT: Brunello Cucinelli
SHOES: Giuseppe Zanotti
WATCH: Audemars Piguet

Photo Credit: Scott McDermott

PARIS IS ALWAYS A GOOD IDEA (thanks, Sabrina; thanks, Emily) for most, but in particular, for Olivia Palermo. She’s about to head to the City of Light for Paris Haute Couture Week (or simply “Couture,”as she calls it), home to Dior, Louis Vuitton, and more. And as you might expect, she doesn’t pack light.

In fact, the Manhattan-born, Paris-schooled fashionista has a serious travel system. And it will never, ever involve a carry-on. Or Birkenstocks. Shudder.

“I’m not that person, [a carry-on person],” she declares. “I have a serious system, and I love my system. No matter if it’s for a few days or a few weeks, it’s still the same system, and I always know exactly what I need. Luckily, I get to travel to a lot of great cities, so if I need something, I have access to it. But it also gives me an excuse to go shopping and find a new brand I might like.”

Everything efficiently fits into one (or two) of her Rimowa bags, which she’s been shipping, as any It girl worth her salt would have done, well before the company was acquired by LVMH. Everything goes in garment bags and dust bags, with shoes packed independently. Ziplocs are her best friend. And then, she only flies Lufthansa or Swiss airlines, because they keep her on time to her jobs. “Some people take a bus to work; I take Lufthansa and Swiss,” she says. Lucky girl.

When she arrives wherever she may be going — be it to Paris, Milan, or somewhere else equally as fabulous — she shops and fills those Rimowa suitcases up with even more designer clothing. “I really love online shopping, but I do feel like there’s something about immersing yourself in a rack of clothing, going through stores throughout your travels, whether it’s a long weekend or an actual trip. Because, you know, those things that you can find in small boutiques around the world — although a lot of them have the same commercial luxury pieces — also have small, niche brands that turn out to be nice little treasures. I’ve been really fortunate to be able to implement that and make sure I have a little piece of everywhere I go in my wardrobe. I really do believe that when you wear it, you think of the different cultures, you think of the different vibes, because each city has its own unique style.”

Olivia Palermo
RINGS: Bulgari

Photo Credit: Scott McDermott

Although Palermo’s style is informed by all of the various cities she visits and the women she encounters in each, she’s a New Yorker through and through — New York, the city where she was born, raised, and currently resides with her husband of nine years, Johannes Huebl, a German model, photographer, and designer. This is fitting because Palermo began her career as part of MTV’s reality show, The City, which focused on the personal and professional lives of, well, city girls working in fashion. (Palermo first worked for designer Diane von Furstenberg on the series and, later, in the accessories department of Elle magazine.) It is where she signed with the Wilhelmina International Inc. talent agency to focus on the development of her brand, where she became a guest editor for Gap’s now-defunct, and where she appeared as a guest judge on Project Runway. New York is unequivocally her city. It is home. It is where she is happy — and always where she is happy to come back to, no matter where her travels may take her.

At the moment, that includes Paris (natch) as well as Spain, given that her latest venture is a collaboration with Spanish fashion label Scalpers, a chain founded by the 20th Duke of Feria and his friends that is dearly beloved by the jet set. She’s currently working on a capsule holiday collection for the brand — a fusion of Scalpers’ ethos and her own personal style — which is seeking to expand its women’s market. Clearly, they knew exactly who to call.

And so, Palermo is truly in the perfect place (both literally and metaphorically speaking): heading into Paris Fashion Week (“couture”), ready to see beautiful things from the world’s best designers. Then, she’ll head to Lanserhof, one of the world’s best wellness retreats, in Austria before heading home to her handsome, supportive husband — the Paul Varjak to her Holly Golightly, the man who “helps me all the time, helps me to be me, [who] lifts me up” — before going right back into fashion month and more fashion. She’s living the dream, sartorially and otherwise.

Needless to say, it is a very good thing to be Olivia Palermo. There’s certainly no one else she would rather be. And why not? She’s a woman who has it all, by her own design. And that makes life impossibly beautiful.

“I’m very happy,” she allows, noting, “But I’m always a happy person. I’m always growing and evolving in life, and that’s important, because if you’re not growing, then there’s something wrong; there’s a problem. But yeah, I’m really happy, and in a healthy place, mentally and physically — minus my back at the moment. I’m inspired and working with new clients, which is exciting. I couldn’t ask for more. That is my life. And I love it.”

There “it” is again. And I think by now we can all agree — whatever “it” is, Olivia Palermo has it.    

Olivia Palermo
TOP & PANTS: Giorgio Armani
HEADBAND: Lele Sadoughi

Photo Credit: Scott McDermott