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When a fashion writer dives headfirst into the cutthroat Silicon Valley tech world, her future threatens to unravel in this addictive novel by Kyla Zhao, author of The Fraud Squad.

On paper, Zoe Zeng has made it in New York’s fashion world. After a string of unpaid internships, she’s now a fashion columnist at Chic, lives in a quaint apartment in Manhattan, and gets invited to exclusive industry events.

But life in New York City isn’t as chic as Zoe imagined. Her editor wants her to censor her opinions to please the big brands; she shares her “quaint” (read: small) apartment with three roommates who never let her store kimchi in the fridge; and how is she supposed to afford the designer clothes expected for those parties on her meager salary?

Then one day, Zoe receives a job offer at FitPick, an app startup based in Silicon Valley. The tech salary and office perks are sweet, but moving across the country and switching to a totally new industry? Not so much. However, with her current career at a dead end, Zoe accepts the offer and swaps high fashion for high tech, haute couture for HTML. But she soon realizes that in an industry claiming to change the world for the better, not everyone’s intentions are pure. With an eight-figure investment on the line, Zoe must find a way to revamp FitPick's image despite Silicon Valley’s elitism and her icy colleagues. Or the company’s future will go up in smoke—and hers with it.

ISBN-13: 9780593546154

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Berkley Books

Publication Date: 01-16-2024

Pages: 352

Product Dimensions: 8.00h x 5.19w x 0.72d

Kyla Zhao had her first women's magazine byline at the age of sixteen. Since then, she has also written for the Singapore editions of Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, and Tatler. A native Singaporean, Kyla now works in Silicon Valley after graduating from Stanford University in 2021. She’s still trying to understand why Californians adore hiking and Patagonia fleeces so much.

Read an Excerpt

chapter 1

Zoe Zeng was having an absolute blast.

It was a balmy summer evening-the kind that showed Manhattan at its best. A slight breeze whipped around the rooftop terrace, but her braided updo didn't budge an inch thanks to extra-strong Alterna hair spray. In her Paco Rabanne dress and Charlotte Olympia wedges, she fit right in with the other guests at this party-a launch event for a.I.r, the hottest sustainable fashion brand as of late whose claim to fame was turning mushrooms into leather.

The thumping electronic music-played by a DJ who was apparently "the next Diplo"-and the party chatter faded as Zoe walked closer to the railing and gazed out at the city. New York City was always prettiest at night, its blemishes disguised by the bright lights and flashing billboards. She took a deep breath of the calm evening air, her spirits lifting further as some other guest's sparkling perfume hit her nostrils. It was a welcome change from the rubbish stench that she still hadn't gotten used to after moving into an apartment right next to an alley with a nice selection of dumpsters.

A microphone-amplified voice boomed out. "Everyone, please join me at the front to welcome a.I.r's founder and CEO, Vladimir Trotsky!"

It wasn't clear to Zoe exactly where the front of the rooftop was, but somehow everyone else seemed to know. She followed them toward a patch of empty space right next to the refreshments table, but found herself squeezed toward the back, only just able to glimpse Vladimir Trotsky's beaming face over the crowd. A statuesque woman-probably a model-jostled past her, the pointy heel of her stiletto landing right on Zoe's right foot.

"Ouch!" But her pained exclamation was drowned out by Vladimir Trotsky's voice.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he began, a broad smile on his tanned face. "Thank you for joining me at the preview launch for a.I.r's second collection. My debut collection, Evoke, released last fall to great acclaim, and I am delighted to announce that we have taken everything people loved about Evoke and made it even better. This collection, Birth, celebrates the greatest creator of all, Mother Nature, for aren't we all birthed from her loving embrace?"

As he continued, Zoe could feel her concentration waning. Vladimir Trotsky was quoting a.I.r's press release word for word. She shifted from one foot to the other as twinges of pain shot through her ankle-these heels were the biggest she could find in Chic's photo shoot closet, but still small for her size nine, extra-wide feet. Could she duck out now while it was still somewhat early enough that she could take the subway home alone without fearing for her life?

"Hey." A warm puff of air skated across Zoe's left cheek. "What did I miss?"

Zoe turned toward the source of the whispered question. A man was pressed close to her, squeezed on his other side by someone else. Instinctively, she took a step back and crossed her arms as she studied this stranger.

He wasn't very tall-about the same height as she was in her four-inch heels. His stocky build, like that of a former gymnast or wrestler, was rather incongruous with his young-looking face, as though someone had transplanted a toddler's head onto a grown man's body, clad in a tuxedo.

"I just got here and didn't catch the first part of his speech," he explained, catching Zoe's slightly startled expression. "What does a.I.r stand for?"

Something about his boyish looks made Zoe relax slightly and put down her arms. "Aspire, Inspire, Respire," she whispered.

He pulled a face. "Seriously? They sell clothes, not life coaching."

A snort escaped from Zoe's mouth. She winced apologetically as a blonde woman in front shot her a glare. "I think it's part of their whole we love the earth story," Zoe said, dropping her voice even further. "a.I.r uses sustainable materials and production methods to reduce carbon emissions. It's all in the press kit." She couldn't resist adding, "Guess someone hasn't done their homework, huh?"

The man chuckled under his breath. "Busted. So, why is only the I capitalized?"

Zoe shrugged. "Probably just to make themselves seem quirky and special. Could also be a symbolic middle finger to unsustainable fashion. Who knows?"

Now, it was the man's turn to laugh out loud. The woman in front whipped around again, but her annoyed expression quickly smoothed out into a coquettish smile when her eyes landed on his face. Zoe resisted the urge to roll her eyes.

She snapped back to attention as everyone around them started clapping and cheering. Great, she had just missed Vladimir Trotsky's speech. Not that she had really missed much if he was just repeating everything in the press kit.

"And now," the emcee said. "Vladimir will be taking questions. Who's first?" Zoe's arm shot up along with a dozen others. The emcee's eyes scanned the crowd. "Yes, that Asian woman in the back."

It wasn't until the mysterious man nudged her that Zoe realized she was the "Asian woman" in question. Ugh. Someone shoved a microphone in front of her face.

"I have a question about your sizing," Zoe said carefully, all too aware of everyone's eyes on her. "The clothes are one-size-fits-all-why's that the case?"

Vladimir Trotsky raised one perfectly plucked brow. "Well, mycelium is very expensive to make, and we'll have to use a lot of mycelium if the wearer has more . . . body real estate." He gave a small smirk as laughter rolled through the crowd. "And we don't want to make our clothes very expensive because we don't want sustainable fashion to be available only for the rich!" The crowd burst into another round of applause-even louder this time.

"But don't you think that only offering one size for all your pieces means your brand is available only to those of a certain size?" Zoe pressed.

"Miss . . ."

"Zeng," she supplied. "Zoe Zeng."

"Miss Zoe Zeng," Vladimir repeated, his smile turning earnest. "Please, help me understand. Is your question coming from, uh, personal experience?"

Heat rushed to Zoe's face. Her hand tightened around the microphone as a hush fell over the crowd, their deafening silence only heightening her humiliation. In that moment, she would have given anything for a hole to open beneath her and swallow her, hiding her from everyone's stares.

Thankfully, the emcee came to her rescue. "We're running out of time so let's move along now. Who's next?"

The moment the question-and-answer session ended, Zoe made a move to leave, but the man beside her touched her shoulder lightly. “Hey, you okay?”

His kind tone made Zoe's chest tighten but she plastered on a big smile. "Of course," she chirped. "Why wouldn't I be?"

But he must have caught the overly bright note in her voice. The man leaned closer and said firmly, "Vladimir Trotsky is an asshole. Don't pay any attention to what he says. He's just jealous that you look far better in your outfit now than anyone can look in those raggedy designs of his."

Zoe couldn't help but smile. "Thank you." As she took in his warm expression, she was swept up by a sudden urge to confide in him. "Actually, this dress that I'm wearing-it's not even mine. I took it secretly from my magazine's wardrobe, which is full of clothes that we loaned from brands for photo shoots. I have to put this back tomorrow."

The moment the words left her mouth, Zoe wanted to smack herself. He seemed nice enough, but the fashion world was full of wolves in designer clothing, ready to pounce at the first sign of insecurity.

She braced herself for his judgment but to her surprise, his eyes lit up. "You work at a magazine? That's cool! Is it Vogue?"

Zoe held back a sigh. "Uh, no. It's a magazine called Chic; you probably haven't heard of it. We're pretty small." She bit her lip. "In fact, there are rumors that we might be shutting down soon."

"Oh." He seemed at a loss for words. "I'm sorry."

Suddenly, Zoe could no longer deny the truth: She wasn't having a blast. Actually, she wasn't having fun at all. This entire evening had just been a show she was putting on-for anyone watching her, but mostly for herself. When she moved to Manhattan after graduating from college, she had been so excited by the prospect of living and working in the mecca of the global fashion publishing industry. The chance to attend fashion week. To hobnob with up-and-coming designers and uncover new talent. To help expand the definition of what it meant to be fashionable, of who could be fashionable.

Four years later, she was a lot less starry-eyed. Living in a dingy apartment with three roommates, her own room so small that she had to store some of her clothes in the oven, could do that to a person. Meanwhile, she had barely made a dent in her student loans. No matter how carefully Zoe budgeted and saved, working in fashion demanded a certain look and lifestyle-one that her meager salary couldn't quite support, which resulted in plan Bs like "borrowing" photo shoot clothes. Sure, going to parties was fun, but that wasn't going to help her get to the front row at fashion shows where she was always stuck standing in the back, not even able to glimpse the runway.

The thought of returning to her cramped apartment tonight made Zoe's heart sink. She could see herself slumped on her creaky bed, since her room wasn't big enough to contain a desk, scarfing down instant ramen while rushing to finish her a.I.r article in time for her editor's review tomorrow, and knowing almost for certain that her efforts would be for nothing because Francesca would tear it apart anyway.

A lump of emotion welled up in Zoe's throat. The worst thing was, as much as she knew this wasn't sustainable, that working in this industry meant being paid peanuts for at least the first few years, she still couldn't imagine her life without fashion. It was her first-and greatest-love.

"It's okay," Zoe finally said, praying the man couldn't hear the tremor in her voice. "There've been a bunch of business consultants poking around lately, but nothing's been confirmed yet." She quickly pivoted. "So, you've heard my career story. What's yours?" He didn't seem like he worked in fashion, or at least not at a big brand or magazine-if so, she would have recognized him in a heartbeat. The industry was small, and the number of men in it smaller still.

The man stood up taller and straightened his tie. "I just realized I haven't introduced myself. I'm William, William Lawrence, but you can call me Bill."

Zoe mustered a smile. "Did you know your name is made up of two first names?"

That drew a chuckle out of Bill. "And my middle name is Maximilian. My name makes me sound a lot posher than I actually am, but you can imagine how long it took me to shade in the bubbles for my name on standardized tests."

He looked gratified when Zoe burst into laughter. "My full name isn't even as long as one of your names. I'm Zoe, Zoe Zeng with no middle name." She held out her hand, which Bill shook with a steady grip. "So what is it that you do?"

"I run an app called FitPick. Have you heard of it?"

He looked so hopeful that for a moment, Zoe was tempted to lie and say yes. But what if he asked for her opinion on it? "Uh, that sounds familiar. It's . . . that fashion app, right?" she hazarded. After all, they were at a fashion event, so this man must be connected to the industry in some way.

"Precisely!" He beamed. "Back in college, my then girlfriend was always asking me what she should wear, as if I could even tell the difference between two shirts of the same color. And the other guys in my frat would complain about the same thing. Their girlfriends would ask for their opinion but then not actually trust it because hey, we're guys-what do we know about women's style? And that gave me an idea-instead of just asking one person for outfit advice, what if you can take a photo of yourself in two different outfits, put it up on the internet, and get the public to vote on it."

His face shone as he spoke, the words rushing out of him in an excited stream, his hands gesticulating wildly for emphasis. "Over the past few years of working on it, I've gathered a small but mighty team. FitPick started off as an app that lets women crowdsource opinions on their outfits instead of relying on their clueless boyfriends, but we've really expanded our mission. We want to provide a safe space where people can have fun with their outfits and explore different styles, instead of being bombarded with photo after photo of everyone pretty much having the same look as what you see from Instagram influencers."

"Wow, I love the sound of that," Zoe exclaimed. Any effort to promote inclusivity in fashion was a plus in her book. "Why haven't I heard about it? I mean, why haven't I heard much about it?" she quickly amended, remembering just in time that she'd mentioned earlier the app sounded familiar.

Already, Zoe's writer brain was whirring: She hadn't read about FitPick in any of the major fashion magazines, so what if she was the first to break the news of this hot new app?

The next moment, the thought soured. Her editor, Francesca Fraatz, would surely shoot down the idea-like she had for the previous dozen ideas Zoe had pitched-on the basis that it wasn't aligned with Chic's brand.

Bill scratched the back of his neck. "Oh, um, we are more of an up-and-coming company. Although our technology is really solid, we just haven't gained a lot of traction. And for apps like ours, the network effect is so important because the more people who use our app, the more helpful it becomes for anyone looking for fashion feedback. But because we don't really have a sizable user base yet, investors are wary about putting money in us. In fact, I'm only here at this fashion event because one of my board members told me it would be a good opportunity to meet potential investors." He frowned a little, his eyes swiveling absently around the rooftop. "I should probably be networking."

"We're technically networking," Zoe joked, before offering a sympathetic smile. "Sounds like your app and my magazine share a similar target audience, and the Gen Z-millennial fashion crowd is definitely a hard one to win over. It's not enough to just have an awesome product and assume the awesomeness would speak for itself. We have to convince them that we offer something different, something better than what they're used to." And we can't, which is why Chic might get shut down soon.