Why are there so many fashion magazines?

They make great summer reading – but can the market really support all the titles piled up in newsagents around the world? Maya Singer investigates.

One of my favorite parts of a weekend trip to the countryside is the visit I pay to the newsagent first. I do my serious reading in bed and on aeroplanes, but if I’m perched next to a body of water, I want a thick pile of magazines beside me. Fashion magazines, to be precise.

Holidays are when I like to catch myself up on good international editions of Vogue and the established fashion biannuals, like Purple and Self Service and 032c. I’ll pick up a copy of Dazed or i-D, too, depending on the cover, and I usually like to grab a few I haven’t read before – maybe a foreign title, like the Swedish Bon or Australian Russh. On holiday, I’ve got the leisure to leaf through these magazines in a relaxed, non-critical way. And by summer’s end, I usually feel I’ve got a good handle on which magazines are doing interesting work, and who’s contributing to them.

Long story short: that trip to the newsagent is important to me. Lately, though, I’ve been finding it hard work: Every time I duck into the well-stocked shop around the corner from my apartment, it seems like there are another dozen or so new titles on display, ones I’ve never seen before. I spend hours at the rack, just trying to figure out the difference between, say, the Berlin-based I Love You and the Toronto-based Bad Day. Garage was the buzziest launch a couple years ago, the brainchild of Russian bazillionaire socialite and art/fashion gadfly Dasha Zhukova; this year, it’s System, debuted by the very tapped-in former editors of Industrie, Alexia Niedzielski and Elizabeth von Guttmann. Meanwhile, Dorian Grinspan has been publishing the equally highfalutin’ Out of Order out of his dorm room at Yale. Vs., Grey, Rika, Hunger, Dapper Dan, Stiletto, SSAW: a list of magazines I know virtually nothing about. What is Under the Influence? What is Velour?

This summer, I haven’t been reading any fashion magazines. It’s too overwhelming. I can’t keep up. Every time I walk into the newsagent now, all I can think is: who’s reading these magazines? Who are they for? Wasn’t everything supposed to be digital now?

Fine print

“There’s just something wonderful about the ‘object-ness’ of a print magazine,” notes Katherine Krause, editor of Dossier, one of the best of the young titles. “I mean, I grew up with magazines I could hold in my hand; I would rip the pages out, put them on my wall. I’d keep issues and store them on my bookshelf. I’d guess that a lot of the people starting magazines now had that same relationship to print,” she adds. “They feel its allure.”

Dossier debuted in 2008, just ahead of the surge in independent magazine launches. And the reason I like it so much is that, right from the start, it had a clearly defined point-of-view. As Krause notes, Dossier is as much a literary magazine as a fashion magazine, and the editors approach both aspects with humor, unpretentious good taste and crisp intelligence.

The latest issue, for instance, which came out this summer, features one of the most cheerful fashion editorials I’ve seen in a long time – a spread styled by Heidi Bivens and shot by Magnus Unnar that comes off as a celebration, rather than an exploitation, of youth. It’s joie de vivre as an aspirational state. Elsewhere in the issue, meanwhile, there’s a meditative work of short fiction by English poet Adam O’Riordan, and a portfolio of female nudes shot by various women. “Dossier is thoughtfully edited, in other words. Not all these new magazines are. And not every new magazine has such a strong point-of-view.

“Fashion is a particularly difficult niche to break into,” Krause acknowledges. “Because it’s so covered, and there’s only so much fashion out there, honestly. I mean, we try to be an anti-establishment voice, and we try to feature artists and designers who aren’t getting tons of attention. But it’s always a challenge to make it original.”

“Which is why,” she continues, “I think so many of the best new magazines are the ones that are serving a really distinctive niche. There are indie cooking magazines, gardening magazines, craft magazines, what-have-you. Those publications really do serve a purpose.”

Young, wild and free

For another perspective on all this, I turned to Joseph Isho Levinson, the publisher and executive editor of The Wild. A year-and-a-half old, the quarterly magazine is handsomely produced, and claims an interest in social justice as its USP.

“I wasn’t really a reader of fashion magazines,” Levinson admits, when asked how Wild founder and editor Giovanna Badilla convinced him to get on board. “But what intrigued me about Giovanna’s vision was the fact that she wanted fashion and art to be part of a mix with advocacy around environmental issues, women’s rights, and so on. I thought, we can be like a new generation Vanity Fair, a magazine I learn a lot from, in terms of its combination of serious features and frivolity.”

One of the interesting things about The Wild is that it actually started out online. And the main reason for its expansion into print is that, basically, people wouldn’t take it seriously otherwise.

“When we were reaching out to contributors, or when we contacted PR companies to make a request, the first thing they’d ask was, ‘is this print?’” Levinson recalls. “It’s a status thing, I guess. Print made us credible.”

Print also makes The Wild an enticing platform for A-list contributors like the German photographer Ellen von Unwerth, who get to assert more creative control over their work at a new independent magazine than they would at an established title. Creative independence has certainly been the attraction for me when I’ve worked with independent magazines – in general, they don’t pay, but the trade-off is that you are allowed extraordinary latitude. Up-and-coming stylists and photographers use these magazines to build their books. Big-time talents come to them when they want to do something ‘out of the box’.

Indeed, I get the sense that – for all sincere, ‘let’s put on a show!’ enthusiasm that goes into launching a new publication – much of this indie fashion mag renaissance is driven by ulterior motives. There simply are not enough dedicated style-philes to require so many magazines. There are, however, a lot of people inside the fashion industry who treat the indies as a talent catalogue, with contributors advertising professional services. There are entire magazines whose raison d’etre is that they show the work of the agency that puts it together: TANK magazine, for instance, and The Last are in essence fronts for creative groups that make them. That doesn’t make them bad magazines, by the way; they’re not.

The tide for independent fashion magazines may be turning, however. A glut is a glut, and the latest news from print-land is of a familiar kind: Bullett, a well-received boutique publication only a few years old, just announced that it won’t be publishing an autumn issue this year. “It’s expensive,” co-owner Jack Becht told Women’s Wear Daily last week, speaking of the cost of producing a glossy. The focus for Bullett now, he went on to say, is digital – last year, the Bullett group launched a paid online edition, an e-commerce platform, and a creative services agency specialising in the making of tablet apps. Suspending the print edition of Bullett, Becht said, marks its “maturation” into a “trans-media company.”

Maybe I can head back to the newsagent now.

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