Alexandra Shulman | On the future of fashion magazines

Alexandra Shulman, courtesy of David Wise

Alexandra Shulman, courtesy of David Wise

LONDON, United Kingdom — When BoF’s Vikram Alexei Kansara explored the interactive future of fashion magazines about a month ago, a lively debate ensued in the comments section of the post and in emails with our readers. It is one of the most read articles on BoF thus far in 2009.

Clearly this is a topic on everyone’s minds, not only in the fashion media, but also print media more generally. Major newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post are deep in cost-cutting mode, the consequence of a perfect storm of technological change and plummeting advertising revenues which has sent the global publishing industry into a tailspin. Several magazines have been shut down, including Conde Nast’s Domino and Hachette Filipachi’s Home. Last week, music monthly Blender was the latest magazine to take its entire publication online, shuttering the physical publication altogether after the April issue.

So, when given the opportunity to pose a question to one of the most important fashion editors in the world, I couldn’t resist asking for her take on the future of fashion magazines in this climate of rapid change.

Last week, London’s Fashion Business Club hosted an event highlighting the extensive and impressive career of Alexandra Shulman, Editor of British Vogue, who was interviewed by Dolly Jones, Editor of UK. It was the latest in a series of talks featuring leading figures from the British fashion industry organised by Alison Whelan and Courtney Blackman.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Shulman was honest, forthright and even personal in her observations:

On Luxury: “Luxury is lovely…who wouldn’t want it if they could afford it?”

On LOVE magazine: “Katie did a fantastic job with the first issue and I can’t wait to see what she does with the second one,” commenting that “everybody” was in the first issue, so who will Katie Grand use in the second issue?

On Fashion shows: “We will see a big change over the next few years…” as their role in the fashion system evolves, but they will not disappear altogether. That said, there is the “danger of catwalk appeal” that designers must be aware of in showing clothes on the runway that will never be sold in the showroom, something that makes it difficult for her to feature in Vogue editorials.

On London Fashion Week: “It was really brilliant…one of the best ever,” reflecting on the collections shown in February for Autumn/Winter 2009.

Finally, on the future of magazines, she agreed that it was the “question on everyone’s mind,” not only in fashion media, but in publishing more generally, because “advertising is going down for everybody” and by the way, Vogue has suffered less than most.

While she stated a personal preference for physical magazines—namely, The New Yorker, World of Interiors, and Vanity Fair—she acknowledged that things were changing at light speed and that there was room for both online and offline publications to exist side-by-side. She added that she and Dolly Jones would be speaking to define the boundaries between them.

Longtime readers of BoF will remember Dolly from a BoF interview last June, explaining the thinking behind the relaunch of the new Dolly has been there since 1995 when the UK-based became one of the first major fashion internet sites in the world. Since then, it has maintained its UK market dominance with constant online innovation, providing a template for successful follow-on sites in other Vogue territories, including France, India and China.

Which got me to thinking. As editors of an offline and online entity with the same brand, I hope they will be reducing barriers and integrating the offline and online entities of Vogue’s magazines even further. While the content should be distinct, making the best of what each medium has to offer, there’s still something to be said for linking the two more closely to elevate the overall Vogue experience. Maybe, they should even think of themselves as editing the same publication, just using different tools. Telling the same stories, just using a different voice.

Stakes have increased in recent months, and the survival of even major fashion magazines is no longer certain. And, for all the talk about online content, internet versions of physical magazines have failed to make up for lost advertising revenue offline. Physical magazines still have an important role to play, while online entities can help to engage the reader, building a deeper relationship with the magazine brand.

As Stevie Spring, Chief Executive of Spring Publishing said, commenting on a recent article in The Guardian, “those publishers producing magazines that are embedded in people’s lives, that play an important part in people’s hobbies and interests, will weather the storms much better than those producing content that can be had quicker, cheaper, in digestible bite-size chunks online.”

Fashion magazines can play this part in people’s lives. And Vogue, with one of the strongest fashion magazine franchises in the world, should take this opportunity to consolidate its market position by taking the lead.

Imran Amed is Editor of The Business of Fashion.

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  1. Advertising has fallen in every industry…it’s simple. Consumers have access to a wider array of information surrounding products of interest, they no longer buy into advertising campaigns on mass (intelligent consumers anyway). With continual developments in ‘augmented reality’ advertising via mobile devises interaction with a physical environment, print based advertising will become more engaging & interactive. You simply roll your camera phone over the print image (or text) & your mobile is linked to a site or multi-media content. Should prove interesting. Concerning fashion, they need to define what they want to achieve from the opposing print & online formats, both platforms cater toward alternative goals. The content must be tailored for the need, you can’t just replicate information online then expect people to pay for print based. Conversely, you cannot just restrict information & expect people to pay for print, when it can be discovered elsewhere online. Ultimately, i can only envisage print media sales continuing to deteriorate, whoever adapts most appropriately will survive, or we may even see a new entrant. The barriers have certainly been lowered for entry, which would explain the influx to near saturation.

    me from Exeter, Devon, United Kingdom
  2. i wish magazines would go back to serving the reader instead of the advertiser. if they were a valuable resource to the reader, the advertisers would follow. instead, editorial content has been reduced to a rehash of the ads running alongside it. i for one love a physical magazine. i have to buy japanese publications, however, because they are the only ones that inspire, that offer ideas rather than simplistic “where to buy” directories.

  3. I think print will continue to have a role to play, but as an increasingly rarified and luxurious product for the minority of consumers who still like print magazines and are willing to pay for good content. The title we discussed before, Purple, is a perfect example of this. It’s more expensive than most magazines, but it’s really an artifact, I have Purples from years ago and I would never throw them away (sorry if I seem to be obsessing about this magazine, it’s just an example).

    As for the internet, everyone blithely says that magazines and newspapers will replace lost print ads with online advertising but to date that has not worked. The prices online ads command are not high enough to keep these businesses afloat. The consequence will be a decline in the quality of content- the majority of online content will come to resemble Gawker or The Fashion Spot, which is trash. Real journalism is expensive. If companies such as the New York Times are going to keep it up, they will have to be more exclusive with their online content, something which WWD has already done.

    Anjo from Stanford, CA, United States
  4. As the article suggests, we are truly entering unchartered waters. Per Anjo’s comment, I agree and really find it hard to believe there will ever be a time wholly devoid of fashion print publications. There are many interesting options for information on the internet to be sure, but let’s be honest: have you ever felt the same sensation in front of a computer screen as you do curled up on the sofa reading your favorite magazine (maybe with a glass of wine as I’ve been known to do!)? It’s just not the same.

    Ultimately, fashion magazines/fashion internet sites will stratify further (those that are truly luxurious will become even more so, those more downmarket possibly catering to an even broader audience). As a luxury jewelry designer with a boutique in Paris, I see the fashion consumers’ reaction when she finds something one-off and special, and it’s a nice thing to witness.

    I don’t believe everything in this business will inevitably result only in bland mainstreamed content, be it magazines or product. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the death of luxury has been greatly exaggerated. As long as there are people of means, there will always be people who want the best.