032c | The Magazine that Defied the Downturn

Stephen Meisel in 032c

Stephen Meisel in 032c Winter 2008/09 | Source: 032c

As 032c prepares to mark its tenth anniversary and moves into a new office designed by Arno Brandlhuber/ b&k+, BoF sat down with the magazine’s founder, editor and creative director Joerg Koch to discuss the inner workings and future plans of his title. While there’s no formula for the unique circumstances and hard work that led to 032c’s enviable market position, Koch’s insights provide lessons that both brands and magazines can learn from.

BERLIN, Germany — Ask fashion’s thinking class what they consider to be the best magazine on newsstands today and they’re likely to point you to an enigmatic red book with a cover that features a headless female body in black leather gear and story teasers like “Business of Design” and “Fall of Communism.” It sounds unlikely, but the 18th issue of Berlin-based 032c is wildly popular in fashion capitals like New York, London, Paris and Moscow, making it the magazine of the moment.

But its remarkable success is based on more than hype. The latest issue is a winner — and not just editorially. It’s also the thickest in the history of the magazine, thanks in part to 35 pages of advertising (compared to 20 a year ago). What’s more, any of the ads would be the pride of most other independent magazines in the industry: Missoni, Jil Sander and Raf Simons take up single and double spreads alongside Comme des Garcons, Dior Homme and Tom Ford.

This is an impressive feat, especially when you consider that big publishing houses with dedicated sales teams are struggling to find advertisers, putting out depressingly thin issues and accepting ads from mid- and down-market brands they would have turned down just two years ago. Clearly, 032c is doing something right.

Build a strong identity

032c would not be the darling of magazine junkies and media critics everywhere, nor a commercial success, if it wasn’t for the intelligence and freshness of its content. While editorial magic is hard to explain, for 032c it has a lot to do with being true to its Berlin roots and a stimulating and unorthodox mix of content that spans art, fashion and politics, but somehow manages to make perfect sense. The current issue, for example, includes stories on two contemporary artists, the Polish government, a Fortune 500 CEO from Oregon, a Paris nightclub and Trish Goff.

032c is also a powerful signifier, as desirable and emotionally satisfying as a Marc Jacobs shoe. People who buy 032c spend a lot of time with it and prize having it on their bookshelf. And that’s just what advertisers are looking for. Indeed, brands are increasingly seeking to connect with consumers through media platforms that function as aspirational entities themselves. Simply by being in the magazine, brands feed off 032c’s powerful cultural cachet.

Tackle challenging markets

Koch says it was a strategic decision to aggressively pursue Italian advertisers. “We knew that being a magazine that is perceived as being very avant-garde, Milan would be the most difficult market. It’s very conservative and commercially-oriented. In Paris, the fashion brands are more fine-tuned to our sensibility. So for us the interesting thing was to tackle the markets we perceived to be the biggest challenge and then be there all the time and talk to the people. We even opened a small Milan office with one person. And I flew down there quite often. All that pays off.”

Be louder and better than ever, especially in hard times

Koch doesn’t believe economic insecurity is a reason to scale down ambition, if anything you need to be bolder: “The best advice never given to us personally was Warren Buffet’s, who said ‘Be greedy when everyone is fearful, and be fearful when everyone is greedy.’ You can replace that with ‘Be loud when everyone is quiet and be quiet when everybody is loud.’” Clearly, the ambitious attitude has paid off. “We really believe that the time is right for the publication to enter a larger arena,” says Koch.

But being independent has been advantageous for 032c. Their Winter ’08 issue included a story titled “Who is Steven Meisel?” that featured a 14-page fold-out with every single cover the American photographer has ever shot for Italian Vogue. This sort of extravagant gesture would be unthinkable in the context of a corporate publishing house, but the feature was an instant hit, making number 16 one of the most talked-about issues in 032c’s history.

At the same time, there are obvious advantages, in terms of advertising and distribution, to being part of a larger organisation. Koch believes it’s not impossible to create a magazine with high standards of quality and an independent editorial spirit within a big publishing house and doesn’t rule out a mutually beneficial partnership with a larger company. “There will definitely come a point where for further growth — especially in terms of distribution — we’ll probably need a partner.” This should be interesting news for major publishers who are facing tough times and scrambling to reach an increasingly educated and fragmented readership.

Reflect a changing mindset

Koch says that no changes are planned in terms of the architecture and look of the magazine. But he likes to mention “a changing mindset” at 032c. So far, the most overt nod to commerce is the introduction of Select, which would be called a market section at a more traditional title.

With Select, 032c is moving from being a magazine of pure ideas to something broader: a magazine of ideas and products. “Select is definitely a commercial thing,” says Koch unabashedly. But, as one would expect, the magazine is doing it in its own idiosyncratic way: Select’s debut installment, for instance, covers a rare manuscript by Georges Bataille next to Lanvin jewelry next to a museum exhibit of Aztec artifacts next to Dior Homme cufflinks.

Select is also a test vehicle for 032c’s biggest project: developing its quiet online presence into a constantly-updated content site that not only complements its flagship print product, but stands alone in quality and scale. Indeed, the kind of digital operation they have in mind is ambitious enough that Koch is currently looking for a partner to help them take the new website from concept to reality in 2010.

The magazine’s pro-Internet stance is interesting for a title that could revel in print-only exclusivity. But Koch sees no contradiction in doing both. On the contrary: “The magazine will never be something that you will get at every newsstand, you have to make an effort to get it. It’s not everywhere and that is really nice for the aura of the magazine.” But a strong website, the thinking goes, available to everyone, everywhere and at all times, can enhance that aura rather than dilute it.

In its approach, 032 is part of a new establishment of magazines like Fantastic Man and Purple that are not just surviving, but thriving through the economic crisis that’s crippling the rest of the industry. Radiating confidence, theses titles emphasize superior editorial quality and advertisers respond to that, even in tough times. Indeed, nothing about 032c is dumbed-down, and, sadly, that’s a rare thing on today’s newsstand.

Suleman Anaya is a fashion and culture writer based in New York.