Op-Ed | What’s Fit for Print?

Fashion Magazine Covers from 2012 | Source: Google Images

PARIS, France — As with so many commercial endeavours in the world right now, there are more fashion publications than ever before. Which is hardly a revelation when you consider that there are more fashion brands, more fashion fans, more fashion full stop. But what is this doing to the overall landscape of fashion magazines?

Are we more spoilt for choice? Or have the glossies lost their way? Are they caught in the headlights of on-coming digital media, which has upended so many other facets of the fashion industry?

The glossies are a tough bunch and they’re still out there and continue to find solutions in order to remain attractive both commercially and creatively. But today, if you want to commit something to the printed page, it’s worth thinking twice before making it a glossy fashion magazine.

Today on BoF, two fashion magazine veterans, Thomas Lenthal and Jonathan Wingfield, former colleagues at Numéro and co-founders of Paradis, an “occasional revue” which publishes “slow-paced cultural content,” discuss what is fit for print in the digital age.

Thomas Lenthal: I’d like to start by saying that given what digital media has to offer today as a platform for fashion content, perhaps the only viable response to this in print format is something beyond fashion, something akin to Paradis. But this isn’t just shameless promotion for the magazine; it’s a straightforward reaction to what I’m seeing in this particular field of visual communication.

Jonathan Wingfield: What is it about traditional fashion content that’s now perhaps better suited to an online experience?

TL: In my opinion, most fashion magazines are serving up what I’d call “eye candy.” There’s an endless flow of it being produced right now, some of which is really great and I love it, but much of it is disposable. The very nature of this constant flow means that it needs to be consumed in a rapid and disposable manner. We simply don’t have enough time or space in our lives to accommodate all this printed material.

JW: I agree. There’s an interesting piece this week in The New York Times about China’s booming publishing industry. In it we learn that Elle now publishes twice a month, because its issues have grown to 700 pages and Vogue has added four more issues a year, just to keep up with advertising demand. We also learn that Zena Hao, a 24-year-old publicist and passionate fashion magazine follower isn’t interested in consuming these doorstop glossies in digital format because “reading magazines shows you’re taking fashion seriously.” Well a couple of years ago, I conducted an interview with Frank Gehry in which he mentioned that within 20 years, the vast majority of China’s population is going to be living in metropolises; Chinese cities and communities are going to swell beyond belief and most people will be forced to live and work in highly condensed environments. So imagine if every month Zena Hao continues to drag these giant publications into her personal space. She’ll be sacrificing her furniture and washing facilities for fashion magazines!

TL: Which is exactly why I happen to believe that digital media are best adapted to getting one’s quick fix of this constant flow of eye candy.

JW: The “constant flow of eye candy” you refer to has a somewhat negative connotation of quantity over quality.

TL: Don’t get me wrong, there’s still some really strong fashion photography published in the glossies. There’s nothing mediocre about anything Steven Meisel does; his 25-year and counting editorial archive is an extraordinary document of his passion — and of how eye candy can be the epitome of sophistication.

JW: But I sense you consider him to be the exception.

TL: Well, generally speaking 30 years ago fashion photographers were producing about 200 images a year, whereas now they’re producing nearly 2000. Every aspect of the industry is becoming bloated: there are probably 20 times more fashion brands than there were 20 years ago. More than that even. All this stuff needs to be visually documented and it’s extremely rare that a photographer shooting that volume of material can maintain serious quality control. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing; I’m simply questioning why all these images still need to be committed to the printed page.

JW: What about the argument that says the printed page is a truer representation of the photographic material; that digital media doesn’t do fashion photography justice?

TL: So much of what’s being presented in fashion magazines right now is portrayed in highly saturated colours. And technically speaking RGB files shown on-screen do these images far more justice than the industrialised paper on which the glossies are printed. Beautiful paper stock and high quality printing aren’t commercially viable for large circulation magazines.

JW: In fact, you could argue that paper is the odd man out in the equation right now. Practically all photography is shot digitally, it’s viewed on-screen, edited on-screen and post-production is undertaken on-screen… and yet it’s sent to be printed on paper. Basic logic suggests this imagery should be consumed on-screen too.

TL: I’m proof of these arguments. I’m finding myself happier these days flicking through iPad versions of the magazines I’d religiously go out and buy in years gone by. Without even touching on the whole ecological debate about reducing paper to save the planet, the simple act of consuming all this stuff online just strikes me as being more modern, more sensible.

JW: So we’ve established that much of what’s produced in print today could perhaps be better consumed online. But that begs the question: what is still worth committing to print?

TL: Well, that very notion – “something worth committing to the printed page” – is an interesting mission statement when it comes to deciding what to put in a magazine. I guess at Paradis we’re lucky in that we’ve removed many of the constraints that your average glossy deals with every day: the need to shoot fashion credits, issues of timing, and so on. With these elements taken out of the equation, we can concentrate on the actual pleasure of producing a magazine. Because it is a real pleasure and I don’t want to be seen to be ranting. I love magazines.

JW: Do you have to be independent to produce something of real quality today?

TL: Quite possibly. Or you’d have to be incredibly powerful within a corporate structure.

JW: Generally speaking though, not many people are making money from independent magazine publishing.

TL: Paradis prints a modest 10,000 copies. Each issue sells out. This provides us with the means to produce the following issue. It might sound like we are lacking in commercial ambition, but when you consider that The Guardian newspaper in the UK is losing three million pounds a week, this is a pretty reasonable proposition. If you’re able to concentrate on producing high quality content that’s presented in a context that does it justice, you realise that rather than being construed as some old-school operation, this is, in fact, an appropriate and modern approach to making a magazine that you’d actually want to keep.

Jonathan Wingfield and Thomas Lenthal are co-founders of Paradis, which has recently published its sixth issue.