LONDON, United Kingdom — Established fashion media brands have long embraced a business model centred around glossy physical magazines, produced by professional editors, that rely on traditional print advertising for the vast majority of their revenues. But in recent years, tectonic shifts in the media and economic firmament have put tremendous pressure on what increasingly looks like an unsustainable approach.
By now, it's a well known fact that times are tough for traditional ad-supported outlets. The Great Recession slashed print advertising spending — forecast to continue its decline by another 4 percent in 2013, according to the World Advertising Research Center — while the Web has given brands and retailers a cost-effective way to circumvent traditional publishers and engage consumers directly.
But as visionary writer William Gibson famously observed, "The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed." Indeed, a number of upstart media companies targeting the Internet generation are taking a dramatically different approach to content, delivery platform and revenue generation — and the components of a new model are starting to emerge.
PART PUBLISHER, PART COMMUNITY
Unsurprisingly, the Internet is the primary platform of choice for these new model media companies, who have made digital age dynamics like user participation integral to their approach. Founded by Julie Anne Quay, former executive editor of V magazine, VFiles is a "fashion entertainment platform," launched last September, that's part publisher and part social media site. "It's a media company built by users, for users," said Quay. "It used to be you kept all your favourite things in a box under your bed. It was time to digitise that experience and let everyone come together and communicate in one space."
The site is structured around 'VFiles,' digital folders which contain a blend of original content created by professional editors (including several members of the team behind cult magazine DIS) and content that's created and curated by members of the VFiles community, which includes prominent music and fashion industry figures like Nicola Formichetti, Italo Zucchelli, Karlie Kloss, Tavi Gevinson, Sky Ferreira and A$AP Rocky. "We give our users fun things and original programming to watch, collect and contribute too — a vault of fashion media," said Quay.
VFiles currently attracts upwards of 1.3 million page views per month, with over 60 percent of the site's content generated by the community. "Our audience participates loudly in the dialogue of fashion. It is this dialogue that forms the foundation of our company," said Quay, who expects that, eventually, 90 percent of the site's content will come from users, with only 10 percent created by professional editors.
In recent years, we've seen an explosion of social platforms curated purely by users — Pinterest, for example — join an array of old media websites edited purely by professionals. But blending professional editorship with community-powered curation is new and promising approach.
VIDEO, VIDEO, VIDEO
Another vital component of the emerging model is video. Powered by the rapid spread of broadband Internet and the popularity of video sharing sites like YouTube, online video accounted for 56 percent of all consumer Web traffic in 2012, up from 51 percent in 2011, and is set to continue its ascent, according to Cisco. It's also a natural medium for communicating fashion, which is best presented in motion. Note the quick adoption of Twitter's new video service, Vine, at the collections this season.
Seizing on the opportunity, VFiles has developed a number of popular original video programmes, including Model Files, a satirical, mockumentary-style look at the industry; a street-style series called Lis@ TV; and Xtreme Fashion Week, which features footage captured via head cams. The programmes are produced both quickly and inexpensively, said Quay. And so far, the VFiles YouTube channel, which went live last April, five months before the website launch, has clocked over one million views.
Video is also at the heart of the vision behind the recent acquisition of the highly respected, but digitally unsophisticated British fashion bible i-D by global youth media company Vice. "There's a huge void in quality online video fashion content right now — we saw the opportunity to take over this space, combining i-D's editorial and creative talent with Vice's production capabilities and expertise," said Andrew Creighton, president of Vice, which, last year, took on significant investment from WPP, Tom Freston and The Raine Group and has enjoyed success with a network of video-driven platforms focused on music, art, technology and sport, but lacked a credible presence in fashion.
"Fashion media has been slow to respond to the evolving media landscape and online video," added Terry Jones, who founded i-D in 1980 and, along with his wife Tricia Jones, remains a minority partner. "The Vice media group have grown very rapidly with global facilities that would have taken years for us to reach without serious investment."
In theory, it's an interesting partnership. The insight that online video presents a critical yet underexploited opportunity for fashion media is certainly valid and the combination of i-D's fashion credibility and Vice's digital experience could prove powerful.
But it remains to be seen how the new platform will take shape and how successfully Vice, with its brash outsider ethos, will bring the culturally dissimilar i-D into the fold. A precise timeframe has yet to be set for i-D's official relaunch.
NON-ADVERTISING REVENUE STREAMS
As for making money, these budding fashion media ventures are trading a dependence on traditional advertising for a mix of brand partnerships, retail and agency services.
Vice, for one, has pioneered a sponsored content model that it has successfully implemented in a number of other verticals — and which it plans to replicate with i-D. The Creators Project, an art-focused channel completely underwritten by Intel, and Noisey, a music channel funded by Dell and Intel, are amongst the most elaborate examples. For sponsors, these kinds of deep partnerships are a way to connect with the valuable, Internet generation hipsters who constitute Vice's core audience and respond far more favourably to digital content than traditional ads.
"We've seen extraordinary success executing this model around our music, arts, tech and sports platforms. With i-D, we're certainly exploring a similar type of model and expect [i-D's] reputation and our video quality to be very attractive to an array of fashion and style brands," revealed Creighton, who worked at i-D in the late 1990s, handling advertising, and said the company intended to work with a wide spectrum of brands to create a series of sponsored video programmes. He also hinted that a commerce component was on the horizon.
Also eschewing traditional advertising, VFiles has tapped a number of alternative revenue streams, including brand partnerships and retail. For Frederic Fekkai, Quay's team "used VFiles to curate Spring/Summer 2013 trend reports for the brand, which were then used across the United States to educate all Fekkai employees."
VFiles has also partnered with Maison Martin Margiela for H&M on a guerrilla marketing campaign and distributed X-Girl, Pyrex (a label designed by Virgil Abloh, who works with Kanye West) and others through its retail channels, which include a physical boutique next to the company's offices on New York's Mercer Street and a curated e-commerce store.
"It sold out the day we released it online and in-store," said Quay of the Pyrex partnership. "Right now, being only six months old, our store is our main source of revenue," she continued.
Bullett Media, which editor-in-chief Idil Tabanca describes as "a transmedia company," publishes a website that gets about 500,000 page views per month, as well as physical and tablet editions of a quarterly magazine, which have a circulation of 50,000 and 15,000, respectively. Considering its scale, the magazine has featured an impressive array of A-list celebrities, including Elle Fanning, Ewan McGregor, Blake Lively and Daniel Radcliffe.
But crucially, none of Bullett's editorial products run traditional advertising. Instead, the company seeks out like-minded brands for sponsored content deals. "Our content platforms are constantly adapting to marry editorial content with advertising and commercial platforms," said Tabanca.
What's more, the fruits of these partnerships are often developed by Bullett's in-house creative studio, that — like Virtue, Vice's in-house agency — offers a range of services which generate added revenue for the company. Brands can tap these services whether or not the results ultimately appear in the magazine, a competitor publication or somewhere else entirely.
Additionally, Bullett operates a "highly curated" e-commerce store of its own, stocked with items featured in the magazine.
Of course, non-traditional monetisation strategies like these, which closely tie content to commercial considerations, have important implications for editorial independence. On the surface, traditional fashion magazines have long embraced a so-called 'church and state' divide between their business and editorial departments. But insiders know the reality isn't nearly as clear and a symbiotic relationship — where ad pages ensure coverage — has long existed between advertisers and editors.
Whether upstarts like VFiles, the new i-D and Bullett will manage to tap non-traditional, emerging revenue opportunities, while retaining the kind of strong and unbiased point of view that attracts readers in the first place, remains to be seen. But if they succeed, the 'separation of church and state,' which has long dominated the thinking, and organisational structures, of traditional fashion magazines, may start to look like an obsolete concept, unleashing a wave of new innovation.