NEW YORK, United States — “If we don’t have a relationship with the reader, we have nothing,” says Ariel Foxman, editor of InStyle. “This is a product. It’s a business. At the end of the day, it has to serve our audience. So we are constantly in tune with that.”
It’s fair to say that readers are responding. In fact, InStyle is the world’s top-selling monthly fashion magazine. Almost 20 years since launch, the magazine’s US edition, published by Time Inc, has amassed a readership of over 10.9 million people. Subscriptions are currently up 7 percent over last year and this month’s issue marks 22 straight months of ad page gains, according to data provided by the company.
In addition to the hugely successful core magazine, Foxman — who was appointed to InStyle’s top editorial post in 2008 at the age of 34 — oversees the title’s 17 international editions, InStyle.com and a slew of tablet and mobile apps, as well as InStyle books and special issues like InStyle Hair and InStyle Beauty. He has also extended the InStyle brand into apparel and accessories; a shoe collection with Nine West and a collection of white shirts called “InStyle Essentials” both launched in August.
But Foxman’s first love was always magazines — not fashion. “I was really into celebrity journalism,” he recalls. “I used to buy Vogue every time Madonna was on the cover. And I remember buying the Vanity Fair issue with Barbra Streisand on the cover… the celebrity portraiture was just so amazing.”
Growing up in Bergenfield, New Jersey, Foxman was co-editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper, The Struggle, where seeds of his future career were planted. “What I loved about that was creating something that people ran to get,” he says. “There was this jolt that I got and I knew right then and there that I wanted to be a part of that.”
Foxman attended Harvard, where he studied English and religion, and spent his summers interning at Spin and Random House. “[I was] trying to figure out, did I like words more than imagery, or did I like imagery more than words?” he explains. “But in the end, I actually chose the pace more than anything else — I preferred the pace of magazines more than the pace of books, so I moved headfirst into magazines.”
Foxman began his career assisting Joe Dolce, the editor-in-chief of Details, a men’s magazine published by Condé Nast. “The first day I got there, they were celebrating their music issue and I had to work the party. I had to shadow Shirley Manson from Garbage and I was like, ‘I’ve arrived. Magazines are the coolest.’” But two years later, after Dolce left the magazine, Foxman moved over to The New Yorker, where he assisted Susan Morrison, the magazine’s articles editor. “It felt like on some level the right thing to do — like okay, I’ve done this very sexy downtown fashion music thing and now I was going to exercise my Random House and Harvard experience.”
Less than a year later, David Remnick took the helm as editor of The New Yorker and “I was thinking, ‘What’s my long-term future here?’” Foxman recalls. “[Remnick] said to me, ‘You know, you really should go somewhere else. You can always come back to The New Yorker. I see in you the itch and I see in you the possibility to go somewhere else and learn a lot of other skills. Spread your wings.’ I remember going home and thinking, ‘Oh my God, my boss is telling me to leave.’ But you know what, I trusted him.”
Through a friend from Harvard, Foxman heard about an associate editor position at InStyle. “I mentioned it to [Remnick] and he said to me, ‘That magazine is so genius, it shows celebrities head to toe.’ He had heard that it was the first magazine to show the shoes. And I thought, ‘Well, if David Remnick respects InStyle, it’s good enough for me.”
Over the next four years, Foxman rocketed through the InStyle ranks. “I just kept getting more and more responsibility and I worked on everything — I did the news section, I did festivals, I did reviews, I did bar guides.” But the young Foxman, always open to opportunity, had heard that Condé Nast was planning a men’s version of shopping-focused magazine Lucky. “I begged and pleaded to be part of this team. I had a great interview and James Truman [then Condé Nast’s editorial director] said, ‘If you want to submit a proposal, submit a proposal.’ I took a couple of days off from InStyle, submitted a proposal and he said: ‘Mr. Newhouse [Condé Nast’s chairman] is not bowled over, but he’s going to meet with three people. You’re one of them.’”
“I met with Mr. Newhouse,” Foxman continues. “James had said he was going to prepare me for the meeting, but a friend of his went to the hospital that day and he was like, ‘You’re on your own, kid.’ Mr. Newhouse and I talked about the magazines in the Condé Nast stable. I remember rolling my eyes when he mentioned Architectural Digest and he basically said, ‘You don’t like the magazine?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m 29, I live in the East Village. I can’t really relate.’ I thought, well, that was fun, but I probably blew it. A couple of days later, James called and said, ‘If you want the magazine, it’s yours.’”
In 2003, at the age of 29, Foxman became the founding editor of Condé Nast’s new men’s shopping magazine Cargo. But the title ultimately failed to take off. “It had 20 issues; we closed in 2006… The advertising pool shrunk and shrunk and shrunk because there were too many [similar] offerings and they ultimately made a decision to close the magazine.” After taking 10 months off, Foxman returned to InStyle, first as editor-at-large, and then, in 2008, as editor, where he honed the magazine’s formula for success.
Covers are absolutely critical to newsstand performance, he says. “The woman is incredibly important. She has to be highly recognizable, well-known, well-respected. She has to resonate with a lot of people. We’re number one on newsstands in our competitive set, so I’m not selling 100,000 copies. I have to sell three, four, five times that amount, so think about how many people have to know this person. And I only have so many elements: I have the logo, I have the person, I have the fashion, and I have accessories. That’s it. It’s like French cooking. You’ve got your meat or fish, you’ve got your butter, you’ve got your cream, and not much else. But it’s going to add up to something delicious.”
For Foxman, the reader is king. He participates in ‘Twitterviews,’ where readers can ask him questions directly via Twitter and, every morning, he starts his day going through a folder full of reader mail. “What differentiates [us] first and foremost is that we actually have an engaged audience,” he says. “I hear other editors refer to ‘my reader’ and they create this character, this fantasy person that they would like their reader to be. My reader actually exists. I know her name, I know where she lives, she’s writing to us. It’s a real person. We’re always creating a world filled with content that speaks directly to a real person living a real life.”
To help keep the magazine grounded in reality, “We have a thing called the Hot Pants Litmus Test,” Foxman says. “A few years ago, we were having a conversation about what trends to include and somebody said, ‘We have to include hot pants.’ I said, ‘If there’s one person in this room who’s going to wear this look to work, raise your hand and I’ll put it in the magazine.’ Well, everyone sat there silent. And it came around again with midriff tops. It’s about what images are we selecting, what tone are we keeping — is the magazine reflecting the world in which our readers live?”
But Foxman also acknowledges the need to also lead the reader. Indeed, last month, Foxman surprised observers by hiring former New York Times reporter Eric Wilson to the role of fashion news director. “I wanted InStyle to have an even stronger point of view and when you turn to us to really understand why fashion remains so exciting and why style remains so relevant, we are leading the conversation. Not just a part of it,” says Foxman.
“We always create something aspirational, but then make it accessible,” he continues. “The content has to be beautiful — and it has to be useful. I don’t understand a world of inspiring people, creating mystique and then leaving them cold.”
InStyle’s combination of inspiration and accessibility drives impressive results for the magazine’s advertisers. Last year, InStyle readers bought over seven advertised products from each issue, according to numbers provided by the company. “Nobody moves product like InStyle,” Foxman says.
“You don’t read InStyle unless you’re ready to shop. You’re not reading InStyle because you want to know what’s happening in the Sudan, you don’t read InStyle because you want to read about 30 new ways to have an orgasm. You read InStyle because you want to know how to incorporate style into everyday life… I’m really excited for innovation around e-commerce,” he adds.
Ultimately, for Foxman, being an editor is about serving your reader and serving your brand. “You can’t be an editor because you want to be a star. This idea that you can be an editor to be famous is not going to serve you or your brand well. That happens only because you’ve done amazing work.”
“It’s not a chicken or egg conundrum. It’s egg, then chicken.”