NEW YORK, United States — How do you make a monthly fashion magazine when showrooms and photo studios are closed, readers are spending more time on Instagram than ever and the resolution limits of a Zoom photoshoot become painfully clear?
“The first thought is kind of a low-grade panic, because we can’t do the thing that we do so well,” said Will Welch, editor-in-chief of American GQ, in a series of interviews conducted as he and his team created its latest issue in March, April and May. “Then for me, the second thought is excitement — I wonder what this is going to turn out like?”
At 39 years old, Welch is one of those late-stage Millennial editors who remains bullish on the power of paper to give the reader something they can’t find online. Each month, he and his team tout the latest issue of the 62-year-old title, which Welch has been leading since the beginning of 2019, with the hashtag #printisgood.
But is it possible to make something “good” in the context of the global pandemic, which has thrown a wrench into magazine production, rendering traditional photoshoots impossible and making special-access celebrity interviews less intimate? Readers are stuck at home and newsstands and airports are empty. With stores closed and newsstand sales virtually non-existent, fashion and consumer brands are cutting the advertising budgets that publishers rely on to exist.
GQ’s June/July issue, hitting the internet Tuesday and beginning reach readers on May 26, is the title’s first to be almost completely produced since lockdowns began in New York in March.
Welch and his team aimed to capture the frenetic mix of anxiety and open-mindedness that many people are experiencing, locked in their homes and barred from their usual routines. He green-lit some “calculated risks,” like letting cover star Robert Pattinson photograph himself, commissioning drawings from fashion designers, and working with creators, like the photographer known as rayscorruptedmind, for the first time. (He reached out to GQ to contribute and photographed the rapper Offset for the issue.) While the tone of GQ’s print issues falls in line with its “very online” digital style, there is a go-big-or-go-home feeling about each issue.
During his tenure, Welch has evolved the magazine’s big brother identity into something that’s categorically not for everybody, a symbol of progressive, fashion-forward and self-aware masculinity. It’s the kind of title that can have both Larry David and Kanye West on its cover in a matter of months, and Welch is determined to not let print lose its specialness, despite the restrictions laid out in front of him.
“A magazine that is still printed on paper is meant to be a document of its time,” Welch said. “This has been a test of how clear we are about what our values are…Those of us who make it and our readers — it’s a crew of people who see the world through a lens of taste and style, first and foremost.”
BoF went inside GQ’s unusual production process over the last six weeks, interviewing the editors and writers who brought the issue and its features to life. These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
March 11: Condé Nast directs New York employees to work from home for the foreseeable future. GQ is in the process of sending its May issue pages to the printer, so the staff edits the articles to reflect the pandemic. Welch holds back two stories in order to include a last-minute feature called “Big Fits at Home." The two main features slated for the June/July issue — a Robert Pattinson profile and a central portfolio on the theme “creativity in quarantine” — were unstarted.
Will Welch, editor-in-chief: As all...the New York City guidance was evolving, we were simultaneously thinking about what can we get into May with these stories that are very far along — and then also what are we doing for the June/July issue?
Some of June was shot, some was not. The cover was not shot.
The first thought is kind of a low grade panic, because we can’t do the thing that we do so well.
Zach Baron, senior staff writer, who wrote the cover profile: [Pattinson] was shooting “Batman” [in London], so the idea was to go and catch him on a day off or, if I got lucky, even get to visit the set. But we never got so far as booking a plane ticket.
This is the first time I had really tried to do something big and ambitious over Zoom, Skype, whatever you want to call it. For the record, it was FaceTime.
March 20: The UK implements its own lockdown. The Batman film set had already halted a week earlier.
Sarah Schmidt, director of editorial operations: We are totally dedicated to doing storytelling that is safe and responsible for our team, so that comes first.
Welch: It became very clear that any kind of shoot where people had to get together was not going to be feasible. [Pattinson] has a bunch of cool cameras and he is in an Airbnb in London. He had some film cameras with him and maybe a digital camera, too, and he was up for photographing himself.
I don’t know him. It’s not like they sent me a portfolio of his photography or anything. He just said, “I’d be up for it if you’d be up for it.”
That is not something I would want to do with just anyone. But in his case, everything about the directors that he’s chosen…and all the moves that he’s made post “Twilight” have shown a real creative mind and pretty amazing taste and instincts.
March 25: Welch, Visuals Director Roxanne Behr and GQ’s Entertainment Director Dana Mathews have a phone-call with Pattinson, his manager and his publicist to share some guidance for the shoot, which Pattinson will execute alone at his apartment, where he is quarantining with his girlfriend.
Roxanne Behr, visuals director: I made him a wide-ranging deck of art historical references of self-portraiture…I have never spent as much time on a deck as I did for Rob.
Some of it was references for seeing the camera [in the image], some of it was reminding him to get full-length, some of it was more conceptual.
We definitely talked to him about how to shoot a cover with room for the GQ logo [on the top left of the image], which is usually not something the talent would have to ever think about.
Welch: But at the end of the call it was kind of like, "Anyway, we’ve said our piece, do whatever you want."
In general, I absolutely love taking calculated risks like that... That’s more exciting to me than — we want to Zoom in and see every picture as it’s coming up on a monitor and give you direction. … Sometimes it’s best to know what you can’t control and to not try. To get out of the way and let these very bizarre days be bizarre.
The week of March 30: GQ sends Pattinson clothing for the shoot: Dior and Louis Vuitton suits, Burberry scarves, a Turnbull & Asser scarf, Paul Smith blazer and pants, Elder Statesman socks and Alighieri jewellery. Before the lockdown, GQ had already photographed most of the products featured in the first section of the magazine, leaving the cover shoot as the main fashion challenge.
Mobolaji Dawodu, fashion director: [Styling] is such a hands-on process. When I edit I go into the office and run through the clothes and edit them by touching them. I don’t shop online because I like touching things.
Nikki Ogunnaike, deputy fashion director: We had to have a lot of conversations about: how do you create a cover shoot and how do you get clothing to London in a responsible way?
It felt like that scene in “Indiana Jones” where the doors are about to close and he has to slip under it to make it in the nick of time. That’s what this felt like, trying to get to these London designers before everything went on lockdown in London.
Dawodu: My agenda for this issue was colour and brightness because I felt like we needed to lift the mood of whatever was going on. Especially in my absence, I didn’t want a lot of dark colours going on because I felt like that would be boring, personally.
You have to edit well and believe in most of the things you are sending in your absence and hope for the best.
Ogunnaike: GQ is known for doing these really amazing treatments and getting all of these clothes for our cover shoots and we had to be a little more drilled down and targeted.
We emailed [PR firm] Karla Otto’s London team to see if they could possibly get us anything from Craig Green because his collection was dynamic and it was bright… and they came through with a few things, including that red look [see lead image above].
Dawodu: That suit was a no brainer because it’s a suit and it’s easy, in my opinion. And it was [a question of] whether or not he was going to go for it or not go for it. [Robert and I] had a very casual conversation, I made some suggestions and I didn’t think about it anymore, personally. There’s no point… I did feel safe in the edit.
Ogunnaike: A difference I’ve found working in menswear and womenswear is that in women’s, oftentimes, ‘We need ‘look one’ immediately or the shoot will not exist, it cannot function without this look.’ The way that Mobolaji styles and thinks about fashion — and the way we do fashion at GQ — it’s more about getting a nice selection of amazing pieces and then creating outfits with those things… and letting the magic come together on set.
April 3: The release date of the upcoming Jordan Peele film “Candyman" is pushed to September. GQ had already photographed lead actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen for a feature in the issue before the lockdown.
Welch: I have no idea what we are going to do yet. That has been this rock-solid thing on the lineup of the June issue as so much of this has shifted, and I just got an email that the movie just got pushed back… There’s a version of that for every single story we are working on.
April 9: Pattinson sends his images digitally to Roxanne. Not hiding a messy apartment, the images have a chaotic quality to them. In some shots, Pattinson has even tied socks and scarves around his arms, legs and head.
Dawodu: I did tell him to get wild with it.
I think this a good time for brands to listen and for them to accept creativity that they normally would not have accepted before.
Baron: In some ways, the oddity of it all fired him up, just like it fired us up. These are interesting problems to solve.
Behr: What he sent was very unexpected and that is the beauty of the project…. It’s just not the shoot that we would have done if we were shooting him. It’s totally refreshing. You can totally tell that he is in his own world — there is no hair, there is no makeup.
He sent us a ton of pictures which we then whittled down to 16. There weren’t any that he said, ‘I really don’t like that one, don’t run it,’ which surprised me, actually.
Sometimes it’s best to know what you can’t control and to not try. To get out of the way and let these very bizarre days be bizarre.
Schmidt: A magazine is a tactile thing and we would [normally] put up the layouts in a room and look at the mix of the magazine up on a wall, and review that with our visuals director and design director and in-person with Will… And that’s obviously not possible right now.
The most challenging thing is the colour. When you are putting together a print magazine, how you display a page on the screen doesn’t necessarily show how it’s going to print at the plant. So our production team worked really closely with the systems that they had to ensure the colour was going to be as true as possible to what we intended it to be.
April 10: Pattinson and Baron begin a series of conversations for the interview.
Baron: A lot of this work relies on trust and it relies on interpersonal dynamics. And that stuff is just harder to build remotely... Someone who is not him might have absolutely taken advantage of that situation to sort of hide, literally and metaphorically.
Pattinson turned out to be a really good partner for this because — and he talks about this in the story — he thrives on awkwardness. He thrives on strange situations.
The thing that is separating us and making it hard is also the thing that is really interesting. The dropped calls and the sort of texts back and forth. This is what we are all experiencing right now.
The June/July’s other big feature is a 32-page portfolio featuring interviews with director Robert Eggers, novelist Richard Powers, actress Julia Fox and other creatives in self-isolation.
Welch: I love projects like that. We kind of have a big group email chain with everybody working through the offer and idea with different people, and then weighing and saying, "Okay, this person is in and they want to do ‘x,’ and this person is out, they are not doing any press during the crisis."… It’s a constant shaping of wet clay in a big communal way.
There are some people who it’s just an immediate hard no, [they] don't feel comfortable doing anything that could be considered press, no matter the concept, while a crisis is going on — absolutely gotten some of that — which we of course completely respect… And then other people have never had so much time on their hands, and we have a relationship with them and they like what we do.
Each person in the quarantine portfolio is photographed in some way or contributes art or their own portrait. Thom Browne submitted abstract geometric sketches of his spring 2021 collection, for example, while comedians Desus and Mero sent in Polaroid self-portraits.
Behr: The biggest challenge, but also the biggest opportunity, is how do we make this feel fresh and new and also intentional and full of purpose and really creative when it lands in June after we’ve seen a million selfies and a million Zooms? I think we are all going to be Zoomed out by then.
Throughout April and early May, other magazines and publications start to publish their first editorials created in lockdown.
Welch: Roxanne and I are talking all day every day. As each of us is seeing what other [publications and photographers] are doing, we are just DMing each other — “Oh did you see this, did you see that, this is really interesting, this is really bad, what the hell were they thinking, this is the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen.” Everything in between. We are fans and haters. We are definitely paying close attention.
There’s only so much reinventing of the wheel that you can do, so it really comes down to trusting that your mix is going to be what makes it special.
Behr: One of the pieces in the issue is a conversation between two young female comedians [Megan Stalter and Catherine Cohen]. We set up a Zoom with both of them and talked through this idea of sending them both Polaroid cameras and Polaroid film. They actually had the cameras, so we sent them the film and we also sent them a rotary phone. The conversation for the interview was virtual but we brought that into the pictures and created this conceptual prop-driven shoot.
That feeling of not knowing what the pictures are going to look like is very nerve-wracking and thrilling. Now I’ve had multiple instances where I am opening up an email or a physical package with Polaroids and getting to see stuff for the first time.
Welch: It felt like [the portfolio] needed a pop star, a big urgent name — because, again, just striking the right balance of the mix of people and the accessibility of it.
We were in conversations with Dua Lipa to be a part of it, and it was a little bit tricky to get on the same page of how we would execute the photography.
[The end results] are pretty obviously iPhone photos, and that’s where we landed and I was fine with it. But I was really unsure about how it was going to come out. And those are the kinds of little calculated risks you are taking all the time where you are negotiating through the possibilities with somebody. It turned out totally cool. It’s really raw and intimate.
Behr: We are very sensitive to the fact that talent, celebrities, are sitting at home all day posting photos of themselves on Instagram, so the goal is to create something that feels less polished than if we were doing a high production photo shoot. Something that feels real and reflective of this moment, but something that still feels elevated above the Instagram photos and the selfies we are seeing.
Dawodu: That’s actually one of the powers of the new GQ. We are really into collaborating because our opinions are only one-sided, or a few perspectives collectively. It’s about making people comfortable and letting them understand that we want their opinion to be heard stylistically.
Behr: While we were using different tools — Zoom, FaceTime, Polaroids, all of this different stuff — the end product doesn’t feel like it’s a different magazine.
We made a portrait of [singer] Matty Healy from the 1975, and when you see it in the magazine it just looks like a portrait. But the truth is that it was shot via a mixture of Zoom, FaceTime, a local iPad recording… It’s the most straightforward portrait in the whole issue, but it has the most involved tech production behind it.
The process doesn’t feel like the point of the issue. The pictures that we made aren’t about being shot on Zoom or about the lack of resources or the change in resources. they just naturally reflect how we had to use our resources differently.
April 13: Condé Nast announces salary reductions, furloughs and potential layoffs, citing “substantial impact from this crisis on our business.”
Welch: There has been an ebb and flow of moods and anxieties and positivity or concern so we are open to all that. I don’t need people to pretend to be fired up if they are really feeling anxious, and I also think it’s okay to be energised, even at a difficult time.
I really love the unpredictable nature of this media environment. I think I’m really well suited for it and it is well suited for me. The instability of this environment and the unpredictability of this environment is part of what led to me getting this role. The way that I always talk to this team is — we need to be constantly reassessing our priorities. We do so much with a fairly tight staff and fairly tight resources, and so it’s just about constantly reassessing what we should be emphasising.
April 15: GQ publishes its Kanye West May issue cover online, a week and a half before it will be sent to newsstands and subscribers.
Welch: I ended up releasing it much earlier than we normally would have because it felt like the right moment.
For now, pushing people to go buy that single copy at the newsstand is just not top of mind. Though we have been seeing upticks of people buying GQ at grocery stores and so on.
I think pegging profiles of celebrities to their projects — I care about it less and less every day. Even our Daniel Craig cover [the actor was on GQ’s April cover, but the movie’s release was pushed to November] was a great, huge moment for us ... Ten years ago, that would have been an editors’ nightmare.
I really love the way the [“Candyman" actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen] shoot fits into the mix of this [June/July] issue. I don’t want to push it back so that the fashion that he’s wearing is no longer relevant. It felt right to keep it in place.
April 30: GQ.com publishes the June/July print issue’s long-form feature, a look inside the Diamond Princess cruise ship by Doug Bock Clark.
Welch: That’s going to be a real centrepiece of this issue. [Longform journalism] is still a priority at GQ and it’s still something we take time and money to do and do well. And I think that continues to help set us apart.
What we’ve been doing is really choosing — detached from the need, broadly speaking, to push people to the newsstand — the moment on the calendar that feels best for the stories that we have. And then we are using it as an opportunity to really remind people of the opportunity to subscribe to GQ.
Schmidt: We were able to guarantee May issues along with the launch of our May cover story... Normally when you sign up you might not get that actual issue that you are reading the cover story for, and we are working closely with consumer marketing to make that the case for June/July.
May 7: The last pages of the June/July issue are sent to the printer. The issues will start to arrive at shops like grocery stores on May 26.
Behr: The goal was to make an issue that felt like it reflected our moment and was in response to our moment, but that didn’t sacrifice who we are, our values and who we are aesthetically.
It was a nice refresh and break from our normal pace of a cover story, two fashion stories and three features. Will threw that whole infrastructure and backbone out the window… The whole thing keeps moving and has this really kinetic, scrapbook-y feel.
Next up for GQ are the all-important August and September issues, for which the production challenges will be no less complex, even as the US and Europe begin to slowly and chaotically reopen.
Welch: It's so exciting to think — imagine two years from now, when hopefully global pandemics have not become the norm, and we [can] think back to spring of 2020 when we were all in isolation, working over Zoom. And we made that series of issues under just completely bizarre, tense, frightening circumstances with all of this incredibly painful news coming in.
You take all of that away [the photography sets, the racks of fashion pieces] — what do we still have left and how do we be GQ?
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