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Joerg Koch Defies Content-Commerce Orthodoxy

BoF talks to the Berlin-based cultural polymath and founder of cerebral indie magazine 032c on the relationship between creativity and commerce and becoming the editor-in-chief of global e-commerce site Ssense.
Joerg Koch, founder of 032c and editor-in-chief of Ssense | Photo: Kevin Trageser for BoF
  • Alex Hawgood

NEW YORK, United States — On a recent, unseasonably warm, Wednesday afternoon, Joerg Koch, the editor of the biannual fashion and culture magazine 032c, was sitting in a café in the lobby of the SoHo Grand Hotel. Slightly overdressed, in a Canada Goose jacket, which added heft to his already towering 6'5 frame, he was in town courtesy of Adidas for the launch of the brand's new NMD sneaker. "I have always been interested in the theoretical differences between what's considered creative and what's considered commercial," said Koch, slowly leaning back in a small wooden chair as if to help jog his memory about the various stories his journal had published in its past 29 issues about people whose careers towed the line between art and commerce.

There was a piece several years ago that examined Dennis Freedman, W magazine's former art director "going over to the commercial side" to become the creative director of Barneys New York. A year later, 032c ran a lengthy multi-format interview with Natalie Massenet, the former fashion journalist and Net-a-Porter founder, which quizzed her about the boundaries between retail and editorial. ("The assumption is that we are a commercial entity, so all our credibility and authenticity goes out the door," Massenet was quoted as saying.)

"So, now it's quite interesting that I'm doing it myself," he said, with a knowing grin as he took a sip of Diet Coke. Come January, Koch will become the editor-in-chief of Ssense (pronounced "essence"), the Canadian fashion e-tailer known for its wide but discerning range of product from the likes of Alexander McQueen, Common Projects and Vetements.

The enlistment of Koch, the Berlin-based cultural polymath who oversees an indie magazine with a circulation of just 55,000, as a front man for Ssense, a global e-commerce platform that receives 22 million page views per month and counts the US, South Korea and China as its top markets (a representative from the company declined to disclose turnover), might take some by surprise. After all, Koch himself openly admitted that he had previously only shopped the site once. "Two or three years ago I  bought something and thought it was just a small boutique." In October, Koch visited the company's Montreal headquarters during the launch of Yeezy Season 1, Kanye West's much-hyped capsule collection. It was then when he first felt the muscle behind Ssense's global reach: in just one hour, the site sold $500,000 worth of merchandise. "It was really fascinating to see that it's a super powerful engine. You don't really see that from the outside," he said.

Koch, who is 41, was born in Wuppertal, West Germany, where he said he was "the typical provincial German kid who tried to get out as quickly as possible." After dropping out of both the Freie Universität and the Technische Universität in Berlin, Koch landed an internship in 1996 at an early digital agency that was responsible for Wildpark, a pioneering proto-Web magazine. Quickly tiring of the early venture's "commercial prospects," he quit and soon started 032c in 2001. At the time, it was just a small "fanzine" conceived to be a promotional tool for the URL "We wanted to do a streaming content site very similar to what Nick Knight was doing with Showstudio," he said. "Back then, 'going viral' meant that The Face or i-D would write something about it."

But early technologies made it costly to work digitally. After he purchased the necessary hard disk for video editing, “we were completely bankrupt,” he said. He decided to switch his focus to print after attracting early advertisers like Helmut Lang and Dior Homme. “You can trace 032c back to the D.I.Y. culture of the 1990s,” he continued. “Punk-rock culture — bands like Minor Threat and Bad Brains — was much more influential for my current status in the fashion and luxury business than anything else.”

It's easy to see why Koch could hardly be considered an orthodox choice for the job. While 032c has a cult following of art and fashion insiders attracted to its cerebral, text-heavy approach and overlapping loops of style, architecture, music and politics — Cathy Horyn once said the publication "destroys the notion that printed journals don't have the quickness or relevance of blogs" — it is about as far as you can get from a typical fashion magazine. Besides 032c, Koch was also the editor-in-chief of Interview Germany when it launched in February of 2012. He stepped down after one year because "it didn't feel interesting anymore," he said.

"The best thing about Joerg is that he is not a cliché fashion monster," said Mel Ottenberg, 032c's fashion director and Rihanna's stylist. Indeed, it's a testament to Koch's idiosyncratic editorial instincts that both highbrow fashion editorials and head-scratching academic texts are able to gel within the same pages. The cover of the current issue, for example, features the model Lily Donaldson, head-to-toe in Louis Vuitton, sliding head-first off a sofa. Inside, there is a 14-page article on the European sociologist Zygmunt Bauman titled "Love. Fear. And the Network."

But will this same kind of sensibility drive the fortunes of an online retailer? For Rami Atallah, Ssense's founder and chief executive officer, Koch's appointment is a bold gesture that he hopes will help to differentiate the company from the slew of competitors, which often sell a similar mix of products.

“We have very high ambitions for our editorial content and the appointment of Joerg as our first editor-in-chief is a huge statement about its priority for us,” Atallah wrote in an e-mail. “There's a lot of content out there, often lacking depth, or repetitive or over engineered for clicks. We’re not interested in producing trend-driven content. We believe that if we produce compelling content that increases the cultural capital for our audience, then positive business repercussions will follow.”

As the cases of Freedman and Massenet, documented within the pages 032c, have already demonstrated, retailers plucking brainy talent from magazine mastheads is nothing new. As of now, what sets the partnership between Koch and Ssense apart is the focus on customers' minds rather than their wallets. "Knowing that our values and vision are aligned, I trust Joerg wholeheartedly," said Atallah. "The only guidelines are that the content needs to be meaningful to our audience; it needs to reflect their intelligence, expand their worldview and feed their curiosity." This appears to mean there are no overt rules about weaving together the Alexander Wang handbags or Thom Browne blazers that the site sells with the mini-documentaries, long-format articles or photo shoots scheduled to be produced under Koch's stewardship.

Ironically, it’s Koch who appears more forthright about the topic. “I think it should relate one way or another to why a person is there on the site and that is to shop clothes,” he said. “The funny thing is that Rami isn’t really interested in that. He just wants strong editorial content that people can engage with.” As he sees it, Ssense’s ability to offer competitive budgets will allow editors, writers, photographers and artists more opportunity to do engaging work on a shopping site than what might be currently afforded to them from even established print titles. “At a traditional magazine in today’s world, you are completely under pressure from advertisers and all of these economical situations,” he said. “But it’s completely different when you are at an e-commerce platform; it’s super dynamic, super optimistic, everyone is on growth. And the fashion labels are actually quite dependent, well not dependent, but very focused on collaborations with these platforms because they shift the goods.”

While he will continue to maintain his role as editor of 032c ("my print utopia"), one senses that a new influx of newsstand lemmings has made Koch antsy. 032c has long stood out with its minimalist bright red covers (032c is the Pantone code for colour), scholarly art coverage and insider-y interviews with "gets" like the reclusive photographer Steven Meisel or Carine Roitfeld during her time at French Vogue.

“Now it’s a completely generic formula to have art and fashion together, or to have industry features. Back then you wouldn’t see that much elsewhere even though now it’s completely status quo,” he said. “We’re now thinking, ‘that’s enough, let get out of this.’”

This is perhaps partially the motivation for 032c Workshop/Joerg Koch, an exhibition space in Berlin designed by Konstantin Grcic. (Last August, it ran an "anti-retrospective" by Willy Vanderperre.) There is also a 032c online store where you can purchase t-shirt collaborations with Gosha Rubchinskiy and wool blankets featuring a cover devoted to Raf Simons from issue 27. "What we do is really create a community around the magazine," he said. "You can send out questionnaires to find out who exactly your readers are, but for me it's much easier to simply do events and find out about the people who you attract and identify with."

Suddenly, Koch’s eyes widened with his signature sense of puppy-dog optimism. “Part of the excitement is that, at a magazine, you can be happy if you have one web designer or one programmer at all. But at Ssense, there are 70 programmers or so,” he said. “You have all of these different narrative forms you can explore. But whether it is a digital format or a print format, the question remains the same: how do you want to define your reality?”

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