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Stephen Gan: ‘Young People Are Too in Love With Magazines to Think Print Will Die’

The V magazine editor-in-chief tells Tim Blanks about how Andy Warhol got him his first break, 3am calls from Mario Testino and Carine Roitfeld, and why the print magazine won’t die.
Stephen Gan, Britney Spears on the cover of V magazine's 100th issue, V100 | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Tim Blanks

PARIS, France ­— Le Castiglione sits at a particularly stylish crossroads, north of the Jardin des Tuileries, south of the Place Vendôme, with the Hôtel Costes in one direction and Colette in the other. So it's no surprise that the café functions as an industry canteen during Paris Fashion Week. But that also means it is surprising that Stephen Gan has never been, until my lunch invitation. After all, he sits at his own stylish crossroads, where some of the most creative minds in fashion come together to make V, the magazine he co-founded and edits. You can't miss it. On the newsstand, it's like a big, glossy parakeet sitting in the midst of a murder of crows. And it's just about to launch its 100th issue.

Which is why Gan is so late for lunch. In fact, it takes a call from me to roust him from his bed at Le Meurice hotel, which is fortunately also within spitting distance of 'Le Casti'. He has just landed from LA, where he was putting the finishing touches to Inez's Alphabet, a whole production number for V100 with photographers Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, stylist Joe McKenna and art directors Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag, more famous as M/M. "I feel that's all I do," sighs Gan as he slumps onto a red velvet chair and orders steamed salmon, spinach and a Coca Light. "I go to shoots and I go to shows."

The Alphabet is the very model of a V story. It’s something of a tradition: Inez and Vinoodh photograph an A-Z of the personalities that currently fascinate them, and the portraits are printed opposite an M/M collage. But the team’s last Alphabet was five or six years ago. V100’s was produced under a swingeing time pressure, like everything else in fashion these days. “Nine am, C for Cate Blanchett; 10am, K for Katy Perry,” Gan reels off. “And you’re never sure if they’re going to show up. Cate came the morning after the Golden Globes. We’d never been able to get her for a cover before, and yet here she was. I asked her why and she said, ‘Well, it’s for V and it’s your 100th issue.’ It’s very flattering when people say things like that. But that’s what this magazine has always been — a coming together of people who just want to be part of something.”

And, Gan might add, something that's never really been like anything else. "Yes, that was always the thing," he agrees. "You had to be able to play. When I walk on set and I see Madonna on all fours licking Katy Perry's heel, I'll say, 'Hi, I haven't seen you in a few years,' and she'll go, 'And look at me now, I'm busy licking Katy Perry's heel for you.' And Katy goes, 'And I'm loving it.' You see, most of these people I don't know, but they know what you're about, they understand the venue, and that now it's time to play. I compare it to a band when I'm sitting with my team. It's gotta have a sound. Every magazine has a sound."

“V’s sound is slightly funky,” according to Gan. “It’s gotta make you want to dance. It came quite honestly before this whole pop music thing. We gave Beyoncé three covers before she became the Beyoncé we all know today. Very close friends who I won’t name would say, ‘Oh please, you and your Beyoncé-loving magazine,’ and it was sort of derogatory, before all these pop stars exploded. I feel we were the first to give Gaga a cover and that was six years ago. She’s been on the cover six times since, and she’s written and contributed all that time and got really involved. She’s 29 now, and she says she was raised on V. She swears she’s been reading it for the last 15 years.”

Stephen Gan with Lady Gaga and Sam Smith at Saint Laurent's Autumn/Winter 2016 show in LA | Source: Courtesy

Gaga aka Stefani Germanotta’s long-term devotion is understandable. The format has changed — V’s first issue, was 16 loose-leaf pages, based on the original format of Andy Warhol’s Interview — but anything you liked about the attitude of that first scrappy little issue, you’ll still be able to find in the 300 plus pages of V100. “We wanted it to be like a throwaway club magazine, but also very glamorous. It was the year 2000 and I felt like fashion was changing, becoming a little glossier and a bit more pumped up. That has been consistent ever since.” Look at the first cover: Jude Law, photographed naked with a face full of war paint by Mario Testino, practically V’s house photographer, who just shot Britney Spears for the cover of V100. In V100, Law remembers that shoot: because he gets restless in front of the camera, that day he decided to entertain himself by making up like Adam Ant. V time was playtime from Day One.

V, which launched in 1999, was born out of the same creative partnership as Visionaire, the definition-defying, highly curated, multi-formatted, more-or-less biannual, limited-edition publication that fused art and fashion, which Gan started with Cecilia Dean and James Kaliardos in 1991. After the three abruptly ended their business relationship and parted ways in 2014, Gan took control of V and VMan (an off-shoot of V magazine directed at men, first published in 2003), while Dean and Kaliardos continued to focus on Visionaire, now celebrating its 25th anniversary as V marks its 100th issue. “I feel like it happens at some point in everyone’s career,” says Gan. “You start out thinking, ‘I’m going to sing this song the way I want to sing it and it doesn’t matter who’s going to hear me,’ and then eventually you start to think about the audience. ‘If I’m going to do this, I want to be heard, I want to affect someone.’ If kids are coming to you and saying they’d like to have a piece of the dream, walk round the corner and pick up a copy on a newsstand, rather than some very expensive limited edition that their parents are buying but they can’t afford, I think you have to do something about it. And a magazine is a form of communication.”

In the interests of creating a communication more accessible than Visionaire's gallery of glorious images, Gan was also keen to add words to the mix. "I don't think people realise how much writing there was in V," he says with a hint of rue. "I remember Alix Browne, the editor I worked with in the beginning, coming to me very sad one day and telling me that Cathy Horyn had written a review, which said V was a beautiful magazine but there was nothing to read." (I can jump in there and say that I wrote — and I mean wrote — for V in the olden days, long, wordy ruminations that could only ever otherwise have found a home in the style supplements that Amy Spindler edited for the New York Times. And that was a joy for a writer. But how could 2,000 words make headway against a picture of Kate Moss with a beard, or Brad Pitt remodelled as the very spit of Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor?)

Gan’s love affair with the relationship between words and images goes back a long way. He wears two professional hats — editor-in-chief of V and VMan and creative director of Harper’s Bazaar — so he gets plenty of opportunities to indulge his passion. “I love paper. I love ink. I love hearing the presses going,” he rhapsodises. “It’s like being a chef and loving to be in the kitchen. But one thing I never thought about when I was starting the magazine was that I had heard the sound of the machines all my life because my dad was a printer in the Philippines. Then one day I had a flashback in the printing room.” Gan laments the fact that people don’t give sufficient credit to that side of making a magazine. “It’s a beautiful part of the process,” he adds. “I feel when people press SEND on their computer, that’s only half the job done. Then the other half begins, and your own work can be changed drastically by what happens after that point.” That is why one distinguishing factor of, first, Visionaire, and then V, has always been peerless production values, which is very seductive in the digital age. Here’s one experience you can’t duplicate online.

Another prime V asset is the relationship it creates between its readers and the exclusive world it depicts. I'd wager that's what drew baby Gaga. I know it's the reason why I was so obsessed with Andy Warhol's Interview when I was growing up in New Zealand. But V's exclusivity isn't nyah-nyah bitchiness. Sure, it's shaped by the clique to end all cliques (Karl! Mario! Carine! Gaga! And so on). "And there's no underestimating how important that is," Gan insists. "That's really the core of any magazine, the people who have come together and who'll put their images in your magazine. It's so crucial. I don't see doing a magazine any other way. But I hope it's also a world that says, 'Come to me, this is fun.'"

It's also sexy — something else that is hard to underestimate with V is its rampant physicality. It's always been a horny bugger. Gan himself isn't so sure it hasn't de-sexed a little over the years. "I don't think anyone can replace the early days of Mario and Carine [Roitfeld]," he says, as wistful as a mouth full of saumon au vapeur will allow him to be. "They would call me up just as I was leaving work, and it'd be 3.30 in the morning in London or Paris and they'd say, 'We're going to be done with our Gucci campaign and we're thinking of doing some fun pictures, do you want to run them in V?' The magazine was put together in that spirit, me thinking that was normal and that's how a lot of magazines were put together. Now sadly I've realised it's not normal. Magazines are put together at editorial meetings, where editors go through checklists. It's hardly ever done as a spur of the moment thing."

He often sounds like the outsider he originally was — the guy from the boondocks who was lucky enough to be embraced by the metropolis. "Maybe it takes an outsider to be fascinated by the whole scene," Gan muses. "To be impressed by the glitz and the fanfare and never forget that idea of the New York dream, so that you always want to capture it in what you do." He arrived in New York from the Philippines in 1987 to study photography at Parsons, much to his mother's horror. His first night out, he got into Area, and ended up being Polaroid-ed by Warhol in the bathroom. It was a classic Schwab's Drugstore moment, 80's style, with Gan as the wide-eyed ingénue. Not even completely sure who Warhol was, he took the artist up on his invitation "to stop by the Factory to show me your work," and ended up with an assignment for Interview. That life-changing encounter was topped by his next, when Bill Cunningham, the original street style photographer, took his photo on the street and gave him a quarter to call Annie Flanders, then editor of Details, and ask her for a job. "And that's how I got into magazines," says Gan. "I dropped out of Parsons, and learned everything I knew at Details." Until, a year later, Samuel Newhouse fired Flanders and laid everyone off. But, necessity being the mother of invention, Gan was compelled in the direction of the project that eventually begat Visionaire, begat V.

“When someone says print is dying — or even dead — what’s your response?” I ask him when the rum baba arrives. “I tell them there are too many young people who are still too in love with holding a magazine in their hands to think it will ever die.” That is, at least, the way Gan sees things and, as ringmaster, he’s moulded an entire circus of likeminded souls who are equally committed to the eternal life of V.

A centenary is usually a golden moment to contemplate such a notion. But that's not the way Gan sees things. Did he ever expect he'd be helming an institution? He looks momentarily unsettled.

“Does doing 100 issues mean you’ve become an institution?”

Check please.

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