When I first met Joanna Coles, the editor-in-chief of Marie Claire, she was not a fashion plate, no less a fashion editor. She was a British hack, writing from New York for the Guardian and then for the Times of London. In 2001, we became colleagues at New York magazine. It would be hard to find a more ideal New York magazine editor, with her heightened gossip radar, cutting sense of social detail, and fine attention to who’s up and who’s down.
So it was confounding to me when, in 2004, she went to be the No. 2 editor at More, crossing into the deadly earnest sphere of women’s magazines—doubly so when her vertiginous rise continued and she grabbed the editor-in-chief title at Marie Claire, taking her place in the irony-free zone of the fashion world.
This was a particularly dramatic and unique New York metamorphosis: from journalist to magazine editor-in-chief. The former has a precise and, except for a byline, relatively private function; the latter, a study in overreaching, is politician, promoter, social climber, ad sales person, and, often, comical figure.
The comedy here is even greater when it involves the editorship of a fashion magazine. While all magazine editor-in-chiefs have shimmied up an extremely greasy pole, it is incumbent upon a fashion editor to appear as though aristocratically born to the job. In Joanna’s case, there was a further wrinkle. She took up her job as the fashion and luxury goods economy teetered along with everything else. She had the task of maintaining dignity and aloofness in the desperate age of new and tortured revenue streams, including reality shows. Oh my God, I thought, the first time I saw her engaged in the extreme shtick of the Style Network’s Running in Heels.
Necessarily, she had to invent a new persona for the editor of a post-recession fashion magazine and for the magazine itself.
She created an anti-Vogue, even anti-Condé Nast, fashion magazine.
Instead of being a magazine about composure and remoteness—the Anna Wintour persona—Marie Claire became a fashion magazine about drive and ambition. It encouraged the moxie and the career tools with which you might actually buy the damn clothes. Whereas Anna’s Vogue makes its readers feel like outsiders—noses pressed to the glass—Joanna’s Marie Claire makes fashion seem, with a little hustle, quite attainable.
What’s more, the magazine is about women, as well as accessories and clothes. It’s rather pioneered a type of portraiture of women who, without much pretense otherwise, are climbing the greasy pole—leaving readers half-jealous and half-inspired.
And it’s tabloid in the best British sense—shameless and guiltless news: horrible and operatic and riveting things (women raped, murdered, lashed, and axed).
And the sex, too, is British (“What’s Wrong With Bonking Your Boss”) and post-Cosmo: Pamela Druckerman’s wry account of giving her husband a threesome for his birthday.
It’s anti-chic. Where Vogue and all other fashion magazines awed by Vogue (or preparing future readers for Vogue) have absorbed a snobbish and effortless art world sensibility—even Lucky is arch and studied—Marie Claire is openly for the striving and the hungry.
Joanna is a Fleetstreeter—even in her new wardrobe—rather than, like Anna, a performance artist. She is—the envious began to say as she rose in New York media—a would-be Tina Brown. But, if so, it is a Tina from Yorkshire—a far more knowing, funny, and warmer soul.
Anyway, I came down the elevator in the Hearst Tower the other day just as Joanna, in difficult shoes and unlikely frock and rather stunning hair, crossed the lobby floor, quite unrecognizable except for something in her eye—a flash, a joke, in the world of fashion perhaps even a subversive one.