The Delicate Balance

The long-anticipated September issues of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar this year contained much of what style-conscious readers have come to expect from these famous fashion magazines-makeup secrets, wardrobe musts and models dressed in flowing ensembles from Europe’s fashion capitals. But a closer look between the glossy pages revealed that something else was going on. Features sought to reassure cash-strapped shoppers that they could update their fall wardrobes without breaking the bank. Vogue published a report on how designers were “trying to keep quality high and costs low.” Both titles promised “stylish steals” on their covers.

What were these budget-friendly features doing in pages that usually praise couture gowns, Vuitton bags and $2,000 Lavin skirts? They’re a sign of the times. Desperate to woo recession-spooked shoppers clutching their wallets tightly, every facet of the fashion business-from designers to retailers — is doing what it must to stay relevant.

Make that magazines too, as the contents of the make-or-break September issues so visibly indicate. Traditionally, September is the issue that fires the starting gun for big-ticket fall and winter shopping sprees. This year, however, they’re thick with bargain buys and advice on shopping one’s closet.

Bazaar and Vogue were hardly the only ones. Lucky offered a chance to win shopping discounts worth $425,000. Elle, owned by Hachette Filipacchi Media, included a section on so-called investment pieces-items with hefty price tags ($395 leather shorts by Cynthia Steffe, for example) but ones that last long enough to make them good values. “We were very conscious of price on every page,” says Robbie Myers, Elle’s vp, editor of brand content, who also has run pieces on recession-induced “survivor guilt” and how to keep your job. “We would be stupid to sit here and say, ‘Things are fine, girls.'”

In her editor’s letter for the September issue, Harper’s Bazaar editor Glenda Bailey acknowledges the changed attitude toward shopping. The issue pays homage to the times with a feature on picks for under $500. “It’s all about good value for the price,” Bailey said in an interview.

And at Glamour, coverage of money/life issues has been “radically” increased. For its September issue, editor Cindi Leive included her first-ever feature on finances in addition to an extra-big freebies section. “Our readers have always been interested in reading about things at different price points,” Leive says. “But I think right now in particular everyone wants to find a great deal.”

When They Were Queens
That the big fashion magazines see the need to be price-conscious also points to a major shift in the role of the editors of those magazines. Though the fashion figureheads still wield significant influence over clothing designers and fashionistas alike, they are not the all-powerful beings they used to be. The clout that was once theirs alone is increasingly being usurped by writers and tastemakers in other media. Consumers can now get a wealth of style news and advice from any number of Web sites, blogs and TV programs. A further erosion of the fashion magazine editor’s dominance has come from lifestyle and celebrity magazines, which over the years have been busy rolling out their own fashion content.

As a result, fashion editors have made the dismal discovery that slaving long hours to put out a magazine — however great an issue it might be-simply isn’t enough anymore. To retain the relevance of their magazines and their own editorial titles, editors have learned to become ambassadors for their brands.
 
It’s a stretch that seemed unthinkable just a few years ago. Joanna Coles, editor of Hearst’s Marie Claire, sees herself as an editor for today’s times. “The Devil Wears Prada was very much about a moment in time — and that moment has passed,” Coles says of the book and movie inspired by legendary Vogue editor Anna Wintour. “I’m in the trenches with the readers,” Coles adds. “I wake up in the morning, and I feel like I’m living a life [similar to theirs]: I’m under time pressure, I’m under financial pressure and I want to look as good as possible, but I also need to get out the door.”

Coles and her peers are especially busy these days as they jockey for TV opportunities in an attempt to replicate the exposure that Elle once enjoyed from its long-running partnership with Bravo’s Project Runway. On August 20, Runway returned for its sixth season — with a new network home (Lifetime) and a new magazine partner (Marie Claire). The popular show continues its association with judge Nina Garcia, who jumped to the Hearst title from Elle last year.

Fortunately, Elle has been able to make up some of the lost ground. The magazine scored a role on MTV’s The City, which centers on the life of a young employee of a major design house. Harper’s Bazaar is looking for a TV outlet for its Fabulous at Every Age feature, having already created a contest and book around it. The appetite for fashion reality shows has far from subsided, as the soaring ratings for Runway’s season six premiere would seem to indicate. Marie Claire has drawn 8 million views in the past 18 months to its online podcast. Called The Masthead With Marie Claire, it goes behind the scenes of day-to-day life at the title, including editors’ meetings and photo shoots.

Mixed Reviews
No doubt the TV exposure has been a good thing for these titles, which have suffered — along with the rest of the publishing industry — from declining readership and sagging ad-page revenues. But the new publicity comes at a price. Editors have to commit time that otherwise would have gone to creating content. Many have to surrender their privacy to the prying camera. And after all of that, the benefits can still be uncertain.

Project Runway was a ratings smash and, Elle believes, helped raise the magazine’s profile. But similar efforts weren’t nearly as popular — specifically, Stylista, The CW’s fall 2008 series that took viewers behind the scenes at Elle, and Running in Heels, which debuted this year on Comcast’s Style Network.

Marie Claire’s Coles concedes that having a film crew in her offices shooting Running in Heels, which followed employees at the magazine, was tiring. “It’s exhausting to have that level of attention on you all the time,” she says. But the fatigue paid off in terms of above-average newsstand results for March (353,000 copies were sold, well above the 254,863 average for the first half of the year). And so now, Coles is philosophical about it. “All editors are spending a lot of time thinking about television because it’s one way of making the magazine stay relevant,” she says. “When everybody’s clamoring for newsstand attention, anything that brings the brand to people’s attention is helpful.”

Even the famously aloof Anna Wintour has been making herself more accessible for interviews. On August 25, Wintour showed up on The Late Show With David Letterman to help promote R.J. Cutler’s The September Issue, a new documentary on the making of Vogue’s September 2007 edition. On September 10, Wintour herself is expected to be out rubbing elbows with the hoi polloi at a Macy’s pop-up store in (of all places) Queens. The occasion is part of Fashion’s Night Out, an economic-stimulus event to be held in New York and other cities in an effort to encourage shopping.

Now that the Web has given everyone the tools to be a fashion journalist, magazine editors are no longer the gatekeepers of all things style-related — especially since the runway shows they used to enjoy near-exclusive admission to can now be seen by anyone with a computer and Web access. And so, here again, fashion editors have had to adapt.

“The reader knows more than ever about fashion,” says Sally Singer, fashion news/features director at Vogue. “In the 10 years I’ve been at Vogue, [Vogue’s Web site] Style.com got started, and it’s completely changed how I would cover collections. It used to be my role [just] to tell people what happened.”

The Web has sped up the news cycle and, with it, the pace of coverage, says Kate Betts, editor of Time Style & Design, a special issue of the newsweekly published six times a year. “If I’m going to a fashion show, I think about how I’m going to cover it on many levels. Now, you have to think what could be a video interview, what could be a Time interview. It is kind of exhausting, and every season, it’s amped up even more. It’s almost too much information. Maybe fashion magazines should only come out twice a year.”

That’s not happening-at least not yet. But editors are responding to the Web’s more casual tone. They’ve also had to address the proliferation of beauty do-it-yourselfers, whose advice on hair and makeup has begun to compete with the beauty-tips departments of many magazines. For its part, Elle has responded with Elle Video Star, a feature on Elle.com that was launched amid the glut of amateur online makeup artists. Sponsored by Cover Girl, Elle Video Star encourages visitors to submit their own how-to beauty videos, and its presence has helped Elle.com build to nearly 2 million unique visitors as of July. “There are a lot of people on the Web who are giving makeup advice, so we created [Video Star],” says Myers, who points out that Elle maintains some control over the content by picking the best video. “To pretend that the Web isn’t about readers and users talking to each other-that’s what it is, so we need to be a part of that.”

The site of Time Inc.’s In Style is smaller, but growing. Its traffic grew 40 percent to 930,000 monthly unique visitors over the past year, per comScore. The site has added features like Shopstyle, a shopping widget where shopaholics can virtually browse retailers’ merchandise, get sales alerts and share items with friends; and a makeover tool that lets people “try on” their favorite celebrities’ looks.

Others have some catching up to do. Style.com lags its peers in traffic, at below 500,000 uniques. Its July traffic — 344,000 unique visitors — was actually down 9 percent from a year ago, per comScore. Condé Nast’s digital arm has yet to launch a standalone Web site for Vogue, which some believe has been a missed opportunity for a brand of its stature. And Harper’s Bazaar was below 100,000 uniques-down 25 percent versus a year ago.

Fast-forward fashion
Successful or not, it’s clear that efforts like these will have to continue if fashion magazines are to retain their place of influence — to say nothing of their profits. Though the print magazines themselves are still thick with ads, the September issues are not the record breakers of years past. On average, the category’s ad pages declined around 29 percent. Vogue and Condé Nast siblings W and Allure were off more than 30 percent.

In the first half of this year, most of the major fashion titles grew or maintained their overall circulation. But newsstand sales, widely considered to be a vital indicator of consumer demand, fell at least 10 percent at several titles. Some of that can be blamed on the disruption in wholesaler delivery that caused many magazines to go missing from racks earlier in the year. The long-term trend, however, is one of people buying fewer magazines at the newsstand.

From 2004 to 2009, the large-circulation magazines shed between 11 percent and more than 52 percent of their single-copy sales, per the Audit Bureau of Circulations. (Elle, essentially flat at 298,167, was an exception.)

Meanwhile, it’s no help to the fashion mags that designers — their bread-and-butter advertisers — are spending on digital media (which enable more direct communication with consumers and potentially more measurable results) to reach shoppers. And while the money that high-fashion brands are spending on digital media is modest, it is growing.

The sites themselves are also getting more sophisticated and attractive for consumers to visit and use. On Ralph Lauren’s home page, visitors can explore the collections, shop online and even browse a visually rich online lifestyle magazine with articles on sailing, polo and other sports aligned with the brand.

Other designers are paying increased attention to social media. On its official Facebook page, Gucci publicizes its catalog and fashion shows with its 425,000 fans directly. As part of its social media strategy, DKNY created an imaginary publicist character, DKNY PR Girl, to Twitter about the brand (2,733 followers).

Do these developments mean that the fashion editor is heading toward extinction? Probably not — but it’s clear that her regal days are now past. “Editors are still a big endorsement,” says Barry Lowenthal, president of agency the Media Kitchen.

“We still need the editor to endorse [the product] and give it buzz. But increasingly, they’re becoming less and less important.” Noting that client Armani Exchange has 52,000-plus fans on its official Facebook page, he says, “If you have 52,000 fans telling you you’re fabulous, do you really need an editor to tell you it’s pretty fabulous?”

The power of the editor is unquestioned in The September Issue, the Vogue documentary. Shot in flusher times — just a few years ago — it pays homage to the Condé Nast culture of exclusivity and decadence and Vogue’s remote and exacting Wintour. Today, Condé Nast is trimming expenses while Vogue’s editors are looking for bargains to feature in their pages. One can’t help but wonder how it will go over with moviegoers in the current economic environment.

But a view shared widely among fashion magazine observers is that at a time when people have less money to spend, the editorial voice matters even more. “The role that editors play is more important than ever when people are buying less,” says Dennis Santos, vp, media director at PGR Media, which handles media buying for Tommy Hilfiger. “Consumers still want to hear from this blue-chip editor.”