These are bleak days for the economy, and bleaker days for the magazine industry. As plummeting advertising saps glossy pages, freelance budgets and jobs, many magazines are frantically trying to stay alive. But doing so requires an unenviable high-wire act: how to hold on to their high-end advertisers, remain fun and diverting and escapist, and yet not alienate readers whose own wallets have become as emaciated as the January issue of Vogue.
Despite decades of premature bell-tolling about the death of print, turn-of-the-21st-century magazines were, in many ways, plump geese, fattened on big advertising budgets, a seemingly limitless market and an expanding class of consumers eager to spend money on expensive things (whether they could afford them or not). Americans wanted to eat well, dress fine and live lavishly, and that was good for food and shelter and fashion magazines. Americans wanted to wallow in celebrity gossip, and a passel of glossy weeklies was born, delivering Hollywood gossip in photo-larded installments. The pesky divide between editorial and advertising melted with the development of magalogs, publications like Lucky and Domino devoted entirely to introducing readers to stuff they might want to buy.
So how does an industry built on a meringue of material aspiration adjust to the fast-deflating circumstances of its readers, most of whom are trying to adapt to the new realities of shrunken 401Ks, foreclosed houses and lost jobs? Can magazines that just months ago were advising people about which eyeball-janglingly expensive luxury cruise to go on, or which multimillion-dollar townhouse to buy, or which Alberta Ferretti dress to covet, suddenly begin preaching thrift? Do they soldier blindly forward, providing economically depressed readers with the printed equivalent of Busby Berkeley movies and the Ziegfeld Follies? Do they break the bad news swiftly, advising readers on how to rearrange their lives? Or do they gingerly attempt a journalistic triple axel: simultaneously delivering dank reality, aspirational fantasy and useful analysis of what it all means?
If the bunch of magazines sitting on newsstands this January is any indication, the initial acrobatics are going to be ... awkward.
Elle's February issue takes one of the most direct stabs at the situation, beginning with Roberta Myers' editor's letter, headlined "Style-O-Nomics," in which she openly frets that while "we in Fashionland fixate on what to tell our readers to buy in a down economy, more pointed questions about the role and even necessity of fashion come back at us daily." Myers goes on to argue that it wouldn't kill a "crazy smart" financial reporter she'd seen on television to buy a decent blouse, and touts the issue's focus on outfits to be found for under $50 at Topshop, JCPenney and H&M. These bargain items do exist ("cropped pants, New York & Company, $33") in the fashion spreads at the end of the magazine, pages away from more typically luxe items like "patent leather open-toe shoe with black socks attached, Proenza Schouler, $1,815." That's right. Socks attached.
Meanwhile, January's Vogue, with Anne Hathaway on the cover, did not give any hint that the magazine was even considering how to address a new economy. Its features included a first-person essay by Lori Campbell, a hard-charging advertising executive who used to be embarrassed by her mother's choice to live off the grid in Hawaii and maintain a cost of living of around $5,000 (though she was unembarrassed to admit that, for her, that figure "translates to something a bit smaller, like a Bottega Veneta bag.") Campbell writes of how her mother's eco-conscious lifestyle was once considered "cheap and poor," but now that it's called "green and fashionable" she's come to see its value. And that's before we even get to the feature about the couple of art collectors who were forced to buy a (tacky, with all its wine cellars and bowling alleys) spec house in Montauk because they just couldn't find an appropriate parcel of land on a bluff overlooking the sea.
But judging by its just-released February issue, Vogue seems to have taken a cold shower and pulled itself together. Its February cover bears a top banner reading "Simple Luxuries: Balancing Your Clothing and Beauty Budgets," and its cover story, about Blake Lively, the flaxen young star of "Gossip Girl," television's paean to flaxen young excess, opens with a scene in which the actress is filming her show on a Manhattan street: "The lens cropped the Upper East Side down to its most stately and prosperous lines, with no trace of the glaring retail space available signs and going out of business sale posters one block away, signals that the worldwide recession is lapping at the edges of Manhattan's most privileged ZIP codes." The article goes on to call the show, the character played by Lively, and "Gossip Girl's" vision of New York City itself "dazzling and worldly and optimistic -- if, indeed, a bit preposterous." Lively explains that in these days of harsher economic realities, her prime time confection is "just an escape, watching these sparkly lives."
Sort of like the magazine in which she is featured. Looking at couture clothing on shiny, perfume-scented pages has always been an escapist and unrealistic pursuit. Even in more prosperous times, for the vast majority of readers of fashion rags, pawing through pages of pictures of wait-listed handbags and "architectural shoes" has always been pure fantasy, not akin to shopping in a catalog.
But shopping is exactly the activity on which magalogs like Lucky are built. Which means it needs to adjust -- and fast. Lucky's February issue bears headlines like "624 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Look" and "Super Affordable Glamour: Look Polished No Matter What Your Budget." In her editor's letter, Kim France writes, "We're all hunting for a good deal these days, but the fact of something being delightfully less than pricey isn't enough anymore. To be defined as a truly outstanding score, it's also got to be something we'll go to again and again."
This fits with the fashion industry's new agitprop vocabulary, as hilariously explored in a recent piece in London's Guardian. Items of expensive clothing are now "investment pieces," purported bargain shoppers are called "recessionistas," and magazines tout "crisis chic" looks and congratulate stylish women who have downsized their handbag collections. And then there's "shopping in your closet," a recession-era trend touted by magazines like Harper's Bazaar and on the cover of January's Glamour, which heralded "100 Perfect Outfits That Are Already in Your Closet."
This is very practical advice. It is very sturdy. It is very sage. It is very depressing. As someone who kind of loathes shopping, I nonetheless am horrified by the idea. No one should shop in their own closet unless they are rich and their closet is huge, in which case, they can probably still afford to shop outside their closet anyway. For the rest of us, this is just a fancy way of saying, "Wear the same clothes you've been wearing for the past 10 years." I admire the sentiment, but it's precisely this kind of workmanlike thrift that could suck all the joy out of magazine reading.
There is, however, one category of publication for which practicality is neither dowdy nor depressing but alchemically transformed into a festival of otherworldly pleasure: the food magazine. Scouring periodical racks this month, a simple truth presented itself to me: I would happily have bypassed every cover bearing gorgeous clothes, every headline about celebrities breaking up, every image of a fabulous getaway in favor of the magazine with the gigantic bowl of spaghetti and meatballs on it.
Yes, Gourmet, tell me how to make my own mozzarella. And lasagna. And bread pudding. Tell me how to pile my table with homemade food and never go to a pricey restaurant again. And when you're done, I'll get Martha to teach me about marmalades and casseroles! In Saveur, there are recipes for my own condiments: mustards and vinegars and ketchup and Worcestershire sauce! Sure, it probably costs less to buy Rose's marmalade and Heinz ketchup, but hey, we all have our private forms of escapism to get us through bad economic times. You take Proenza Schouler, I'll take homemade harissa, and New York magazine will take ... a precipitous fall into a nervous breakdown.
There may be no better illustration for the potential creak and lurch of economic transition for the upscale glossies than the current contortion being performed at New York, a city magazine that has, especially in recent years, licked its lips and chomped down hard on a sharply targeted readership: Gotham's most moneyed class, the hedge funders and bonus babies who have been tossing their cash around Manhattan (and some better parts of Brooklyn), literally changing the landscape with the glass condos built to house them in high-end luxury.
Picking up New York these days, however, feels like talking to a relentlessly upbeat friend who has suddenly gone off her meds. The hand-wringing and self-flagellating begins on the Letters to the Editor page, with a series of complaints about a recent feature about laid-off New Yorkers. "These jerks are complaining because they can't go to Saks?" writes one irate reader. Er. Yes. This is New York magazine, which as recently as November jauntily urged its readers to "surf the first wave of panic-selling." Har!
But those heady days are long gone, as a flip through the magazine's thin pages demonstrates. Here is a story about how reports of chapter 11 filings in New York's southern district have risen to 139 from 30 during the same period last year. (Lest you find that news too upbeat, writer Peter Savodnik informs, "But those figures hardly reveal the depths of hopelessness.") "Are Wall Street Suicide Epidemics Real?" asks another piece. In its "Wonks Gone Wild" feature about innovative ideas ("When things get this bad, convention goes out the window"), the magazine offers ideas for how to solve "problems" that were so recently at the heart of its success, like the fact that "Income inequality is growing," and "CEOs make too much money." Timothy Sohn interviews hedge funders who are stockpiling food, water, diapers, guns and lifeboats to help them when people get poor and there is "a total breakdown of civil society," which I guess is what happens when glass condos sit empty and no one rides those waves of panic selling.
Yes, folks. New York magazine is having a total crisis, and whatever your resentments over its former overly self-satisfied incarnation, reading it now will leave you cold and scared inside, wishing you could go back two years, when they were advising you on which wine refrigerators wouldn't clash with your midcentury modern couch.
But maybe New York is brave to face the crisis, which is, after all, a terrifying and often paralyzing one, with such straightforward funereal gloom. The other option, after all, is dizzying denial, which would seem to be one of the only options for travel magazines. Because while readers may enjoy immersing themselves in a fantasy of overpriced outfits that they might be able to find knocked off for cheap at Forever 21, there is no such thing as a knock-off of an infinity pool on the Indian Ocean.
Travel may be the ultimate escape, but in a bad economic climate, imagining fun trips and exotic locations must be built on a hope for the future, a belief that one day money will again be plentiful and a vacation might be possible. And travel magazines do not have the option of writing their articles in the subjunctive mode or future tense.
So what else can they cover? "Travel in Your Own Backyard" or "Eight Motels in Your Area With No Instances of Bedbugs Reported This Year" just don't have the same ring as "Jordan's Ancient Wonders," one of the headlines on January's Condé Nast Traveler, a split-personality volume that bleats on its cover, "World on Sale! 25 Smart Ways to Stretch Your Travel Dollar This Year!" (The section, which boldly promises "The best in travel has never been more affordable," includes a four-day safari at the Singita Game Reserve in South Africa. "A steal for Americans this year thanks to the dollar's recent rise against the rand" -- now only $3,980 per person as opposed to $5,057.) Just inches below the world on sale, Traveler's cover story is called "Gold List: 710 World's Best Places to Stay, Top Hotels, Resorts, Cruise Lines," which features a photograph of a glittering poolside cabana room that appears to be made of gold, bathed in gold, or possibly paid for in gold.
Travel + Leisure has a similar split, touting "How to Find a Great Deal" on a banner across the top of the magazine, while the cover features the "500 World's Best Hotels." They are not great deals. But Travel + Leisure gets major points for showing off brass balls in the category of abject denial: "No matter the vicissitudes of the global economy," writes Nancy Novogrod in her January editor's letter, "the travel industry pushes forward, offering an ever-greater wealth of places and products to entice us beyond our boundaries." Bizarrely tone-deaf, yet strangely, invigoratingly awesome! Tell me more, Nancy Novogrod! "As stress and economic woes swirl around us, this month at T + L we also point the way, in our 2009 trend report, to the old-fashioned essentials of tourism ... good manners ... a country escape ... and a grand cruise liner." One of Travel + Leisure's top tips for navigating the new economy? "Fly Business Class ... Although a round-trip business class ticket from the U.S. to Europe typically costs between $4,000 and $6,000, at press time these rates had fallen to $1,760 from New York to Brussels on American Airlines," she writes. "Traveling well is the best revenge."
Well, maybe it is. Or maybe the best revenge is simply sticking your fingers in your ears and pretending that the world is not coming down around you. Me, I'm donning my imaginary shoe-socks, whipping up some spicy Guinness mustard, and planning my big trip to the Singita Game Reserve. For the year 2034.