Thursday, August 30, 2007

Men's magazines turn the page on their adolescence

Men's magazines turn the page on their adolescence
By Joshua Chaffin in New York

One of the surest ways to irritate Jay Fielden, the otherwise unflappable editor of Men's Vogue magazine, is to mention the term metro-sexual.

"I think it was created by the media to tar a certain male who's interested in more things than the average guy," Mr Fielden says. He then poses a rhetorical question: "Was Thomas Jefferson a metro-sexual? He decorated his own house."

Since Men's Vogue was launched two years ago, Mr Fielden has become an expert at such distinctions. His mission has been to take a magazine whose namesake is the bible of women's fashion and make it palatable to men.

To some in the advertising and publishing industries, it is an impossible errand. "Vogue is a women's brand - not a men's brand," says one dubious media buyer, who predicts that few heterosexual men would be caught dead with a copy of the magazine under their arm or on their desk.

Mr Fielden disputes this. Ralph Lauren, he points out, managed to expand the Polo brand from men to women.

Some supporters argue that the magazine may benefit as male readers snap out of an adolescent spell.

"I think the men's magazine category is going through a maturity stage, and I think Men's Vogue could be well positioned for that," says Andrew McLean, president of Mediaedge:cia, a division of the WPP global advertising group.

Indeed, after taking the industry by storm in the mid-1990s, men's magazines featuring bawdy humour and scantily clad B-list starlets seem to be waning. The decline was first seen in the UK, birthplace of "lads' mags", where circulation fell 14 per cent last year. Among the hardest hit titles were Loaded, Nuts, FHM and Maxim. One media investor declared "a new revulsion to naked women" in London.

That chill appears to have spread to the US. Last week, Dennis Publishing sold Maxim and its other US titles to Quadrangle, a private equity firm, for a reported $240m (£120m), less than half the price that was offered for the group three years ago, according to several people close to the company. The new owners are closing Maxim's sister magazine, Stuff, while FHM's US edition has already folded.

By contrast, the mood has brightened at the more mature end of the newsstand. With a circulation last year of more than 1.8m in the US, Men's Health, a must-read for those interested in maintaining their abs and improving their sex life, had a record first-half of the year. Two older titles, GQ and Esquire, are turning in steady performances after being jolted by the lads a decade ago.

Condé Nast is betting that Men's Vogue will provide a natural extension for the fashion and luxury advertisers who helped swell the September Vogue to a record 727 pages. Many of those patrons have men's lines.

"It's a very exclusive magazine, and our brand is that," says Nancy Austin, director of marketing for Hinckley Yachts, which has advertised in Men's Vogue since its inception.

Convincing professional men to spend their free hours reading a magazine is not easy - particularly in the age of the internet. While Condé Nast claims that circulation has grown steadily to more than 300,000, those figures have not yet been verified.

"Earning your way into men's working and leisure time is a difficult thing," says Mr Fielden, who previously worked as an editor at Vogue and The New Yorker and might serve as a stand-in for his ideal reader. At our meeting in the Condé Nast cafeteria, he was wearing a pinstripe suit with a pink polkadot handkerchief. His tie was askew. Yet Mr Fielden's Texas roots filter through his accent, he is married, and can credibly claim to hunt quail.

To distinguish his magazine from Vogue's glamour, he has gone out of his way to push its substance. Recent covers featured US presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John Edwards. Hints about braided belts and Argentine polo boots lurked inside.

The magazine scored a coup with the current issue by landing an exclusive interview with Tony Blair, conducted during the African leg of the former UK prime minister's farewell tour. Mr Fielden recruited the New York Times' Roger Cohen, a heavyweight journalist, to write the piece.

The British media buzzed not about Mr Blair's reflections on his time in office or his plans to make peace in the Middle East, but about whether his wrinkles had been airbrushed from the cover photograph.

One of Mr Fielden's most artful sleights-of-hand has been his treatment of fashion. He has banished male models from the editorial pages and instead outfitted subjects such as tennis star Roger Federer and survivalist Bear Grylls in clothes that are stylish but accessible. It is a Trojan Horse strategy of sneaking fashion into the magazine on the backs of interesting, well-rounded men whom other men might care to read about.

"Fashion is not a word that translates well to men in America," Mr Fielden says. His readers are more comfortable with the notion of "looking good". Just don't call them metro-sexuals.

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