Vogue as Versailles

IMG_2935Things almost seemed normal again at New York’s just-concluded Fashion Week. Yes, some of the fabrics on the runways might have been cheaper, and bottles of water were handed out at shows instead glasses of Veuve. But as in years past, Vogue editor Anna Wintour still reigned supreme as she sat front-row at the most important collections, her famously unflappable presence assuring us of certain certainties. Namely: Vogue is still Vogue, and always will be.

Yet this sense of continuity was tinged with that hint of denial and tension that must color bad marriages; everyone knew that McKinsey’s reports were incoming and that major changes were about to be levied. Yesterday, in a bad reprise of last autumn’s earthquakes at 4 Times Square, the fault lines moved again and four more of Condé Nast’s titles crumbled away. Vogue, of course, was not among them, but the magazine will still presumably endure the reported 25% budget cuts to be executed by all of Condé Nast’s remaining titles. What everyone wants to know: how those cuts will affect the magazine’s culture and the quality of Vogue as a product.

With these questions in mind, I just re-watched The September Issue, the recently-released documentary about the preparation of Vogue’s mammoth September 2007 issue.  This was still the Gilded Age of fashion: Neiman Marcus CEO Burt Tanksy is seen asking Wintour to admonish young designers to keep up with a spiraling global demand for their apparel; today many of those designers can barely sell a scrap of clothing off the floor at Barneys or Bergdorf Goodman.  Given yesterday’s drastic changes at Condé Nast, the documentary’s subjects appear particularly sepia-toned, acting out a dated play under a bell-jar of sorts.

Particularly poignant is a scene featuring Vogue’s creative director, Grace Coddington, as she stands alone at Versailles; the wind blows her famous red hair as she contemplates the history of the place and wistfully recalls the days of Romanticism.  Coddington, 68, does indeed seem to belong to another era — perhaps that of the Aesthete, in which living-life-as-art was the highest priority. One wonders what vision will someday replace hers at Vogue.

A Vogue editor once said that Vogue is “the magazine of record;” in 100 years, she told me, people will look to back-issues of the magazine to learn about the styles and mood of previous decades.  I’m not convinced that Vogue serves as a wholly accurate barometer in this regard; in the best of times and the worst of times, fashion magazines always present a curated, rarefied view of the world around them.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when one considers that these publications are meant to be backdrops for theatricality, and vehicles for escapism and artistic expression (particularly Ms. Coddington’s gorgeous, wildly imaginative photo spreads) as well as guides to what’s in stores that season.

It would be a great shame if the more Coddington-esque aspects of the Vogue fantasy were downgraded into a more literal-minded, catalogue-like format, as the magazine’s publishers seek to make its business-model more efficient. While Vogue’s fantasy may have to shift away from luxury consumption for a spell, its upscale creativity should most certainly remain intact. Hopefully these elements will continue to be honored, yet the signs are not encouraging. The company’s choice to shutter the upscale Gourmet while keeping the more down-market Bon Appetit alive is telling.

The bottom line: Vogue-as-we-know-it may be in danger of becoming the publications version of Versailles: an extravagant memory, an outmoded symbol loved by some, loathed by others, and teetering on gilded extinction. But if you take away the magazine’s beautiful (and pricy) Coddington spreads, the beloved eccentricity of Andre Leon Talley, the lush travelogues of Hamish Bowles, and what are you left with?

Another Lucky.

Lesley M. M. Blume is a writer and journalist based in New York City, where she was born. The author of three novels for Knopf, Ms. Blume also writes about the media, cultural topics, the fashion industry, women’s issues, and politics for a wide variety of publications.


Madonna Accepts Damages For Illegal Wedding Pics

madonna-guy-ritchieSometimes, even the paparazzi lose: British newspaper The Mail has paid damages to Madonna for taking unauthorized pictures of her wedding with Guy Ritchie in 2000.

According to the BBC, a judge in London “heard [the photos] were ’surreptitiously’ copied by an interior designer working at her Beverly Hills home” in 2003; they were published by The Mail in October of last year, just days after Madonna announced her divorce with Ritchie.

Frequently, the parties that settle in these sorts of cases will pay up, but refuse to admit wrongdoing. But the Mail admitted it was wrong: they apologized to Madonna “for invading her privacy and infringing her copyright.” It’s unclear how much money Madonna will be getting, but earlier this year, she was seeking damages in excess of 5 million pounds, or 8 million dollars, according to the AP.

One thing is clear: she won’t be keeping any of it for herself. Her lawyer said she’d be donating her settlement money to her charity Raising Malawi, which is dedicated to helping the more than two million orphans in Malawi. If someone’s taken unauthorized photos of your wedding, that’s about as good an outcome as you could hope for.

Related: Madonna Singing, Lingerie Fighting with Lady Gaga on SNL


Soundbite: Condé Nast Is The New General Motors

HANNAHLEESHERMANAT1040PARK(2)“Although the privately held Condé Nast isn’t as financially distressed as the bankrupt General Motors, and although the magazine business couldn’t be more unlike the car business, the two distraught companies share woes.

Both succeeded in segmenting the market with semi-independent divisions that were once unique and distinct but that have since faded into one, much to the confusion of consumers. Both have dramatically dumped once-valuable properties. Both have allowed divisions to operate like independent fiefdoms at the expense of the company’s greater financial good. Both have established cultures of privilege for top employees, and both appear to have woken up to their problems too late.”


Slate’s Jack Shafer comparing the fate of Condé Nast, in the wake of yesterday’s shutterings, to that of that other overreaching, reality-ignoring American powerhouse, General Motors. Next up: Graydon Carter and Anna Wintour fly to Washington in their private jets to beg for a bailout! (Perhaps it isn’t merely a coincidence that Time opened an office in Detroit…maybe they’re also aiming to take notes.)


Tabloid Frenzy Didn’t ‘Occur’ To Letterman? Did Dave Just Move To NYC?

Picture 10Last night, after a weekend of being battered by the press, David Letterman apologized on air to both his wife and his staff. Was it sincere? You can watch here and decide for yourself. Here’s what struck me as utterly insincere and unbelievable: that he didn’t see it coming.

And it did not occur to me last week when I was discussing having had sex with women who worked on this show, that then what would happen is reporters and newspaper people and radio and TV would start hounding the staff and saying, ‘What do you say, are you, and this and that.’ It was very, very unpleasant and I would just like to set the record straight, no, I’m not having sex with these women, those episodes are in the past.

Really? Really it did not occur to him that the tabloids would have a field day with this story and do their best to dig up all parties involved? Come on. Did David Letterman just move to New York City? Was this past weekend his first encounter with the morning newsstand tabloids? I’ve never met David Letterman but I’m pretty confident that the answer to both questions is no. A big resounding no.

This story arrived straight out of central tabloid casting; no matter how upset or distracted Letterman was — and no doubt he was both — the man has too much media savvy not to know better. You don’t announce multi-million dollar extortion sex scandal on a national television program in the manner in which he did without some forethought. Anyway, the question now is how many more days can the papers stretch this story out as cover material (we’re currently on day five – gallery below) and how completely will Stephanie Birkitt’s life be ruined before a) this is over, or b) she pens a book deal to turn those infamous diaries into a proper book?


The Five Day Arc of a Tabloid Scandal – Day One

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NEXT: The Five Day Arc of a Tabloid Scandal – Day Two


Eater.com Binges On The Corpse of Gourmet

gourmetburgersMere hours after Condé Nast announced that the venerable Gourmet was among the four titles to be shut down in the wake of their McKinsey evaluation, Curbed Media’s Eater blog, which recently went national, was already picking at the bones. Their cheeky proposal: if you were on contract for an unpublished feature meant for Gourmet, they’ll pay you $100 to take it off your hands and run it in full on their site.

From Eater:

The macro tragedy today is the loss of Gourmet, of course; the micro one, however, is that there are issues-worth of that sweet Gourmet-brand editorial that aren’t going to see the light of day. So, here is our offer to any writer who was on contract for any Gourmet feature: for a $100 consolation fee (admittedly, nothing more than a consolation fee), we’ll run the story here, in full.

This comes in the wake of Eater’s offer to pay 25 food bloggers $25 apiece to shut down their blogs and make this ad for Eater their last post.

$100 might be a prettyish penny for just one piece of content in the online realm (well, unless you’re The Daily Beast), but it’s a bargain for the type of writing they’ll have at their disposal — and besides, it’s good buzz. Whether or not it works in material terms, Eater National’s willingness to spend money on content and be upfront about it — in short, its swagger — is a refreshing change of pace in a gun-shy market.


Cookie Crumbles — Will Mainstream Media Follow?

liv-tyler-cookie-magazineCookie magazine sits in a place of honor on my wife’s bedside table. At work, I heard that Condé Nast announced the closure of Cookie today, so as I settled in for my afternoon nap, I picked up the most recent edition for a quick flip-through. An article with 39 family vacation ideas caught my eye.  So did one featuring a twist on pot roast that’s interesting enough for grownups without being too sophisticated for my kids.

I’m clearly not the target demographic for Cookie magazine. But my wife has been a subscriber for most of its four years in existence, and I’ve come to appreciate it as the one “parenting” (read: “mommy”) magazine that I read regularly.

And now it’s gone.

Granted, the niche is far from deserted. There are other parenting titles and a million mommy blogs. But I know I’m not the type of person to scroll through millions of blog posts looking for a kid-friendly pot roast recipe. And I never thought I’d have to be. But that was before the day when a well-edited and profitable magazine could disappear overnight.

Gourmet, Modern Bride and Elegant Bride are the other victims today’s Condé Nast’s cost-cutting measures. All have loyal readers, target specific audiences and have proved the mettle. But in today’s uncertain media landscape that’s not enough. At least, McKinsey & Company, who spent the last three months analyzing the books at Condé Nast, doesn’t seem to think so. Shuttering magazines is an effective solution to the company’s budget crisis for the short term. But it doesn’t allay the disturbing trend I see stretching across the landscape of traditional media.

Two unprofitable models deliver the majority of content on the Internet: Either newspapers and magazines give away their online content for free because they still make (some) money with their print business. Or online content providers — YouTube and the Daily Beast come to mind — bank on the fact that they will still be alive on the day when somebody figures out how to monetize their readership.

Neither scenario inspires a lot of confidence. And I don’t have a third option to propose to resuscitate the industry. But I’m pretty sure that trading one bad idea for another one still doesn’t equal a good one.

After I downloaded the New York Times article about Cookie (for free), I sent it along to my wife. Dawn responded: “Where will I get cool family trip ideas?”

Exactly.

For me, the great allure of the traditional magazine and newspaper format is not finding the story I am looking for, but rather stumbling upon something I didn’t expect to find. Take the example of my favorite story this week on Pat’s Papers: Would I ever type “Wisconsin tourism board changes acronym from WTF to avoid snickers” into the search bar of Google? No. But did it delight me to find the hilarious story under that headline while reading the day’s front pages? Absolutely.

One of the reasons I’m happy to pay for a magazine is because it covers the salaries of a team of editors and reporters who search out the most interesting content.

My wife will undoubtedly find something else to put on her nightstand now that Cookie is gone. And I’ll find something else to flip through before my afternoon nap. After all, there are thousands of kid-approved recipes and cool family trip ideas somewhere out there on the web. But without the filter of a magazine, it may be a while before my kids get a pot roast for dinner.


Why Today’s Condé News Should Worry Anna Wintour

Picture 2Today was not a good day at Conde Nast. It looks like upwards of 200 people will lose their jobs as a result of the shuttering of Gourmet, Cookie, Modern Bride, and Elegant Bride. The New York Oberserver reports that Pilar Guzmán, editor of Cookie and wife to Wired Media publisher Chris Mitchell, is out and that there may be a publisher shake-up over the next few days to make room for Nancy Berger Cardone, the publisher of Gourmet, and Carolyn Kremins, the publisher of Cookie, who “are both valued internally.”

Still the shuttering of Gourmet remains to many the biggest shock; the 68 year old magazine is a staple in the Condé stable and enjoys a devoted following. The fate of its equally well-known editor Ruth Reichl is unknown right now, though considering the company plans to keep both the publishing and television arm of Gourmet active chances are they will find a place for her. That said, what does Reichl’s precarious position say about the fate of Condé’s other high profile editors?

We speculated earlier that the “cost and workforce reductions now underway throughout the company” mentioned in Chuck Townsend’s memo suggested this was the beginning rather than the end of the McKinsey results. No fashion titles were cut in this round, and we’ve heard speculation that this might be because much of the staffs of these titles are currently in Milan at the shows and that the cuts/shutterings might happen once they return.

So should Anna Wintour — or Graydon Carter for that matter! — be worried? Chances that Vogue will be shuttered, of course, are slim to none and same goes for Vanity Fair. However, the willingness of Condé to shutter a signature title like Gourmet and put into question the position of a bold-faced editor such a Reichl must certainly be seen as a warning shot across the corner office bow of both Wintour and Graydon. No one is apparently indispensable in the eyes of McKinsey.