Emma Noble’s pneumatic curves spill out from GQ’s December front
cover. It’s a far cry from the first issue ten years ago which featured
a rather stiff and formal looking Michael Heseltine glaring at the
In fact, the December 1988 issue of GQ reads and looks more like
Management Today than a men’s style and general interest magazine. The
number of women featured could be counted on one hand, compared with the
bounty of beauties featured in recent issues.
Today, Stephen Quinn, now the publisher of Vogue who moved from the
National Magazine Company to launch GQ (or Gentleman’s Quarterly as it
was then known), admits that the first edition of GQ bore little
relation to his original idea. ’It dramatically changed with the second
issue. I wasn’t happy with Heseltine on the cover, but I can understand
why he was there, because we were playing it incredibly safe. I said to
the editor, Paul Keers: ’You will destroy the magazine and will make it
incredibly dull.’ It was the wrong signal - we would have buried
ourselves in a very short time.’
Perhaps Keers was too keen to emphasise the difference between the
emerging men’s market, which was led with the launch of Wagadon’s Arena
in 1987, and the established ’skin’ titles which thrived on retailers’
Looking at men’s magazines today, the line between the two is distinctly
blurred, with sexy starlets splayed across the pages of FHM, Loaded,
Maxim, Esquire and GQ. This similarity in itself is becoming a problem,
because the older titles are having to reassess how to differentiate
themselves from the burgeoning lads’ magazines market.
GQ’s publisher, Peter Stuart, insists there is a difference. ’The market
has polarised between the middle-market titles, Loaded, FHM and Maxim,
while GQ, Esquire and Arena take a more stylised approach. We certainly
think we’ve got the top end of the market.’
While lads’ magazines such as FHM, Loaded and Maxim continue to watch
their sales soar, GQ, Arena and the National Magazine Company’s Esquire
are all fighting for share in a relatively small but elite market.
These titles argue they are not interested in runaway sales; their main
concern is to have a high ABC1 readership which is valued by
GQ registered sales of 130,152 during its last ABC period and its
editor, James Brown, promises the next ABC figure will show growth of
around 5 per cent. He explains: ’We are not going to sell 300,000,
because we are not bothered. It would betray the core values of what GQ
is about. Loaded, FHM and Maxim are read by 14-year-olds. GQ is a
different beast to that. It’s about being stylish, fashionable and
It is inevitable that as a brand matures it has to refine its tone in
order to continue to appeal to a more discerning market. Looking back
over ten years of GQ covers, you can clearly pick out its different
guises through five editorships. But despite all these changes, GQ is
still grappling with the problem of how to stand out from the crowd.
GQ’s first editor, Keers, was a respected 80s style commentator. His
magazine, then a quarterly, was about clothing and the finer things in
life. It was a guide to how to be the swish man about town, with cover
stories on celebrities such as Griff Rhys Jones and Will Carling. There
was clearly a market for the magazine but the numbers were not huge
Quinn recollects: ’We only managed to kick off on 52,000 to 53,000, so
it didn’t happen overnight.’
Shortly after GQ went monthly, Keers left and Alexandra Shulman, now
editor of Vogue, was brought on board in early 1990. Schulman says:
’When I got there I felt that it had a mobile phone and small black
gadgets ethic.’ She is credited with shaping the magazine and giving it
a clearer direction. Peter Howarth, the editor of Esquire who worked on
GQ between 1990 and 1995, says: ’Alexandra broadened the frame of
reference and said men were interested in aspirational things, but they
had to have more news stories and be given a broader read.’
Recalling her strategy, Shulman says: ’I wanted to make it more
glamorous, which is very different from men’s magazines now. At that
point, it wasn’t about the archetypal yuppie, but to do with successful
men. People were working in the restaurant, design and lifestyle world.
I beefed that up and tried to temper it with substantial features
journalism.’ She also brought in a talented team including the
magazine’s future editors, Michael VerMeulen and Angus MacKinnon.
VerMeulen was the most notorious of GQ’s editors, taking it closer to
what you see today. When Schulman moved over to Vogue in February 1991,
VerMeulen took on the editorship and made it a more streetwise and
blokey magazine. He took circulation past the 100,000 mark, despite
competition from Esquire, which came on to the market in 1991. Stuart
recalls: ’Michael made it a fun magazine and was an amazing editor,
giving it a lot of attitude and style. He said he had two jobs - to
produce an interesting read for advertisers and interesting editorial
for the readers.’
VerMeulen had a commercial grasp and was the first editor to put a woman
on the front cover. In 1993 Sharon Stone gave GQ one of its biggest
selling issues and proved that women sold magazines. When he put Naomi
Campbell on the cover in the buff, sales rocketed. He also agreed to
Stuart’s suggestion of splitting the front cover to advertise Ralph
Lauren’s new fragrance, Safari for Men. The decision caused controversy,
with Esquire’s then editor, Rosie Boycott, denouncing it as ’an abuse of
editorial standards’. It was a move that he regretted, as Stuart
recalls. ’Michael did say afterwards that he wished he hadn’t done it.
It was a gimmick but it didn’t really hurt the magazine.’
VerMeulen’s own lifestyle, which lead to a premature death from a drugs
overdose in August 1995, fitted with the magazine brand. But Howarth
points out that there was a lot more to VerMeulen than the bohemian
’He was an incredibly experienced journalist and a very powerful man,
who set up a theatre company with John Malkovich.’ He gave the magazine
an investigative edge, running a story on the Mark Thatcher arms scandal
a year before it broke in the newspapers.
VerMeulen recognised the importance of IPC’s new kid on the block,
Howarth says: ’When Loaded launched in 1993 he was one of the few people
who said this is going to be huge - he was very big-hearted like that.’
He had the foresight to realise Loaded could bring up a whole new
generation of future GQ readers.
GQ’s fourth phase was perhaps its most difficult, with MacKinnon and his
team recovering from VerMeulen’s death, while staving off growing
competition from the other men’s titles. In November 1995 the magazine
was revamped ’to try to bring out the Conde Nastness of the title’ and
efforts were made to broaden the readership outside the 25- to
40-year-old target audience. The magazine was split into three simple
parts: arts and entertainment, features, fashion and health. But
MacKinnon was seen as being too intellectual and ’donnish’, a stance
which sat at odds with the new breed of ’in yer face’ magazines. It was
time to change editors and Conde Nast International’s chairman,
Jonathan Newhouse, approached Brown, the founder of Loaded, to rescue
the struggling title.
Brown is held up as the ultimate advertisement for the title, having
left Loaded in his early 30s to edit a more grown-up, sophisticated
As Stuart so eloquently puts it: ’He’s discovered that there’s more to
life than projectile vomiting and booze.’
Depicted as an enfant terrible who enjoyed a hedonistic lifestyle,
Brown’s appointment at GQ was greeted with amazement and curiosity - how
would this uncontrollable ball of energy fit in within the elegant and
well-behaved confines of Conde Nast? Would GQ become another Loaded?
Conde Nast was adamant it would not.
At the time of his appointment, Brown said: ’It’s going to be a magazine
for me and my friends.’ With the long lead times on magazine editorial,
Brown’s imprint was not apparent until three months later, but the
contents list and picture captions announced his arrival.
Stuart remembers: ’There were a few jokes, pictures and captions that
didn’t reach the presses. There is that kind of Conde Nast reservation
to make sure that any editor can’t go too far with anything.’
Although Brown is at pains to point out his GQ carries investigative
features, others believe that he has dumbed down the magazine. Howarth
says: ’Esquire is pretty grown up. James’s GQ is less so and that’s a
reflection of his interests and the culture he comes from at Loaded.
It’s not necessarily the way the magazine looks, but in its tone, which
is birds and booze, it is very different from us.’
Brown is revamping the style section with more fashion from the February
issue and pledges ’to make GQ as good as it can be’. He boasts
contributors such as Tony Parsons and Irvine Welsh and a January cover
shot by Peter Lindbergh. ’If James Bond read a magazine, he would read
GQ,’ Brown claims.
But for all its slickness and style, GQ still faces the dilemma of how
to stand out on the crowded retailers’ shelves without turning itself
into another FHM or Maxim. Howarth admits: ’We are now relying on our
brands to differentiate us, rather than our covers.’ It seems an
impossible conundrum, but if anyone has the balls to do it, it’s
November 1988: GQ launches as a quarterly title, edited by Paul
It concentrates on clothing and the finer things in life and aims to be
a style guide for affluent and successful businessmen. In January 1990,
the magazine increases its frequency to monthly.
February 1990: Alexandra Shulman takes over the GQ helm and is credited
with taking the magazine in the right direction, making it much more
accessible to young men, with edgier, journalistic features.
February 1991: Michael VerMeulen becomes editor and injects humour and
sex into the magazine. In August 1993 he puts the first woman on the
magazine, in the form of Sharon Stone, and in November agrees to a
controversial split front cover which is used for a Ralph Lauren
campaign. He takes the magazine’s circulation beyond 100,000.
August 1995: Following VerMeulen’s death his deputy Angus MacKinnon
steps into the breach and tries to revamp the magazine in order to
broaden its appeal. It begins to lose circulation as it faces tough
competition from a growing men’s magazine market.
April 1997: James Brown, editor of Loaded, defects to GQ. His brief is
to revitalise sales and bring dynamism to the flagging title. He
responds by introducing attitude into the editorial, along with bags of
blokish humour and greater emphasis on fashion and style.