10 YEARS OF GQ: It was a pioneering men’s title years before the lads’ mags were invented. Then Loaded and FHM turned the sector round as GQ lost its editor to drugs. So, Anna Griffiths asks, can ex-Loaded editor James Brown do it again fo

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 reader.

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’

top shelves.

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.


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