Men’s magazines in the US are a bit like women TV presenters in the
UK. Venerable older ones with a solid reputation can do very well, even as
younger upstarts with lots of attitude and little clothing get enormous
publicity and popularity. But the casualties of the newer, sex-drenched
culture are anybody attempting to appeal to a younger, edgier market while
at the same time retaining self-respect and a slightly more intelligent
At the end of last month, Si Newhouse’s Advance Publications announced
that Conde Nast was ceasing publication of Details and refashioning it
under the umbrella of Fairchild Publications in October. The news set the
New York publishing world buzzing.
Details was always a magazine that punched above its weight in the
magazine world. It started as a hip, downtown Manhattan book with
decidedly gay sensibilities, which rapidly became a must-read for Conde
Nast editors wearing Helmut Lang. They liked it so much, in fact, that
they bought the company. Conde Nast installed James Truman as editor and
the magazine became even more of a bible for hipsters and magazine
Truman was eventually elevated to the position of editorial director for
all Conde Nast publications - a position that nominally put him above even
such stars as Tina Brown at the New Yorker, Anna Wintour at Vogue and
Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair.
But Conde Nast still wasn’t completely happy with Details. While it was
attracting high-end advertisers and was a darling of the media world, its
circulation stubbornly refused to rise above 400,000 or so. ’Conde Nast
has, traditionally, published books with a circulation base of 700,000 and
above,’ a spokeswoman for the company explains.
After Truman’s departure, Details went through a series of high-profile
editors, none of whom managed to square the circle of hipness with a high
circulation. Joe Dolce found out he was being fired when a friend told him
that he’d been approached about the job. Michael Caruso, a high-flying
Conde Nast editor, was hired to take it on, and introduced more babes and
heterosexuality into the mix, as well as a certain amount of sport.
Newsstand circulation rose, but not enough for Newhouse.
Caruso was axed in favour of Mark Golin, who was brought in from the
soaraway success of Maxim. Golin, who had achieved Maxim’s seven-figure
circulation in next to no time, was unabashedly downmarket, publishing
articles about strip-club secrets and photos of any B-list actress willing
to get her kit off for the lads.
But Si Newhouse is not Felix Dennis, and Golin still had to work within
the Details tradition. By the final issue, the downtown fashion
advertisers were nowhere to be seen, with ads from the likes of Nintendo
and Camel cigarettes. Even so, Gucci bought space, albeit on page 17, and
Details had to remain a respectable publication - something Maxim
certainly wasn’t and isn’t.
An exit strategy for Conde Nast came with the dollars 650 million purchase
of Fairchild Publications last August.
’Fairchild has had a great deal of success with books in the 400,000 to
500,000 area,’ a Conde Nast spokeswoman says. What’s more, Fairchild
specialises in fashion magazines - precisely the area in which Details, in
its heyday, was strongest. And there was even a gap in the Fairchild
roster. Fairchild’s flagship publication is WWD, the daily fashion
newspaper read by everybody in the business. WWD’s staffers also produce
W, the extremely successful outsize consumer fashion monthly. WWD has a
brother publication, DNR, devoted to menswear, but DNR does not have a
consumer title attached to it. Or rather, it didn’t until now; Details has
been tapped to take that role.
Details might not be quite the 100 per cent fashion magazine that W is:
after all, on the women’s side, Fairchild also publishes Jane, a more
general interest women’s magazine. But it is certain that Newhouse’s
attempt to beat Maxim at its own game is now officially over.
That particular game will be won by publishers with less refined mores
One such publisher is Bob Guccione Jr, the son of the Penthouse
Guccione has created Gear, the first US book to tackle the British imports
head-on. While Gear is still very much in its early days, it has already
shown the kind of irreverence that Maxim and FHM are slightly more wary of
Gear certainly has an easier and more laddish sense of humour than
While the Gear masthead says that if you send unsolicited manuscripts ’a
wad of cash wouldn’t hurt either, if you get our drift’, Details fell flat
with a spine line saying: ’Prithee purchase me, good sir. Thy wallet doth
GQ manages to continue strongly as a venerable institution with excellent
writers such as James Ellroy, Walter Kirn, Joe Queenan and Will Self.
It has solid competition from Hearst’s Esquire and from Jann Wenner’s
Men’s Journal, a sibling publication to Rolling Stone, which focuses on
the life outdoors and headline writers such as PJ O’Rourke.
These bigger, older magazines still don’t see Maxim and FHM as competitors
although that might change in the future. What the UK imports have done is
squash the middle of the market more or less out of existence. Details is
only the most recent and highest-profile casualty: others to cease
publication recently include Icon, a soi-disant ’thoughtstyle’ magazine
that couldn’t compete with imported T&A.
At least it makes a change from the usual complaints about American
lowest-common-denominator juggernauts rolling into Europe and obliterating
all the subtle local culture. In the world of men’s magazines it’s the
other way around. But still, it’s not much for the Brits to be proud of.