Fashion for the Masses

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As top editors of the most venerable women's fashion and lifestyle magazines play musical chairs, Martha Nelson is sitting pretty as managing editor of InStyle, attracting both readers and advertisers. A fashionista she is not. Her blond shoulder-length hair is more disheveled than coiffed. Her laid-back, casual demeanor is a far cry from the icy veneer of Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of Vogue. When Time Inc. launched InStyle in 1994, there were plenty of naysayers. The women's magazine market was already cluttered and Nelson and Time Inc. were newcomers to the world of hemlines, hairstyles and wall hangings.

'I remember when we started the magazine and I hired a beauty editor, one of the top editors at Time Inc. asked me, 'Do you really need a whole editor for beauty?" Nelson, now 48, recalls with a laugh. 'And I had to say, 'Guys, you'll have to trust me on this one.' It was certainly new ground for everybody."

Perhaps it was this outsider status that has helped InStyle bypass the insular world of socialites, style editors and Seventh Avenue and cut a different path to the 1.58 million mostly women who now buy it every month. It has turned Hollywood celebrities into the cover models du jour showcasing a California style that is young, fun, relaxed and mass in appeal. So far this year, despite softening newsstand sales and dwindling ad pages for magazines, InStyle is, for the first time, exceeding Vogue in ad pages and revenues, according to Publishers Information Bureau.

InStyle has mined star-and style-obsessed times, filtering fashion through the lens of pop culture rather than high society and avant-garde, arty layouts. It has made the once sacred world of fashion accessible by granting readers a front row view of the red carpet, VIP passes to exclusive parties, pages upon pages of clothing to suit any body type and the keys into the homes and closets of favorite TV, film and pop stars. It was the first to run full-length party pictures of celebrities and pioneered catalogue-like service pages.

The old guard might consider InStyle the McFashion magazine, claiming it is too overtly commercial and emphasizing class over mass with its shopping guides complete with 800 numbers lists but that hasn't stopped others from imitating the winning formula. Conde Nast, the upper-crust publisher of Vogue and Glamour, has a new monthly, Lucky, devoted solely to shopping. InStyle's influence even extends to similar celebrity and product layouts to magazines as disparate as Rolling Stone, Child and Town and Country.

'As a designer I get inspiration from Vogue and Harper's Bazaar,' says Christie Martin, a jewelry designer and co-owner of Nina at Fred Segal in Santa Monica. 'But I buy clothing the way they present it in InStyle.'

The magazine has redefined how a women's magazine looks, talks and markets itself, says media buyer David Verklin, chief executive of Carat North America. "It has tapped into a major cultural phenomenon in our country. We live a culture of voyeurism ....It's an insatiable area within the American reading and viewing public. This is a bedrock of our culture and they nailed it."

He said this is a time of "great turmoil" in women's magazines. Responding to this change has been difficult for a few editors. Harper's Bazaar, for example, suffered a real identity crisis under Kate Betts who tried to reach a younger audience. It recently lured Glenda Bailey away from the more populist but very successful Marie Claire, which also is shopper friendly. She is expected to bring a more down-to-earth perspective to Harper's, which competes directly with Vogue.

'What I knew going in--and there was a lot I didn't know--was that the conventions of women's magazines like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar have not changed in the past 100 years since they first started,' says Nelson, dressed in a simple black T-shirt and black trousers of unknown origin to her, a casual blue Armani blazer and purple jewel-encrusted Christian Louboutin mules. 'But when you think about what has changed in the past 100 years, everything has changed, and certainly the way in which we receive information about fashion has changed."

Gone are the days of Diana Vreeland, the late Vogue editor, known for issuing style dictums, of fashion catering only to socialites, of ateliers and obligatory linings. This is the era of cheap chic at Target and fashion becoming entertainment thanks to TV shows such as E's "Fashion Emergency" and cultural happenings likethe popular Jackie Kennedy exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Nelson, looking out at Radio City Music Hall from her spacious but sparse corner office at Time Inc.'s midtown headquarters. 'Now it's all around you, whether you watch 'Friends' or the morning news. There are people who follow Katie Couric's haircuts as an ongoing story. So when we started InStyle I certainly knew it had to reflect the world in which we live today,' adds Nelson, a former assistant managing editor at People and editor in chief of now defunct Savvy magazine.

Indeed that world seems to revolve more around the way Jennifer Aniston primps herself for a movie premiere or how Sheryl Crow accessorizes her jeans than by the lavish spreads found in W or Vogue featuring models like Kate Moss or Giselle who represent a beauty ideal that is unattainable to most women.

'I'm not enticed to buy something when it's shown on a 17-year-old model who's 6 feet tall and a size 2,' says New Yorker Candance Coster, a former model who wouldn't think of missing an issue of InStyle. 'It's much more interesting to see clothes on a celebrity who has a body type that's closer to reality, who has her own taste and reflects a certain attitude.'

The shift from professional models to celebrities began after women stopped relating to the supermodels of the 1980s and the super waifs that followed them. Celebrities, however airbrushed and buffed into shape by personal trainers represent more varied and realistic looks. Carolyn Kitch, a journalism professor at Temple University, says 'What InStyle discovered is that readers do in fact want to imagine themselves inside the lives of specific famous people--in their clothes, in their houses, in their daily lives--and that celebrities can convey ideas about daily living."

Designers such as Giorgio Armani and the late Gianni Versace, who dressed Madonna and Elton John, picked up on this early. Teri Agins author of the "The End of Fashion." (William Morrow & Co. Inc., 1999) says InStyle has proved you no longer need the endorsement of a fashion editor. It is the celebrity that counts."

A mere mention in the magazine can be overwhelming to a jewelry designer like Martin who custom crafts all of her pieces that retail for more than $400. "You get a lot of artist recognition and you can't beat having your store's name and number listed that clearly,' she says.

Publicists also love the frothy paean to fame and fashion and readily grant exclusive interviews. 'There is no downside to being in InStyle,' says Cindy Guagenti, a press agent at Baker, Winokur, Ryder in Los Angeles whose clients include Brad Pitt, Adam Sandler and Benicio del Torre. 'It's a beautifully done magazine and they don't have an agenda, they're not mean-spirited. You don't have to worry about anything."

Detractors, however, claim InStyle shamelessly panders to celebrities and has created a climate where celebrities and their agents set the tone and the parameters of the cover, select photographers and even veto writers who are deemed too critical. 'This is happening all over the business, not just at women's magazines,' says Kitch. But Nelson claims she makes all editorial decisions, never pays her cover subjects or allows them to alter quotes or pictures.

'I've been in a situation where someone had a terrible experience with someone and said, 'I can't work with that person, we don't get along.' And I didn't force them to go on a shoot together,' says Nelson. 'But that happened once.

'As for writing, InStyle slavishly chronicles the way celebrities dress, live and play, and leaves all sticky subjects out of the picture. In a recent cover story on Renee Zellweger, , there was barely a mention of her ex Jim Carrey. This month's cover story on John Travolta and Kelly Preston states that the pair credits their happiness to 'the controversial Church of Scientology,' but doesn't dig any deeper.

'The extent of their expose is going to be what's in your sock drawer,' says Claire Connors, executive editor at the Youth Entertainment Group at Prime Media in New York and a former entertainment editor at Glamour.

But Nelson is quick to defend her soft editorial tone.

'If someone has broken up or has been in the news, their trials have been well documented by everyone else, from the tabloids to television to the newsweeklies,' she says. 'We're a monthly and that's not what we're about. I want to see pages that are beautiful, useful and fun. We're a fashion, service, and lifestyle magazine. So if you have a drug habit, then we probably don't want you in InStyle."

And her readers, generally are a younger and, wealthier than those women who read Vogue, Vanity Fair or Town & Country, certainly don't fit the demographics for tabloid junkies. The median age is 32.1 and the median household income is $70,909, according to MRI's spring 2001 report. 'It's a high percentage of professional working women who are single and have high incomes and can afford to indulge in those products or those trips,' says Anita Peterson, director of magazine strategy for DDB Worldwide.

'Their sales staff doesn't have to work so hard to woo advertisers with fabulous positioning. People will do anything to get into that book.'

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