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NEW YORK — When Charla Lawhon stepped into Martha Nelson’s shoes as managing editor of In Style, the view of many observers was that her job would be easy. After all, In Style is such a success there was little tinkering needed to the formula, they reasoned. In Style could run on autopilot.

Well, Lawhon, not surprisingly, doesn’t agree and is quietly putting her own stamp on the magazine and its staff. The first examples of that effort are evident in the September issue — with Jennifer Aniston in a gold leather Gaultier gown on the cover — that just hit newsstands, which is the first to be completely Lawhon’s from start to finish.

This story first appeared in the August 23, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Among the changes Lawhon has made so far are a new handbag page to go with an already established footwear page; beefed up fashion coverage with a second fashion well for September, October, November and December, and some spiced up fashion stories. She also has added some new home design features, such as four ways to design a bedroom, an interest she cultivated in a prior position as executive editor of Metropolitan Home.

In an interview in her spacious office at Time Inc. headquarters here, Lawhon pointed to one of the pieces she likes the most in the September issue called “Scar Search,” which asks celebrities such as Harrison Ford, Jane Seymour, Ben Affleck and Mel Gibson to describe their scars — their physical, not emotional, ones. “How fun is this? This is my favorite; It keeps our connection to the readers alive,” she said.

In another story, In Style surveyed stars such as Diane Lane, Hilary Swank, Susan Sarandon, Andie MacDowell and Benjamin Bratt on what they do after midnight and photographed them doing it. Sarandon, for example, raids the fridge, while MacDowell goes horseback riding. Doesn’t everyone?

With its laser focus on celebrities and style, In Style — founded in 1994 — has firmly established itself in the fashion pantheon, coming in second to Vogue in year-to-date ad pages and surpassing it in circulation. With its 1.5 million rate base, In Style ranks third circulation-wise among its competitive set, trailing Cosmo (2.7 million) and Glamour (2.2 million). Vogue’s rate base is 1.1 million.

For September, In Style ran 365 ad pages, down 7.6 percent from 396 pages a year ago, according to Media Industry Newsletter. Vogue ran 574.3 ad pages in September, up 1.7 percent from 564.9 a year ago.

Year-to-date, In Style has run 2,014 ad pages, (excluding special issues), which is down 6 percent, while Vogue’s year-to-date ad pages are 2,056, off 7 percent.

On the newsstand, a key indicator of a magazine’s vitality, In Style posted a 2 percent gain in the first half of 2002, selling an average of 990,742 single copies a month, according to ABC’s Fas-Fax, released last week.

“So far, it’s been great; I’m actually enjoying it,” said the 45-year-old Lawhon of her new role. “There is a certain formula. The book’s architecture is established. Readers know where they are. There’s ‘The Look,’ fashion stuff and ‘Scene + Heard.’ But there’s plenty of room to add other things.”

A Missouri native, Lawhon is congenial, funny, a less intimidating figure than Nelson and not as tough, say staffers. While sources say she doesn’t come across as confident as Nelson and sometimes second guesses herself, she is more open to what she doesn’t know. “It’s a kinder, friendlier In Style,” one staffer said.

When Lawhon got the top job, staffers were relieved that there wouldn’t be a radical shift in direction or mass firings since she was familiar with the staff and they were familiar with her. Although she brought in two new executive editors — Maria Baugh and Martha McCully (since Jeannie Park, the other executive editor joined Nelson at People) — most of the staff remained in tact.

While Lawhon wouldn’t comment on what staffers perceive as a friendlier work environment, she said, “People are so used to me from all these years and bringing me a problem or a question and having me mediate. There’s a different tone, of course, but I’m still the same person. They’ve been bitching to me and at me, and it’s a natural flow.”

Hal Rubenstein, fashion features director of In Style, said, “Martha may seem more decisive initially, but Charla knows what she likes and doesn’t like. Martha is very formidable, and in an initial meeting, Charla may not seem as strong a presence. It may be a softer approach, but she has a canny sense of what works for the magazine and what doesn’t. Charla is a little more tickled by the clothing, and we’ve expanded coverage of fashion in the magazine.”

Rip Georges, design director of In Style, has worked many years with both Nelson and Lawhon. “Charla was the second person I met when I came originally. She was part of the core group. She’s cut from mostly the same cloth as Martha is. She was Martha’s right hand and collaborator.

“I’m not sensing there’s very much difference. They share the same vision for the magazine. They’re champions of the reader and believe strongly in demystifying fashion and making it more inclusive. The office climate is relatively free of politics and acrimony. Martha can be tough, not that Charla can’t be, but she’s slightly easier.”

Describing her own management style as more of a team approach, Lawhorn said, “I try to make it that way. A lot of times it’s easier to just make the decision yourself, but I’m not the one who has to execute it. I’m from Missouri, and as Harry Truman says, ‘The buck stops here.’”

The race for celebrity covers, however, remains as intense as ever. Vogue beat In Style to Aniston — Vogue had her on its August cover in a gold dress too — but Lawhon takes it graciously.

“We knew Vogue was going to do Jennifer. We know our cover style is a lot different from Vogue. There’s a very direct connection between the image and the reader. We try to mix it up in terms of the cropping and the picture,” she added.

Lawhon said the magazine doesn’t divert from its cover strategy, although it had dabbled with different colored backgrounds in the past. “It goes back to the original ‘radical clarity thing.’ You can see the actress. You can read the cover lines. Everybody’s covers have to work hard on the newsstand. Consumers have about 2.8 seconds to make a decision, and we have to decide ‘What will immediately communicate In Style?’”

One of the big changes that came with the new position was attending the European fashion shows. When she first got the job last February, she said she had three days to prepare for the ready-to-wear shows in Milan. She’s since attended the couture shows in July and is getting ready to attend the next round of ready-to-wear shows in the fall. This time, Lawhon feels better prepared. “I’m actually looking forward to the next round. I know what to do with the information.”

Known as a hard worker, Lawhon reads everything that goes into the magazine and edits the hard copy. “I’m a paper person,” she said. She works until 7 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. and then usually attends an industry event. Once home, she watches a lot of TV. Actually, she said, the TV is always on as background, no matter what’s she doing, and she always keeps CNN on while she’s at the office.

Despite working for a star-driven fashion magazine, Lawhon doesn’t crave the spotlight, nor does she aspire to become a “celebrity editor.”

“This is perfectly fine. This interview is as much press as I really need. Time Inc. isn’t built that way. Truly, I’d rather be focused on the work and the magazine. Otherwise, I’d need a whole new wardrobe.”

Has she made any changes to her fairly conservative and business-like wardrobe?

“I’ve spruced it up a bit. I can now indulge in a better level of accessory.”

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