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Though Harper’s Bazaar editor in chief Glenda Bailey declared “Fashion’s back!” with the February 2002 issue, advertisers and consumers have taken a while to get the message.

“It’s hard to revamp an old title,” noted Stephen Gan, Bazaar’s creative director. “Everybody’s got a preconceived notion of what it should be. I think it’s taken a few years for people to get it. It takes a while to get our groove, but it takes even longer for people to understand.”

As the magazine celebrates its 140th anniversary with its November issue, Bazaar has reversed the slide. Once written off as a fourth-string player in the fashion category behind Vogue, Elle and W, the magazine is now a stronger competitor amongst that quartet. Newsstand sales have rebounded, while advertisers have taken a renewed interest in the title.

Bazaar has one of the most storied histories in fashion magazines, geared in part by the title’s personalities. From the days of Carmel Snow — the legendary editor who recruited talents such as Alexey Brodovitch, Richard Avedon and Diana Vreeland, who spent 26 years there before becoming editor of Vogue — to the late Liz Tilberis, who modernized Bazaar with contributors such as Patrick Demarchelier and Peter Lindbergh. But the magazine had been under duress since the late Nineties as Tilberis edited the title while battling ovarian cancer. When she succumbed to the disease in 1999, Hearst tapped Kate Betts, a protégé of Anna Wintour, to revitalize the title by repositioning it for a younger audience. That attempt failed, as single-copy sales, a key indicator of consumer demand for a magazine, fell from 204,098 in December 1996 to 140,000 by the end of Betts’ editorship.

Single-copy sales under Bailey have grown gradually to 182,506 as of June, a 38 percent growth since 2001, according to figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations. In January, the magazine bumped up the cover price to $3.99 from $3.50 and still managed to grow single-copy sales by 2 percent compared with the same period last year.

Critics were quick to dismiss Bailey as an inexperienced fashion outsider — she joined Bazaar’s after launching Marie Claire, a more service-y women’s magazine, in the U.K. with much success, then repeating her triumphs when she edited the title in the States. In her early days at Bazaar, Bailey was mocked for some for her editing choices — using large numbers on the cover to illustrate the number of products inside, for example, at a time when most fashion editors used numbers sparingly. And most observers expected her to take the magazine down-market, or steer it to a more mass audience in the spirit of Time Inc.’s In Style. Other rumors abounded, often stimulated by eager competitors, from too much red ink to discounted pages to the possibility that the magazine could be closed — all regularly denied by Hearst executives.

This story first appeared in the October 12, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“Hearst took an educated risk in selecting Glenda,” noted Robert Triefus, Giorgio Armani executive vice president of worldwide communications, who, in that capacity wields a mighty advertising pen. “Risky because the base of Marie Claire is very different from the DNA of Harper’s Bazaar, but when Glenda appointed Stephen Gan, she understood what aspects of Bazaar’s heritage she had to perpetuate. It took a bit of time to find the groove and how to match the sophistication with the accessibility, but that seems to be a mission that has been largely achieved now.”

Bailey pointed out that she simply kept her head down in those rough early days and ignored detractors. “It’s very difficult to argue with success. When people criticize a success, they come across as really stupid. I’m not interested in what everyone else thinks,” she said in an interview over afternoon tea in her Hearst Tower office. “Criticism comes with the job description. It happens every time. It makes me smile. The problem comes if you accept in any other way. I just know it’s coming and don’t pay it much attention.”

Chatter that Bailey may not survive at Bazaar continued up until about 18 months ago, when speculation swirled that Hearst executives were meeting discreetly with top editors in the field about replacing her. Hearst Magazines president Cathie Black dismissed the chatter as just that. But today, despite the turnaround, could Bailey’s future still be in question? “There are no buts!” Black responded emphatically. “Glenda is incredibly creative, always challenging her staff to come up with something unique and innovative. She’s just a very clever editor.”

One reason that Bazaar is attracting more readers is its ability to create content inspired by pop culture — ironically, a similar goal of Betts’, who added stories on dot-com style and the power players in Hollywood. “Magazines shouldn’t just report on what’s going on, they should be creative and produce stories everybody else is talking about,” said Bailey. “Fashion magazines generally are at risk of becoming dinosaurs if they don’t pick up what’s going on in modern culture.”

In August, timed to the release of the “The Simpsons” movie this summer, Bazaar published stories such as the “The Simpsons Go to Paris” photo feature. Designers including Viktor & Rolf, Donatella Versace and Karl Lagerfeld — even Bailey herself — were translated into “Simpsonized” cartoons. In November, Bazaar will feature Amber Valletta as an “American Idol” contestant, with all of the show’s judges, including crotchety Simon Cowell.

Bazaar also has used celebrity headlines for inspiration. The June issue featured Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie as jewel thieves dressed in black and white. Its September issue included a fashion spread of Chloë Sevigny in rehab, a nod to Promises-frequenting Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears.

“I’m always concerned when I pick up a fashion magazine, and [it looks as if] it could have easily been done five years ago,” said Bailey. “It needs to reflect the culture and the time that we’re in. That gives the energy and excitement.”

Another element Bailey played up was the accessibility of the magazine. When Black hired Bailey in 2001, she had a mandate for the title — “Basically, you want to be able to shop these pages,” she told The New York Times shortly after Betts had moved on. Beauty and fashion editorial makes up more than 80 percent of the magazine’s content, higher than all of its competitors, who typically run between 60 and 70 percent, according to Hall’s Report.

“If you want to read a story about an art opening in Los Angeles or a political issue about women in Afghanistan, our readers will go for that info elsewhere, probably a Time or Newsweek. But for trends, the colors of the season, the hemlines of the season, that’s us,” said Valerie Salembier, Bazaar’s vice president and publisher.

As a selling tool to advertisers, Salembier describes a “tear-and-wear” functionality of the magazine, where readers tear out pages with goods they want to wear and bring them to the store to shop. “Our associate publisher [Kevin Martinez] says old issues of Harper’s Bazaar look like producer’s scripts. You know how at the end of a Broadway play they’re all tattered, torn and ripped apart? That’s what an old issue of Harper’s Bazaar looks like.”

“The evidence of a good fashion magazine can be seen when it is heavily dog-eared and it is half its original size due to all the tear sheets which are now stuffed into your handbag or left on your desk awaiting ‘the track down,’ said Linda Fargo, Bergdorf Goodman senior vice president, women’s fashion director and store presentation. “My Harper’s Bazaars always look like this.” (Bergdorf’s also will feature 14 covers of the magazine in its windows to help mark the title’s 140th birthday.)

While advertisers sat out Bazaar when Bailey took over, opting instead for Vogue, W or Elle, the magazine has returned to most media plans. In 2000, ad pages totaled 1,786, but by 2002, ad pages had fallen 13 percent to 1,436 pages, and another 19 percent in 2003, to 1,161. In 2004, a year after Salembier took over as publisher, a rebound began. Buoyed by spin-offs such as “A Fashionable Life,” a home and entertaining outsert sent to subscribers, and Hearst’s corporate marketing program, “30 Days of Fashion,” ad pages this year have improved 22 percent through November, to 1,839 pages. This year’s September issue was the magazine’s biggest in its history.

But despite growth in ads and newsstand sales, Bazaar’s overall circulation has plateaued at 722,058, as of June, down from 750,608 in June 1999, and is still trailing Vogue (1.2 million) and Elle (1 million) in circulation. Bazaar also ranks fourth in terms of ad pages. Through November, Vogue’s pages grew 5.7 percent to 2,922 and W’s totaled 1,960, up 10.5 percent, over last year, according to company estimates. Salembier said she is happy with where the magazine’s circulation sits. “We have a very targeted, affluent, fashion-obsessed readership and we want to keep it that way. When you start moving into the mass territory, your high-end demographic profile begins to erode.”

“I feel great about [the magazine],” said Black. “It’s come a long way, and they’re having a fantastic year. The business is more competitive today, but it just shows [the value of] intensive creative selling over a few years’ period, and that the team of Glenda and Valerie was formidable.”

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