NEW YORK — This year’s September fashion issues are once again reassuringly thick as phonebooks, but as indicators of fourth-quarter success, their insights are thinner than ever.
Sweeping cutbacks in ad budgets at a number of French and Italian houses — and retrenchments at many more — made publishers sweat for even the slightest gains at the core fashion books. Vogue’s issue is up just four pages versus last year (a whopping 578 versus an almost as whopping 574), while Elle is up seven pages (290 versus 283) and WWD’s sister publication W is up 10 (370 vs. 360). Harper’s Bazaar, meanwhile, is down 54 pages (216 vs. 270), a 20 percent drop and the title’s worst September since before the Liz Tilberis era.
A Rube Goldberg-like series of events led to the current European softness: the Iraqi war and SARS drastically reduced travel from Asia, which in turn hit tourist business on the Continent, which killed the bottom lines of luxury goods companies and led them to cut back their marketing budgets. Bracing for the next disaster, they — and many other advertisers besides — are refusing to commit pages until later and later in current closings.
“I can’t see a thing,” said Marie Claire publisher Katherine Rizzuto who, despite having already closed her October issue, won’t guess how her final issues of the year will turn out. “You can sway 20 pages in a day — up, down, backwards, forward. The way we close issues has drastically changed.”
Marie Claire lost 21 pages versus last year’s September issue (180 vs. 201), a 10 percent drop that Rizzuto chalked up in part to European problems.
Several publishers reported that Versace, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and Bulgari have all cut back for September and the fourth quarter, while Gucci, Armani and other Italian houses are flat. (Spokesmen for both Versace and Prada said their companies were maintaining spending, but cutting back on the number of magazines in which they advertise.)
“The fact that there are [advertising] cuts of 30 and 40 percent is undeniable. The problem is that these are cuts made on top of the cuts already made last year,” said Armando Branchini, vice president of the consultancy InterCorporate.
French analysts are similarly dour about spending by fashion companies in that country, although publishers said the fashion houses at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, at least, are not cutting back.
“The second semester media spend forecasts definitely show a downturn for the French designers,” said Nicola Chatterton, an international account manager at Initiative Media. “This trend is not exclusive to [them]; the Italians are also reducing their investment in France.”
This is the opposite of two years ago when, pre-9/11, publishers were pulling for the European houses to rescue their books from the economic doldrums then just starting in the U.S. This time around, the share of European fashion as a percentage of the magazines’ September totals has declined. “European business is down approximately 3 percentage points, while American fashion has increased by that amount and then some,” wrote Elle Group publisher Carol Smith in an e-mail.
But Harper’s Bazaar appears to have the opposite problem. “Our challenge is not from the European business,” said publisher Valerie Salembier, now five months into her tenure there. “We’re ahead for the year in our Italian business; we are ahead in September. Our problems are here. The challenges are with the big manufacturers.”
She added, “A lot of fashion advertisers — especially the bridge people — are saying, ‘We just want to wait a little bit longer,’ and I’m saying, ‘The waiting should be over now.’ Glenda [Bailey, Bazaar’s editor in chief] has been in the job 18 months now.”
And pages are down 13 percent through September (874 vs 1,009), according to Media Industry Newsletter.
Salembier added that Bazaar was up 10 percent in newsstand sales for the first six months of 2003. “We need to do a better job of talking about the momentum,” she said. “We are the only magazine in the field that has a newsstand story.”
Tell that to Lucky, or even Vanity Fair. The former, unsurprisingly, is the fastest growing book in the category on both the newsstand and in pages if the definition is expanded to include it and more mass market fashion titles like In Style or Marie Claire. Vanity Fair, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary in September, has produced its all-time largest issue (324 pages), rising 14 percent over the year before, and largely at the expense of the traditional fashion books.
Lucky’s September issue grew by 27 percent compared with the year before, a gain of 52 pages (195 vs. 143). “The most exciting part about our good news is that a large part of our growth is from retailers, and retailers are the most careful with their money,” said publisher Sandy Golinkin. As for Europe, “The bittersweet news is that we didn’t have a lot of Italian business to lose to cutbacks.”
In Style shrank for the fourth September in a row (337 vs. 365), but publisher Lynette Harrison said the magazine has actually gained pages from Europe — Celine is new and Burberry, Fendi and Bottega Veneta increased their spending. She admitted, though, that the magazine didn’t have much business there to start with. The magazine is still ahead of Vogue in the overall page race through September (2,151 vs.2,132) but this includes the ad pages in a handful of In Style special issues. (An untraditional fashion magazine, In Style is less seasonal and has smaller Septembers than its peers.) The latest special, a home issue, will adapt the magazine’s celebrity filter to the interiors market, bringing in advertisers like Kohler and Crate & Barrel and further diversifying its mix.
But it doesn’t help with predicting how the rest of the quarter will go. “The fourth quarter is still a question mark,” said Harrison. “No one seems ready to write home about a recovery.”