Allure magazine made its debut in March 1991. That was the same month the Lancaster Group AG (later named Coty Inc.) landed in New York from Wiesbaden, Germany; Omar Sharif launched his women’s fragrance to a packed crowd at Bloomingdale’s, and Henri Bendel unveiled its new, expanded beauty floor with an eye-popping birdcage centerpiece.
This story first appeared in the February 25, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Linda Wells has been the title’s only editor in chief since it was launched. In that span, the publication has claimed a number of firsts among magazines: warning of health risks linked to silicone breast implants; reporting drug use among fashion models; sounding an alarm about the levels of formaldehyde in some hair-straightening products, and advising women that fat-melting treatments hadn’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Circulation has grown from 250,000 to 1,093,613, and as the magazine approaches its 20th anniversary next month, Wells has had a chance to reflect on how the industry has changed during her time at the helm.
Here, Wells talks about the early years.
See a video interview with Linda Wells >>
WWD: Allure appeared in March 1991 with the positioning as a consumer magazine devoted to beauty. What was the mind-set of the consumer then and how was the magazine initially designed to satisfy that?
Linda Wells: Women [then] were, I think, very confused by beauty and a little secretive about it. They were a little bit ashamed of caring about it. So it was something that I think a lot of people denied being interested in. It was at a time when there was a lot of skepticism about the cosmetics industry and what was being presented. There were a lot of products that didn’t do very much but were touted as doing a lot. There was this real hesitancy for women to express themselves and feel like, OK, well if they’re smart they could care about this subject and care about the way they looked. That was sort of the psychological moment and felt like a moment that we could really just take this subject out of the closet, make it acceptable for women and try to make it fun and funny and irreverent and smart and journalistic and combine all those things in one package.
WWD: So how has that changed?
L.W.: The mission of the magazine hasn’t changed in the last 20 years. We have always been a journalistic magazine about beauty. And we got the “beauty expert” line, which [Condé Nast chairman] S.I. Newhouse Jr. wrote, later on in our life. What’s happened is that women have changed, the culture has changed, the industry has changed and, as it changes, as a magazine you change along with it. We’ve really reported on the changes. At the beginning, I was trying to make a beauty magazine that was a little bit surprising and not kind of one of those handouts that you get in a salon that looks all lovely — pictures of hairdos — but doesn’t really have any teeth. I kind of went overboard on that and I think it was a little aggressive.
I realized there’s really nothing wrong with a beauty magazine being beautiful. And, in a funny way, the way that women were uncomfortable with the concept of beauty personally, I think we also expressed that in the magazine, that slight discomfort with being beautiful. Once women accepted their own beauty and realized that this was not in opposition to intelligence and success and all those other things, then we also accepted the fact that we are a beauty magazine, and it’s OK to look good. So we beautified the magazine a lot. That’s one example of how we changed. We’re less aggressive attackers of the industry and part of that is because the industry isn’t tricking everybody as much anymore — they really have to have products that perform and if they don’t, they don’t succeed. But we report it all and we look at clinical tests and make sure that things work and the claims are accurate and we’ll say if the claims aren’t. But there’s a lot less kind of trickery and snake oil salesmen than there was maybe 20 years ago.
WWD: How are you journalistic with teeth in basically a commercial magazine environment? I heard the first issue was so edgy that it practically sank the magazine.
L.W.: (Laughter) Ohhh, I can’t tell you after that first issue the number of meetings I had with people who were so angry in the industry. So that I had to endure but, you know, that’s part of the job. If you take somebody on or a product on, you then have to really be there to get the heat for it. At one time or another in Allure’s 20-year life, we’ve lost advertising from just about every company, not all of them but [many have] pulled out their advertising in anger about our reporting. I think that ultimately how we managed to handle that delicate line is that we have to be good reporters. And if we aren’t good reporters, we’re going to fail.
Good reporting is the way that we can function and do a journalistic job. And also picking your battles. Sometimes parts of beauty are pleasurable and beauty products are enjoyable and you don’t have to dissect every detail and make sure that everything is proven to work all the time. If there are claims, then we need to examine the claims. But if it’s a makeup product or if it’s a fragrance, it can just be celebrated and enjoyed. It’s balancing the pleasure with the journalism.
WWD: Basically how has women’s image of beauty evolved?
L.W.: There’s a greater acceptance of their own look and attractiveness for the most part. Women really want to look, for the most part, like themselves and enhance that. There’s less of a kind of oppressive nature that the magazine or the cosmetics company is going to insist that they look a certain way. We just did a survey for the March issue and found that the actual look of women and what women really see as the most beautiful has changed enormously in the last 20 years. It’s much more a multiethnic ideal as opposed to the blonde, blue-eyed classic of the American beauty that we all thought of 20 years ago. [Two decades ago] women in this survey said they thought Christie Brinkley was the epitome of beauty. Today they see Angelina Jolie but they also identify other qualities. They want darker skin, they want fuller lips, they like a nice, big butt. That’s good news, right?
WWD: Is there actually a new consumer? There has been a distribution revolution in the last five years onto TV, into specialty chains, all over the Internet. The image has been that there is a new woman who lives this way on a BlackBerry and she’s causing all of it.
L.W.: I don’t think it’s a new consumer right now who is someone on her BlackBerry or her mobile phone or on her iPad or online or watching TV. I think that this is now the way women access beauty. There are so many different ways to buy products, to have imagery, to learn about beauty, and so women are all over the place and so companies have to be all over the place, the business has to be everywhere, the brands have to be everywhere, Allure has to be everywhere. We can’t expect them to only go to a newsstand to buy a magazine and find things in the traditional way.
WWD: So has the basic beauty ritual changed?
L.W.: When we did our first beauty survey 20 years ago, 7 percent of the women said that they used an antiaging product. Now it’s well over 50 percent, it’s probably in the high 60s. And it’s women who are in their 20s, women in their 30s, it’s no longer a product for women who are over 40 or over 50 the way it was in 1991. People think about skin care differently, they think about how they are going to protect their skin. And it’s a constant activity, it’s preventive and it’s reparative. So it’s a really very active process and companies have really responded by giving products that actually do something and they have to prove it.
WWD: In the Sixties and Seventies, the industry was dominated by striving entrepreneurs. They’ve all been replaced by corporate chiefs. So do you see this as changing the behavior of the industry; has it made it easier or harder to deal with the industry? Are the products better or worse?
L.W.: It’s a much bigger business than it has ever been, and with that comes bigger corporate chieftains who have to think about the bottom line, and they have to think about the stock prices and they have to think about it as a business. It’s a real business; it’s not just a kind of “Let me make this cream in my bathroom and sell it to a couple of my friends and hope that the best works out.” It’s really a very sophisticated business now and I think that it’s hard to say, well, is that better or worse? What’s great is there are still entrepreneurs. Think about Leslie Blodgett [of Bare Escentuals]. She’ll come up with an idea about mineral makeup and then it’s bought by a bigger company [Shiseido]. That bigger company tries to hang onto its identity while it gives it enough money to continue to grow and to survive in a business that’s very difficult to break into. So I think the good news is that there are still entrepreneurs and the entrepreneurs are still coming up with really good ideas. And what I feel is very positive about the recent past is that there are more places for those entrepreneurs to sell their products and to get noticed — HSN, QVC, online — there are so many more options than just owning that enormously expensive real estate in the department store, which is still valid but it’s not open to everybody.
WWD: What does it take for a product to get you to say “wow,” compared to 20 years ago? What do you look for?
L.W.: For a product to make me say “wow,” it has to have clinical studies that do something different. It has to really perform differently and I need proof. I lived in St. Louis for four years and [Missouri] is called the Show-Me State. For skin care and hair care, that is crucial. For makeup, it can be something as appealing as a different color or a different delivery system, a great packaging. Those things are really valid in their own right. I think mascara performs in a funny way more like skin care in the sense that what does it do; show me how it does something different.
But there have been so many great breakthroughs in products and as the drug world finds new breakthroughs for appearance, like Latisse for eye lashes and the treatments for hair loss and the treatments for hair regrowth and light for building collagen, those are going to be filtered into iterations over the counter and that’s so interesting. The speed of the transition from the drug and the dermatology world into the mainstream is so fast. I think that that’s really where all the change is happening.
Think about a woman’s bathroom. It used to be a sanctuary and wasn’t it lovely; she could take a nice bath and relax and light some candles. Now it’s like a medical office with all these different tools and it will be more and more of that as we go with things that maybe are drugs or things that used to be drugs that now have over-the-counter versions.
WWD: What about this whole question of the merger of wellness and health with beauty? With the Baby Boomers officially turning 65 this year, we’ve entered the age of skin care.
L.W.: As the industry evolves and health and wellness are more connected, the idea that skin care products are really acting like drugs, this has been an issue for the past 20 years. I think that there are products out there now that may actually be functioning as drugs but are not called drugs because the claims are not drug claims. And the FDA has so many other things to do right now that they’re not examining these things and what happens is competitors start to attack each other and that is somehow how the industry has been somewhat self-regulating. But I think that the line between drugs and cosmetics is a very, very fine one and I think it has been crossed and will be crossed. I’m not objecting; frankly, I’m happy. It’s to my benefit for the most part. But I think the question is what’s safe and what’s dangerous. There’s an issue of safety that we all have to really watch out for and report on and keep in line. But I think this desire, the consumer’s desire for performance, performance, performance, and the cosmetics company’s desire to deliver on that is great and then can also be trouble.
WWD: Allure and other magazines featured models on their covers in the past, now it’s all celebrities. Where are we going from here? Who is going to grace the covers of magazines in the future?
L.W.: We have traveled from models to celebrities, and we’re still in the land of celebrities being on the cover. And I don’t see models returning because there is so much more that women want from a magazine, a brand. We don’t just talk about magazines anymore. But from Allure, or any other brand, they want a kind of invitation into this brand and into the world that it encapsulates — but also they want a relationship with someone. So the celebrity represents a kind of relationship, a kind of human connection. It can be a crazy human connection, in the case of some celebrity who has just been in and out of rehab, or it could be some celebrity who always says something that’s a little outrageous, or it could be someone who is just very cheerful and friendly and kind of Miss Congeniality and that’s appealing, too.
I think that that’s the reason why celebrities have dominated for so long on magazine covers and why models just haven’t had that same resonance. It’s the idea that you’re getting a personality and that the magazine is going to deliver not just the profile — I’m not even sure how many people interact with a profile — but it’s just that this is a human being and even though you as a consumer may have completely the wrong impression of this woman on the cover, based on her movie roles and her boyfriend or her past dramas, that this is the person who you’re going to have a connection with. I think that what is celebrity is something that’s changing a lot. We had Kim Kardashian on our cover not so long ago and she wouldn’t really satisfy what a celebrity is — she’s not an actress, she’s not a singer and she’s never been in a movie, unless you count the sex tape. But she’s got a huge Twitter following, she’s got an enormous fan base and she’s got this reality TV show and she’s fascinating. People are interested in her and so that constitutes a celebrity. I think it’s a different kind of celebrity than what we’re used to.
WWD: Are we moving up the food chain? Does it have to be people of greater stature or accomplishment?
L.W.: Well, celebrity and accomplishment are not synonymous. Some of the best-selling people on the covers of magazines are not necessarily the most accomplished or the most talented. They have heat attached to them and they provoke curiosity. It’s not necessarily the greatest actors and actresses and singers in the world. You don’t see an opera star on the cover of a magazine very often.
WWD: How does Allure, the beauty expert, compete in this age that is inundated with all sorts of self-appointed experts scattered across the Internet?
L.W.: Right now, we’re at a time where there are experts everywhere. There are bloggers, there are self-made experts and there are sort of citizen beauty experts. And there’s a lot more competition in terms of voices. One of the ways that we deal with that is to make sure that we are actually experts, that we are continuing to do the reporting and consulting with the doctors and chemists and makeup artists and hair stylists and then bringing our own expertise to this, which is all these years of experience in trying products and knowing what works and knowing what doesn’t work. But we also recognize that it’s a multifaceted, multidimensional world right now and so we are redoing our Web site — allure.com is relaunching in March — and we are going to have product reviews and we’re also going to open up a rate and review function to the Web site. So readers will do reviews and we’ll also have our editor reviews in there.
We’re trying to bring the expertise of the consumer and the woman who is out there and has her own abilities — like [Internet makeup star] Lauren Luke. She started as just a person who would apply her own makeup. She’s entertaining, fascinating and daring. Michelle Phan as well. Bring that to allure.com and have that be part of our experience. That’s part of it and we’re also working on a digital magazine. I think we have to — rather than say, “Oh, we’re the expert and they’re not” — that’s not true anymore. Everyone is an expert in their own way and we have to really find, OK, our expertise is based on this, let’s bring in someone else, let’s bring in these other voices, let’s broaden the experience and the conversation.
WWD: So you end up being basically an arbiter of expertise?
L.W.: We could become a curator of experts.
WWD: By digital magazine do you mean a digital form of Allure?
L.W.: A digital form of Allure. We’re working on our iPad launch, which will be in May, and we’re also working on apps, which will be different forms of Allure and much more focused, much more actionable. We have an app right now for Best of Beauty. We have about four or five other app ideas that we’re working on. It’s a way of making beauty a utility. What we’re finding is that women use beauty in different ways, depending on their device and depending on their wish and their mission. It’s not just entertainment. So we’re going to have very focused apps for that.
WWD: Turning back to the beauty industry, what do you think it’s going to take to revive the fragrance business in the U.S.?
L.W.: I’ve always had this fantasy, and it’s impossible because I’m sure it would end up being my epitaph, but wouldn’t it be amazing if there were a rating for fragrance the way there is for wine? Like that Robert Parker rating? I really feel like that changed the way people purchased wine and felt comfortable buying wine when it was such a mysterious experience. I feel like the fragrance industry and the wine industry have similarities because they’re connoisseurs and it’s impenetrable and it’s sort of intangible in some ways and I think it’s hard for most people to really appreciate all the details. And I also feel like it comes from France, and France has this history of knowing it and it’s in their culture and it’s appreciated. But Americans learned to love wine and appreciate wine and I think partly because that numerical system made it, they’d see something that said 89 and they’d say, “Oh that’s OK, I’ll buy that, that’ll make it easy.”
Fragrance is hard because I don’t think that Americans have a real comfort in wearing fragrance and assimilating it into our lives. And I don’t think mothers teach their daughters about fragrance. There just isn’t that romantic history of fragrance. I think the problem for so many years was it was treated as too precious when perfume… when Americans first started really having perfume after World War II and soldiers brought it home from Europe. It was so precious that it was saved for special occasions. And the perfume would go bad but it also didn’t have a place in our everyday life. And it’s hard to make a business out of something that doesn’t have a place in your everyday life.
As time went on, there were the designer fragrances and then there were the knockoffs and the flankers and the new fragrances and the celebrity fragrances and the new ones would come out every three months and there’d be a summer version of it and a spring version of it and a light version of it, a sport version of it. There are just too many fragrances and the industry is trying to make the fast hit and needs to — but it creates this disposable consumer culture, and so fragrance stops losing its sense of magic and dignity and just becomes this commodity that can be picked up and thrown away. It’s such a behavioral thing. It’s both the industry’s fault and the consumer’s fault. And that’s fine but it’s not going to change anything.
There’s this counter-trend of people who are really trying to develop special fragrances that have quality. And you look at By Kilian or the Bond fragrances or the Tom Ford fragrances and now certain fashion houses are coming out with fragrances. I just met with Oscar de la Renta and he’s bringing out his fragrance again and it’s a much higher-quality bottle and it’s much more beautiful. That is a way to get there, but I still think behavior is a harder piece of it. [Women] don’t wake up in the morning and put on a fragrance.
WWD: Do you think we’re in for another renaissance of indie brands like we had in the late Nineties?
L.W.: It could be a really good time for indie brands, if for only the fact that the indie brands are purchased by the big brands and there’s so much money to be made. I mean, what could be better than being an indie brand right now? [Indie brands are] the ones who are coming up with these ideas and creating these concepts, there are ways for them to get a little traction in different places to sell their products, either online or in small boutiques, then there are all these big companies who are waiting for these new ideas to purchase. So it seems to me a very ripe atmosphere for indie brands to pop up again. The big companies are ruling the game right now, but they’re taking on these indie brands and really taking care of them and giving them a really robust second life.
WWD: Are natural products becoming the new mainstream or are they just going to fade away and be one component of a huge ingredient stew?
L.W.: The challenge with natural products is that there are some consumers who will go to a natural product and sacrifice performance. The most important thing to her is that it’s natural. But I think that the majority of consumers want performance first. And so it’s a great thing if it’s natural in addition to performing, but if it’s natural and it doesn’t perform she’s not going to go there. Until the natural products actually perform as well as the synthetics, I don’t think they can grow as big as the synthetic lines. So I think that there’s just a built in limitation to it. Principles are really great, but there are only so many people who are just going to buy on principle.
WWD: How do you think women define beauty these days?
L.W.: Beauty has changed. Beauty is definitely multicultural and multiracial and multiethnic. Beauty now as a concept is so connected to confidence and I think that that’s what women are really looking for. They are looking for the products that will make her feel like she’s doing something and that make her feel good about herself and that then she feels stronger about going about her day.