Societal ills like racism and toxic masculinity far predate the police killing of George Floyd and the coronavirus pandemic, but the newfound reach conversations on such topics have is still spreading throughout the media.
Enter GQ, a Condé Nast publication around in its current form since 1967. While Condé has been facing something of a reckoning in recent months on the lack of diversity in its magazines’ pages and staff, along with pay inequity and complicity with noxious leaders, namely at Vogue and Bon Appétit, respectively, GQ has found itself largely outside the fray.
“GQ has a long history of having diversity in the magazine and I’m very proud of where we are in terms of our staff and our leadership,” Will Welch, editor in chief of GQ, said over a video call from his home, as the Condé office in New York is still closed over the pandemic. “But yes, there are improvements we can and will make.”
And with a new mission statement, or “manifesto,” to be featured in the upcoming September issue across all 21 global issues of GQ, all of which are working on the theme “change is good,” Welch is expecting to be held accountable, by his staff and/or the social media-using public. The message is a concise 65 words that promises “a renewed emphasis on diversity, gender equality, sustainability, and mental health” at all editions of GQ, within the context of changing ideals around masculinity and manhood.
The November issue of GQ, featuring musician Pharrell Williams in a dramatic, yellow, floor-length cape designed by Pierpaolo Piccioli for Moncler dubbed “The New Masculinity,” was certainly a precursor. The just-launched September issue is much more typical in look, with rapper Travis Scott shirtless and flexing his abs on the cover, inside discussing his activism efforts.
As could be expected, the industry reaction to the preceding Pharrell cover was “fantastic,” Welch said. The broader public, less so, with some vitriol about perceived emasculation.
“My Twitter mentions were pretty swampy for about a month and a half.”
Still, he thinks there is value in a magazine making a public commitment to diversity and different types of conversations around men.
“Ask Pharrell if he felt emasculated on that cover. He didn’t,” Welch said. “This stuff is just in the air already.”
The conversation of a unified editorial goal for all of GQ’s global editions predates recent public events. It started late last year, when all of the lead editors of the different editions met in London as part of Condé’s move to combine its American and international operations. The two have been run separately for decades and one of the main tasks of new chief executive officer Roger Lynch is to combine operations, back to front.
“We all started talking and it got to wanting to make a statement that codifies this idea of us all getting on the same page in terms of our values,” Welch said.
There is no mandate for coverage that comes with the new “manifesto,” nor is there a specific goal in mind in terms of selling magazines or driving online engagement. Welch mainly wants to bring more reader awareness to the fact that GQ is a “global” publication and also offer a place of support for readers, and other editions of GQ, to be themselves.
But that will look very different in some editions of the magazine, compared to the American or European editions. GQ Middle East could not do a cover story with Pharrell in what comes across as a voluminous gown.
“Every GQ exists in a different context,” Adam Baidawi, editor of GQ Middle East since it’s launch in 2018, said from his home in Dubai. “We have, from the get-go, wanted to embrace a less rigid idea of what a men’s magazine can be.”
He highlighted stories in his edition that have focused on women, one even on street harassment, and mental health. But strictures on the notion of traditional masculinity and gender roles are still very much present. All sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage are criminalized in the United Arab Emirates and that naturally trickles down into cultural depictions of men and women, even in a luxury fashion magazine.
“We want to be a magazine that takes a second look at the overlooked,” Baidawi allowed. When asked about the gender fluid movement that’s becoming more popular in the U.S. and Western Europe and if it could ever be something to show up in the pages of his magazine, Baidawi declined to comment.
“What I will say is that we have a lot of responsibilities as one of the biggest media brands.”
Baidawi explained that he was mostly raised by Iraqi parents in Australia and considers that his home, but being in a Western country, all he saw depicted of the Middle East was “wealth and war” and “Orientalist tropes.”
“Getting here, it showed me something that I already knew, which is that the people of the Middle East are so much more than that.”