Glenda Bailey is far from the household name of some of her peers. Sure, she’s been editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar for 15 years and, before that, turned around Marie Claire in the U.S., after becoming a media star in the U.K. as that title’s launch editor. Like most editors in chief, she’s no pushover when it comes to creating an exacting vision for her magazine — and in her case, making sure her tight-knit staff and Bazaar’s content adhere to it.
At the same time, she lacks the much-practiced, uberjudgmental ice-cold stare expected of the studied fashionista. Instead, as she talks in her lilting Northern English accent — still strong, even after 20 years in America — Bailey exudes a disarming humor and unexpected charm that appear incompatible with her position.
The editor, who received an Order of the British Empire in 2008 and an award of Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government in 2012, began her magazine career at Marie Claire in the U.K. in 1988, making it such a success that she even did an American Express commercial there. She headed to America in 1996 to take over the U.S. Marie Claire, then succeeded Katherine Betts at Bazaar five years later. The title has had its ups and downs under Bailey, as have most magazines. Bazaar’s total paid and verified circulation in 2015 equaled 748,836 and total single-copy sales amounted to 114,765, the Alliance for Audited Media said. While this constituted a 0.9 percent dip in circulation and a 1.4 percent decline in newsstand sales over the prior year, Bazaar has managed to blunt some of the steeper declines in the industry with a tight 725,000 rate base and a 10-time-a-year frequency.
Bailey sat down with WWD in a spartan conference room decorated mainly with old issues of Bazaar in Hearst Tower in New York to discuss her evolving role as editor, how she comes up with some of Bazaar’s buzziest covers and her thoughts on the future of fashion magazines in an increasingly digital world.
WWD: How has the role of editor in chief changed?
Glenda Bailey: I think, thanks to technology, it’s got a whole lot easier. The days of having to have faxes at the collections are happily gone. It just makes life easier, more efficient. I love fashion and I love to be able to communicate that passion I have in different mediums. For me to be able to cover the news immediately online and be able to produce something that is truly creative and innovative — I’m full of ideas — in the magazine, it means I have the best of both worlds. As I look back at the last 15 years, one of the things that I’m most proud of is creating the [subscriber] cover. When I first did it, the first couple of years, people really criticized it and didn’t think it would work at all. Now, you see it everywhere.
WWD: What was the thinking behind that?
G.B.: I woke up to the fact that on the newsstand, you’re really talking to potential new readers who really don’t know what’s inside Bazaar and what makes it so special. You need to, of course, put the coverlines on there to be able to suggest why they need to pick it up. If you’re a loyal subscriber, you know exactly what’s in Harper’s Bazaar. For them, I feel like they get rewarded with this incredibly beautiful image. I like to be able to offer both.
WWD: Some of your subscriber covers have been really artistic and innovative. Do you think they wouldn’t sell on the newsstand? For instance, the Rihanna shark cover?
G.B.: I’m afraid it’s logic. When you put an image like that on the newsstand, you have literally two seconds to get somebody’s attention. Often, with many of the subscriber covers, they’re far away and the thing that catches your attention more than anything on the newsstand is eye contact. Because you’ve got a smaller image, and sometimes a darker image, often it doesn’t stand out, as much as a traditional newsstand cover, which is why we continue to do right for newsstand. It has clearly been proven to be the case of our sales figures. Obviously, I’m very proud of the fact that we’re least down of any of our competitive set, but also we’re least down than the industry — way better than the industry [average] on newsstand. This is something that is our point of difference, that we really focus on commercial covers for the newsstand and we’re able to look and dream and produce those epic images that we’ve been lucky enough to win.
WWD: Let’s talk the Kardashians and social media stars. Bazaar has featured them on its cover, but doesn’t seem to rely on them quite as much for covers as other magazines.
G.B.: It’s a moment in time, really. I’m looking at celebrities who are relevant or who want to participate in some of our more adventurous ideas. I’ve often said we’re not just about hemlines, we’re about headlines. I love the idea that as a monthly magazine, we can break news stories. Like for example, Emma [Ferrer], who is Audrey Hepburn’s granddaughter, I don’t think anybody knew she existed. [Points to Bazaar’s September 2014 cover featuring Ferrer]. I like the idea of being able to show her, and to be able to present somebody that people aren’t familiar with, and then equally, I like to show a model. Anna Ewers got her first cover from Harper’s Bazaar, but then equally, it’s great to have all of our celebrities. For example, when I did the redesign, I love the fact that we had Gwyneth Paltrow but we didn’t show her face. It turned out to be Anthony Vaccarello’s first editorial in an American publication and he then obviously got his cover. And then in the May issue, we did an interview with him, just as the news broke of him going to Saint Laurent.
WWD: When you think about some of your best covers, are they inspired by art or attending collections, talking to the designers?
G.B.: Yes, art. For example, I don’t know if you’ve seen Cindy Sherman’s limited-edition covers that we did in March, but these are major collectors’ items. This came about because about three years ago, I sat next to Cindy at a Lanvin show, and we started chatting and we became friends. I’ve always been after her to do something for us…and finally she agreed. This is the result [shows Sherman editions, then turns back to Rihanna cover]. But equally if you take something like this, it came about because I’d read in an interview, just one sentence, which said Rihanna was a strong swimmer because she comes from an island. I was like, “Great, then. If she wants to be on the cover then she must agree to swimming with a shark, so she did.” It worked. You should look at the video. You can see how she’s swimming. These were three 30-foot long sharks. This is a very dangerous situation. You can see that the photographer’s assistant brushed his arm on one of them, and as a result, they started to circle her, and we had to pull her out. You see this all on film.
WWD: That would have made a headline.
G.B.: There was lots of insurance on that shoot, let’s put it that way. But then, the great Laura Brown [executive editor] pointed out that it was actually the anniversary of “Jaws.” Remember there was a very famous picture like this [shows Rihanna in the shark’s mouth], there was a mock-up of Steven [Spielberg] lying in a shark’s mouth, so we re-created that sort of spirit here for the cover. Some of our more famous ones, like the Demi Moore one, was good because that coincided with the fact that I had just come back from the collections, and Lee [Alexander] McQueen had shown his collection with the armadillo shoes. It was so surreal. I had been looking at a lot of Dalí references because Dalí had first contributed to Harper’s Bazaar many, many years ago, and I’d been on a holiday in Spain and I’d seen a lot of the exhibitions. I thought: “What can we do to try and create this moment?” I had this idea of putting a spiral staircase on the sand and then getting her to climb up it with her armadillo shoes. I thought, “While she’s up there, she needs to be doing something,” hence I wanted a giraffe. She’s feeding the giraffe.
WWD: So, you just like to torture these people?
G.B.: Well, but, here’s the thing: celebrities understand the power of original ideas because often that’s why they act. They want to be in movies that tell a story. They know the power of iconic imagery. Often, you find that people really want to participate.
WWD: How do you convince Hearst to pay for the more elaborate shoots?
G.B.: We are very cost-conscious. As I said, we’re a business. It’s not just producing this incredible imagery, but also it’s produced within budget and that’s something we all need to take seriously. I certainly do at Bazaar, and before, at Marie Claire, because a lot of people can achieve those wild ideas if they have unlimited resources. Well, that’s not the case for us, but I think it helps us try harder to come up with ideas, which really have maximum impact at a minimum amount of budget.
Every November, we do the “daring” issue and we had Madonna on the cover. We were thinking, “Who is the writer best to interview Madonna?” I took a huge risk. [Madonna wrote her own piece]. It was a very moving piece. She writes beautifully, but it was very disturbing. It got picked up internationally because it was a very serious piece about when she first came to New York. It just goes to show how sometimes, I’ve learned, it’s just as important to let go and let somebody do what they’re best at and other times, I’m very determined to get exactly what I know we need. It’s that balance.
WWD: Talk about your relationships with Carine Roitfeld, Bazaar’s global fashion director and creative director Stephen Gan and how you work with them.
Stephen Gan, I’ve obviously worked with for the whole 15 years. We met at Iman and David [Bowie’s home], we were invited for a dinner. We knew each other, but only to say hello. At the dinner, we sat down next to each other, and we were chatting away. It was so obvious that we should work together because we share a similar spirit. I love to laugh. Life’s too short not to enjoy what you’re working on and Stephen has that spirit, too. He’s always laughing and he also knows how important it is to produce memorable images. It’s so good to have someone who finished your sentences. He knows what I’m going to say, and it’s not just with him, many on my team do. It’s a shorthand. And when Carine left French Vogue, I actually wrote to her and I saw her and I asked her if she would consider working for Bazaar.
WWD: She must have been a bit shocked because of the rivalry between Vogue and Bazaar.
G.B.: No. See what you have to remember with me is, I’m all about talent. I love talent and I want to work with as much great talent as possible. My job as editor in chief is making the most of everybody’s talent and pulling that together into a format that’s even better than an individual. She works for us with Stephen….they do a portfolio with us four times a year.
WWD: Many editors in chief today are the face of their publications. People certainly know who you are, but you don’t seek the spotlight. Is that a conscious decision?
G.B.: I firmly believe that Harper’s Bazaar is the star. I am there to make it the best it possibly can be, but there should be no confusion. I want to put Harper’s Bazaar front and center.
WWD: Do you feel you have to wear the hat of an editor and a businessperson, as media companies demand more from editors?
G.B.: I’ve always been a businessperson. It comes from A-level economics. I think it’s a very shallow thought to think creative people can’t do business. I am as proud of the fact that we’re a commercial success as I am that we’re a critical success. I want people to realize that I’m very strategic in how I run Bazaar. When you think that we’ve had 150 years of these great people that went before me — legendary teams — when you think about that Harper’s Bazaar was the first magazine to show photography, the first magazine to show movement in photography, the first magazine to show a nude, the first magazine to show a bikini, the first to show the Pill, it’s always been very inventive. Alexey Brodovitch [art director from 1934 to 1958] used to say, “Astonish me.” We as the team at Bazaar hear that everyday because we want to surprise people.
WWD: There can be a blurring of the lines between editorial and business. Is there ever a point where you feel you can go too far? For example, you work with Shop Bazaar, but not intimately…
G.B.: Well, yes, we make our selects.
WWD: Is there ever a point where you think an editor should be separate from that?
G.B.: There are a lot of questions there. One: I think it’s very important to highlight exactly what you are showing. If it’s an ad, it needs to be sign-posted as an ad. To your other point with ShopBazaar, frankly, anything I can do to make shopping easier for my reader makes me very happy. We are a fashion and beauty magazine, and you come to Bazaar because you are interested in fashion and beauty.
WWD: As you noted, Bazaar is a very old print brand, but it is relatively new on the web. How does it carve out a voice there?
G.B.: We’ve only just begun. I love the different mediums. That’s the whole point. Technology enables us to communicate in different ways. I like to play with it. I want technology to work for me, and my readers. People get confused that technology comes first. The ideas come first. You need to use the medium.
WWD: Bazaar is known for its fashion imagery in print. How do you see fashion magazines translating digitally, the image-making?
G.B.: As time goes on, I think we’ll be seeing beautiful imagery online. At the moment, it’s difficult to do just because of the amount of time it takes to generate some of these stories. Some of these stories have taken three years to do. You have to deal with fast reaction of the news and putting it out in a very fast format, but that doesn’t mean it can only mean that. I’m personally really looking forward to the opportunity of mini-movies, and taking that idea of moving fashion into different areas, and really bringing it to life. You know, I like the idea of Snapchat — it’s there and it’s gone. I’d really like to do an entire movie. The joy of being creative now means that you have all these opportunities, and I’m determined to experience all of them.
WWD: Do you use any social media platforms?
G.B.: Through Harper’s Bazaar — mainly because I believe Harper’s Bazaar is the star. Instagram is my medium because I’m very visual. Everybody says I should do it under my name. Maybe I should reconsider that?
WWD: So you’re the author of some of Bazaar’s Instagram posts?
G.B.: Of course! I’m very visual and I love taking photos. It’s a hobby, really.
WWD: How does the magazine market differ in the U.S. from the U.K.?
G.B.: I used to say when I came over that in Britain, sex sells, and here, it’s hair. And I do think that’s true. That’s very general, but fashion reflects what goes on in society. If you live in America, you are inundated with fantastic images of these beautiful celebrities and Hollywood glamour. You’re brought up with that, and so you’re brought up with the idea of having your nails painted. But in England still, it’s very much, there’s not a nail parlor on every corner. There are still those differences. But fashion and beauty, it’s an international language. The same trends that we’re seeing — people spending more money on restaurants and less money on groceries — that is exactly the same in America as it is in Europe. I’m obsessed with knowing how people lead their lives. I love trends. I worked in fashion forecasting and I think that helps in being an editor because I love to know what’s next, and I like to predict. I like to predict the trends going into the shows and normally I’ve organized all of our stories before we go. [Laughs] Fashion is my second language.
WWD: You cochair the Lincoln Center Corporate Fund Gala, which is in its fourth year. Who will you honor this year and how much have you raised to date?
G.B.: We’ve got Carolina Herrera coming up, but we’ve already made $4 million for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, not counting Carolina. We wanted to do it with her because it’s her anniversary. We’re just working out a program. We do have a great performer but unfortunately I can’t say whom.
WWD: You know all these people. Do you ever get starstruck?
G.B.: All of them. I have such an appreciation of talent and I have an inquiring mind. I’m always curious about what makes people tick. I’m in a very fortunate position to be able to meet a lot of very interesting people.