NEW YORK — Linda Wells, the founding editor of Condé Nast’s Allure magazine, was let go on Wednesday. Wells had served as editor in chief of the beauty magazine for 24 years.
Her successor, Nylon Media’s former editor in chief and marketing officer Michelle Lee, was ushered in and presented as the magazine’s new editor by Condé Nast. She will take the reins from Wells immediately, according to the New York-based publisher.
According to sources, Wells broke the news to her staff on Wednesday, along with Lee, who also spoke. Sources with knowledge of the meeting described Allure staffers as “shell shocked” upon hearing the news, and as Wells gave her final farewell, many of them began “sobbing.”
Wells did not respond to requests seeking comment on her next move.
In a company-wide memo, Condé Nast president Bob Sauerberg said, “When Linda Wells launched Allure, it broke new ground and redefined the beauty category, and she leaves us with that rich heritage to build upon. Today we begin a new phase of innovation for the brand, with Michelle paving the way for the next wave of consumers who crave interactive beauty content that’s both inspiring and approachable.”
Although a changing of the guard at Allure had been a rumor at Condé for some time, the news jolted the staff given the relatively stable environment at the company as of late, even as employees were bracing for minimal job cuts and budget restrictions across the group.
Some at Condé Nast speculated earlier in the year that Allure would possibly merge with Self, and that Wells’ departure may be part of that change. Others at the company believe that the smaller titles, of which Allure is one, will eventually go all-digital or at least reduce their frequency. Insiders pointed to the importance of digital, native advertising and e-commerce at Condé which, like its print-centric rivals, has been investing more heavily in that direction. Case in point: Condé transitioned Style.com to an e-commerce site, and it has added e-commerce elements to its other brands, such as Bon Appétit and Glamour via the lipstick.com beauty site.
That is why the selection of Lee as editor appears to make sense to many in the industry.
Lee, a former editor in chief at In Touch Weekly, is deemed by many as a “digitally savvy editor” and her background seems to meld the worlds of commerce and content that Condé appears to be seeking for its future editors. At Nylon, she held the dual roles of marketer and editor. In her short yearlong tenure there, Lee was unable to resuscitate Nylon’s print magazines, but she focused on trying to grow Nylon across digital, e-commerce, video and social platforms. In March, Nylon Guys folded its U.S. print edition, and transitioned to digital only. Before Lee’s departure last month, Nylon cut about a third of its staff, including its publisher.
It is said that Lee was handpicked for her new gig by Condé’s artistic director Anna Wintour, who ushered in prior editors in chief since she was appointed in 2013. Those editors have included Brides’ Keija Minor, Condé Nast Traveler’s Pilar Guzmán, Self’s Joyce Chang and Lucky’s Eva Chen, who subsequently departed the group when Lucky was spun off into a joint venture.
Wells, who was part of Condé’s “old guard” of top editors, was said to not be particularly close to Wintour. That aside, Allure had taken a big hit in recent years. With the emergence of beauty bloggers and YouTubers, not to mention a steep pullback in beauty advertising, Allure had lost its dominance in the industry.
This year, the magazine’s ad pages declined 15.6 percent to 762.99 from the January to September period, according to data from the Publishers Information Bureau. While total, paid and verified circulation stayed relatively flat and just under 1.2 million, for the last two years, newsstand sales totaled 87,945 in 2014, marking a 17.9 percent decline over 2013, the Alliance for Audited Media said.
Still, newsstand declines are pretty standard nowadays and, according to Magazine Media 360 measure, Allure was gaining ground on the digital front, with a total 360 figure of 9.4 million editions in the first half, up from 8.4 million a year earlier. The increase was driven by mobile and video.
Given Allure’s longstanding performance, Wells was lauded by the media industry as one of Condé’s most respected editors. Just last week, she was honored at the Phoenix House’s 2015 Fashion Award Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental in New York, along with Mark Lee, David Neville and Marcus Wainwright.
During Wells’ tenure at Allure, she helped usher in a slew of firsts among magazines, which included: 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.
She told WWD in 2011, when she was celebrating her 20th year as editor, that part of her mission was to make Allure a “journalistic magazine about beauty.”
Known as an editor who has vigilantly observed the changing media landscape, Wells noted: “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.”
At the time, Wells spoke of the importance of personalities gracing covers and their social media reach, a subject that editors are still mulling today.
“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,” Wells said. “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.”
And while Lee may be seen as “digitally savvy,” Wells also was pushing Allure firmly in that direction. She helped develop e-commerce for the title through partnerships with Quidsi and later ShopAdvisor. More recently, she worked on a collaboration with MasterCard’s MasterPass. During WWD’s Beauty Digital Summit in May, Wells touted the partnership, noting: “Now, through tech innovations like MasterPass, the path is smooth and seamless. The consumer can complete a purchase without even leaving the page.”
The impetus for that collaboration, however, was more to drive Web traffic for digital advertising dollars than revenue from beauty purchases.
Nonetheless, Wells’ departure, and Lee’s hire, signal to insiders that a major makeover is ahead for Allure.