The fashion-agenda setting power of a September issue may have waned over the past few years, in part due to the rise of influencers. But they’re still the most important issues of the year for glossy magazine publishers, chasing ad dollars more than ever during the pandemic.

That’s why having skipped some issues due to coronavirus-related production and advertising concerns, most magazines are making a comeback for September, with publishers even extending their deadlines to allow more time for ads and content to roll in.

The exceptions appear to be Paper and W, which are sitting it out as their owners consider their future, although W had already scrapped the notion of a September issue per se in favor of numbered issues — two of which were timed around the month.

For those that are publishing, on the editorial side, it’s been a bit of a roller coaster to say the least when it comes to production. In April, editors were unsure of what they could achieve with large swaths of the country in lockdown and some were contemplating a September jam-packed with virtual shoots. As well as the difficulty of shooting, in some months it was almost impossible to obtain clothes and accessories, with stores and factories closed or making hand sanitizer and masks. Photo studios were also shuttered.

But as the country started to gradually reopen, editors were able to carry out fairly small-scale, socially distanced shoots with bare minimum crews and learned quickly that they needed to be equipped with a backup plan for every situation.

Just moments before InStyle, a Meredith-owned magazine, was set to shoot actress Kristin Wiig in Los Angeles for one of its September subscription covers, a crew member received a call while on the highway — he had been exposed to the coronavirus and needed to be tested.

Editor in chief Laura Brown knew exactly what to do, as a similar situation had also happened for the August issue. To ensure the safety of everyone involved, they closed down the set, drove it all off and brought it back once the crew member got the all clear.

As the only women’s fashion magazine sticking to its publishing schedule of 12 issues this year, Brown has become adept at the backup plan, especially as the number of COVID-19 cases in L.A. started to spike again and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo put a two-week quarantine in place for people arriving from many states.

“We weren’t sure what we could physically shoot. The whole time I was driving with one eye closed or something. Plan A, plan B and plan C for everything,” she said over Zoom.

“We’re just planning things and being safe, but I am not wed. I want to achieve things, but I am super pragmatic,” she continued. “You just have to move with it, but also try to be as clever and reflective of what’s going on as possible.”

In the end, Brown managed to fill all the pages, with a little last-minute pivoting — and even scored a Dr. Anthony Fauci subscription cover.

Perhaps the most ambitious to produce of all the in-person shoots was a subscription cover paying tribute to Ormond Gigli’s 1960 “Girls in Windows.” Brown joked that she was having a Diana Vreeland moment when she asked her team to find a big building with windows you can stand in, but they quickly found what she was looking for in Brooklyn.

Shot in an artists’ haven and former candy factory, it features the inhabitants and their landlord adorned in colorful pops of clothing and, of course, socially distanced throughout the building. The photographer, Jason Schmidt, shot it across the street in a scissor lift. “I wanted to in some way register some sense of community in that issue somehow,” Brown said.

The newsstand cover face is Zendaya (the actress also has a separate subscriber cover), who was photographed on an L.A. mansion rooftop that ended up being perfect for social distancing, with  “the unsubtle concept being that you can’t quarantine the joy of fashion,” according to Brown.

The shoot is the work of Black stylist Law Roach and Black photographer duo Donté Maurice and Ahmad Barber, who were recommended to Brown by Roach. All of Zendaya’s looks are from Black designers, including Jason Rembert, Hanifa and Christopher John Rogers.

Brown joins other magazine editors that have brought more diversity to their covers in the past few weeks — and not just the subject. Town & Country also used Roach, Maurice and Barber for its Kerry Washington September cover, while for Vanity Fair’s August issue, Radhika Jones for the first time tapped a Black photographer, Dario Calmese, for the Viola Davis cover.

In contrast, Vogue turned to Annie Leibovitz to photograph Olympic gold medalist gymnast Simone Biles for its August cover and faced criticism for using improper lighting for Biles’ dark skin tone. Fans said this was a missed opportunity to showcase a Black photographer. InStyle also came under fire in 2015 for the lighting it used for its Kerry Washington cover, making her skin appear much lighter.

While September issues in general may no longer wield the influence they once had during magazine publishers’ heyday, their covers still carry much clout and are viewed as cultural statements. Brown hopes that recent moves by magazines will become the norm. “I hope that this change is not tokenist or obligatory or because it’s your press release,” she said. “It’s not. It’s actually some of the best and most exciting work that you’re going to do. And the most stimulating work you’re going to do. And the most restorative work as an editor and as a staff at a magazine. It makes you feel proud.”

In her conversation with Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Cullors-Brignac inside the magazine, Zendaya said there are so many Black designers people don’t know about, so having an opportunity where “they can be in InStyle and get the love they deserve is really special. I hope people are like, ‘Oh, I like that dress!’ And then go support them.”

Aya Kanai, the new editor in chief of Marie Claire, is yet to reveal her September cover, but she, too, wants to improve diversity across the board in magazine making and not just on the cover. Megan Thee Stallion was Marie Claire’s May cover face, photographed by Micaiah Carter.

“I started my job in January of 2020 and when I sat down with the team, one of the things that I said on that first day in the office was that it’s really important to me to not only have a diversity of the subject that we’re shooting, but a diversity in the kinds of people who are taking our photographs and the kinds of stylists, the hair and makeup people in order to make sure that we are translating our message through everything that we do,” she told WWD in early July.

Now that sets have become much smaller due to the COVID-19 crisis, she believes this has become even more important.

Kanai said it’s been a pretty wild year to take on a very new and big leadership role, with extreme challenges when it comes to production of photo shoots and getting hold of samples. “There were certain months when there was nothing — no matter what brand you were there was nothing to get.”

It’s now easier in the clothing department, but she is hoping that editors having to make do with the bare minimum instead of 10 trunks of clothes appearing on set will lead to a permanent sustainable change in the industry, often known for its excess and waste.

“If I’m styling a photoshoot, as I am at the end of this month, I’m calling in the pieces that I know are critical to get the story done and I don’t want a lot of extra fluff and frankly I can’t have it any way,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll ever go back to  the time of having 20 racks of clothing for an eight-look photo shoot. It’s not necessary. Period.”

For her first September cover, the thinking back in April was to ask the husband of its cover star (their name is still under wraps) to photograph her. In the end, she was able to send a photographer with a long lens for safety reasons, but it also ended up having more meaning.

“One of the photographs I chose — we have two covers for our September issue — is one of these long lens shots where you see the subject surrounded by nature and you see her entire reflection in a pool, and to me that was a perfect image,” Kanai said. “This has been a time where we are really reflecting on who we are and who we want to be and so I wanted to select an image that reflected the time that we’re living in.”

But while editors in chief worked hard on the content, they didn’t have as many pages to fill as in the glory years of 700-plus page September issues. Expect the issues to be on the thinner side this year — despite publishers’ best efforts — as luxe brands cut their marketing budgets during shutdown and shifted some ad spend to online. Declining print ad revenue was a trend already in play, only to be exacerbated by the coronavirus.

“Our brand and the entire industry has been shaken by the pandemic,” said Agnes Chapski, the publisher of InStyle. “The economic impact in the luxury, fashion and retail markets is considerable. These categories drove significant business in previous September issues so this year’s issue will reflect those declines.”

Instead, magazines are working with advertisers in different ways. InStyle has forged a partnership with Max Mara, which will see fashion director Julia Von Boehm oversee virtual video style sessions for the Italian brand’s VIP clientele.

In a statement, Carol Smith, publisher of Hearst Magazines titles Marie Claire, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar, told WWD that these past few months have afforded the publisher the opportunity to think differently about its business and to focus on what’s working. “We have been listening carefully to our audiences and have been providing specific, solution-oriented programs to our partners,” she said. “One of the outcomes I am most excited about is our expanded commerce-driven offerings that begin with brand awareness and end with conversions.”

Smith didn’t provide any update on ad sales, but in a May interview she said “it’s going to be a tough 2020.” At the time, in terms of ads, only around three brands had told Smith they wouldn’t advertise in September. Others are scaling back their usual spend. “In fashion, you know in September Saint Laurent needs six pages. Well, maybe they’re going to run four in an issue. So, yes, there’s going to be a slight scale back. We have anticipated it and certainly projected that,” she said.

For me, see:

September Issues Will Be Exactly What They Say on the Cover This Year

How Will the Coronavirus Impact Already Fragile Glossy Magazine Print Ads?

Low in Print This Summer: Magazines

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