Stephen Gan doesn’t think himself one for nostalgia, but the man certainly appreciates print.
In the 20th anniversary issue of V magazine, the unapologetically fashion-focused and oversize glossy Gan cofounded in 1999, there’s a large spread photographed by Nick Knight titled “A Celebration of Print,” set off on the intro page with a giant “V” made out of Swarovski crystals (the company is called out as a partner for the spread). The pages that follow show model after model wearing one-off garments made with the use, in one way or another, of pages from old issues of the magazine. Despite such apparent effusion for his magazine on the printed page, Gan admits, “I tend to dislike retrospectives.”
“I tend not to be a very sentimental person, either,” Gan said. “I’m more interested in the new and the now. The series is a kind of poetic celebration, because it’s giving these 10 brand-new designers old tear sheets to turn into new creations. It’s always been about the future.”
But if there’s ever an occasion to look back, bringing an independent fashion magazine through 20 years seems as good a time as any. Gan, who serves as creative director of V, its offshoot VMan and separately Elle magazine, acknowledged that V making it this many years as an independent publication operating in New York and maintaining a high profile “is a rare gift.”
“When I started out, I felt like all of my friends were going to start magazines, it was just the thing to do,” Gan said. “Over the years, it’s become rarer and rarer. It’s challenging but I’m grateful.”
While V in print isn’t going anywhere (print advertising for the upcoming September issue is up 12 percent year-over-year, although digital ads and partnerships now make up one-third of the business), Gan did allude to the format on the whole becoming scarce. “We’re living in a time where print is going to grow more and more precious, but for the next few years, it will still be the trophy for any title.”
In thinking about starting the magazine in the late Nineties, Gan said he really only consulted three people whom he thought, with their divergent situations, would have opinions just as divergent. One was the late Karl Lagerfeld, “already around forever”; one was Hedi Slimane, “just about to join Dior Homme;” one was Adrian Joffe, who with his wife Rei Kawakubo was “leading the avant-garde” with Comme des Garçons. But all ended up saying pretty much the same thing to Gan.
“They were all interested in not so much reaching the millions of readers that bigger publications had in terms of circulation, but in only reaching the 10,000 to 100,000 people that they wanted to speak to,” Gan said. “This was way before the word ‘influencer.’ Nowadays every marketing meeting is ‘How can we speak to these 10,000 to 100,000 influencers.’”
And this path, one focused on a niche audience and fewer advertisers, Gan was happy to go down. His father had an independent printing business, from books to notebooks, instilling in Gan the idea that “print was something precious.” He was “horrified” when he first learned that big magazine publishers were known to send thousands of unsold copies of their magazines to be recycled every month to make sure circulation numbers stayed up. He wants V to have real value and only tries to get it in front of people “who really care.”
But the industry has certainly changed since Gan started V, originally as an offshoot of Visionaire, the former magazine Gan cofounded in 1991 with Cecelia Dean and James Kaliardos. Gan split from the trio in 2014 and kept control of V and VMan. Instagram alone has drastically altered the way fashion is presented and images are created. Gan said there are occasions when a photographer will tell him that 10 days are needed for retouching, something that used to be par for the course but now photographers who make such a demand will get editors looking at them “weird.” And now there are what he calls “tiers” of images, like those that go up quickly on social media and those that show up in print, which he compared to “haute cuisine and fast food.”
Even with so much change over the last few years, Gan only recently felt his editorial mind click to appreciate the value of video for some shoots. It was a shoot for the September issue with Bella Hadid on horseback and dressed in only Fendi (another advertiser) that included video. While the images are still in the print issue, Gan called it a “benchmark project” for him because he realized “this story in motion is probably more powerful than it is in print.”
“It’s taken me a long time to say that.”
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