NEW YORK — Visionaire and Blanche Dubois have a lot in common. Both rely on the kindness of strangers — and in Visionaire’s case, it can happen without their knowing it.

The self-consciously trendy fashion magazine has managed to persuade high-profile fashion photographers to clear their frenetic work schedule for two weeks, shoot for free, and pick up any ancillary expenses themselves. It’s asked a high-end luxury company to encase the magazine in 2,500 designer satchels — at no charge. Most other magazines would receive responses to such requests that wouldn’t be pretty. But in this case the “open sesame” that immediately prompts designers, companies and photographers to shed mere pecuniary concerns and lavish their time and money on completely intangible concepts is simply: “It’s for Visionaire.”

Film stars like Julia Roberts and George Clooney generally command multimillion dollar salaries, but when they work for indie deity Steven Soderbergh they do it practically for free (at least in their terms). In this respect, Visionaire has evolved into the Steven Soderbergh of indie fashion magazines. Mario Testino has devoted considerable amounts of time — gratis — to the two Visionaire issues he’s guest-edited, while Karl Lagerfeld spent approximately $100,000 on putting out Visionaire #23, the “Emperor’s New Clothes” issue, in 1997. Meanwhile, the magazine has finagled contributions from such diverse names as Catherine Deneuve, Paloma Picasso, Hermes and Louis Vuitton. How Visionaire built its cachet is a story of patronage, creative freedom, narcissism, a somewhat parasitic sleight-of-hand, and a kind of effervescent bricolage that enables its staff to craft art out of — in one famous case — pieces of Madonna’s clothing.

“When we first began Visionaire we met with a lot of photographers and artists, and accidentally discovered that every one of them, no matter how popular or great, had a drawer of work no one ever published or even saw,” Stephen Gan, who co-founded Visionaire and is creative director of both Visionaire and Harper’s Bazaar, told WWD. These unused materials of famous people — sort of the artistic version of dead stock — became a primary source of content for Visionaire, especially in the early days. “Eventually, we evolved from this work-in-the-drawer approach to more active collaborations with these artists.”

According to Gan, Visionaire’s lure for prospective contributors is that it offers a degree of creative freedom that is generally unavailable in the more circumscribed arena of ad-dependent commercial magazines.

Since Gan now operates in both worlds through his role as creative director of Harper’s Bazaar, he’s in an ideal position to contrast indie versus mainstream publishing experiences. “At Visionaire I feel like I’m working with a bunch of musicians and they need time to jam in order to come up with new material, to replenish their creative juices,” he said.

“Visionaire stands for experimentation, whereas with Bazaar it’s more about the end project. When working with photographers for Visionaire, the rallying cry is ‘go wild’. At Harper’s Bazaar, it’s ‘we’re doing Harper’s Bazaar’. I wouldn’t do a Visionaire to Harper’s Bazaar.”

Because of Visionaire’s non-commercial status, contributors often subsidize their own participation in any given Visionaire endeavor. “It’s the price of creative freedom,” asserted photographer Inez Van Lamsweerde, who worked for Visionaire on the “Woman” issue (# 29) in 1999 and the “Power” issue (#36 ) last year.

Sometimes this price for “creative freedom” is unwittingly paid by other publishers. “For the ‘Woman’ issue [in 1999] we were doing a shoot for Bazaar, and all the models were there, assembled, made up, and waiting for Marc Jacobs to arrive so that we could shoot,” she explained. “But Marc was running late, so I told them to take their clothes off and we did a nude shoot for Visionaire with the same people. They were all so happy to do it, so eager, really, because they knew it was for Visionaire.”

It couldn’t be learned whether Bazaar was happy about paying the bills for a rival magazine, but the shoot certainly captures the concept of “doing a Visionaire to Harper’s Bazaar.” Other patented ways of “doing a Visionaire” involve asking a famous person to submit something cute, quirky, attention-grabbing, but not time-consuming and then letting Visionaire deconstruct or recycle it. Testino, who got Madonna to give him the Versace dress she wore to the “Evita” premiere so that it could be cut it up into tiny pieces for Visionaire 22, seems to excel at this form of solicitation. (He also got Catherine Deneuve to write a letter to Yves Saint-Laurent that was reproduced, on facsimile Deneuve stationary, for this same “Chic” issue.).

Indeed, the bulk of Visionaire’s content seems to emerge from such random acts of spontaneity. A case in point is the Lagerfeld “Nudes” issue. “We discovered that Karl’s nude photos were stunning, and we asked him if he wanted to do a series for us,” said Visionaire editor and co-founder Cecilia Dean. “Amber Valetta told me how her portrait was taken. Karl and Amber were at a party, and Karl said ‘Amber, can I shoot a nude photo of you?’ Then they went and took the shots right then and there.” According to Dean, Lagerfeld ended up footing the bill for the “Nudes” issue. “Karl paid for the whole production, but I don’t know how much it cost,” said Dean. “It was probably a big expense on his end.”

Dovanna Pagowski, who worked on several early Visionaire issues, explained the magazine’s attraction to the likes of Lagerfeld. “The Visionaire legacy is the main reason why people participate,” said Pagowski. “I mean, what does Lagerfeld spend on ads? To take the money he’d pay for one ad page in one magazine, and spend it instead on something that says who he is in terms of curating Visionaire pages, that’s a turn-on. It’s a different kind of puzzle than designing clothes.”

A mutually beneficial scenario, Dean explained, culminated in Visionaire 18, the issue which came encased in a Louis Vuitton satchel portfolio. Naturally, the ‘deal’ — if one can call it that — went down in classic, subliminal Visionaire style. “Stephen sent Vuitton a fax which said, like, ‘hey, can you do some bags for us?”‘ recalled Dean. “Then a few days later some sketches arrived.”

What came out of the Louis Vuitton/Visionaire collaboration was one of those reciprocal status boosts a la Michelangelo and Pope Julius II. “Louis Vuitton started out as a joke. As a company it was so not what we were about, so not cutting-edge. Remember, this was 1996, so LVMH was still very ‘Ladies who Lunch’,” said Dean. “It was such a wild marriage, us and them, but the result was amazing. People started looking at us differently after the Louis Vuitton issue. It was like our crossover album. It’s one thing to be artsy-fartsy; it’s another to be artsy-fartsy and backed by Louis Vuitton. We now had the Establishment’s stamp.”

Some outside observers attribute Visionaire’s success to having somehow positioned itself as an ego extension for the fashion elite. “Visionaire is a mutual admiration society,” said Ariana Speyer, editor of the indie magazine Index. “That’s the payoff for people. It’s like working with Visionaire makes the contributors and the magazine cool at the same time.”

Marcelo Junemann, founder and publisher of indie photography magazine Big, concurred. “Visionaire is a closed circle,” he said. “They rely on big names, which of course sustains them, but it also makes them more predictable.”

The anti-celebrity ethos of Big is, in fact, the direct inverse of Visionaire’s star chamber approach to publishing. “They had a Lagerfeld issue, we’re coming out with a New Jersey issue next,” laughed Junemann. “That sort of sums up the difference between us.”

Another indie editor, who requested anonymity, also saw Visionaire’s reliance on big names as a potential dilemma. “Since Visionaire is an ego thing, it ends up being self-limiting: after all, do you want to be the 29th person asked to curate a Visionaire issue?”

Van Lamsweerde lends credence to the ‘narcissism theory’ of Visionaire’s success in commenting on the magazine’s attraction for photographers: “Where else would you be able to make a magazine filled with your own photos?” But for Van Lamsweerde, Visionaire’s open-ended approach to content is also an implicit commentary on the restrictions faced even by in-demand photographers working in a commercial environment. “Helmut Newton once said to me that when he worked for Paris Vogue in the Seventies, he was allowed to do whatever he wanted as long as it didn’t cost them money,” Van Lamsweerde said. “What was different then is that advertisers didn’t rule the magazines like they do now. By today’s standards, Visionaire provides an extreme amount of freedom.”

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