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That's just fantastic
Jop van Bennekom is super low-key. (He also likes the word ‘super'.) He lives in the Netherlands, where he co-edits Fantastic Man magazine, and about once every month he travels to London to confer with Penny Martin, editor-in-chief of The Gentlewoman. (Jop is also creative director at The Gentlewoman.) Together with Gert Jonkers, Jop's business partner and co-editor of Fantastic Man, Jop and Penny are responsible for two of the most popular fashion magazines currently going.
Fantastic Man was launched in 2005 and in just five years has achieved an international circulation of around 70,000. Its success has been so great that when Jop and Gert teamed-up with Penny to launch The Gentlewoman, which debuted earlier this spring, expectations were so high that the first issue sold out almost immediately. (I had to go to six newsagents in London before finding a copy.)
‘I was surprised,' says Jop, ‘because it's never easy to make a first issue of a magazine. I've started up, I think, five magazines now, and it's always difficult.'
‘My surprise was actually the kind of response,' says Penny, ‘not so much that we got so many people but the slightly emotional quality of how people responded to the magazine. The slightly frantic kind of excitement over specific things, and how people want to tell you what they liked about it, their favourite bits.'
I met with Jop and Penny at the London office of The Gentlewoman, which occupies the first floor of a nondescript building in Shoreditch. There is no sign, no advertising, no magazine covers plastered to the plate glass front to celebrate the enormous success of the first issue. Inside the floors are plain wood, the walls exposed brick, and simple white work tables support a small but impressive collection iMac computers.
Are you getting that one quality of ‘a gentlewoman' is her taste for understatement?
Jop and Penny make an interesting pair. Jop is clearly at home in the role of independent magazine publisher. He is low-key but confident, and speaks with the clarity of purpose that comes from starting five magazines from scratch and intermittently spending years living on savings and freelance design work to finance his ideas.
‘I've always been into super independent media, the idea of independence when I was a teenager was exciting, and I still think it's exciting.'
Penny, at least initially, is incredibly demure. Talking about her previous role as editor of Showstudio, a hugely successful fashion website, she declines even to mention the name of its famous founder, photographer Nick Knight. (‘I worked for a key fashion photographer') She considers each question thoughtfully and answers earnestly, a nod to her role as Professor of Fashion Photography at the London College of Fashion. As the interview progresses, she becomes increasingly animated by all this talk of her new editorial role. Before I leave she will mime Stanislovsky techniques to help me prepare for my turn in the college play.
The magazines that Jop and Penny produce, along with Gert, are clear reflections of their editors' personalities. Both Fantastic Man and The Gentlewoman cultivate a polite, modernist sensibility. (The captions in Fantastic Man, for instance, refer to subjects as ‘Mr. [name]'.) They are beautifully designed and extremely well-curated, a necessity for publications that issue just twice per year. (Necessary, but not always easy: says Jop, ‘We have so many ideas!') Most of the features are about people who are exceptional in a comparatively small universe: people like Wolfgang Tillmans, the Turner-prize winning photographer (on the cover of Fantastic Man) and Phoebe Philo, the creative director of fashion house Céline (on the cover of The Gentlewoman).
‘We exert much more opinion and control during the commissioning process,' says Penny. ‘People understand that it won't be just a case of turning something in and it will get run as is. Other magazines are like a container that you chuck stuff into.'
Says Jop, ‘We're working from a much more critical point of view, saying we're interested in showing breasts in a new way, let's talk about really small tits or something, you know, just to give an example.'
This kind of creative control is essential to making Fantastic Man and The Gentlewoman different from other magazines. ‘It's really independent because it's self-sustainable', says Jop. ‘If you give in to all this kind of commercial pressure [especially advertisers], you are starting to make exactly the same magazine as all the other magazines because they are all doing that.'
Of course, this kind of independence comes with a price: Jop and Gert lived on savings and freelance work for two years before Fantastic Man finally sold enough to pay its editors any salary. Even now, with both Fantastic Man and The Gentlewoman garnering great success, the mastheads remain thin and the expenditure priority is clearly on the product. (Hence all those iMac's in an otherwise sparsely furnished office.)
‘It's professionally run but it's not lavish,' says Penny.
‘Exactly,' says Jop. ‘It's a different thing to go to fashion shows in Paris and stay in the Ritz, then you spend a computer every night on just sleeping.' Jop laughs, ‘We're too Dutch for that!'
Interestingly, low pay and high risk are not the only reasons why Jop and Penny think so few people are doing what they are doing. ‘If you are good,' says Jop, ‘and you have something to say, there is this whole professional field that you might want to first explore before you maybe want to start your own business.'
In other words, people get stuck in the system?
‘I would have been eaten up by the system if I was British, because I was super eager to work on magazines, interested, and also I'm not a bad designer, so I'm sure I would be in a different place now if I wasn't in Amsterdam.'
The value of independence comes through again when I ask for advice to budding Oxford journalists. ‘Find your own project,' says Penny. ‘The best projects come from peers from your own age group, that's much more viable as an editorial system than trying to look at the generation above you and trying to somehow interest them. It's about looking sideways instead of looking in front of you.'
If that's the sort of strategy that produced Fantastic Man and The Gentlewoman, independence may be the new black so far as magazine publishing is concerned.
Race you to the nearest print shop?