of the Eighties. Ten years on, it still offers its readers frocks without frills
MORE so than pop records, movies, or even fashion itself, good magazines have a way of defining their age. Not only are they history the moment they hit the news-stands thus offering an instant time-capsule of the here-and-now they are also artefacts in their own right, barometers of invention in journalism, photography and design. But though there is a certain amount of serendipity about most successful magazine launches, there was little that was left to chance when British Elle was launched in October 1985.
The Eighties produced many groundbreaking magazines The Face, i-D, Q, Arena, Marie Claire etc primarily because, as one of this century's most style-conscious, self-obsessed decades, it was crying out to be decoded before it was even born. But Elle was a magazine with a mission. Created to cater for the post-feminist Eighties career girl, it was resolutely fashionable, wilfully sassy, and uncompromisingly urban. "There was a whole new generation [of women] fumbling its way towards tomorrow," says Sally Brampton, who edited Elle for four years from its launch until October 1989. "Elle was the first mainstream magazine to act as a voice for that generation. The philosophical bedrock on which Elle was built, and on which it still firmly stands, is style with content. Yes, we wanted to be careless and carefree, to live in lofts and hang out in bars, to drink vodkatinis till dawn. Well, who doesn't?"
It seemed that a lot of British women did, as Elle was an immediate hit. A joint venture between Rupert Murdoch's News International and French publishers Hachette, it wasn't short of funds, and there can't have been many young women in Britain who weren't aware of it. The publishers had identified consumer-friendly women between the ages of 18 and 30 who didn't have any qualms about spending a small fortune on clothes, but who weren't prepared to be patronised in the process. Women who thought that Vogue and Harpers & Queen were a little too poncey for their own tastes, and who weren't interested in downmarket titles full of knitting-patterns and soap stars. Women who had possibly grown up with The Face, but who now wanted something defiantly female. Women who wanted frocks without the frills.
"The magazine caused such a stir because it made fashion accessible to a new generation of younger women," says Nigel Conway, head of media planning at The Media Centre, which handles the Chanel account. "Vogue always dealt with pure fashion, but the great thing about Elle was that it had proper feature content; it made every other fashion magazine sit up and take notice."
"Elle catered for the woman who didn't care whether she kept her man or not," says Andrew Sherman, group media director at MC Saatchi. "It didn't dictate, and was less formulaic than its competitors. It wasn't sold as an emotional crutch."
When Elle was launched, the girls of the moment were Yasmin Parvaneh (soon to be Mrs Simon Le Bon) and Jenny Howarth. They were soon, however, overshadowed by such big-name models as Naomi Campbell, who in 1986 walked through the door of Elle and achieved her first break in a British glossy. By 1988, when taste had become market-able, and when more and more designers were becoming household names, supermodels Naomi, Christy, Linda et al became public property, commanding hitherto unheard-of fees.
A new decade, however, brought a new sensibility, and as the Eighties turned into the Nineties, the magazine began to look a mite jaded. Whereas in the Eighties it was champagne and go-faster stripes for everyone, when the recession took hold the word "designer" became a pejorative prefix, and Elle started looking a little God forbid old-fashioned. Towards the end of the Eighties, the worm turned: Kate Moss was photographed in The Face looking like nothing more than a disaffected beach bum, with bleached-out skin and straggly hair. In Corinne Day's stark black and white pictures, Moss seemed the epitome of a latch-key kid, the eternal waif. As women's magazines fell over themselves to follow grunge and all that came in its wake, their fashion pages started to look decidedly cheap, a phenomenon which coincided with the decline in Elle's circulation, which dropped to 183,000 in 1991. Its readers wanted glamour, not grunge.
After Brampton left, the magazine slowly went into free fall. Times were moving: Rupert Murdoch sold out to Hachette, there were two changes of editor, circulation fell and the magazine began losing its chutzpah. Its salvation arrived in the shape of Nicola Jeal, like Brampton a former fashion editor of the Observer. She arrived at the magazine in 1992 as deputy editor, but it was only after she was promoted to editor in early 1993, when the title was bought by EMAP, that the magazine's fortunes began changing. Circulation now stands at 222,000.
"If your market changes then you go with them," says Jeal. "The women's magazine market is enormous these days, and you're competing for a potentially huge number of people, so consequently you have to try and broaden your values, which is what I did with Elle. People also expect a lot more from magazines today, and we have had to become more varied. We've also tried to make the fashion a little more accessible; the fashion in Elle is still incredibly hip, but it's not off-putting. All the old dictates have gone. What we do is pick out the best clothes from all available markets whether it's a Chanel jacket or a Jigsaw dress and to show all of them in the same way, with the same models and the same photographers. The elitism has gone fashion is much more democratic now."
"It's obviously a different magazine now, but it's had to change because the times have," says Sally Brampton. "We were so full of confidence in those days because we were living in very confident times. We were very bossy, and almost ran down the street dragging our readers with us. The mood today is a lot fuzzier, and the magazine has had to reflect women's changing aspirations."
But just how different is it? It's true that the magazine is a little younger, a little brasher, and perhaps a little less sophisticated than it used to be. But then you could say that about any glossy magazine on the news-stands at the moment; market forces are such that magazines from Harper's & Queen and Tatler to Cosmopolitan and Sky have been forced to re-address their target audiences, and push themselves downmarket using tried and tested tabloid tricks in the hope of holding their ground. There are a lot of young readers out there, and publishing houses cannot afford to be left on the shelf by ignoring them.
"Circulation is at its highest for five years and among advertisers confidence is very high," says Andrew Sherman. "Elle has moved with the times, and seems to deal efficiently with the issues which affect women today. And it's a lot less guilty of pandering to its audience than the competition."
These days Elle might not contain so many features about polenta and Mies Van Der Rohe chairs as it once did, but the magazine is still as fashionable as ever. Its fashion pages are crisp and to the point; the photography still cutting-edge. It is firmly dedicated to reportage, and still blasts out the odd polemic. And, unlike a lot of its competitors, it hasn't resorted to endless pieces about multiple orgasms, cunnilingus or tantric sex. What Elle has in abundance is spunk. Its 10th anniversary issue, as well as being a retrospective, is also a statement of intent for the magazine's future. Much like the woman who reads it, Elle never seems backward about coming forward.''' 8
FASHION HITS OF THE DECADE
1986'Black Azzedine Alaia skintight dress
1987'Shoulder-padded power suit
1988'Romeo Gigli wrap-over tops
1989'Fake Chanel jackets
1990'Pucci-look shirt and leggings
1991'Long bias cut skirts
1992'High-street floral slip dresses
1993'Grungy kids' T-shirts
1994'Prada short black shiny belted mac
FASHION MISSES OF THE DECADE
1985'Silk shirts with back tail
1987'Stonewashed ripped jeans
1988'Wide pants worn with court shoes
1989'Lycra cycling shorts for work
1991'Trainers with matching shellsuit
1993'Sneakers with designer suits
1994'White ankle socks with bar shoes
1995'Blue nail varnish