Dutch duo behind Fantastic Man launch sister title

They started with a porn magazine. Then came a much-imitated men's style bible. As the Dutch duo behind 'Fantastic Man' launch a sister title, Caroline Roux finds out how they gave print an original gloss

This morning, I started my day in the local Pret A Manger huddled over a skinny latte and a gay porn magazine called Butt. I can't think of many porn mags, gay or straight, that I'd be happy to read at 8.30am in Pret, if at all. But then Butt, with its apparently unpretentious Courier typeface, small format and smiling cover boy isn't really like the rest. Did I mention that it's printed on blushing pink paper too?

This was, of course, in the pursuit of knowledge not thrills, though I have to say, it was a pretty good read (an interview with two gay butchers in Beijing!). Butt was the first publication to be launched – in 2001 – by the Dutch team of writer/editor Gert Jonkers and art director Jop van Bennekom, who on Tuesday night unwrapped their third project in Paris. At a party of cherry-picked guests in a plush maison particulière in the rue du Bac, the first copies of The Gentlewoman, a new fashion and culture magazine for women, were circulated among the 80 attendees.

Expectations for The Gentlewoman – aimed at a thoughtful and sophisticated female reader – have been high among the planet's style afficionados. It follows in the footsteps of Jonkers and Van Bennekom's second project, a perfectly manicured men's style magazine called Fantastic Man which crept up on the fashion world in 2005. Where Butt was undressed and sexy – there's a lot of hairy chests, naked bottoms and visible excitement among those dense pages of Courier type – Fantastic Man appeared like some fabulously well-attired alternative. Interview subjects are referred to as "Mister"; clothes are modelled by handsome 30- and 40- somethings with smart day jobs (they've included Giles Deacon and Roland Mouret); each issue has pages of recommendations by arbiters of taste, from graphic designer Peter Saville to Tate Modern curator Stuart Comer; and only a Fantastic Man's tailor needs to know if he dresses to the right or the left. It has, says Jonkers, " a nice formality to it" – a formality that sometimes teeters just this side of ironic and camp.

Jonkers and van Bennekom's publishing empire is something of a cottage industry (no pun intended), operating from a small office in Amsterdam and another in Shoreditch, central London. They met on Boulevard, a Dutch lifestyle magazine, and have a range of experience. Jonkers , 43, was fashion critic of de Volkskrant for many years; van Bennekom, 40, is cultishly celebrated for a ground-breaking magazine called Re, which dealt with one subject per issue (including 'The Home' and 'Boredom').

Money made on projects is reinvested, all expenses are spared. There is a smattering of staff and no-one earns much. Which all goes to prove that you can make a successful high-end fashion magazine without a vast flower and limousine budget; a certain kind of perfectionism is free. The response to the twice-yearly Fantastic Man has been, well, fantastic, with a current international circulation of around 70,000. It talks directly to its reader who, it implies, shares its values, its wardrobe, its deep concern for life's finer details. It is not aspirational; it politely assumes you've arrived. It profiles men who have interesting lives: in fashion (Tom Ford, Claude Montana); architecture (Rem Koolhaas); or art (Steve McQueen, Frieze director Matthew Slotover); or others (they interviewed a chemist once). "We're always looking for people who don't have anything to sell," explains Jonkers. "Where there is no hidden agenda."

Jonkers and van Bennekom have a long and healthy relationship with the fashion world. Belgium designer Bernhard Willhelm appeared on Butt's first cover (Wolfgang Tillmans took the pictures). Karl Lagerfeld came upon the launch issue by chance in Colette in Paris and immediately placed an order for all subsequent copies (it comes out – mostly but not always – four times a year). Gucci was the first advertiser, thanks to Tom Ford's appreciation of the product, and then Dior Homme (because Hedi Slimane totally got it too). In autumn 2006, Helmut Lang chose Fantastic Man to reintroduce himself to the world, after leaving his own label when it was sold to Prada in 2004. Bruce Webber took the photographs. Now, the much sought-after Phoebe Philo has chosen to give one of her very few interviews, in her new role as creative director at Celine, to The Gentlewoman, and she is its cover star.

Jonkers and van Bennekom see The Gentlewoman as inevitable. "It was the natural thing to do. If you're interested in style and imagery and stories, it's strange to exclude 50 per cent of the world," says Jonkers. They have worked on the idea for two years, finally settling on an editor, Penny Martin, last year. "I feel like the honorary girl in the sixth form at the boys' school, " she says.

Martin came from the experimental world of Showstudio – a ridiculously cool and well-connected website almost entirely financed by photographer Nick Knight which largely explores what can happen to fashion online. She put in seven years as editor-in-chief there.

She is also Professor of Fashion Photography at the London College of Fashion and has an (unfinished) PhD on British Vogue to her name. At first she was terrified of "joining the brand that everyone loves. You feel you can only let everyone down". But then "I realised that the magazines I grew up reading didn't exist anymore. Back then, you had Marina Warner and Antonia Fraser writing in Vogue. Now the focus is all on merchandise, and the readers are consumers."

Martin, 37, is Scottish which means, she says, that she conveniently holds the same Protestant values as her new Dutch employers (Jonkers' father was a Protestant preacher; Martin's was in the Average White Band).

She is passionate and political and married to a man she met when both were 21 and who works in public health, not fashion. "I'm surrounded by bright women, and I don't see them represented," says Martin. "My idea for the magazine was to give them a voice. There's been a silencing going on. Look at Sex and the City. That programme is absolutely corrupt. The characters in it are not people, they're projection objects." The magazine's name and logo was conjured up by van Bennekom. "It's an ambitious title," he says, "that poses a question about behaviour, and a very modernist logo that makes it clear it is of today and tomorrow, and the very opposite of a 19th-century gentlewoman."

In Martin's hands, it becomes an exploration of many things that women can be – a world of personalities that includes wine makers and long-distance swimmers, and rather fewer models and actresses than we are used to seeing crammed in between the advertising.

"We really wanted Chelsea Clinton," muses Martin. But she got American artist Jenny Holzer, a woman who makes incredible ice cream, and an interview with Japanese architect Kasuyo Sejima (by myself) instead. Fashion is of the Prada, Comme des Garcons, Jil Sander variety – graphic and grown-up; photography is unromantically clear.

"We do not deal in fantasy," says Jonkers. "From Butt onwards, we wanted to make reality-based magazines with long interviews. This started when I was looking at gay magazines and thinking, 'Why am I supposed to like reading about Kylie, or a spa in Thailand?'" For the many women who feel the same flicking through the female equivalents, The Gentlewoman will be good news indeed.

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