Vice magazine: an offensive, pretentious rag for the deliberately disaffected London poseur, or global media phenomenon for independent youths? Either way there is no doubt that this slick style magazine is unapologetically stamping its 18-hole Dr Martens all over the UK's media landscape. "We're so much more than a style mag," claims the title's UK editor, Andy Capper. "We're aiming to become the biggest free youth publication in the world."
The magazine has certainly come a long way from its humble origins in Canada. What started in 1994 as a 16-page fanzine by Shane Smith, Suroosh Alvi and Gavin McInnes on a government "welfare-to-work" scheme, now has an annual turnover of 8.5m, 17 offices in 15 countries, its own TV channel, a record label, a festival and even a pub. "There isn't anything like us," says Capper. Arrogant? Perhaps but then Vice has not become famous by being subtle.
Its first UK issue came out five years ago and had an enormous line of cocaine expensively embossed on the cover and a "jokey" interview with the Muslim extremist Abu Hamza inside. "This is its appeal," says its publisher, Andrew Creighton. "After the launch we got about 650 letters some people loved us and some people hated us, but at least we were getting a reaction."
Since then the magazine's schizophrenic blend politics and style on one page, tits and fart jokes on the next have helped earn it a reputation among the 18-30 demographic. Its fashion pages have become a blueprint for hip kids who want to be seen in the latest cutting-edge streetwear.
But Vice has outgrown its niche market and now claims a circulation of 550,000 across Europe, via distribution in fashion outlets and bars, up from 72,000 in 2002. "It's not enough to appeal to 500 nu-rave kids in east London; we have to compete with the big boys," says Creighton.
Tonight, the self-confessed "empire of hedonism" is celebrating five years of sex, drugs and rock'*'roll at the gay club Heaven in London. The streets around London's Embankment are heaving with 2,000 people in skinny jeans, plaid shirts and directional haircuts, clamouring to mark its birthday.
Outside the club, opinions are divided as to what makes Vice so special, ranging from the evangelical ("I have the cover of every issue on my wall") to the scathing ("The only cool thing about Vice is the totty... and the American Apparel ads").
But, of course, the people at Vice don't care what they think and herein lies the essence of its success. Underlining the Vice ethos is a belief in aggressively tackling issues that other mainstream magazines tap-dance around. "There is a real malaise in the media at the moment," says Creighton. "Consumer magazines and TV cater to the lowest common denominator, full of celebrity tits, babes and Kerry Katona aren't we bored of that?"
Vice may laugh at people's trousers and dedicate entire pages to tattooed pigs (the sort of approach that has lost thousands of pounds of advertising revenue), but it also tackles issues such as gun crime, fascism and sex trafficking with a refreshing lack of hand-wringing and faux sentimentality.
The controversial Iraq issue, says Capper, stands as testament to the magazine's journalistic balls. "We used images of dead bodies lying all over the airport field after the Battle of Baghdad to show people how disgusting and outrageous the war was. While our writers were in the red zone actually talking to the people who live there, all the CNN and the BBC journos were sitting in the green zone reading press releases."
The appetite for such frontline reporting also gives an indication of Vice's global ambitions involving an impressive array of side-projects. Its US record label has released albums for Bloc Party and Mike Skinner's The Streets, and last October its online broadcast channel, VBS.TV, went live under the creative direction of Oscar-nominated film-maker Spike Jonze. The magazine's founders Smith and Alvi have also just produced and directed an 84-minute documentary called Heavy Metal in Baghdad, which follows an Iraqi heavy metal band during the final years of Saddam's rule. The result is a ground-level insight into the lives of young people living in Iraq today.
As the media struggles to find a niche within the world of user-generated content, the DIY punk ethic of the Vice media brand, it seems, has hit a chord with a generation disillusioned with mainstream media. "Learning how to marry commerciality with creativity has been a long road, but people are ready for it," says Creighton. "They are bored and want something free, honest and stimulating. But they still want to party and take drugs and that's OK."