Last month, Ekow Eshun was appointed editor of Arena, the style magazine for men. By comparison with the burgeoning ladfests that are Loaded (323,115) and FHM (365,341), Arena's 86,850 circulation is tiny. And yet, Arena kind of matters in a way that the other men's mags don't.
Published by Wagadon, the tiny company founded in 1980 to start The Face, it still shares an office with its bouncy sibling (to be joined this summer by a new, as-yet unnamed, women's title. Though little sis, very properly, is to get a room of her own). What this means is that, at its best, Arena has what Eshun calls a "synergy" with the exuberant street-style of The Face. At its best, it has a soul to it which the more corporate structure of other men's mags can't match.
Interesting job, interesting times, interesting appointment. Ekow Eshun is only 28, putting him at the young end of Arena's mid-20s to mid-30s readership. And, he could hardly be more synergetic, having just moved over from working as assistant editor on The Face. Plus, he's making history. He's the first black editor of a mainstream British style-mag. "Just when I heard I'd got it, news came through that Kofi Annan was the new UN Secretary General. And I felt really excited, cos he's Ghanian, and I'm Ghanian, too. Then I got a letter from Paul Boateng, and then, of course, there's Joe Casely-Heyford, and Ozwald Boateng, too. All of us Ghanian. It's really cool."
In the current issue of The Face, Ekow Eshun writes about The Artist (formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince): "[His] songs made me feel alive, when, in the blankness of the suburbs and the wearisome predictability of small, everyday racism, there was enough to make me wonder why I was living." Apart from a couple of years as a toddler in Ghana, Eshun grew up in Kingsbury, north- west London, "a blandish, characterless place," he says. "Middle-class but dead end, not posh in any sense. A few Asian kids and Jewish kids, but there was only one other black girl in my class."
When Eshun was at his local high school in the late 1970s, Love Thy Neighbour was on the telly and the National Front was on the rise. "It was harsh, a time of unbridled racism. There was an absolute sense that there was nothing wrong with racist jokes and the like." The Eshun family was big on education and getting on in life. Ekow's brother, Kodwo, is now a distinguished music writer, and his sister, Esi, is a journalist, too. "But school was very, very painful. It left me with a lot of anger, and a huge hunger to be heard."
After high school, Eshun left Kingsbury to study politics and history at the LSE. Blissfully, his late-1980s student days coincided with the underground warehouse- party explosion that would eventually go overground as acid house and rave. As a fresher, he was moonlighting for Kiss, the dance-music radio station, then a pirate broadcasting illegally from a tiny office in Camden Town. In his second year, he wrote his first printed article, 100 words for Elle on Kickers, the then extremely groovy, blunt-toed bootees. On graduating, he hacked away as a freelance, with an "interesting" stint in the office of Just Seventeen. Then, in 1994, he got his full-time job on The Face.
"It's a bit alarming, isn't it, how single-minded I was! But I always felt I was sort of coming from behind. If you're black and you live in this country, the whole structure of society is set up against you, basically, and that's quite a painful thing. I mean, every time I leave the country, I get questioned by Customs when I come back. This doesn't mean everybody is actively against me, but it does mean that every single day, in glancing ways and upfront ways, people are making value-judgements about what I am. And so, I suppose, I was always aware of the need for self-definition, that I had to struggle to be myself."
I'm sorry, I say, I understand what you're saying intellectually, but for a white person, it's difficult to imagine how this feels from the inside. "Well, here's an example. You be me and I'll shake your hand."
I offer my hand politely. He grasps it disconcertingly in a full-on, soul-brother hold; I shrink, feeling like my body-space has been invaded in the most presumptuous way.
"You see, it can be very simple, lame things like that. You meet somebody at a party, and they shake like this, because they feel they've made a connection with you, just because you are black. Now, I have no desire to meet with what is a fairly patronising gesture, so, I have to go quite deep into myself to surmount that. I need to be able to sleep at night and know that I haven't done something that feels false."
As editor of Arena, Eshun is well aware that he has a bit of real power in his hands. "Yes! And it's a very good thing. Big changes come out of lots of little ones." The first thing he added to the current Arena was a piece about his hero, Muhammad Ali. The second was a history of classic English menswear, viz, the sort of clobber he wears so well himself. And he has loads of ideas, he says, about fresh, more honest ways of writing about sex and such like.
"Obviously," Eshun explains, "we can't compete with Loaded and FHM on their own terms. That would mean running pictures of women with lines like Fill 'Er Up on them, and we're not going to do that. But, in some ways, Loaded has had a very positive influence on the men's market. At its best, it can be wicked. It can really make me laugh. These lads' mags have had an easy ride so far, but the times are moving on. Men's magazines are going to have to start thinking harder now that the whole surprise thing is beginning to wear off.
"I mean, there must be more to men than just being obsessed with women. Loaded has sort of started a conversation about what men are about. It's up to a magazine like us to look a bit deeper into ourselves."
Let us finish with some hot poop for the IoS reader, straight from the mouth of the top style editor himself: sandals for the sweaty summer. With socks or without? "Well, there's a big debate!" Eshun collapses in a puddle of laughter. "You see, I really take this stuff seriously. I wear my Birkenstocks with bare feet myself." So there you have it. Remember you read it here first, long before the spring editions of the style mags got themselves anywhere near the stands.
"Yes, I do get really excited, and maybe that sounds superficial, but I don't think it is at all. Clothes are all about confidence, they're a fundamental expression of the self. And really, it takes so little effort for a man to look good: it's not like women's fashion, the basic shapes hardly ever change that much. I mean, all a bloke needs is a bit of imagination. All he has to do is go out and get himself some decent clothes."Reuse content