Impossibly hip, elitist, expensive - out of New York comes the magazine of the Nineties. By Tamsin Blanchard
Friday am, New York City: straight from Calvin Klein's sutumn/winter 97 show into another busy day at the SoHo offices of Visionaire. The rough- and- ready office space is the home of both the cult quarterly art and fashion magazine and its 31-year-old editor, Stephen Gan.

Gan is celebrating. He is scanning the papers for mentions of the cocktail party he hosted for his 21st issue, which is cleverly constructed as a deck of playing cards in a jewellery box. All New York was there, from Leonardo DiCaprio to Iman. Liz Tilberis, the all-powerful editor of Harper's Bazaar, the glossiest of mainstream fashion magazines, stopped Gan after Calvin's show to apologise for a photograph that appeared that morning in the New York Daily News. The caption under her picture reads, "Visionaire editor Liz Tiberis". But the only similarity between silver-haired Tilberis and this man-about-Manhattan is their shared ambition to produce the world's best-looking magazines.

It's 13 years since Gan left the Philippines for Parsons School of Art in New York. A career as a photographer quickly turned into a fashion job with Details, the magazine which provided the experience and then the severance pay which enabled Gan to fund the first issue of Visionaire with just $7,000. That was in April 1991.

The first issue had the theme of "Innocence", reflecting the naivety of Gan and his colleagues - 30-year-old make-up artist James Kaliardos and sometime-model Cecilia Dean, 28. The cover price was $10. But each issue cost closer to $20 to produce. Now production costs are "20 times that", and the magazine sells for more than most coffee table art books - $60 in America, and pounds 60 in London - and it still only breaks even.

Gan and Kaliardos had met at Parsons, and the idea behind the first issue was to assemble a portfolio of work by artists and designers they knew. "We asked them for personal work, images that the artist most loved doing, the stuff that doesn't usually get published in magazines," says Gan.

Then, as now, the contributions were free of charge. With the help of a small editorial in the New York Times, issue one sold all its 1,000 copies in two weeks. Now, six years later, Visionaire has become the most sought-after magazine of the Nineties. In New York, the Deck of Cards issue sold out of all but display copies in 48 hours.

Visionaire defies categorisation. Selling only in limited editions of up to 3,000, all numbered and virtually hand-assembled, it features artists, photographers, fashion illustrators, cartoonists, graphic designers and fashion designers. "An album of inspiration, or a portfolio of fashion and art," Gan explains."We've never made a distinction between art and fashion."

Each issue is different in format and theme. Number six was a book of pop-ups. For number 15, the Cinderella issue, each contributor was given a section of the tale to interpret. And the Alphabet issue offered 26 artists a letter of the alphabet to do with what they wished.

A single copy of number 18, which came bound in its own Louis Vuitton satchel, recently changed hands in New York for $2,500. Another instant collector's item was January's issue 20, edited by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons, the reigning queen of art as fashion. Contributors included Mario Sorrenti, Karl Lagerfeld, Inez Van Lamsweerde and Alexander McQueen. The A3-sized red or blue gingham box held fold- out sheets featuring this and previous seasons' Comme des Garcons collections, as well as a pattern to make your own Comme dress. "Rei's approach and sensibility is very similar to ours: total freedom and unbridled creativity," Gan confides.

Each issue is a challenge to produce and finance. For a start, there's no advertising: Gan didn't want the commercial restrictions imposed by advertisers. "The original challenge was to see if the publication could exist on revenue from readership alone. It is now totally self-sufficient." Still, he and the others must earn their living in other ways. His latest project is a book, Fashion 2000, to be published by Rizzoli in the autumn.

Issue 22 is already underway. The guest editor, Gan excitedly reveals, will be Vogue photographer Mario Testino. Smythson, purveyors of fine hand-bound diaries and notebooks to, amongst others, Mario Testino, has been approached to get involved with the packaging. The theme is "Chic". Order now. You might just be in time

Visionaire is available at Paul Smith, 43-44 Floral Street, WC2; The ICA, The Mall, SW1; American Retro, Old Compton Street, W1; Dillons, Long Acre, WC2; The Library, Fulham Road, SW3; RD Franks, Market Place, Oxford Circus W1; The Photographer's Gallery, Great Newport Street, WC2; Zwemmers, Charing Cross Road, WC2

One year's subscription costs $350, including postage, payable by American Express or international money order. For information, fax "Visionaire" (001 212 343 2595)