How to give a woman what she wants (450,000 times over)

Marie Claire's mixture of sex, sensation and high fashion has been one of the publishing phenomena of the decade. Worth crossing the Atlantic for? Juliet Warkentin thinks so; Glenda Bailey thinks so too. By Ruth Picardie
Click to follow
The Independent Online
In the autumn of 1988, a new glossy woman's magazine slipped on to the cramped newsagent's shelf where so much mascara has run, so much shiny paper turned yellow before. This one - cursed with the school French title Marie Claire - was not accompanied by a loud Eighties buzz, as the launch of Elle had been a few years before. The editor, Glenda Bailey, was a 28-year-old unknown: a working-class Derbyshire girl with big hair and big bones who had worked in fashion trade magazines and presided over the closure of Honey, the once fabulous fashion bible of the Seventies. Her most recent contribution to the glossy graveyard had been the now- forgotten Folio.

British Marie Claire's first year was quiet. Circulation was low; the fashion pack continued to sneer at the mix of wearable fashion, "women and headscarves" reportage and first-person confessions. By the end of the Eighties, the magazine was winning awards. By the early Nineties, it was setting the agenda for quaking competitors (including the now lukewarm Elle). By 1996, Glenda Bailey was on her way to becoming a legend: laden with awards; soul sister to Patsy and Edina as documented in Channel 4's Absolutely Marie Claire documentary; and, most important, the editor of the most successful magazine of the decade, with 450,000 readers and rising. Bailey had divined the simple truth that women from 15 to 50 had always been interested not just in clothes but, in juicy, narrative, human folly.

Then, earlier this year, Bailey announced she was leaving for New York to reinvent the ailing American version. Who on earth could replace Glenda, now celebrated for her flaming hair and her brazen chutzpah (she once broke protocol at the status-obsessed collections to ask Jack Nicholson for an interview)?

Just as important, would anyone want to? For how much longer could Marie Claire define the times? "A successful magazine usually gets five years," says the fashion writer Marion Hume. "Eventually what looked fresh and wonderful starts looking tired. If an editor is sharp she gets out." Even its publisher, Heather Love, concedes that circulation probably cannot continue to increase. "My objective," she says, "is to keep it where it is."

For months, the glosserati were shrill with speculation. Finally, after months of interviews, of candidates producing 100-page dummies, of Glenda quizzing from the sidelines, it was over. The winner was Juliet Warkentin (pictured opposite).

The glosserati were agog. Juliet who? Preliminary gossip revealed that she was - hideous concept - from Canada, where she had edited the deeply provincial-sounding Toronto Life Fashion. Worse still, she had, for the past three years, edited a trade magazine, Draper's Record. Trade! "The name," as one member of the fashion pack muses, "says it all." A safe pair of hands, they sneered. A malleable clone!

Sitting in a neat, white office; short, blonde hair swept off her face; wearing Gap chinos, baggy shirt, and no-make-up make-up (very autumn '96), Warkentin herself remains unfazed. "There are two kinds of editors," she says. "Some join problem magazines, which is what I did at Draper's Record. The second kind takes a successful magazine and evolves it. That's a much bigger challenge."

For now, Warkentin isn't giving much away. How does she rate Glenda Bailey? "I think she's a damn good editor." When is she going to overtake Cosmo? "It's not an issue." Was she a Marie Claire reader before she got the job? "Yeah." Is she just a safe pair of hands? "The people in my market knew me and what I did with Draper's Record," she replies. "The business in Canada knew what I did with Toronto Life Fashion. I've had success with my other magazines. I don't see what the fuss is all about."

Her first issue, meanwhile, (out next week) is vintage Marie Claire: Confessions of a Sex Spy, Fathers who Pledge their Daughters to Celibacy, Why did 69 Women Fall in Love with this Man? Aren't post-puberty women sick of sex in magazines? "We don't objectify sex. We place it in the context of relationships. We don't treat sex in the same way as other women's magazines." Doesn't Marie Claire peddle tabloid sensationalism dressed to flatter? "Read the magazine. Read the text. Look at the pictures. They are challenging, interesting features. Humans are curious. We are all interested in other people's lives." And the cover lines? ("My lover left me for my brother," screamed one in June.) "Covers are about marketing a product. You have 30 seconds to grab the reader."

Warkentin's favourite is Women on a Sex Hunt: "There's an island near Papua New Guinea where there's a sex festival every year in which women are allowed to initiate and seduce men, anywhere, any time, no matter what they're doing. It's classic Marie Claire: it's visual, it's about sex, it's light, it's funny, it's in an exotic location, it's looking at women's lives in a completely different way." Evolution then, is very gentle: the review section has been integrated into the rest of the magazine; the design tidied up; the fashion become a little less directional.

But just as Bailey's success was slow-burn, the fashion pack should watch this space. First, there is her track record, which is more impressive than the glosserati may be willing to concede. Despite the title, TLF became, under Warkentin, as glossy and directional as Vogue; Caroline Collis, director of Browns fashion label, describes it as "the only good magazine in Canada". Draper's Record, meanwhile, was a rare opportunity when she arrived in cliquey, recession-mired Britain in 1992, having fallen in love at first sight with Vogue's catwalk photographer Andrew Lamb. (The couple are currently Camden Dankies - dog, no kids.) A brilliant strategist, she quickly transformed what one insider calls "a tedious piece of crap" into the Economist (with nicer pictures) of the fashion industry; by 1995, Warkentin had won the Periodical Publishers' Association award for business and professional magazine editor of the year.

Like Bailey, she is a workaholic - at her desk by 8am, working lunch, in bed by 10pm. "I'm one of those people who don't consider work a job," says Warkentin. "I consider it a life. And I do it because I absolutely love it. I'm obsessed by magazines and I have been since I was 14 and had my tonsils out and my mother brought me back Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and 17 magazines. There was never any other choice." (Her parents are both academics.) At the same time, like Bailey, she is a much-loved matriarch: she bakes trays of cookies for her staff; former colleague Sophie Hewitt- Jones describes her as "motivational and inspirational"; there has been no exodus from Marie Claire, as is common with new editors. "She's Canadian," says Marion Hume. "It's a slightly kinder culture. She doesn't have the brash, fierce, gung-ho energy that attracts us to Americans."

Finally, her style, obviously the $64,000 question in this industry. Warkentin herself says she is "a fashion tart"; Robert Clergerie shoes and Margaret Howell clothes feature on her Draper's Record leaving card (a mocked-up Marie Claire cover). Her predecessor at Toronto Life Fashion, Tim Blanks, who now works for The Body Shop, reports her defining garment to be a lilac, Issey Miyake "wind coat". By night, meanwhile, as a caricature on her desk reveals, she sheds the Gap casuals for what one acquaintance calls "lipstick and long legs and the ultimate little black dress". (Warkentin is, by all accounts, a brilliant schmoozer. "At a party," says Marion Hume, who is also a friend, "she will walk up to the five men in suits. They'll turn out to be the most powerful people in the room."

Marie Claire's publisher says she chose Warkentin because she has "star quality". She would, wouldn't she. But then she's the woman that discovered Glenda Who?