Glenda Bailey: Woman at work

She transformed Marie Claire on both sides of the Atlantic and has now been charged with breathing new life into Harper's Bazaar. James Brown meets the style arbiter with the Midas touch
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The Independent Online

Glenda Bailey settles into the booth of a swanky New York restaurant and tells me: "I haven't stopped this year. So far I've only been home for two weekends, my boyfriend Steve comes with me. I love the shows."

Glenda Bailey settles into the booth of a swanky New York restaurant and tells me: "I haven't stopped this year. So far I've only been home for two weekends, my boyfriend Steve comes with me. I love the shows."

Really? She loves sitting there watching model after model?

"Yes, I still can't believe I get paid to look at such fantastic clothes and to have the opportunity to present what women might be wearing in months to come. Do I love it? Of course. The day I stop loving the shows is the day I quit editing."

And with that she hoists her bag up from under the table and pulls out folder after folder of magazines and clippings and front covers annotated with purple Post-it notes. "I've been pulling out all my favourite pieces for you. It's been great fun because so far I've never actually stopped to take a minute to look back like this before."

It has been eight years since Bailey, 46, left Marie Claire as the biggest selling upmarket women's fashion magazine in Britain to become editor-in-chief of the US edition. It's a reflection on how the UK media have previously treated her success that this is her first interview about what she's been doing. After four years at US Marie Claire she had increased sales massively and moved on within Hearst Magazines to revamp the 138-year-old American institution, Harper's Bazaar.

Harper's is a title so revered that upon her appointment she received a message of good luck from no less than the former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, whom she had previously petitioned to consider the plight of Afghan women under the Taliban. "The secret service had to vet my speech at that event. They made me take out a reference to how she uses chocolate as part of her negotiation skills."

Bailey talks through three courses of virtually untouched food, giving me what is pretty much a masterclass in how to keep a mainstream magazine fresh in a conservative market. " Harper's Bazaar ," she explains, "is one of America's oldest and most prestigious titles, and is essential for women who have a passion for fashion. It features all areas of fashion and beauty, which are the two main areas of interest of the magazine. For many years it had a winning formula under great editors like Diana Vreeland and Carmel Snow. Then, after the tragic death of Liz Tilberis, the next editor tried to change too much. I was asked to come in and reposition it as it should be."

What makes Bailey so successful is that she marries a serious interest in fashion with an unstoppable ability to convey the appropriate information in innovative ways through her editorial. I hadn't, however, been prepared for the way in which she has used techniques perhaps more familiar in a cutting-edge underground fashion magazines to bring Harper's Bazaar up to date.

"Like a lot of editors I really try do new things," she says, "ideas and concepts that are genuinely different and that set us apart once we've executed them. The first thing I did was re-instate the old logo, with the classic serif look. The next was to address the fact that our newsstand readers and our subscribers wanted different things from the cover, so we started to produce a separate one for each. Your subscriber knows and loves you as a magazine, so we created a cover that addresses their point of view, one that looks beautiful in their home. The newsstand buyer, as you know, only has a short amount of time to examine a very crowded magazine outlet, so naturally we make this far more commercial and dynamic in terms of selling the content."

Is it harder to do her job than in the UK? "No, I think it's actually easier in the States than in Britain. It's certainly less competitive. Everyone is very professional and do what they do best. I think the US publishing industry recognises how good British editors are with newsstand sales. In the UK it's mainly newsstand sales with a small percentage of subscriptions, whereas over here it's the opposite. One of my challenges has been to change that ratio, because of course subscriptions cost the publishers more than a full-price newsstand sale."

To do this she has focused on the two basics - fashion and beauty - combined with editorial twists that challenge what has gone before. A sort of revolutionary conservatism.

"My first cover featured the model photographed from front and back, and we placed the second shot on the outside back cover," she says. "We've also done two covers, one inside the other, with the same model focusing on fashion in the first and beauty in the second. To top that we did three consecutive covers. You can imagine what prime real estate the facing pages were for advertisers."

She continues to pile through the pages, highlighting fashion shoots incorporating animation, designers photographing each other; a political exclusive with Ben Affleck; a baby exclusive with Liz Hurley; imaginary chats between Karl Lagerfeld and Coco Chanel. What quickly becomes clear is that although she has all the energy and enthusiasm of a teenage obsessive, she is very quick to share the credit. Bailey obviously has long since mastered the job description of a successful magazine editor: to be able to inspire and win readers, attract advertisers, keep your bosses happy and lead your team through it all, and she certainly excels in the latter category.

"Steven Gan came up with the idea of doing the logo in crystal, and he went off and made that happen," she says, showing me what must be the bling-est logo ever. Gan is the magazine's creative director, whom Bailey hired after meeting him at a party thrown by David Bowie and his wife Iman. Gan is known for producing Visionaire, the limited edition concept fashion magazine that has appeared in formats ranging from an enormous version to an one that came wrapped as a gift from Tiffany. Bailey has them all in her office.

"Susan Boyd is our editor-at-large," she continues, "and she has an excellent editorial eye and really deserves lots of credit. She was the publicity director at Heinemann publishers and she turned me down three times. I just knew, even though she'd never been a journalist or an editor, that she'd be right for the job. On the fourth time of asking, she agreed to join me and it's the best decision I've ever made. Things like our Liz Hurley exclusive after she'd had her baby - that came from Susie in London.

"Allison Fabian in features came with me from American Marie Claire, Jenny Barnett, Avril Graham and [former Elle editor] Sarah Bailey all came to work here from the UK. I take great pride in seeing my current staff and previous colleagues doing well. I think there have been seven or eight editors-in-chief that have come through the ranks of the magazines I've edited. Giving talent the opportunity and watching that talent grow is one of the most rewarding aspects of this job."

If all this sounds gushing, it is more a product of genuine passion and charm than Ab Fab-style false luvviedom. It is certainly far more indicative of the Glenda Bailey I have known over the years than the caricature that accompanied her final years at IPC magazines. Because she refused to get involved with company away days, preferring instead to concentrate on fashion and editing, and perhaps because she had appeared as herself in an American Express advert, she was considered by many to be some sort of remote, Thatcherite figure. In my experience this couldn't have been further from the truth.

I first met Glenda in about 1996 at a time when inter-editorial sexual relations between the loaded and Marie Claire staffs were reaching epidemic proportions. I had popped down to ask if I could have some of my staff back, only to discover that she would shortly be leaving to head up the US title. The success of British Marie Claire seemed to be built around a clearly defined diet of fashion, sex and serious features on the challenges facing women across the globe. When she first came to America she admitted to me that putting the word "Hair" on the cover of Marie Claire in the US had the same sort of uplifting affect on sales as the word "Sex" did in the UK. Does such a cultural climate allow her any room to include in Bazaar the sort of political features she has excelled at in the past? "Well, my first issue of Bazaar went to press on September 11 2001, and from that moment on the world changed. It was a terrible time for everyone concerned. Everybody here knew someone who had been lost to the tragedy but it went far beyond that. In Italy the fashion industry lost 40 per cent of its business as people reacted to what had happened. So we had to rethink what was important.

"People might wonder whether there is a space for politics in a fashion and beauty magazine, but what we've done is address it in the style we're accustomed to," she continues. "So we asked Ellen DeGeneres to write about why a woman should be President. And then Peter Lindbergh photographed her in a presidential light. So we gave the magazine a political point of view."

At US Marie Claire the title won an Amnesty International Award for its "Afghan Women" campaign, and Bailey reached out to bring women like Trudie Styler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Oprah Winfrey and Meryl Streep into this and other weighty debates. When Cherie Blair announced her intention to tour the US as a speaker, it was Bailey who called her personally to secure the exclusive.

Though politics clearly plays an important part in her outlook, it's with fashion that Bailey is most driven, a position she puts down to having trained and worked as a designer before becoming an editor.

"I had the foresight to see that I wasn't going to be a great fashion designer. Instead, after one collection, I joined a fashion forecasting company called Design Direction. For 18 months I spent all my time visiting fashion shows, fabric fairs, everything, to help determine the trends that lay ahead. I was thinking all the time about what was coming and that has passed into my editing. I love thinking about what's next. I love meeting talented designers, I find that very inspiring.

"As I've been involved for a long time now I've known a lot of the number two and three designers in the big fashion houses who have gone on to start their own companies. That has certainly been an advantage. That experience and the time I've put in, the 20 years of slowly getting to know everyone, has allowed me to help generate opportunities for people within the fashion industry. Tommy Hilfiger has even admitted that after we introduced him to Karl Lagerfeld for a story, they got on so well that Tommy ended up buying Karl's company!"

So who are her ideal cover stars? "Ones that are beautiful but immensely likeable and accessible, like Jennifer Aniston and Jennifer Lopez. And then there are people like Angelina Jolie who are a different kind of beauty altogether. I like to create editorial things that are memorable, to give people their first covers. I gave Famke Janssen her first cover in the UK, Sarah Jessica Parker, Teri Hatcher, all of these have become fashion icons. I was obsessed with Gisele [Bündchen], I just knew she would become a supermodel. At Marie Claire I was always using her and going on about her. It drove my staff mad."

The only evidence of her alleged brusqueness is in the way she sometimes pauses for a few seconds before answering a question. You sort of sit there wondering: "What have I said?". "Does she socialise with her staff?" is one that prompts such a pause. I can only assume that this is some sort of defensive hangover from her days back in the UK when the posh papers occasionally liked to remind her where she'd come from, as if there was something wrong in progressing from working class Derbyshire to the catwalks of Paris and Milan. She assures me she hasn't forgotten her roots and regularly spends Christmas back in the UK, and is about to welcome her sisters extended family to New York for a holiday. Nor does she parade round with some super-hunk trophy boyfriend, preferring Steve Sumner, 46, a successful contemporary landscape painter whom Glenda has known since they were both punks back in the 1970s.

"Well I've just spent two-and-a-half weeks at the collection with five of the team, and my team love to party," she says. "I like to throw parties for them. For my first issue Sting played, and Debbie Harry and Gloria Gaynor have both performed at out staff parties.

"Last Thursday, which was the last night of the shows, we had a party and I was dancing until 2am with the staff. It was a great night. Gwen Stefani and Kirsten Dunst were there. You know how much I love to dance!"

After lunch she invites me back into her high-rise Midtown office, and only interrupts the extensive round of staff introductions to point out where she's living at the moment ('no not that one, that's the Dakota building, just past there'). It turns out that Robert De Niro has been discussing with Steve whether or not to buy their previous flat in the same block.

Has she ever found herself doing anything she thought she'd never do? "Well, I never thought I'd be doing any of it," she replies. "That's one of my big challenges - Things That Have Never Been Done Before."

It's the same for her life as for the magazine. And with that she whisks me back off through the offices, a one-woman whirlwind tour that culminates in the accessories room where three beautiful girls look up at us from where they are sitting on the floor sorting out Polaroids of shoes and dresses and models. I look from their big eyes to the view of Central Park and realise I should have spent my career in women's mags. Meanwhile, Glenda is off to look at her next front cover.