Just another face in the crowd?

The grand-daddy of style magazines, The Face magazine is 20 years old. These days the pioneer of the style press has a brace of hip young competitors. Can it still measure up? By Jojo Moyes
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The Independent Online

As a tribute, it couldn't be more fitting. A Short Catalogue Of Things That You Think You Want, by feted young writer Zadie Smith, takes an acerbic ride through muscle definition, sushi, urban furnishings and new trainers: all the obsessions of your average style mag.

Back in 1980, when The Face was launched, we didn't know that we wanted these things, of course. Trainers were bought in Woolworths with green flashes on them, and sushi was a strange and distant Asiatic concept (raw fish?!). Now Britain is saturated with stylistic advice for all aspects of popular culture - from magazines such as Sky and Dazed and Confused, to television fashion shows like She's Got To Have It. Youth culture has exploded into a million tribal elements - and in today's magazine market there is something to cater for everyone - whether it be the hard-core clubber or the foxy fashionista.

So where does that leave The Face?Britain's original chronicle of pop culture celebrates its 20th birthday this month with an extraordinary portfolio of images through which some of the biggest names in youth culture pay tribute to the magazine. The portfolio contains photography by Mario Testino, Nick Knight, David Lachapelle (of Ãœbermodel Giselle) and Juergen Teller (of Kate Moss). There is artwork by the Young British Artists (YBAs) Tracey Emin and Jenny Saville, and from pop icons Jarvis Cocker, Basement Jaxx and Kylie Minogue. Fashion tributes include Lara Croft wearing Hussein Chalayan, Alexander McQueen's head on a plate and Stella McCartney's "fuck face" badges. Even Tony Blair, that uncool proponent of Cool Britannia, has got in on the act with a scribbled tribute. The sheer quality of the names, many of whom served their apprenticeship on its pages, acts as a poignant reminder of how The Face has been at the core of young British cultural life. But is it still at the cutting edge? Is it even still important? Critics point to younger, hipper rivals and suggest that The Face no longer knows who it's talking to. Style journalist Alix Sharkey recently claimed it was "weary. "It's as if the magazine were celebrating its 30th birthday and can no longer work out if it's young, old, or somewhere in the middle."

Dylan Jones, the editor of GQ and former contributor, says it just doesn't stand out any more. "When I worked there it was possibly one of the three most important magazines in the world... but unfortunately it has fallen victim to its own success. Because although it still employs some talented people and has some innovative ideas, there are just so many magazines like The Face these days."

He contrasts it with i-D magazine, which was launched at the same time. "If you look at i-D, it is still as genuinely iconoclastic and idiosyncratic and strange and confusing as it ever was. Whereas The Face is just like too many others."

Johnny Davis, its 28-year-old editor, begs to differ. "I've been asked recently 'What is The Face? Is it a rock magazine or a fashion magazine?' Well, it's fortunate in that it can do many things - the portfolio was to illustrate that, to give lots of people the opportunity to do whatever they wanted. I think it's always been what stood The Face in good stead, giving people their head."

He counters suggestions that it has lost its unique selling point with sales figures. "We're at this ridiculous stage where The Daily Telegraph is writing about Ali G. It's become so accelerated. But The Face still sells 10 times more than its imitators. There has been a rash of small circulation magazines which sell out of clothes shops in Soho... but The Face is a pop mag, and it's still at the top of its game, even after 20 years. It feels fresher and younger than ever before."

When The Face was at its weakest, he says, "it was doing people who were on maybe their third or fourth album. When it's really firing that should be people you haven't heard of yet". So how does he explain the somewhat eulogistic interview with singer Richard Ashcroft on the front of the April edition? Davis is unapologetic. "He did one interview and did it with us - it's his comeback album, his solo project. If it had been his fourth Verve album we wouldn't have done it."

If there is a hint of defiance in Davis' voice, it's not surprising. The magazine has only just turned around after a long period of turbulence. The most incongruous image in the tribute comes from advertising agency Mother: a photograph of Jason Donovan - the Australian soap star whose libel action nearly brought the magazine to an untimely end.

But recently The Face has suffered other threats. Last year, after recording ABC figures of just 71,381, Nick Logan, its creator, sold his publishing company Wagadon to the mighty Emap - a move many analysts believed would turn the magazine into something "sterile and bland".

Meanwhile, its traditional hunting ground of music, film, clubbing and fashion have been hungrily eaten into by other media - a tough call for an editor for whom The Face was his "first job". "I took over at a turbulent time," Davis acknowledges. "There was quite a lot of fear that the new editor would put (underwear model) Jo Guest on the cover... But Emap has absolutely let us get on with it and do things we couldn't do before." He dismisses suggestions that the buy-out compromised the independent title. "Emap has bought us massive clout. There were problems with distribution etcetera which we couldn't handle as a smaller company - that's been brilliant. Some of the covers we've done (since the buy-out) we would have never got away with before. We're trying to make each issue a complete event."

So far he may be succeeding. The last six-monthly ABCs showed circulation is creeping back up. Advertising revenue is also up - the March edition opened with a colossal 44 pages of advertising, a ratio which sparked a wave of protest in its letters pages. ("That was such a frustrating thing," says Davis. "We weren't taking space from editorial.") May's edition, with some 266 pages, is its biggest ever.

That level of advertising spending alone should ensure the magazine's future. But the jury is still out as to whether The Face can retain its distinct identity in an increasingly fragmented world. Perhaps tellingly, the magazines that Davis most admires are those with very distinct identities, those "which have strong ideas on who they are - Vogue, Q, even Wallpaper". "I think people aren't usually fooled," he says. "If you don't live the life that you're talking about then it's completely transparent."

But he is confident that Britons, culturally saturated as they now are, are still in need of their style bibles. "I hope so because I certainly am," he says. "I do think people are more sophisticated... they are so much more media-literate than my generation. But The Face's strength is that it's been a fashion magazine that doesn't disappear up its own backside. So many are very, very cool with a capital C, very dictatorial. I hope we do it with a sense of fun."

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