Spot the difference

Harpers & Queen has ditched its traditional Sloaney style and opted for a look reflecting trends that are more in vogue. So much so, says Ian Burrell, that it could be Vogue itself

One is the bible of the British fashionista; the other, the self-styled directory of the Sloane Square set. For decades they have moved in proximate but distinct social circles, only occasionally rubbing shoulders during the summer season or at London cocktail parties.

But all that has now changed. Harpers & Queen, the magazine that invented the Sloane Ranger in the 1980s, has ditched its twin set and pearls, marched up to Vogue in its Jimmy Choos and staked its claim to be the hottest glamour girl in town. Why, Harpers has even copied one of Vogue's key pieces (by imitating its distinctive typefaces), gossips said last week, and got rid of its "old-fashioned" friend Jennifer (the social diary column the magazine has run for almost 50 years).

Vogue is livid at the pretensions of a new rival that used to be known for her piecrust collars and Diana Spencer fringes, sneering at the "unoriginality" of the "derivative" new Harpers look this month. The prospect of a head-to-head battle between Harpers and Vogue could provide the sort of duelling with handbags (probably Chanel at £820 a pop) that the publishing industry relishes.

Certainly, Alexandra Shulman, editor of British Vogue, doesn't hold her fire when she gives her verdict on Harpers' newly designed product. "I would be a bit embarrassed, if I were them, that I couldn't come up with something more original," she says. "I was surprised to see something so unashamedly derivative."

Condé Nast, publisher of Vogue, had cottoned on to National Magazines' plans for changes at Harpers and decided to redesign their own magazine at exactly the same time. "They didn't sneak up on us exactly," says Shulman. "Harpers have been talking about doing a relaunch for years. It wasn't much of a surprise that they were doing something. But we were surprised to see so much of it looking exactly as Vogue had looked before it was redesigned."

As well as noting similarities in the typefaces, Ms Shulman was shocked by new features that not only resembled items in Vogue but encroached on to her 87-year-old magazine's traditional territory. In particular, a "Harpers Handbags and Shoes" supplement has raised Shulman's hackles. She claims that it is "the same size, the same cover and the same lay-out as our shoes supplement five months ago".

"It's not only the redesign, but the names that they have called pages," she says. "We had introduced a page called Spirit, which is a kind of New Agey, feelgood page, and they seem to have a page called Spirit Level, which is sort of the same thing. But I suppose imitation is meant to be flattering, isn't it?"

Over at National Magazines, there is a feeling of some satisfaction that Vogue may be just a little bit flustered. Tess MacLeod Smith, publishing director of NatMags Luxury Publishing Group, says: "We have made them sit up and take notice. They are very conscious of what we are doing." She is especially pleased with the buzz around the shoes supplement. "We have heard that that really has pissed them off," she says. "But we came up with the idea of doing this supplement on bags and shoes because - you know what? - that is what the trend is."

Ms MacLeod Smith claims that the real cause of Vogue's ire is that Harpers' bag-and-shoe supplement happens to tie in with National Shopping Week and Selfridges. "It is an original idea and, because we are Harpers and not Vogue, we had to work really hard at making this work. Sometimes, if you are British Vogue, you can sit on the top of your pedestal and not work as hard," she says. "They should have done it, and they should have done it years ago."

She says that under its young editor, Lucy Yeomans, 33, Harpers is starting to draw advertisers away from Vogue. "We've got fantastic fashion, and the advertisers - whether it's your Armanis, your Guccis or Louis Vuitton - know it's their job to keep up to pace with each magazine," she says. "We've managed to take [advertising] market share away from Vogue."

Harpers' secret, she claims, is to give the reader a more concise account of what emerges on the runways at the major shows. "Vogue is the fashion bible, that's its USP. It has to report every single fashion trend coming off the catwalk," she says. "We edit the trends for our readers. We are much more targeted, more relevant. Harpers has been to the show, we've sat there in Milan, Paris, New York and we've edited down what you need to know."

Aside from increasing its fashion content, Harpers has repositioned itself by placing Beyoncé Knowles on the cover ("she's black, she's 22, she writes her own songs, she's a modern icon") and, by axing Jennifer's Diary, leaving the It Girls to Tatler. "What we wanted to do is give a sense of being much more modern and contemporary," says the publishing director. "There's more energy, it's lighter. It's just more modern." The magazine last week posted its best ABC since 1999 with a circulation of 90,227, up 2.5 per cent year-on-year. Ms MacLeod Smith formerly worked on Vogue, and acknowledges that it is "an incredibly successful magazine" but she is less than complimentary about the fashion bible's own new look.

"Vogue found out we were doing this and the next thing you know they were redesigning," she says. "We were all surprised here how much older it feels. It's trying to be a bit like American Vogue, but sort of failing," she says, wondering aloud how the new layout will be received by Vogue's readership of "edgy, fashionable young girls".

Shulman, naturally, defends her product. "We haven't really changed any of the content or anything about the magazine it was just the layout. It was to make it a little bit more elegant. I think it has a slightly American feel at the front of the book," she says. The Vogue editor acknowledges that the new look is "quite nostalgic, and has a kind of Fifties feel about it". She says it would be "complacent" not to be looking at what other women's magazines are doing but claims that a 100,000-plus circulation advantage means that Harpers is not a serious threat.

Vogue's latest sales figure is 205,124, the magazine's highest ABC ever and up 4.7 per cent year on year. The magazine was bolstered by its shoe supplement and by a series of successful covers - most notably the Christmas edition that featured Kylie Minogue in a champagne glass.

Shulman says that although Harpers has increased its fashion coverage in its early pages, it does not invest in the centre-magazine fashion shoots that Vogue is known for. "I don't think you can really become a fashion magazine until you start doing that," she says.