Stephen Quinn: He's a dedicated follower of fashion

As publisher of 'Vogue', Stephen Quinn likes to dress the part. Ian Burrell hears how he's made sales figures look better than ever at Britain's glossiest fashion magazine – and why he's not merely keeping up appearances in his private life
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Surrounded by beautiful women in one of the most glamorous offices in London, Stephen Quinn arrives at his desk each day in collar and tie, flatly rejecting the "open-necked shirt" culture of his fellow publishers at Condé Nast. "I think you must come to work dressed for the business day and be sincere and conventional about it – not try to pretend that you are managing a rock band," he says. "My tie is from Brooks Brothers, my suit is from Timothy Everest and my shoes are from Church's. And always red socks, Ian. Always."

Quinn is something of an éminence grise in Britain's magazine publishing industry; next year will mark his 40th in the business, and for the past 16 he has been publisher of Vogue, turning that most iconic of titles into nothing less than a money-making machine.

The red socks are a dandyish habit he picked up soon after arriving in London at the start of the Sixties, the son of a humble forestry worker from the south of Ireland. "I just came for work. I grew up in Kilkenny in what is now termed the 'hungry Fifties', when there weren't any jobs. At the age of 14 I attempted to join the British Army, no less, moved by those wonderful colour brochures. I was accepted in principle but, thank God, I was prevailed upon not to become a boy soldier. It would have been a disaster."

Instead of soldiering, he headed to London and hung out with a fashionable crowd of University College Dublin graduates who quoted Yeats and Joyce and mocked Quinn for his accountant's job at the Metal Box Company. "My chums – and I still know them all today – were hung up on intellectualism and culture and existentialism. They used to tease me mercilessly about being an accountant. I decided 'God, I've got to get a more exciting job.'"

As a result, Quinn sought work in the media and dressed for the part. "That was the year of Bonnie & Clyde with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. As a 25-year-old and very self-consciously trendy, I used to love to arrive for work in a very long herringbone coat, brown felt hat and quite a substantial handkerchief hanging out of the pocket." Some 20 years later Quinn would become the launch publisher of GQ magazine.

Red socks and substantial handkerchiefs notwithstanding, Quinn is not the flashy figure one might expect. In fact, he has an almost puritanical zeal for frugality. "Just because Vogue is ultra-glamorous and stylish I don't take a view that we should be in any way extravagant – I have fake flowers there, Ian, look," he says, pointing to some purple "flowers" in a vase in his window. "I could buy tables at every glamorous event in London. I don't. I kind of think: 'Well why?' I'm a businessman, I'm not a socialite, and as long as the business performance of Vogue is always at an all-time high I feel justified and proud. But I don't particularly want to be photographed with celebrities. I eschew that sort of thing altogether."

The publisher was dragged into the spotlight in the most difficult circumstances when his wife Kimberly's relationship with the former Home Secretary, David Blunkett, became a major story in 2004. He has just returned from a family holiday at Burnham Market on the Norfolk coast and the Quinn's country home in Rutland, and makes several references to his matrimonial contentment. Midway through the interview, as Quinn is making a detailed appraisal of his record at Vogue, based on pages of charts and statistics and polls, his phone rings. It is "the wife". He arranges to call her back and then points to photographs on the window ledge. "That's Kimberly and the children there actually, William and Lorcan. The nanny took them for haircuts yesterday. They had lovely long golden hair across the summer and she ordered something pretty savage," he laughs. "Sorry. I didn't mean to distract you."

Asked later how he managed to keep Vogue on an even keel during the storm that enveloped his personal life, he explains how his job gave him succour. "What happens when you have any type of crisis in your life is that you fall back on your business day with a virtuous enthusiasm, because that's the safety valve," he says. "Now my personal life is back to complete stability and continuity, and is in every sense rather joyous and rather wonderful."

Quinn is 63 and has earmarked his retirement date in December 2010. He is kept active by William and Lorcan, not to mention his three grown-up sons from his previous marriage. "With the young boys it's just great. William is going to his new school in September and on the holiday I said to him, 'Angel, you are going to have to learn to play football, so you are in goal and I'm scoring' – and you know, I'd kick the ball and he'd block everything. And I said, 'I'm very unhappy,' and he'd look at me with big round eyes and say 'Why, daddy?' and I said 'Well, I haven't scored – I have to score a goal.' I found that engaged him. He ran into Kimberly afterwards and said, 'I've been playing football with Daddy and he's only scored two goals, Mummy'. I think children are so wonderful. It's nice when in life you find equilibrium again. And the press coverage has disappeared now."

His wife, the former Kimberly Fortier, is also busy. Having left her position as publisher of The Spectator, the Los Angeles-raised journalist is writing a novel. "She's writing an adventure story aimed at young adults, probably 14 through to about 19. She has an agent. I think she would genuinely like to be a novelist. She could do a lot of feature journalism if she wanted to but she won't do that until she's got this book written. Personally I think it will be very fulfiling for her. She'd done 10 years at The Spectator, she had a great deal of success, but things change and I think it was right for her to let go.

"I said to her, 'Really and truly, this is the time before you make a decision to go back into publishing, PR or charity management,' or whatever area she might eventually find herself doing. 'Why not take that year out and try and get that book written? You have a commission and a first-class agent. Get it done and it will be deeply satisfying.' That's why she's in such an exhilarated state. She has quite a few chapters done and a very strong outline and she knows where it's going and how it's going to conclude."

Mrs Quinn is a former communications and marketing director for Condé Nast and her husband says the pair received "wonderful support" from the company during their time in the eye of the storm. "There was quite a feeling of strong affection and respect for her."

During that period, Quinn, in a position that many would have found humiliating, showed remarkable resilience. "I will not draw a distinction between biological and non-biological. We are not buying Persil or Daz," was one rare but memorable comment when questions were raised over who had fathered the boys (tests showed that Lorcan was not Blunkett's, though the politician claims that William is). When Blunkett openly shed tears, Quinn said he was "contemptuous". "All this crying in public is shaming," said the publisher, predicting that "everything is going to be fine."

He has an inner confidence that his long and distinguished record at Vogue has only strengthened. Its headline ABC is 220,084, the highest in the magazine's 91-year history. But Quinn believes the "actively purchased" figure of 164,834 sales (excluding bulks) is more significant. "I personally don't think there is great value in bulks, frankly. I don't see the logic of giving top hotels and airlines copies free."

Quinn prefers to spend money on advertising to people who might subsequently go out and buy their own copy of Vogue. "We were in The Times, The Independent, The Guardian and The Evening Standard every single day promoting the September issue. Why? Because if we can drive those sales at the newsstand we get a terrific return. We please the advertiser because we are placing the magazine in the hands of passionate, enthusiastic individuals," he says. "My conviction has been that we've got to reduce bulk sales to an absolute minimum, and we are really only present on our national airline. We are not losing money on those copies to British Airways but, I must be honest, neither are we making any money – whereas we are making serious money with our news-stand copies and our paid subscriptions."

He says he spends 80 per cent of his working week negotiating with Vogue's advertisers. "It is, if I may just use the word, a brilliant success story. This year we are going to do 2,190 pages, which will be a record for the magazine," he says, noting that Vogue sold 1,191 pages of ads in 1991 when he took over. "We do charge premium rates and we are known to be very tough on the rates. A typical page in Vogue now is around £14,000, possibly a bit more where you are seeking very specific premium positioning."

He says he is not able to reveal profit figures, except to say that British Vogue is the most profitable title that Condé Nast produces outside of America. "Since I took it over I've been able to build the revenues and profits every single year, and now they are at very dizzy heights indeed."Quinn is not shy in setting out his achievements, but he also acknowledges that Vogue has been helped by factors beyond his control. "The absolute key change is the stability of the economy from about 1996 onwards. That has created a context in which, I'm afraid, the wealth of the middle and upper-middle class and business class has grown. Their consumer patterns have grown. And we have been the beneficiary of that growth. Vogue would suffer if there was an economic recession. No question."

To help make his case to advertisers, Quinn uses research commissioned from Taylor Nelson Sofres showing Vogue way ahead of its rivals in terms of being recognised as a "fashion bible" by women who read glossies. His job has also been made easier by fashion houses now having five or six collections a year to advertise, instead of the traditional two.

He also benefits from the magazine's having a long-standing and successful editor in Alexandra Shulman. "Alex, believe me, manages her own area 100 per cent. She's a very strong, confident woman, and we don't live in each other's pockets. You'd never find us going arm-in-arm to dinners."

Though he wants to keep going until 2010, he says the competition among Condé Nast publishers is "fierce... unbelievable". "I'm 63 years of age, and I have lots of publishers in this country who'd like me to fall under a London bus so that they could grab hold of this juicy job. But I happen to have children under five, and I need to work on and on."

He wears a pedometer on his belt to help keep his weight down. But though one of his older sons, Jamie, has just returned from DJ-ing in Ibiza, you won't find Quinn on a dancefloor, "Vogueing" like Madonna – he comes home early from glitzy events. "I have small children, and I like to get home to see them. To find that William's room has the whole train set laid out everywhere – that's more fun than going to a cocktail party."