The glossy that took a Pop at Vogue

The fashion pack is taking sides in a new fight. In the true blue corner, the once undisputed heavyweight champion of the magazine world. In the red corner, the upstart that may be about to steal its crown
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WE ALL know that Vogue is the heavyweight champion of British fashion glossies. It's a title the magazine has held on to for years, as it has dealt knock-out blows to one challenger after another. The last real contender, the much-hyped Nova, folded in 2001, a year to the day after it was launched. Others, including Scene and Frank – remember them? – are now also just footnotes on fashion's roll of honour.

And, on paper at least, the latest pretender – called Pop – shouldn't be causing Vogue's editor Alexandra Shulman to lose any beauty sleep. After all, the magazine, launched by Emap, is bi-annual, not monthly; and it has only just published its fourth issue. But what an issue it is.

There's Madonna on the cover, dressed in Stella McCartney pants, while inside, every generation from fashion's royal family – from Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana and Tom Ford to McCartney, Marc Jacobs and Phoebe Philo – has agreed to be interviewed at length. Their collections are shot in lush, 20-page portfolios by white-hot photographers like Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott, Terry Richardson and Steven Klein. The work of fashion photography's godfather Bruce Weber is also showcased, next to the youngest and freshest turks in the business. Predictably, the issue has sold out.

But some are saying this was more than just a good issue; that what we're seeing in Pop is a new fashion establishment flexing its muscles for the first time. For what must unnerve Vogue most is that Pop is produced by a tiny group of young fashion insiders, led by editor Katie Grand. Pop's debut autumn/ winter 2000 issue was fresh and funky but looked like a kitchen-table operation and was very cliquey. Grand's flatmate, the designer Luella Bartley, was on the cover, with Grand's favourite model, Liberty Ross, and old mates Stella McCartney and Phoebe Philo. Even the art director was her ex-boyfriend.

Back then, Pop's energy may have made Vogue feel its age, but the mavens of Hanover Square could at least look down on it, as parents would regard an overexcited teenager. Not any more. Grand doesn't deny the magazine was born as an in-crowd fanzine, but adds knowingly that the celebrity of her clique has since "moved up a notch or two". Grand is now stylist to Prada, Miu Miu, Cacharel, Fendi and remains creative director of Luella Bartley's label. What has changed is that her generation is now the generation – and includes the hottest stylists, designers, make-up artists and photographers of the moment.

Rumours suggest that an "us or them" ultimatum has been issued from Vogue House to all photographers, models and hair and make-up artists wanting to work for both titles. Though, as Pop's fourth issue proves, any such ultimatum appears to have been ignored.

"Vogue is a well-established and internationally respected brand name," says Ashley Heath, editorial director of Pop. "But they are looking very closely at the calibre of content and contributors Pop is already attracting. We launched Pop because we knew there was room in fashion publishing for an idiosyncratic, anarchic new voice. We wanted to relay the spirit of the new fashion establishment in its own forum and Pop was the result."

"We are a different product from Vogue," adds Grand. "I will say that being bi-annual makes my life a lot easier than [Vogue editor] Alexandra Shulman's. We have the luxury of four months to plan each issue."

Grand cut her teeth on the independent, edgy fashion magazine Dazed & Confused before being made fashion director of The Face. From there, she emerged as stylist-in-chief to the new school of fashion photographers who were blurring the boundaries between fashion and fine-art photography (you know the sort of thing: "challenging" images of naked models looking as if they've been in a car crash, only to emerge with a Louis Vuitton belt and multiple bruising to show for it).

Traditionally, left-of-centre stuff like this hasn't really bothered British Vogue – because it makes the big-brand fashion advertisers run scared. But Pop is a danger – indeed, the first serious contender for Vogue's crown in decades – because those advertisers are clearly in love with the upstart's energy, attitude and irreverence. As Ashley Heath says, "Pop is primarily a premium high-fashion magazine there to romance premium fashion advertisers. It doesn't matter whether we have 20,000 or 50,000 readers. The advertisers don't care, as long as they are seen in the right places. And in fashion today, the right place is Pop." With a cover price of £5 and an (unconfirmed) low print run, Pop isn't likely to become a big seller. But the industry knows readership numbers are irrelevant, as long as fashion advertisers want to be seen between its covers.

Unsurprisingly, the big wigs at Emap, the magazine's publisher, are excited by this prospective new money-spinner, and the option to go quarterly or even monthly is already on the table. Though Grand insists she is happy to keep Pop sweet and élite, the indications are that the path is being cleared for her magazine to go head-to-head with Vogue.

When Pop launched its debut issue as an off-shoot of The Face, it coincided with a whole raft of fellow magazine spin-offs. The founders of Dazed & Confused launched Another Magazine; Wallpaper* launched Spruce; and Emap launched not only Pop, but also a style bible called The Fashion, edited by the respected journalist Sarah Mower.

At the time, industry insiders thought that Emap's decision to launch two satellites was commercial suicide, that both magazines would be feeding from the same narrow trough. In the past week, the whispers that the plug is about to be pulled on The Fashion have reached a shout. This feeling of doom is compounded by the cover of The Fashion's current issue – with its pallid, alien-looking model, a bit like a lab rat in a leopard-skin kaftan.

It doesn't take a crystal ball to predict The Fashion's imminent end. And it doesn't take a genius to see that this is just the beginning for Pop.