The Grey Lady's style bible hits the net

T magazine, the cutting-edge style supplement of The New York Times, is going online and is also now available on British news stands. Susie Rushton reports

They dragged their John Lobb-shod feet for a decade but the luxury goods brands are finally getting online. And where their largesse can purchase advertising space, fashion magazines can flourish. So why are glossy fash-mag sites – the digital equivalent of a big, fat wodge of photographic fantasia and witty text – not sprouting like snowdrops?

With few exceptions, publishers have either reverted to a jumbly offering of celebrity and catwalk tittle-tattle that doesn't bother with the costly shoots found in the book – see vogue.co.uk – or, with other indie upstarts, serviced a niche/industry audience (see Showstudio, fashionwiredaily or even style.com, the website of US Vogue, which shows catwalk footage rather than shoots).

Could the third way be an urbane mix of "charticles" and "duvets", otherwise known as the cute editorial and commercial graphics that The New York Times hope will give their new Tmagazine.com the edge?

Four years after its print launch, the glossy style magazine of the American paper has launched a virtual twin that online director Horacio Silva thinks is "an immersive experience" that complements the award-winning magazine.

As befits a glamorous, well-connected mag, T threw a party during the last round of prêt-a-porter shows in Milan, where Donatella and the D&G boys toasted editor Stefano Tonchi. Published 15 times a year, with issues dedicated to men's and womens' fashion, beauty, travel, living, design and an annual "holiday" issue in December, T's regular writers include Lynne Hirschberg, Suzy Menkes and Alice Rawsthorne; Paolo Roversi and Jean-Baptiste Mondino are among its photographers.

From December the magazine has also been distributed with the International Herald Tribune (also owned by the NYT), giving it reach into the Europe and Middle East. Until now, T's online presence has only been accessible through nytimes.com, where it was presented without a separate visual identity. "We've always been an island off the mainland of The New York Times. We speak a different vernacular," says Silva.

Spending "what seemed like the gestation period of an elephant" on the launch, Silva and a small team worked with online design agency CreateThe (whose clients include Calvin Klein, Tom Ford and Miu Miu) – the first time any New York Times publication has deigned to work with an outsider.

The first thing you notice about Tmagazine.com – also accessible through the main paper's site and iht.com – is its physical beauty. The landing page is a glorious photo from one of the big-budget shoots, or a celebrity portrait such as the Natalie Portman cover that ran at launch. Then you notice the ticker-tape style scrolling headlines of the site's blog, called The Moment.

At the time of writing, the five-times-daily updated blog included contributions from artist Francesco Vezzoli (an analysis of Monica Vitti's greatest career moments with illustration taken from YouTube), a live review of the day's earlier Dsquared menswear show in Milan and the observation that The Carter has been named New York's dirtiest hotel. During the Art Basel Miami Beach fair the blog updated 18 times a day – and, in a curious twist, was then printed locally as a newsletter for fairgoers. Solipsism, they promise, will be kept to a minimum. Très elegante.

All of the magazine's columns, features, front-of-book infographics and shoots meanwhile are accessible though dropdown menus. While it is a beautiful ride, at times Tmagazine.com falters in its navigation – could anyone guess which stories are being offered by headlines "Silly Putting" or "Isn't it Iconic", without hint from either image or display text? Silva admits that the site is still being tweaked, calling the early months "an iterative process".

To be added in the near future are "definitive guides" to fashion and style. "You'd type in 'Lagerfeld' and you'll get an essay by one of the Times' star editor-writers. And then in reverse chronological order, links to everything ever written in The New York Times or T, by Amy Spindler, Cathy Horyn, myself, Guy Trebay. There'll also be complementary video." Users will be able to contribute to the guides, "but they'll be rigorously fact-checked and copy edited – because how else can they be authoritative?"

Silva says that live blog entries won't get the same fact-checking treatment. "On the blog, everything is looked at by me, and another pair of eyes. I'm using well-seasoned pros who are familiar with our ethics."

There are plenty of well-seasoned pros on show in the site's two video sections, most of which makes edifying lunch-hour viewing. "Curated Shorts" comprises 24 films by artists including Gilbert & George, Tracey Emin and choreographer Merce Cunningham; 'T Exclusive Films' is 19 commissioned interviews (such as Natalie Portman on acting), cultural guides (the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Manhattan) and, before it all gets too serious, good old catwalk show footage (Fendi in China). "The challenge is to avoid making bad TV," says Silva, "The standard thing is to go behind-scenes, and it's presented by someone you don't care about unless you're in their immediate family, having their make-up done. Give me a break."

Why hasn't fashion applied its imagination to the web sooner? "The people who run traditional print magazines are a bit older and I think they just hoped that the internet would go away," says Silva, who in a previous incarnation wrote blind items for Chic Happens, a fashion gossip page on the indie site Hintmag, "They couldn't work out how to make money or how to run their marquee photographers. And I also think that the technology just wasn't there before. There was also a reluctance on the part of the creatives to get involved."

Persuading the big fashion photographers – and their all-powerful agents – to create unique web material for editorial purposes, Silva concedes, is difficult. "You have to convince them that it is worth having their pictures up on the web. They say it can be ripped off, but you have to convince them it's easier to scan from a magazine and rip it off that way. The next challenge for us is to do a pure fashion video, something that really blows your mind."

The advertisers might get there first. Although the landing page is refreshingly free from ads, Gucci and Louis Vuitton (and other LVMH brands) feature heavily on the site; video ads are planned for the future. Advertisers pay for an annual package that displays their campaigns in rotation across the site, most notably those "duvets": large, full-screen banners that slide across the start of features and shoots. Though the company won't give figures for either traffic or ad rates, Seth Rogin, VP Advertising at The New York Times, says selling those annual packages "hasn't been a challenge. They were sold out before we launched, and we made the month's hits in the first three days. We behaved like a television network. Stefano and Horacio presented the forthcoming season to advertisers at the Four Seasons – and by doing that the entire inventory sold out before anyone saw a single page.

Outsized glossy W magazine, from the Condé Nast stable, has also just launched a new site, featuring a similar demographic of interviewee and editors's blog. Is T looking over its shoulder at its alphabetic rival?

"Well, that site is an example of a disconnect between the look and tone of what they do in print and what they do online," purrs Silva, " I just don't know why you would spend so much time making a beautiful magazine and then dismiss the website as the red-headed, illegitimate stepchild." Ouch!

www.tmagazine.com

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