A year ago the Canadian style commentator and Wallpaper founder Tyler Brûlé launched a new magazine. As stocky as a car-repair manual, the ten-times-a-year publication was aimed at polyglot businessmen who cared about pan-global trends in aviation and knew the difference between a Salvatore Ferragamo and a Santiago Calatrava. Priced at £5, it was to be not niche but general in scope and would also uphold high journalistic principles: no freebies or press trips for writers, and all the photography produced in-house.
Even as others cut back on foreign correspondents, Brûlé set up a network of "bureaux" in Japan, Spain, America, Australia and Switzerland. Following its launch – a fancy party at Claridge's Hotel – a complementary website with video (made by a dedicated staff film director) went live. Then media commentators sat back, put their cheap shoes up on the desk and waited for Monocle to sink under its own aspirations.
Well, a year later, Brûlé's dream is still alive. According to him, the magazine and has maintained its projected circulation of 150,000 – including 6,000 subscribers who pay a whopping £75 annual subs. Readership is strongest in the US, UK, Switzerland and Germany. It hasn't yet broken even, but aims to make profit in the next three years. These aren't soaraway stats, but for a generalist glossy produced on an anachronistically "generous" editorial budget, survival equals success.
When I meet Brûlé and Andrew Tuck, the editor, at the Monocle offices in Marylebone, the pair are quietly jubilant that their project has reached its first birthday.
"There were people who didn't quite get it, or thought we wouldn't have longevity," admits Tuck, after leading me through the (weirdly) low-lit office. Scented candles flicker on ludicrously tidy desks. Of the 30 staff, only one is an intern – who gets paid. How on earth does this add up?
"I think it was because of our ambition that we succeeded," continues Tuck, "It was the investment in print, the putting-money-where-our-mouth-is that attracted people to us."
The magazine itself hasn't changed much since its launch. Its strapline promises "a briefing on global affairs, business, culture and design" and if the term "briefing" suggests something rather worthy, it's true there aren't laughs on every page. Both Brûlé and Tuck describe Monocle not as a style glossy but as a news magazine, a genre established in Germany and the US but less so in the UK. At the front of the book there's Economist-style geopolitical stories (plus sexy pictures), followed by business reports on start-ups and developments in tech, longer reports from the bureaux, then fashion shoots, architecture, shopping and, finally, a serialised manga comic. Most of the paper stock is matt, with only a short section at the back glossy.
Although Tuck and Brûlé, below, disagree with my suggestion that Monocle is essentially a travel magazine, its main preoccupations are transport, shopping and the accoutrements of a jet-set lifestyle (which, a cynic might say, is unsurprising since Brulee's ad agency, which shares the same offices, counts BA and Swiss Air among its clients). The latest issue carries Brulee's own analysis of Heathrow's Terminal 5 while the February issue showed the Japanese bullet train on its cover and inside, the new must-have 10-seater cargo plane, the Kodiak.
The story of which Tuck says he has been most proud was a report by Africa-based journalist Steve Bloomfield (frequently of this parish) who travelled into Zimbabwe to witness at first hand the humanitarian and economic crisis in a country where foreign reporters are banned.
It's a solid read, of the type more usually found on newsprint than in men's magazines, extended with photography of everyday life in Zimbabwe and boxed cribs on the secret police. The current issue, meanwhile, devotes numerous pages to such earnest foreign subjects as the 10,000 Africans that have migrated to China and the over-staffing of the Finnish-Russian border. "We're sending reporters to places where [other papers] don't have anyone," says Tuck, who adds that syndication income has reflected that.
Back in more conventional glossy territory, last June's "Quality of Life Index" was a PR success – particularly for the city of Munich, which topped Monocle's list of the most "liveable" cities in the world. "We did proper research. If we're talking about setting news agendas, that story has rumbled on all year," says Tuck.
Brûlé is only at the office for one week per month since, aside from his duties as editor-in-chief, he is also a columnist for the International Herald Tribune and has just signed up with Vanity Fair. "Graydon Carter says that a Vanity Fair reader is a Monocle reader," he tells me.
Huge readership numbers simply don't matter. Graydon likes his magazine, and so do the backers. "It is ambitious to be a print brand, but when I went to speak to the investors I can't say it was difficult to get the money because it was obvious to people what we're trying to do," says Brûlé.
The magazine is funded by a consortium of investors including a Spanish banking family and Japanese, Australian, Swedish and Swiss backers. With these finances, the magazine is now expanding, this month, hiring its first foreign editor. "Everyone is on board to make money in the next three years," Brûlé goes on, "but they're not on board because they think this is the new Facebook and that they're going to be deliriously rich overnight."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies