Visit any newsagent, and you’ll probably see a whole wall dedicated to fashion magazines - immaculate celebrity faces beaming down at us, alongside cover lines designed to draw us in and ultimately buy.
But the post-pandemic fashion magazine looks set to be quite different from the formula we’ve come to know. Putting together an issue during lockdown is no easy task, nor does it look set to get any less challenging as lockdown restrictions begin to ease.
Of course it’s not so hard for writers like myself to contribute. As long as I have a functioning laptop, I can work anywhere. Interviews can be done over the phone or on Zoom, and while, yes, perhaps some context and colour is lost by not doing them in person, it’s unlikely to be too noticeable.
The rest of a fashion magazine’s anatomy is more complex. Lockdown has meant that editors have been robbed of the opportunity to discuss headlines, image choices and layout with their teams in person - essential collaboration that contributes to making every page as captivating as possible. And it’s near-impossible to reflect on new trends and offer styling inspiration without the aid of pictures, not to mention the critical glossy celebrity cover that can make the difference between a bestselling issue and a lukewarm flop on the newsstand.
While photos of a product on a white background are fine for a shopping page and easily sourced from brands, it’s the editorials - the glamorous photoshoots featuring models in idyllic and often far-flung locations - that really bring fashion to life. Typically this kind of production involves a huge number of people, among them stylists, hair and makeup artists, photographers and a retinue of assistants and interns to help everything run smoothly and efficiently on the day. In a post-Covid world, it’s hard to imagine how makeup artists will create flawless dewy skin on a model, or how a stylist will tweak a garment mid-shoot just so.
But the editors of our most beloved titles have been imaginative in finding solutions that have allowed them to publish magazines that are not only beautiful and a joy to read, but also take into account the mood of the nation, addressing the impact of this pandemic in a sensitive way.
“The biggest challenge of the past few months is that our audience’s entire lives and behaviours have dramatically changed - and continue to change as the pandemic unfolds,” says Hattie Brett, editor-in-chief of Grazia magazine. “That meant we pretty much had to rip up everything we had pre-planned to create relevant content and be exceptionally nimble when creating new content.”
For Brett, this has required a complete re-think of what’s possible when it comes to a photoshoot, not to mention choosing a topic that will resonate with the reader. “The few shoots we’re doing at the moment are like none I’ve ever worked on,” she says. “We’re having new discussions about what’s necessary and appropriate to shoot, and how we do it safely for everyone involved. Our cover shoot - for an issue dedicated to the NHS - was shot in a matter of minutes in the car parks of hospitals, maintaining social distancing, before Dr Janitha Gowribalan, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, paramedic Sarah Blanchard and nurse Richenda Browne went back to their day jobs of saving lives.”
Certainly, when it comes to the logistics of a photoshoot, keeping teams small has been critical. “In terms of shoots, I'm thinking about what can be done safely with husband-and-wife teams who are working together and living together anyway so you're not bringing someone new into the environment,” says Sasha Slater, head of magazines at the Telegraph. “So a husband photographer, with his wife as the model, doing her own hair and makeup.”
Creative couples and flatmates have also proved to be a valuable asset at Hearst UK (publisher of ELLE, Harper’s Bazaar, and Town & Country), says Avril Mair, the group’s luxury fashion director. “For Harper’s Bazaar I commissioned the artist and photographer Erik Madigan Heck, one of our regular contributors, isolating in upstate New York with his wife Brianna Killion, who is model and muse for his art projects,” she says. “Brands sent clothes directly to them and they shot an intimate story - without hair, makeup or styling - inspired by their experience of being together as the world shut down around them.”
Fashion illustration is playing a more important role too. “It is a neglected art and could obviate the need for a big team,” says Slater. “Just an artist, a model and a stylist who could presumably keep clear of one another.”
It’s an idea that has been embraced by Brett at Grazia too; she commissioned three unique floral covers for the 18th May issue. “We asked Erdem, Sara Shakeel and Richard Quinn to illustrate the cover around a theme that I believe has dominated this period - a new-found appreciation of nature - and then allow us to auction off the original artwork for Covid-19 charities,” she says. “David Hockney’s quote, ‘They Can’t Cancel The Spring,’ seemed the perfect coverline for an issue that was as much about capturing the emotion of the moment as creating something beautiful and collectable.”
Though lockdown will progressively ease as we head into the summer, it’s likely that social distancing will remain in place for some time, and so editors are being forced to consider sustaining this ‘new normal’ for some time. And this could actually make for more interesting magazines in a digital-first era during which overall print sales are on the decline. Swimsuit-clad models linking arms on a Bahamian beach may be an escapist fantasy, but we’re more likely to find something to identify with in stories that convey an honest reflection of the issues dominating the global agenda right now.
“The epic, extravagant shoots of the past aren’t going to be possible for a long time, if ever,” says Mair. “We are all rethinking at the moment to ensure we are producing meaningful content for our audiences… For ELLE, I’m currently casting a group of sisters to do a shoot together. I think we all crave human touch right now and that sense of sisterhood is powerful.”
Of course, different magazines will address the limitations in different ways. “For those that want to keep things very glossy and pristine there will be a lot more reliance on post-production,” says Slater. “For those who want to keep it natural and real, magazines will perhaps look less perfect, but they will appear fresher instead, and that may not be a bad thing. Fewer people on a shoot will mean more spontaneity.”
“In many ways, this crisis is a pertinent reminder of the value in thinking differently and being unafraid to try new things,” says Brett. “Just like everyone, we’re adjusting day-by-day to a whole new way of life and news agenda so I think it’s tricky for anyone to look too far into the future. But Grazia’s always been about a mix of smart content that encapsulates the breadth of things on a modern woman’s mind. That hasn’t changed because of Covid-19 - in fact, it’s become even more important that we’re tapping into her concerns and helping answer them with our content.”