About five years ago an old friend phoned Jonathan Newhouse. It was the famous fashion designer John Galliano, who in 2011 was exiled from the spotlight after making anti-Semitic comments in a Paris bar.
Newhouse, who comes from an aristocratic New York Jewish family, and who has been Condé Nast International’s chairman since 1994, listened carefully. Galliano asked his friend, an executive at one of the world's largest private media companies, to help him return to the fashion world. Galliano knew, as do many others in his milieu, that one word from Newhouse would be enough to guarantee his comeback.
“I’ve known him for a long time, and the Galliano I know is not a racist or an anti-Semite,” Newhouse told Haaretz while visiting Israel as a guest of the Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art. Newhouse came to the conference room for the interview in a suit (with a colored handkerchief in his lapel) as though denying the steamy weather outside.
When asked what caused him, as a Jew, to pave Galliano’s way back to the top, he said Galliano “was deeply, deeply, apologetic. He said, ‘You know, I was completely drunk and on drugs. I don’t know why I said what I said. I can’t explain it.’ He asked me what else he could do to be forgiven. So I went to a very old friend, a man named Abe Foxman, who was the head of the Anti-Defamation League. And he said, ‘Well, have him come and see me.’ So I came in with John, and Abe was great.
“And I started talking to different people in the [London] Jewish community. Some of them said, ‘You know what, I’m not going to help this guy.’ But the Chief Rabbi of London, a man named Lord Jonathan Sacks said: ‘If someone seriously wants to atone, we have to welcome this.’”
Did you forgive him completely for what he said?
“A lot of people condemned Galliano, and they were right to condemn him when his wrongdoing has to be condemned. If possible, it’s better to show that person the light, turn that person who has committed the wrongdoing into someone who understands and a better person. He was deeply, deeply addicted to alcohol and drugs, and in a way, I think he did what he did in order to self-destruct so that he could get out of this cycle and change his life.”
In the end he broke the cycle, and with Newhouse’s blessing Galliano was appointed head designer at the Maison Margiela fashion house in Paris.
Another Newhouse-linked revolution took place recently when he announced the launch of Vogue Arabia, whose first issue was published in March. But the widely covered launch wasn’t simple. About 12 years ago it was reported that Newhouse refused to approve the publication of a Vogue edition in the Arab world due to the brand’s liberal views. This approach was described in the Persian Gulf as an anti-Muslim act.
“It’s true, although I was quoted in a story which was done in a very underhanded way. Someone contacted me from a United Arab Emirates media company asking me to do an Arab edition of Vogue. This was about 2005. It was the middle of the night, I was in New York, I was jet-lagged, and I said ‘No thanks.’ A day later I had to explain to my board of directors why I refused,” Newhouse says.
“So I wrote an email explaining: ‘Well, some parts of the Arab world don’t share the values of Vogue and there are some violent elements [against women in the Middle East].’ I was very frank. The next day, everything I said in this email, which I thought was a business conversation, was on the front page of a newspaper, Emirates Today, looking very nasty, saying ‘Vogue chairman says no to Muslims.’”
In the end you launched Vogue Arabia. What happened to the fear of conflicting values?
“What I decided to do was to test the water. We started with Condé Nast Traveler. We had a good experience with Traveler, and then we did AD, which is Architectural Digest, and we had a good experience, so it was only after three or four years of knowing that we could do a magazine successfully in the Middle East that we decided to do a Vogue, and we decided to call it Vogue Arabia.”
And still, the Muslim world is more conservative than the Western world.
“We always have, not only in the Arabian market, the Middle East market, a local editor. So in Russia, we have a Russian editor, in Italy we have an Italian editor, and Edward is British. You need an editor who understands the culture precisely in order to appeal to the audience and to have in mind cultural sensibilities and not to offend people.
“And this is very much the case in Vogue Arabia. Although he’s not Arab, he has lived in the region a long time. Probably a business consultant would come in and say ‘You’re stupid. You should just do one Vogue and translate it.’ That would be facile, what would look like a good approach but is not a good approach.”
Have you tried to convey secular and liberal messages in Vogue Arabia, or do you avoid doing so?
“We have some basic values that are not negotiable, which have to do with respect for the individual, respect for humanity and honesty and nonviolence. We’re not directing a kind of political agenda to the editor.
“In most of our editions, the editorial is really focused on fashion, beauty, the life, the cultural life of the readers. I think people look to women, look to Vogue, to get education about what’s happening, how to dress, how to live. But we’re not focused on all the political issues of the spectrum.”
What’s your approach to the burkini, for example?
“I think if women in a market are wearing burkinis and want to wear burkinis, probably Vogue should feature burkinis. I don’t see why burkinis couldn’t be stylish and beautifully done. If that’s what women want to wear, they should wear them. I don’t agree with people who should think anything should be banned. I don’t agree with banning burkinis or anything else. We’re not about saying no. We’re much more about saying yes.”
Long live print
Newhouse was born in New York in 1953 to one of the wealthiest and most aristocratic families in the United States. The magazine company established by the family in 1909 is considered one of the world’s strongest with brands including Vogue, The New Yorker, GQ, Glamour, Traveler, Pitchfork and Vanity Fair.
As chairman of Condé Nast International, Newhouse expanded the distribution of the company’s magazines severalfold. When he took over he controlled about 30 magazines distributed in seven countries. Today the numbers are 124 magazines in 28 markets, including new territories such as Japan, China, India and Turkey.
In his youth, Newhouse worked as a reporter for The Staten Island Advance, but within a few years he left the newsroom for the family firm. In the ‘80s he was the executive vice president of The New Yorker, and the publisher of Details magazine. He still enjoys reading The New Yorker. When asked about the financial chances of such a high-end magazine surviving the sea of mediocrity that characterizes today’s media, he replies:
“Actually, The New Yorker is a great success story. The circulation is growing, and not only is it growing, but people pay a very high price for a subscription. The average price is about $100 per a year, where a lot of magazines sell subscriptions for $20 or even less.
“I think people do want to read the long-form content. Attention spans seem to be becoming shorter, and people are consuming content in the form of tweets and very brief posts and even images, so defined high-quality long-form content is not as plentiful as it used to be, and there is a market for it.”
You’re not concerned about the prophecies of print’s demise?
“The reality of print declining and digital exploding is the context which absorbs attention 100 percent of the time. In a way, all we are thinking about is strategically ... how to manage both. Print is the soul of our products. It’s the reference, and it has to be great and relevant. It is also evolving, in a way. And then, at the same time, we are taking our content, our relationships, our experience into all these new platforms.
“We are way beyond simply translating print and putting it on a website. Everything has to be redone in a different way, in a way that connects to the users. They have different expectations. Even among social media, they experience and have different expectations depending on the platforms. So, for example, when we make a video for Facebook, it’s different than a video made for YouTube.”
If in the past, journalists decided the agenda, today there’s a feeling that journalism is influenced by the readers, the social networks.
“In general terms, there’s truth to what you say, because a lot of the money is going to high-traffic, high-volume sites and places where advertisers are looking for efficiency. Our brands are almost the opposite of those. They are able to deliver value by influencing a smaller number of people, people who are at the cutting edge of fashion who have an intense interest.
“We bring authority, taste and creative brilliance to what we cover, so that is a much more targeted approach. We still have to reach a large number of people, but we aren’t trying to reach a billion people The goal is not for a billion people, not today, and it probably won’t be.”
Role models on the cover
It feels as though everybody is trying to avoid big scandals in the fashion world. In the past, for example, one could take a white model, make her up in black skin and create a discussion about race and fashion. That almost impossible today. Newhouse believes that there’s a certain conservatism in today’s fashion magazines, but it’s balanced out by the discussion online.
“I think we’re living in a very politicized atmosphere. Technology allows a lot of people to voice their opinions instantly, and to voice them sometimes very aggressively, so that if someone says or does something that offends people, it creates a faster, quicker reaction,” he says.
“An example of that is: Pepsi-Cola did an advertisement with Kendall Jenner involving [actors playing] police officers, which created a kind of political reaction which in the past would not have gathered the volume and momentum it does.” (The ad was canceled).
“So some voices are being more careful thinking about what a reaction can be. If people are thinking about not offending people and not saying offensive, stupid things, it’s probably good. But I hope that it doesn’t result in a kind of homogenous approach where people aren’t taking risks. When you take risks, there’s a chance people will be offended and take things the wrong way.”
Carine Roitfeld, the former editor-in-chief of Vogue France, was fired in part for bold fashion choices. Do you think there’s a place for people like her in today’s magazine world?
“I think absolutely there is still boldness. And there are still a lot of very creative, brilliant editors. I’m very pleased that we hired a brilliant editor for British Vogue named Edward Enninful. I think he’s probably the greatest fashion stylist or fashion editor in the past 20 years. He’s going to bring a brilliant, creative approach to British Vogue, which I think will impact the industry.”
Do you think that Vogue, as such an important fashion magazine, has a role of giving women new kinds of looks as models? I mean, do you think you can change the way we think about beauty?
“It’s not like the Vogue editors all meet in a room and decide okay, this is what we want beauty to look like. I think the best editors are pushing the boundaries of our magazine of what is beautiful and showing women and men who are not classically beautiful or handsome in the Hollywood movie star way. Because they like to do new things and they like to challenge ideas.”
And still, very few women who are not thin and light-skinned get to the covers of your magazines.
“There’s always a process where editors and content producers are producing content and ideas and there’s a reaction from the market. I’m not saying there should be only thin models, but if we put very — models that readers didn’t want to look at on the cover of the magazines, the magazines wouldn’t sell well, and that could be a problem.
“I remember several years ago, a German magazine had a press conference and they said we’re making a big, important change. We’re no longer going to have professional models on our covers, in our magazines. We’re just going to use real people all the time on our magazine. They did it, and their sales declined, a lot. So they had to go back to the policy of using professional models.”
Maybe if you dictated a more varied model of beauty, women could feel better about themselves.
“Let’s use the example of GQ because I just think it’s easier. [Let’s say] we showed an overweight man who was famous, let’s say like the actor John Goodman — he’s an overweight, well-known actor. I think that issue would sell, because people know him.
“If we just took an image of a fat man who wasn’t well-known and put him on the cover, it might not sell well. That’s the reality. The best editors are pushing the boundaries of what’s beautiful, and they’re kind of saying to the readers — look at this person. This is an interesting person. This is a beautiful person. This is a person with style.”