Coming of the Stepford mags

 

 

Like the guy who claimed to purchase Playboy for the motoring pages, these days I buy Vogue for the features.

While I crave designer clothes as much as the next gal, once beyond your early to mid-30s, fashion is but one ingredient in life, rather than its prime focus.

A grown-up home, a garden, a few kids – age’s compensations for upper arm dingle-dangle and a flat bum – become new sources of womanly pride and expressions of taste and creativity.

In these domains it is Vogue I refer to for guidance. Not that you get much: Rita Konig’s deliciously trivial household tips, literate yet achievable cookery (Vogue “discovered” Nigella), some pretext for a perv round a posh house and, in July’s issue, a gardening feature by Sally Brampton where she describes a pink bloom as “shocking as Schiaparelli and tart as cherry juice”.

Bliss.

So imagine my joy that next year Condé Nast will launch Easy Living, a title with, hopefully, less honeyed beach bods and more witty storage solutions. And I’m not alone. In my unscientific poll of lady editors at the British Society of Magazine Editors summer party most said roughly this: “At last something I’ll want to read in the bath.”

A few, however, made unseemly gnashing noises. These had developed very similar projects for their own publishers but failed to get the green light.

I’d love to have seen the title devised by Jane Bruton – creator of Livingetc and the saviour of Eve – but BBC Magazines seems too fretful about who’ll own them next year to expend energy on a launch.

NatMags put together a more upmarket version but concluded it would be too damaging to their own Harpers & Queen and Good Housekeeping.

Both projects were attempts to create a British version of what would be voted the glossy editor’s favourite magazine, the US monthly Real Simple.

A $40m launch four years ago by Time Warner, it had a shaky start and fired its first editor. But now an advertising and critical success, its circulation is 1.4 million. With its broad matt pages, muted visuals and acres of white space, Real Simple is a balm to the control freak’s soul. Here there is no domestic chaos which cannot be marshalled by a system, a clear-out, or a vigorous to-do list. Which of course is very old potatoes, but what Real Simple does which is modern and canny is to speak to the resentful and overeducated woman who finds herself degunking the sink.

It makes button-replacing a Zen moment and imbues drudgery with glamour. An item on oven gloves bears a quote from Richard II: “O, who can hold a fire in his hand/By thinking on the frosty Caucasus”. I know, Pseud’s Corner, but in the US, where learning is never carried lightly, this plays as kinda classy. Unlike the lush and 2.4 million-selling Martha Stewart Living, in which this month we’re invited to melt wax into muffin tins to make “magical floating candles”, Real Simple doesn’t try too hard. Real Simple is cool.

Which is precisely what Easy Living needs to be. Because it is what all existing titles in the 30-plus women’s market, for all their strengths and perky sales graphs, are not.

Take the two magazines that Easy Living aims to fit between, Good Housekeeping and Red. Good Housekeeping, under Lindsay Nicholson, is perpetually re-evaluating what it is to be a middle-class, middle-aged woman in Middle England. It has awesome rigour and attention to detail, heart, wisdom and gravitas. It is for the doughty souls who keep the world spinning, who set 14-day menu plans and buy next year’s Christmas presents in the January sales.

Red has enjoyed recent success by giving up the exclusive profile of its launch period and moving to the centre.

It pleases aspirational 30-somethings on their second property and first child. Well-realised, yet bland, it rarely tells me anything I don’t know or takes me anywhere I haven’t been.

If Easy Living gets it right, it could capitalise on a cultural shift. Flouncy Fifties skirts are hip, there’s a remake of The Stepford Wives movie, and broadsheets proclaim the demise of the working mother and the ascendence of the domestic diva.

Today the ABC1 woman’s highest aspiration is not boardroom supremacy.

It is wafting across a Notting Hill communal garden with daughters in fairy frocks, filling the time between school runs by creating a mail order catalogue selling over-priced painted furniture with, of course, a Goldman Sachs husband to keep her.

That magazine staple “juggling your life” is so over – too ageing, stressful and try-hard.

This reader is too much of a household dilettante to require Good Housekeeping and too sophisticated for Red. What she wants is a Cath Kidstonesque fusion of exclusivity and domesticity.

If anyone is placed to bring this about it is Susie Forbes, Easy Living’s editor, deputy of Vogue and responsible for those living pages I so admire.

Her husband, leatherware designer Bill Amberg, produced the sheepskin baby papoose worn by Kate Winslet, an iconic object of luxury and utility that began the charge of designer brands into the nursery. She has taste and touch: her own home has featured in endless colour supplement spreads.

The advantage Easy Living has over other older women’s titles is that it will focus outwards to homes and gardens rather than on women of a certain age themselves. Because here the older glossies cannot win. Use young, 20-something models and your reader feels unrepresented; use older ones and she bitches about their imperfections, and the advertisers hate it.

Yet how many potential Easy Living readers are there? And do they exist beyond West London? Condé Nast has given its baby the modest target of 200,000, but Red is yet to reach that figure and Eve is some 60,000 copies below it.

Good Housekeeping has 416,000 readers but they are exceptionally loyal. To attract them would require a level of household minutia which risks alienating the cleaner-employing classes who do little more than light a Diptyque candle.

The worst potential fate for Easy Living is to be a media darling which never finds a wider audience, like Dee Nolan’s Metropolitan Homes which in the early Nineties won a BSME award after it had already folded.

But if Easy Living has more warmth than Real Simple, a shrewd wit like Ms Konig, is lighter work than Good Housekeeping and more eclectic than Red I for one will pull off my ironic pinny, put aside my lavender linen spray and devour every page. 

Janice Turner is a columnist for The Times, janice.turner@thetimes.co.uk. She is a former editor of That’s Life! and Real.

She’ll be back in four weeks.

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