Where Snobbery Is Out of Style

In praise of "shopping magazines"

The Wall Street Journal , November 25, 2004

As shoppers hit the stores for this year's holiday rush, the "wish books" many are consulting come not from Sears or Neiman Marcus but from Condé Nast and Hearst. They're poring over "shopping magazines," the publishing category established by Lucky and joined this year by its male-oriented spinoff, Cargo, and its new competitor, Shop Etc.

Shopping magazines don't dilute their celebration of shoes, gadgets, sweaters, handbags and makeup with articles on politics, celebrities or art. That makes it easy to sneer at them. Critics call these publications "magalogs," charging that they're little more than catalogs. Lucky doesn't even have real articles, grouse prestige journalists, just glorified captions. Even Kim France, Lucky's editor in chief, acknowledges that the magazine's photography is "very literal," with none of the artistic ambition of Fashion photography with a capital F.

For all their blatant materialism, however, Lucky and its kin actually represent cultural progress. Their unabashed presentation of goods as material pleasures keeps materialism in its place. They don't encourage readers to equate fashion with virtue or style with superiority. They're sharing fun, not rationing status.

Fun sells, very well indeed. The December Lucky guaranteed a paid circulation of one million, twice what the magazine started with four years ago. For the year, Lucky sold 1,770 ad pages, up 20% from 2003, which itself was up 46% from 2002. Its advertising is running ahead of such long-established names as Harper's Bazaar and Glamour.

The shopping magazines reverse the relationship between reader and editor. In traditional publications, the reader's goal is to emulate the editor's style, to admire the people she admires, to read the books she reads, to wear the things she wears. Thus every issue of Vogue has a section called "People Are Talking About," to let you know what books, movies, art exhibits, restaurants and so forth the in-crowd deems essential. Traditional fashion magazines tell readers not just what to buy but what to value.

But in the shopping magazines, the editor represents the reader, serving not as arbiter but as agent. Lucky effectively uses photos of its various editors, and their first-person voices, to emphasize personal style and individual passions. Instead of dos and don'ts, ins and outs, it offers "What I want NOW" and "Our Obsessions." Editors come across as fellow enthusiasts. They know more than their readers not because they're superior creatures but because they get paid to look for really great stuff.

Instead of featuring socialites and celebrities, Lucky illustrates fashionable looks with schoolteachers, designers, marketing executives and students. One of the magazine's most popular features demonstrates how four different women, with different styles and professional environments, might wear the same sequined skirt, wrap top or empire-waist dress. Combining the same piece of clothing with very different wardrobes, and dressing it up or down, produces dramatically different looks. This simultaneously celebrates variety and individualism and gives readers the sort of how-to advice largely eschewed by traditional fashion magazines.

Although you won't find their stylists shopping at Wal-Mart, the shopping magazines regularly feature the mid-range stores that line America's malls, as well as such stylish discounters as Target and H&M. A regular Shop Etc. feature shows the same look at two or three different price points: In the Holiday issue, "All-Out Luxe" costs $9,285; a "Prize Buy," $2,504; a "Guilt-Free Spree," $504.

Reading Vogue or, worse, Harper's Bazaar often feels, by contrast, like returning to the vicious status competition of middle school. Would-be authorities arbitrarily proclaim what -- and, by implication, who -- is in or out. "You are only as good as your last jacket," explains an author in the August edition of Bazaar, telling readers how to dress for other women.

These traditional magazines are full of orders: "Must Haves" and "Fall's Ten Commandments" (including, "Don't leave home without your 'face'" and "Make Yours Mink"). Yet they contradict themselves so often that following the rules is no guarantee of success. "Say sayonara to strappy sandals," demand Vogue's 10 Commandments in the September issue. The December cover, however, features Cate Blanchett wearing -- you guessed it -- strappy sandals.

If you can't be Cate, or Gwyneth Paltrow, Chloë Sevigny or Aerin Lauder, there's still hope (assuming, of course, that you know who all these women are). You may be able to spend your way to status. "If you indulge in only one thing this month, make ultralux tee," advises September's Bazaar, recommending a gaudily embroidered Roberto Cavalli shirt that costs $2,030 and will almost certainly be on next year's "out" list.

"What could be more fun than having a bag named after you?" gushes the August Vogue, beneath an eight-inch-high photo of a $9,000 Marc Jacobs purse. It's a beautiful object, but that's not really the point. "Ever since Jacobs launched his handbag line four years ago," the self-parodic voice continues, "chic fans everywhere have been on a first-name basis with their purses: Who isn't acquainted with the Sofia (Coppola) and the Stella (Tennant) and the Venetia (Scott, the stylist he often collaborates with)?"

If the traditional fashion magazines can be obnoxious writing about handbags, they tend to be ditzy at best when they tackle presumably serious topics. Bazaar's November election issue featured an article by left-wing commentator Arianna Huffington that can only be described as an attempt to bamboozle politically naïve readers. Purporting to profile "the real candidates" who might become the first female president, she included such unlikely contenders as Diane Watson, an obscure California congresswoman best known for attacking racial-quota-foe Ward Connerly for being married to a white woman.

"Women know they don't have to get their information about other things in a magazine about shopping," says Ms. France, who has no intention of broadening Lucky's coverage to include dumbed-down politics. "Why should I have an article about Iraq in my magazine? Those articles exist in other women's magazines so that women's magazine editors can feel better about the fact that they work at a women's magazine."

The traditional magazines are, in fact, capable of sophisticated articles. They're at their best when they see high fashion as a source of pleasure, an expression of creative talent, and a multinational business, not just a series of status markers. Vogue's December remembrances of the late Richard Avedon and Geoffrey Beene, for instance, take the trouble to introduce readers to what made these men outstanding, both in general and in the context of their day.

You won't find articles like that in a shopping magazine. Lucky and its knockoffs exist in the eternal present. But you can still have a lot of fun admiring the shoes.