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Magazine Imitates a Catalog and has a Charmed Life, So Far

Publishers of women's magazines realized years ago that an ad was more than an ad. Lush fashion advertisements, festooned with pretty models, name-brand photographers and soothing text, were an important part of a reader's relationship with a magazine.

But Lucky, published by Condé Nast Publications, may be the first consumer magazine in the United States to use advertising motifs to design every page of editorial content. Articles, in the traditional sense, are nowhere to be found, and neither are celebrities, instead replaced by pages and pages of extended photo captions extolling merchandise that is accompanied by manufacturers' names, price tags and toll-free numbers.

That Condé Nast, a publishing house that defines the high end of the magazine rack with publications like Vogue and Vanity Fair, would publish such an unpretentious product and hire a relatively unknown editor like Kim France surprised many in the industry. And even more doubted that consumers would pay for a catalog, regardless of how well it was executed.

But Lucky has led a charmed life so far, with a candylike appeal to readers and advertisers alike. Executives at Condé Nast, a unit of Advance Publications said it would make money sooner than any new magazine in the company's recent history, although it still could take several more years.

When Lucky was first published in December 2000, it promised advertisers 500,000 paying readers. In the first half of 2002, total paid circulation grew to a monthly average of 780,000, more than Jane magazine, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. And Lucky sold 207,095 of those copies at the newsstand, a telling indicator of consumer interest, outperforming fashion stalwarts like Harper's Bazaar and W.

Internal company figures indicate that Lucky has brought in about $16 million in advertising revenue this year through the October issue, compared with $7.6 million in the period a year ago. And the magazine is on track for about $20 million in ad revenue for its second full year, although it is still no threat to the likes of Glamour, its Condé Nast sibling, which is expected to bring in almost $100 million this year.

For James Truman, the editorial director of Condé Nast since 1994, Lucky represents a big, important bet. His other big new magazine idea was Condé Nast Sports for Women, which underwent a number of editorial gyrations and a name change to Women's Sports & Fitness before being closed in 2000.

Mr. Truman started down the road to Lucky after watching "Clueless," a 1995 teenage movie in which the character played by Alicia Silverstone chooses outfits based on a whim and not on the season's fashion dictates, wearing a miniskirt one day and a maxi the next. He sensed that the fashion industry was democratizing and there was room for a magazine that offered fashion options, as opposed to mandates. He was also intrigued by the burst of Japanese fashion magazines in the 1990's that featured endless arrays of merchandise and little else.

"Vogue is very much concerned about the creativity of fashion, and InStyle was doing fashion that was validated by celebrity," Mr. Truman said. "I though there was room for a magazine that took the position that many trends could exist simultaneously."

It is an odd fit at Condé Nast, a publishing house that often celebrates stars in articles written by writers who are almost as famous, and edited by editors like Anna Wintour of Vogue who are often celebrities in their own right. The execution of the Lucky concept, however, fell to Ms. France, a former rock journalist with no previous experience as a top editor, and no significant fashion credentials. But Ms. France, who grew up in Houston, had worked at Sassy, Elle, New York, 7 Days and Spin magazines, and had developed a reputation as someone who was serious about pop culture and its implications.

"Kim is the first person that I called about this," Mr. Truman said, who remains highly involved at the magazine, including insisting that every issue include shoes and more shoes. "I was convinced that she could make a magazine out of this, and not just a catalog of merchandise. When she came in, I had a bunch of Japanese shopping magazines on the table, and she said, `I love these magazines.' That's when I knew she got it."

Many of Lucky's features are refinements from other magazines, rather than revolutions in magazine conception and design. But the treatment sets it apart. To demonstrate the versatility of a pleated skirt, four women with very different looks and body styles dressed around the same item in the September issue of Lucky. The "Trend of the Month," in this instance "bright cords," is illustrated with a hat, a jewelry case, a skirt, a jacket and two pairs of pants. Even someone who has spent way too much time in malls would have trouble assembling so many different reflections of the same trend.

And Lucky does break a few rules of the fashion and beauty publishing niche. While magazines like InStyle and Marie Claire have introduced ad-like elements, with Lucky the catalog is all there is. Historically, women's magazines have encouraged aspiration, but Lucky is all about acquisition. And celebrities, the clotheshorses for much of the last decade of fashion coverage, are nowhere to be found in Lucky.

At Lucky, the clothes and accessories are the featured performers. Moody photo spreads with even moodier models are bypassed in favor of normal women, many of them on staff at Lucky, wearing big smiles and clothes that can be bought right off the rack.

Lucky also displays little of the coastal biases of other fashion magazines. If a product is not shipped nationwide, it is not featured in the magazine. And the magazine has developed 13 regional editions, with a page or more of coverage and bargains tailored to specific cities. A page of stickers with "Yes!" and "Maybe?" serve as shopping assistants.

"Kim's personality is very apparent in the magazine," said Christina Kelly, a former colleague at Sassy who is now the editor in chief of YM, the teen magazine of the Gruner & Jahr USA unit of Bertelsmann. "It's a semi-ironic approach, saying we know this is frivolous, but isn't it fun?"

Ms. France said: "I don't know how serious a person I am. Maybe I am a serious person with a seriously superficial side. I think that Lucky is a really smart magazine. I'm using my brain a lot more rigorously than I was when I was writing 1,000-word profiles of 23-year-old rock stars."

Many in the advertising community appreciate the mental effort. "What Lucky does, because of its simplicity, is provide a very different magazine experience," said Avery Baker, vice president of marketing at Tommy Hilfiger. "It makes the fashion experience very turnkey."

And Stacy Lastrina, a senior vice president of Nine West, said Lucky is "a quick read for the fashion involved," and added, "It is readable and it is actionable."

Lucky is also something advertisers have begun to mimic, often making it difficult to tell whether a page is advertising or editorial content. The ads for Lee offer pants for the "pear-shaped," "hour-glass" and "straight," in a variety of colors and styles. The ads imitate the editorial content which was designed to mimic components of advertising.

"The ads are in the spirit of the magazine, which is allowing the product to dominate," said Alexandra W. Golinkin, the vice president and publisher of Lucky. "But we insist they use different typefaces and prominently display the name of the company."

Some have dubbed Lucky, with its articles that can fit on a price tag, as a sort of watershed, a magazine that could hasten the end of magazines by eliminating the need for pure editorial content.

"The magazine about shopping," as Lucky proudly announces, is as much a declaration of principles as the tag line of "Sex, sports, beer, gadgets, clothes and fitness." that adorns the cover of Dennis Publishing's Maxim. The plainspoken fealty to common, some would say base, reader needs, seems to be catching on.

"I take that as a compliment," Ms. France said. "The people at Dennis have done a great job of giving the readers what they want."

And Malcolm Gladwell, the author of "The Tipping Point" and a contributor to The New Yorker who is a longtime friend of Ms. France, does not have a problem with the editorial populism, either. "Reading a magazine is a habit," he said. "Anything that makes that habit more pleasurable rebounds to all magazines, and I think Kim's magazine is a pleasure to look at."


David Carr, The New York Times. September 16, 2002

Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.