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Glossies: Harper's Bazaar
by The Kindly One


The infamous Angelina cover.

Thanks to my Delta SkyMile points, I have a two-year subscription to Harper's Bazaar. Every time I receive a new issue, I groan. I actually dread receiving this magazine. I have only ever had this reaction to one other subscription, the abominally-written Nylon, which I received free for a year and hated so much that I didn't even renew it for free for another year. I just wanted rid of it; so with Harper's Bazaar.

I have very strong emotional connections with Harper's Bazaar. I've read it off and on since I was twelve. It's the first fashion magazine I picked up, and its editorials were ultimately the reason I fell in love with fashion in the first place. I have a deep-seeded need to see the magazine do well. And so it did under Liz Tilberis's editorship; from 1992-1999, Tilberis transformed the magazine into one of the preeminent fashion magazines in this country, in my mind beating out Vogue through an emphasis on forward fashion and the best photography and styling at the time. I can remember looking through Vogue at the time. Vogue's clothes would be pretty, and the shoots would be pretty, but none of it is memorable. In contrast, Harper's Bazaar produced individual shots and editorials that I can remember to this day. When I remember the 90s, I rarely think of my own experiences in life. It's the imagery of Harper's Bazaar I remember.


Since Tilberis's run, the magazine has gone through several editors, each running it that much further into the ground. Under Glenda Bailey, the current editor, the magazine has lost almost all identity, which brings me to my first point: the magazine lacks editorial focus. Simply put, I cannot tell you what is the magazine's point of view. Harper's Bazaar isn't alone in this - the industry has been in a state of transition for many years, and I find most American fashion magazines suffer from this to some degree. However, Harper's Bazaar is the most egregious offender as the magazine tries to be all things to all people. From the regular column "Fabulous At Every Age" to the above feature, in which Leighton Meester was aged to represent what fashion for every age might look like, the magazine literally tries to offer up high-end answers for everyone. What it doesn't deliver is a signature Harper's Bazaar answer to each age's style dilemma or, for that matter, to anything. This is in direct contrast to the rest of the top American fashion magazines, which are driven by a clear, consistent editorial voice that determines which designers will be shown, which issues will be addressed, and the method in which everything will be presented. Both verbally and visually, there is a clear, cohesive voice present at Vogue (money, young American designers, feminine styling), Elle (youthful, feminine edge, hi/lo), and even Lucky (mid-range designers, draping and soft fabrics, girly, a conversation with your best girlfriend). Pick up Harper's Bazaar and you'll find this element simply isn't present. As such, the magazine ends up with poorly conceived editorials and no clear, discernible Harper's Bazaar "look." If pressed, I could easily put together an outfit that mimics what you'd find in Vogue or Lucky. Not so with Harper's Bazaar. Simply put, the magazine is like that person who can ask all the right questions and provide all the right answers, but cannot answer what he himself likes or doesn't like because he doesn't know himself. This is a dangerous ignorance in an industry in which brand identity generates millions, even billions, of dollars a year.

Beyond this, the editors at Harper's Bazaar don't even seem to know what they themselves have said. Nothing about a magazine has angered me more than seeing Harper's Bazaar recycle its own articles. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen this magazine rehash the same articles all in the span of a couple of years. The cost-per-wear article, in which the term "cost-per-wear" is defined and examples of such are given, is so constantly recycled that it should become its own feature. Another overused feature involves how to acheive "It Girl" or "cool girl" style, which involves naming the current It Girls and cool girls of the time. I've seen this article 2-3 times in the past handful of years. The It Girls were pretty much the same from one time to the next. This would never happen at Vogue, which may espouse a pretty boring style philosophy, but can at least come up with new topics for articles each month.


Maybe my biggest complaint about Harper's Bazaar is that it's boring. It feels like a chore just to get through it. The writing's not that great. It's certainly not compelling. The choice of subject matter for articles isn't that interesting. Nothing's covered in much depth, so there aren't insights to be found. Most damning of all, though, is the boring photography. Harper's Bazaar used to be the preeminent magazine in this country for fashion photography, and rightly so. As seen in the above shot from the Tilberis years, the photography used to be compelling. This is a standalone picture that clearly tells a story without the need for the rest of the editorial. These pictures do not exist in Harper's Bazaar anymore. Standout editorials are hard to come by, as well. In the past few years, there's been the editorial where Jessica Stam and another model were styled as Amish girls. There's the one where Snejana Onopka wore ethereal clothes, shot with pink lighting. There have been a couple more, but off the top of my head, that's it. About one editorial a year will be a standout. That is not exceptional. From my point of view, a fashion magazine's editorials are its bread and butter. They define a magazine's point of view and relevance. Harper's Bazaar clearly falls short on both of these points, and that is a shame for a magazine that nearly singlehandedly produced the entirety of fashion iconography of the 1990s.


I've noticed the past few months that Harper's Bazaar seems to be offering more and more articles specifically aimed at women in their late 40s and up, including anti-aging features, a somewhat regular column by Rita Wilson, and regular interviews with fashion cognoscenti of that age group. If this is the direction the magazine is going in, I applaud them for it. There aren't any high fashion magazines specifically concentrated on fashion for women of that age group, and that could be a great addition to the current roster of glossies. If this is the case, though, I hope the magazine cuts out the rest of its content. Try as it might, it cannot be all things to all people. With the exception of Vogue, fashion magazines cater primarily to one age group at a time. This seems to work well for most of them, and if the magazine to stay specific to its point of view, it could work for Harper's Bazaar, too.

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12/15/2009 [2]

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