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Gentle leader

Penny Martin, visionary editor of The Gentlewoman, talks radical chic, embracing quiet feminism, and avoiding ‘fashion as death star’.

There’s a lot of folklore surrounding magazines – ‘red sells, green doesn’t…never put anyone over thirty on the cover...’ One of our biggest-selling covers was an 86 year-old woman.

Angela Lansbury?

Yeah. And it was a black and white photo, which is considered the absolute commercial death knell. The first big jump in our circulation was the issue with a so-called plus size model on the cover – Adele. It gives us a great deal of pleasure to contradict these industry illusions.

Even so, if black and white photography is the ‘absolute commercial death knell’ why do you make it such a feature of The Gentlewoman?

Because people associate black and white with reportage. We have the idea that black and white is more truthful. Although of course that’s a construct.

Black and white also feels quieter.

Well the initial exercise when we launched in 2010 was to counter the shoutiness of women’s magazines. You know the ones with cover lines more or less yelling ‘buy this!’ or ‘look like this!’. Only 30 years ago it seemed that for intrepid women, the world was their oyster. And now our news-stands were telling us we wanted to look like footballer’s wives. And then, you know, there was the ignominy of realising that you were their target group - ‘uh, are you speaking to me?’

Do you see The Gentlewoman as a feminist publication?

When we launched it was the zenith of the celebrity photo. There were certain women in the public eye where there was no inch of their body left to see, inside or out - and this wasn’t even recognised as pornography. In terms of correcting that, we were feminist.

There were certain women in the public eye where there was no inch of their body left to see, inside or out - and this wasn’t even recognised as pornography

Most people associate pornography with how women are shown in men’s magazines, not in magazines aimed at women themselves.

But that’s what it is.

To oppose that, we chose to be quite dry. If you look at Phoebe Philo on the cover of our first issue, she is dressed to the chin. It’s a very formal photograph. And it was unusual back then to be so close in. Celebrity portraiture generally showed the subject quite far from the picture plane, and very retouched. There were so many levels of mediation. When it came to the text, you felt the hand of the PR in negotiating how much access the journalist had. Most Sunday newspaper interviews were fifteen minutes in a hotel lobby.

We felt that coming close to the picture plane and having a conversation more akin to how women speak to each other when they are alone would set us apart.

When that cover story arrived it was a surprise. Inez hadn’t mentioned she’d be sporting a beard

I guess you were the first women’s magazine to have a bearded woman on the cover, with photographer Inez van Lamsweerde’s self-portrait.

When that cover story arrived it was a surprise. Inez hadn’t mentioned she’d be sporting a beard. But then she had known our creative director, Jop, for years and was integral to the formation of Fantastic Man in 2005, which itself was a gendered response to women’s publishing from a mens’ perspective – so in a way, we should have seen it coming.

You were well ahead of the industry in how you picture women in the magazine.

That’s always been a goal, to improve the representation of women but without having to turn into a didactic, unattractive product. It was fortuitous to have done all that hard thinking in the early days because now a lot of other magazines are having to ask themselves hard questions about how they portray us.

Most fashion magazines show women filtered through the male gaze. You seem to be laying out what a possible female gaze might look like.

We knew that the most direct way to communicate our message was through the photography. So we had to get that right first.

I’d say the people working on the magazine are feminist but we are not a magazine about feminism. I suppose I don’t want my beliefs to be commodified. The worst accusation for us would be one of radical chic, you know, Tom Wolfe’s essay about the Black Panthers and how they got turned into a fashion statement. When you are publishing double page spreads of advertising by massive corporate fashion companies you need to be really responsible. You need to be aware of how people’s politics come across in that context. Fashion eats everything that comes into its path.

It’s quite evil in that way.

It can be and I need to make sure that we don’t unwittingly become the death star. I need to be able to draw back from fashion’s influence. And that’s what our value is to fashion as well.

Fashion eats everything that comes into its path

So we’ve been trying to achieve a more objective stance on it, far from slavish trend reporting. We want to represent the view of intelligent women who are unapologetic about their interest in fashion but who don’t want to be controlled by it.

Women who are aware of how they represent themselves and see fashion as part of that?

Yeah and it’s not unlike a relationship with food. It doesn’t have to be one of shame. It can be about pleasure, as long as we know what the terms are and don’t let it get out of control.

How many interviews do you run in each issue?

Nine or ten. But we only come out twice a year, so the pressure on who we profile is huge. We wanted to extend the pool of women you see in magazines because it had become such a small roster, you know, all the Jennifers: Aniston, Connolly, Hudson. Mind you, there’s no Jennifer Kardashian. The idea that there are only fifteen possible women who could be on your cover - it’s debilitating.

Would you say there is type of woman who expresses the magazine’s ethos?

Putting together The Gentlewoman is like putting together a dinner party. You need good taste and bad taste, a crazy pop culture woman as well as a serious woman. 

We started out with serious, good taste women, in order to position ourselves, and now we are introducing more out there, sometimes camper, sometimes sexier women into the formula.

We want to represent the view of intelligent women who are unapologetic about their interest in fashion but who don’t want to be controlled by it

You are saying what, that the magazine is getting sexier? Now?

I’m saying that you need that immediate attraction and desire in the magazine. I don’t mean sexualisation. I just mean that it’s important the women in the magazine are not robbed of their pleasure.

And I’m talking as much about how they come across in the interviews. Interviews with men and women are read differently. Men have been in the workplace so much longer, and are taken so much more seriously, that they can talk about their favourite recipe and readers will still assume they are accomplished.

The same doesn’t apply for women. For women there’s an anxiety that they are going to be asked about the contents of their handbag and not about their accomplishments. At the same time we have to ensure that they come across with their humour and sensuality intact. The first place to sort that is in the photography.

Men can talk about their favourite recipe and readers will still assume they are accomplished. The same doesn’t apply for women

So you have to ensure women are not compromised by being sexualised, but equally not compromised by being deprived of their sexuality?

It’s my job as editor to make sure that they are not compromised in any way. It’s not just about sexual representation.

When you see most women in magazine interviews, they are wearing something that they would never choose themselves. Then they have to go back to whatever field they work in and find people sniggering because they were seen in a woman’s magazine looking like a fool, over-dressed and carrying a giant advertiser’s handbag. I’ve got to make sure that none of that happens in The Gentlewoman.

I think that’s feminist, giving the women we profile that power through clothes and context and warm photography. To me that’s more empowering than pushing them into some debate about phoney activism.


Heroines of The Gentlewoman cover:

Phoebe Philo, Inez van Lamsweerde, Adele, Olivia Williams, Christy Turlington, Angela Lansbury, Beyoncé, Léa Seydoux, Vivienne Westwood, Robyn, Björk, Saoirse Ronan, Kirsten Dunst, Zadie Smith, Sofia Coppola, Simone Biles, Allison Janney.



Interview
Susan Irvine

Images
Susannah Baker-Smith