Monday, 6 May 2013

Aesop register- Interview with Penny Martin by Tony Marcus

Penny Martin
Grown weary of magazine coverlines shouting at you to “wear this, do that, be her”? Then take a leaf through the pages of the title that, for the past two years, has quietly been sharing everything the modern, informed woman wants to know. TONY MARCUS meets the editor who pulls it all together.

Penny Martin, the editor-in-chief of the magazine The Gentlewoman, works from a charming office in Bloomsbury, central London – a basement with old floorboards and a fireplace. The room is small, tidy and feels like a refuge from the whirl of the world. And this is appropriate because The Gentlewoman lives at a distance from other fashion and women’s magazines.

Penny does not present as a “fashion person”. She is not a walking advert for any particular label. Her clothes are not attention seeking. She is 39 and looks like she could be a publisher (of books) or an academic; for several years she was chair of Fashion Imagery at the University of the Arts, London.

“I do not look like a normal woman’s fashion magazine editor. I’m at the shows at the moment [we meet during London Fashion Week]. I’m probably the only woman wearing flat shoes on the front row. There is a paradigm for how I should look and behave, but I’d like to be the one who hasn’t got a reputation for being mean. I don’t think that is necessary.”

The Gentlewoman does not do “nasty”. Their fashion shoots are discrete and romantic. There are no models with legs in the air clutching handbags. They do not pretend that fashion belongs to a cruel, dark and pinched world.

Since its launch issue of Spring and Summer 2010, The Gentlewoman has been the world’s most discreet women’s fashion magazine. They do not do snobbery. And they do not do prurient or lascivious. They have been supported with advertising from Chanel, Prada, Céline, Marc Jacobs, Calvin Klein, Dolce and Lauren. They print 89,000 copies of each issue and have a global reach (Penny’s sister found a copy in Tasmania).

The Gentlewoman may succeed where 1990s “alternative glossies” such as Nova and Frank failed. Penny says she loved reading Frank, but feels that the magazine failed because its backers were too corporate, looking at “untapped markets”. The Gentlewoman is more personal, she says. And published by the same company that producesFantastic Man magazine – a title sold in small, beautiful shops that sell art and architecture books. This niche or boutique publishing is closer to the heart of an A.P.C. than something dreamed up by EMAP or IPC, which published Frank and Nova

But to fashion. Penny says The Gentlewoman is more about “good taste” than following trends (although they are “aware” of trends). The editorial seems more interested in “dress” than “fashion”. Like Jean Muir, who took fashion as a verb – “to fashion” beautiful clothes.

“We are interested in clothes, but we don’t do the didactic ‘You must be in this’ kind of voice. I don’t enjoy magazines that speak to me that way. The Gentlewoman takes a sartorial view of fashion. It’s a magazine about women. It’s not really a magazine about what they buy or what they wear.”

The Gentlewoman plays down labels. And shopping. The bulk of the magazine is long-form interviews (all with women). Some have been well timed – they did Adele just before she cracked the US and Phoebe Philo as she was bringing out her break-out autumn/winter 2010 collection. There is substance, too, though.

“Are we political? I think we are a little bit. Clearly my generation are paranoid about being called a feminist. I meet young women and realise they haven’t had the benefit of being around second-wave feminist women who take certain equalities for granted. I want to present a positive view of women that are emitting those [feminist] messages.”

Penny used to work at Nick Knight’s (she was editor-in-chief). She worked on a PhD about women’s magazines – about Vogue, Thatcherism and the representation of the working woman. She is married and lives in Ealing – a “land of sheds”. But this suburban place with local shops gives her “space to think”.

She comes from Scotland originally. Teenage years deep in youth culture with a huge record collection. Her mother was responsible for the art curriculum in Scotland. Her father a musician.

Her loves? Cinema. Bukowski. And… “The best thing ever would be to be back with my parents and in an argument about pretty much anything with my stepfather. I love other people’s ideas. Long, ponderous, earnest, antagonistic discussion is my favourite thing. Probably.”

Image is courtesy of Liz Collins.