Instead of trying to breathlessly explain why The Gentlewomen, a bi-annual British magazine, is the only one of its kind, it is perhaps better to list a few of the women interviewed at length in its recently-published Spring/Summer issue. They are: the singer Sinead O’Connor, actress Tilda Swinton, Hermès deputy creative director Bali Barret, digital activist Martha Lane Fox, stylist Kate Phelan, model Christy Turlington, and tennis star Maria Sharapova.
Taking inspiration from fashion and feminist titles of the 60s and 70s, The Gentlewoman launched in 2008 as the sister publication to Fantastic Man, its readership growing steadily with each new issue. (Issue No. 5, its most recent, has had a 40-percent increase in pages.) The Gentlewoman’s success is due, in no small part, to Penny Martin, its editor-in-chief. For the first issue, Martin, previously the editor of the online magazine Showstudio and a professor of fashion imagery at the London College of Fashion, chose Céline’s Phoebe Philo for the cover. Her message seemed clear: The Gentlewoman was about bringing a sense of intelligence, depth, and purity back to fashion journalism—not to mention the heavy-stock, large pages that position the magazine as a collectible, luxury item the way that other titles once were.
Below, Martin explains her vision for the magazine, getting to know its readers, and avoiding the familiar traps of women’s magazine publishing.
ELLE: Launching into such an over-saturated marketplace, what was the idea behind The Gentlewoman, and how did you plan to make it stand apart from other women’s magazines?
PM: We felt that there was a space in women’s publishing for something a little bit more editorially ambitious than what we’d been seeing. It didn’t feel like there were the kinds of outward-looking women’s magazines that I remembered from my youth. The precedent of Fantastic Man was also very important because we knew their readers responded well to personality-centered journalism. People weren’t treated like product—you know, given half a page and written about like a press release. These were very inquiring, personal pieces that carried the spirit of long-form journalism. That was the modus operandi. It was really based more on what we wanted to see ourselves more than a two-inch thick business plan.
ELLE: You mentioned missing the kinds of magazines you read when you were younger. What were some of those titles?
PM: A mixture of the magazines my mother and her friends read—from Vogue to Spare Rib, the UK feminist magazine published in the late ’70s and early ’80s. These were titles featuring long-form journalism that was encouraging to other women. If you think about Vogue in the ’60s and ’70s, it still had candid, in-depth profiles on women and their lives rather than women and their shoes. We wanted to restore some of that depth so that you felt you were hearing the subjects’ voices and actually learning about them as opposed to just seeing their faces and the clothing credits—something really intimate and personal. When I first started reading Vogue in the ’80s, I would never just flip through the well in the way I do now, that awful cannibalistic way of reading. I used to sit down with a cup of tea and read it from cover to cover, without skipping.
ELLE: Who do you think is The Gentlewoman’s reader?
PM: I can tell you what we assumed and then what we actually found out. I think we initially said we were making a magazine for women between the ages of 24 and 46? And then in the last year, we started doing reader events, and what surprised us is that the readers who were coming to meet us were actually a lot younger and a lot older than we first thought. And they were so diverse. They came from publishing, but they also came from the art world and business. Can you imagine how exciting that is, to know the women that are buying it come from as wide-ranging fields as the ones we’re trying to represent on the page? The feedback we’re getting from out distributor is that we have a tremendously loyal readership—that we’re a magazine for readers. People keep coming up to me and saying, ‘You’re the only magazine I actually read.’ They say, ‘I read it cover to cover.’ That absolutely delights me.
ELLE: You’ve recently come out with your fifth issue. What do you think you’ve learned about the industry since launching the magazine?
PM: Often, when I talk to PR people they’ll say, ‘What’s your theme for the next issue?’ And I realize that they’re expecting me to say: ‘Oh, this is the age issue’ or ‘this is the size issue.’ But clearly, that’s not the way we think about women. We plan the magazine wholly around the personalities of the people we include. A good example of that is our third issue with Adele on the cover. I chose her because I heard a preview of the first single and couldn’t believe it wasn’t some glorious Motown songstress that was belting it out on the radio. Then when I found out more about her, Adele struck me as the kind of woman other women would like. It was as simple as that. And how fantastic is it that nobody mentioned that she was a ’plus-size woman’, to use that awful phrase, on our cover? It wasn’t even an issue. Readers just liked her. Those thematic categories just aren’t necessary. I mean, you don’t think that way about your girlfriends, do you? The big one and the old one?
ELLE: Your first issue had Céline’s Phoebe Philo on the cover; your last had Christy Turlington. How do you select your covers?
PM: Previously, we’d always done covers of women who had never been on the cover of a magazine before, Inez van Lamsweerde, Olivia Williams. (Of course in the industry we all know who Phoebe Philo is, but my aunt in Scotland probably doesn’t.) But for the current issue, I felt it was time to open that out a bit and we did that by featuring the woman who’s probably had the most covers of all time! I think it’s important to have a balance between people you know and then people you introduce. If you have a loyal enough readership, I think you can do that.
ELLE: Is maintaining a cult following important to the magazine’s identity? Or is there a hope that it will become more mainstream with time?
PM: I think we’d lose our reader if we tried to chase after mainstream appeal in a cynical way, but what’s brilliant is that our reader base is growing without having to do that. It’s great to have mass appeal, but I would be offended to have our content described as ’mainstream’, if that makes sense. It’s great that we’re captivating readers by presenting them with something that isn’t obvious.
ELLE: The issue you’re working on now will be on stands in September. Any clues you can give as to who will be on the cover?
PM: There are a couple of contenders that I’m very excited about, people who have been on the wish-list from the start. The only thing I can say just now is that they’re both New Yorkers!