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Interview: Harriet Quick on Frank

published on 1 December 2015

Harriet Quick discusses her time as Editor of Frank magazine with Lou Stoppard.

Harriet Quick discusses her time as Editor of Frank magazine with Lou Stoppard.

Harriet Quick: I started editing Frank for the February issue with Gisele on the cover, shot by John Akehurst. I had joined the magazine at the start up as features editor with Tina Gaudoin as launch editor.

Lou Stoppard: Do you remember what the ethos of the magazine was?

HQ: The idea was to have a ‘brains and beauty,’ magazine that was really about modern women’s lives and was very, as the name suggests, outspoken and ‘frank’. We wanted really strong fashion with a strong stylistic and cultural bent as well as punchy socio/political articles and humorous essays. It was about reflecting different facets of women’s lives. There was a tech page called ‘Charlotte’s Web’, Miranda Sawyer contributed car reviews and Martin Maloney, a regular ‘new art’ spread. The magazine did pretty well actually. It sold 120,000 copies at launch but wading into a very busy women’s magazine marketplace and gaining loyalty was hard.

LS: Do you remember people’s reactions to it? Was it quite controversial?

HQ: Yes, it was polarising. People loved or hated it. Some considered it too out there, too outspoken and others really responded to the provocation. I still get messages today: ‘I love Frank!’ It was irreverent but at the same time had a polished visual image. Solve Sundsbo, Steven Klein, Terry Richardson, Satoshi Saikusa all shot for the title. Marie Amelie Sauve, Charlotte Stockdale, Karl Templar contributed amongst many others. Nova was a big influence, as was Vogue, Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair and of course, The Face.

LS: Do you think at the time, there was a lot more freedom in publishing?

HQ: Yes definitely, I don’t remember there being an awful lot of pressure from advertisers. I think it was sensitive but it wasn’t that, sort of, tick every box, you must shoot this or shoot that mentality. The late nineties was a very different era in publishing and audience engagement could not be measured in the same way it is today through digital and big data. Fashion was a wildly different too - there weren’t so many players in the arena, the global picture had yet to emerge and there were certainly far fewer ‘ropes and barriers’ to access.

LS: And do you remember how designers reacted to it? Did people like the shoots?

HQ: Yes. Marc Jacobs, Prada, Tom Ford, Karl Lagerfeld, Helmut Lang, Yohji Yamamoto - supported it. The indie spirit appealed.

LS: Do you like it? Are you proud of it?

HQ: Some of it. Some of it makes me really cringe. Other bits, I think ‘ah, that’s pretty good actually.’ I think the front pages worked really hard. There was a lot of good content in those from gadgets to lipsticks. We were doing ‘As Seen’ features on street style. I don’t think anybody was doing that at the time aside from i-D. Now street style is so normal.

LS: Why did you think it was difficult to maintain the pace of it and maintain the sales? Was it a promotion issue? Did you not have enough time?

HQ: I think it was partly time, experience, resources and a sense of cohesive-ness. I guess also it was a relatively crowded market on the newsstand. But, I think, fundamentally it was never going to be a crowd pleaser. The name was problematic. I don’t think it was that appealing. I wanted to call it ‘Stella’ before Stella came out. I think it had a sweet, feminine ring to it. With Frank, you’re already not communicating with a lot of your potential audience. The campaign for the launch featured an executive type in a McQueen dogtooth suit on one of the London bridges. She was thrusting her pelvis as though she was peeing like a guy. The editor was trying to send up the ‘ball-busting’ executive type but the visual language was totally off for a fashion magazine. It was purely satirical rather than being about girl empowerment. The first cover - Milla Jovovich with an apple on her head, shot by Terry Richardson - now that was fun. If you re-imagined it today, the voice would be more clever and refined. It would have a big fashion, wellbeing and cultural remit and it would be very aesthetically driven. I think trying to dovetail style, travel, lifestyle, cars, politics, beauty, satire and irony within one package was too prickly and hard to sustain. There were just too many diverse elements. It was an exotic pizza. When I took over, I took out some of the issues/political content because unless you do it really well, it doesn’t work and I made it more tongue-in-cheek and more style driven. It was my first editing job so I was a rookie - we had a great team, tiny budgets and a title to recalibrate.

LS: Do you think women’s magazines still don’t offer that much of a wide scope?

HQ: No and in a way, I don’t think they need to. Premium titles are about ‘the dream’ - I don’t think they need to offer ‘pan’ content. Plus, we can access all those different subjects and interests through niche digital sites. Magazines are so advertiser-driven now; they need to be super glossy and polished. Not a provocative vehicle.

LS: I wonder if some women found it intimidating?

HQ: Yes and quite prickly.

LS: A lot of this is so ahead of its time. Like the street style element. A lot of the content, you can just imagine working really well on social media, or on Instagram. Do you think that was a part of the problem?

HQ: I think it was, actually. It was also coming out of that late nineties - the ladette, girl power, riot grrrls, female empowerment - conversations about sex and sexuality, taste, entrepreneurship and ambition. It was there but it hadn’t really found a voice in magazines, which were all vacuum packed niceness - Frank had a gritty edge.

LS: And tell me a little bit more about the editorial stance. How did the discussions about what you wanted to include work?

HQ: We’d have features and visuals meetings with contributors as well. We’d just pitch ideas. Some of the ideas were just pure fun without being ‘pegged.’ We’d have the section at the front ‘Who, What, When, Wear, Why’ across all the different categories. Centre of the book fashion and features, back of the book Beauty. At the start SaraJane Hoare (formerly at Vogue UK and Harpers Bazaar US) was the fashion director, and later Karina Givargisoff, Boris Bencic the art director and Kim Stringer was there as executive fashion editor. There were quite a few guys as well. Harvey Marcus worked with me as deputy. Matthew Sweet, Martin Maloney, Dan Glaister contributed. Actually, George Osborne’s wife was a contributor - the author, Frances Howell. It was very much you went and did it and rolled through until the final print deadline. You’d be working like crazy and then you would start again on the next issue. A lot of the things were quite ad-hoc - it wasn’t the well-oiled machine that is Vogue. There were some very spontaneous elements - sending Amber Valletta on a road trip; John Akehurst and author Jim Flint to Iceland with a bag of fine jewellery; Stella and Lola Schnabel painting photographs - some lovely ideas. Photographers and stylists worked on tiny budgets - there were a lot of favours pulled in -in a way that’s not possible now as fashion has become such a powerful business.

I think there was a real feeling that there was a voice to Frank for a generation of women who wanted more from a style magazine - a magazine that was more than simply rosy and soft.

LS: Were you influenced by any writers or magazines or was Frank more of a reaction to things you felt were missing in publishing?

HQ: I think I was a reaction. I’d been working freelance for The Face, i-D and Arena, and previously for The Guardian and The Telegraph so I was very immersed in that world. I was fascinated by it. There were so many different individuals and creative minds. Plus, I didn’t know quite whether I wanted to go and concentrate directly on fashion. So when the opportunity to be the features editor came up, I was absolutely thrilled. And I think there was a real feeling that there was a voice - and a generation of women who wanted more from their magazines - something more than just rosy and soft. I was really fascinated by photography, image, and style - fashion that tries to capture a moment. I wanted Frank to be embracing of all different types of people.

LS: There are some really interesting women contributing. I saw Caitlin Moran writing and lots of really great writers. Was it ever hard to reconcile the fashion with the writing? Because I think that’s a part what’s difficult at the moment with the big glossies. There’s such a big focus on being nice to the advertisers, being elevated and aspirational, that it’s quite hard to do something gritty or smart.

HQ: There was quite a crunch in some issues when we did a couture shoot sitting alongside a feature about cultural policy at Number 10 or a feature about sexual taboos.

LS: It is interesting that it does market itself to girls. You know, it says ‘Girl of ‘99’, not ‘woman’. I think it’s very youth centred. Was there also something about trying to be more diverse and fresh? For example, this cover has a black model on the cover, which is something that you still - awful as it is - hardly ever see in women’s magazines now.

HQ: Frank wanted to be world-facing and definitely New York savvy which doesn’t sound at all interesting now, but at the time it was exciting.

LS: I do think it would work now, that’s the shame of it. It would fill a gap. I think with magazines, many women are maybe creatures of habit. They sleepily buy a magazine and flick through it. I think particularly women have got used to not expecting much from their womenswear magazines. It’s bad, but you don’t expect brilliant journalism. You expect it to be almost like a fluffy item.

HQ: Yes, something to read in the bath, something soporific - a soothing voice that feels luxurious. And why not? If the vision is big enough I think you can champion great journalism and writing as well as visuals but I do think women want their own universe. That’s why unisex magazines have never really worked.

LS: It’s a strange one, isn’t it? But do you think maybe the tone wasn’t friendly enough to woo over people who would read Vogue? I suppose women who would read Frank and engage with it would have already bought The Face.

HQ: Nick Logan had enormous success and was quite a legend for creating The Face, and then Arena and then Arena Homme+. I guess there was also shortsightedness about the market - the women’s market was already quite saturated. And unlike The Face, Frankwas not the first of its type. And in the women’s market, you need to throw money at the marketing. Now, all the magazines need to have a live arm or a different service to make it a healthy business - whether it’s the ‘Vogue Festival’ or the Red career conferences. A title needs a different revenue stream to succeed. At that time it was just advertising and print sales. When Logan sold Wagadon to EMAP, the magazine and fashion business was just about to turn into a very different animal and was tipping into a recession. It’s at that point Frank closed.

LS: It’s funny though when you think about it, because those online websites that speak to women, and it’s a kind of similar to Frank, they do make you feel a little bit uncomfortable – Vice’s new women’s arm, or The Debrief, perhaps are a good example of that. But I think with the internet there’s not that relationship. There’s not that kind of monthly pilgrimage to buy it or to subscribe - so it’s not like a friend. You can just click on and click off, but you’ll probably click back another time. So it’s much easier, isn't it?

HQ: Yes, online you can be more abrasive. But, I guess, the basic principle of Frank was the voice and the delivery of it. The principle to have smart, funny, witty, cars, internet, beauty, fashion, travel is a good one, right? But the perspective was skewed - irony is hard to sustain and satire is an art in its own-self.

LS: But I do think it became a model for other things that came off the back of it. It definitely started a conversation about what women’s magazines could be. I love it. It’s fab. I would have read it always.

HQ: It was a lot of fun doing it.

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