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Last spring, sales reps from Essence began spreading the news to ad agencies: The matron saint of black female self-esteem was birthing a daughter. "The Essence team came in and told us they were coming out with a new magazine," says Carla Louis, media planner for UniWorld Group. "They said it would be high-fashion, multicultural with a heavy African American base. It sounded like something new and exciting. The way they described it, you just felt there wouldn't be anything else like it in the market."
True that. Suede, the progeny of Essence's marriage to deep-pocketed Time Inc., hit newsstands this month and immediately made clear that the high-fashion glossy is its own animal. Suede is less service-y than Marie Claire, more spasmodic than Elle, thinner than Vogue, and blacker than all of them, not that the last one required much. The actual contents are a mix of peaks and valleys. At least in its first issue, Suede looks best when it talks least. The spread of black chicks in church-wear is as gorgeous as the ode to cuckolding is cringe-worthy.
"I think it looks beautiful," says Leonard Burnett, publisher-at-large for Trace and former associate group publisher for Vanguarde, which published the now defunct Honey. "If anybody could do it, it would be Time Inc. But there are some fundamental business decisions that they're going to have to entertain."
Among them: Is Suede a black magazine? (Full disclosure: Press Clips' partner works for Suede, not that it helped.) A Suede flack declined interview requests for anyone at the publication, but not before insisting that, despite the abundance of Negroes on the debut edition's pages, Suede's target audience is multicultural (read: "We're not black, we're just laid out that way!"). The inaugural note from Suede's editor, Suzanne Boyd, does a marvelous job of speaking to black girls and those who emulate them. "You wore the track suit before it got Juicy, got a weave years before Donatella and knew to buy bling before everyone else could look it up in the dictionary," writes Boyd. Her message isn't aimed just at readers, but at potential clients, too. Undoubtedly, she is serving notice to advertisers who would direct Suede to the colored section.
Perhaps Suede's closest parallel is Complex. Almost to a fault, Complex, a vaguely hip-hop men's magazine, is a study in diversity. The August-September double-fronted issue featured Eve on one cover and Djimon Hounsou and Mark Ruffalo on the over. While Complex isn't exactly high-fashion like Suede, it speaks to the convergence of ethnic and mainstream. "We're one of the few magazines where our demographic mimics the top 10 markets in the country," says Sean McCusker, director of marketing for Complex. "It's 50-52 Caucasian, 38 percent African American, the balance being Latino and Asian."
While Suede probably aims at a blacker demographic, the magazine seeks to establish that the multicultural market is now the general market. "The reason they're forcing the multicultural thing is to gain high-fashion advertising," says Burnett. "There are folks who have a pot of money devoted to ethnic or black. There are quite a few advertisers who've devoted a pool of money for multicultural. But high-fashion advertisers don't have those types of budgets."
Suede essentially asserts a two-part theoremthat there are half a million women of color who want to see high-end fashion portrayed in living color, and that there are advertisers who believe this. "You know how we spend our money," says Louis. "We look up to the Gucci this and the Coach that. We can have just a couple dollars in our pocket and find a way to get a Coach bag. The audience is definitely there. We're hungry for it. Right now we have turn to Vogue, we have to turn to Marie Claire. But we want our own magazine to have this."
Black buying power is an old refrain among upwardly mobile African Americans frustrated by advertisers who look the other way. Suede's first issue offers little evidence that the ad community has changed its tune. On the one hand, Suede got a nice spread from American Express. But fashion is another fight, and the magazine has taken an L in the first round. Suede's spreads may feature names like Salvatore Ferragamo and Dolce & Gabbana, but its fashion advertising is strictly Lady Enyce and Baby Phat.
McCusker says Complex has also had its own struggles convincing advertisers that the general market has shifted. "I know that many of the ad agencies have divisions that cater to the multicultural market," says McCusker. "We obviously don't look at it that way. We like to think that the mainstream is coming to us."
It's a lot easier to pull the mainstream to you when the biggest magazine publisher in the business has your back. Time Inc. last ventured into the urban market back in 1993, when it paired with Quincy Jones to launch Vibe. Three years later, evidently disappointed with the urban market, Time Inc. sold Vibe to a partnership led by Jones and ex-Time Inc. exec Robert Miller. At 850,000 copies, the magazine is now second among music magazines in paid circulation, trailing only Rolling Stone.
"At one point, Vibe was deemed never to be big enough to fit within the Time Inc. system," says Burnett, who also worked at Vibe. "Maybe they have learned from that lesson." And then some. A Time Inc. spokesman was recently quoted in Advertising Age asserting that the company's long-term goal would be ownership of Essence Communications. Stay tuned.
Since Vanguarde Media, his joint venture with Keith Clinkscales, went under last November, Burnett has stayed busy. His most recent project is Uptown, a city magazine for upscale refined Harlemites. The first issue's cover hails "the return of the gentleman" and positions Fonzworth Bentley as pitchman and cover boy. "We live in the most diverse city in the country and there's not one magazine that targets the African American audience," says Burnett. "A magazine grounded in the ethos of what Harlem is all about would provide us with a chance for success."
Burnett sees Uptown as the flagship in an armada of magazines about affluent black neighborhoods. He says his model is Jason Binn, publisher of the magazines Gotham, Hamptons, and Los Angeles Confidential. Lofty ambitions indeed, given that the dust is just now settling from Vanguarde's demise. The first issue of Uptown is long on breathy profiles of all the touchstones for Harlem's black bourgeoisieThe Den, Sette Panni, Utopia. But it lacks an original voice, and that powerful ethos Burnett invokes feels only vaguely rendered.
Don't expect any of that to slow Burnett down. Later this year, Burnett says, he's launching Mynt, a shopping magazine for black boys distributed through a partnership with the kicks merchant Dr. Jay's. Then in 2005 he plans to launch Bronzeville, slated to be the official bible of Chicago buppiedom. "The key to publishing, now more than ever, is that your magazine be urgent to the consumer," says Burnett. It takes an urgent publisher to know that.