Beauty for Sale

Selling the Fantasy in Living Colour

by Nadine Anglin

9 June 2004


The first time I met fashionista Suzanne Boyd was in a dark, dingy joint in downtown Toronto. The Library Pub, a regular watering hole for students at my nearby university, was the venue of choice for our annual career night. Because of its casual setting, and true to the popular stereotype of the alcoholic reporter, the student union had long ago rechristened the event “cabeer” night. The place was packed with smart-ass but eager future journalists; jaded, but crack professional media types and questionable, but colourful local neighbourhood barflies. The scene took a surreal turn when the then editor-in-chief of Flare, one of Canada’s most well known fashion magazines, made her fashionably late entrance. It was the most amusing juxtaposition of the year: she of the splashy, “who are you wearing” Moet-only chi chi events, we of the hedonistic “who are you doing?” beer-fuelled house parties.

My classmates and I huddled around a cramped table and listened for an hour as she talked shop. Yes, I admit, I was impressed with her. Who wouldn’t be? She was a stylish black editor making it in the world of Canadian media. As the woman steering Flare into the new millennium, the former club kid and surfer splashed the pages with the high fashion glitz and glamour Canadian readers like me craved. However, readers of the “Scene”, the gossip and society column written by the National Post‘s irreverent Shinan Govani, will be greatly disappointed this year if they hope to find any local dish on the uber tall, stiletto-wearing Boyd. She and her publishing talents were wooed away from the great white north to New York City by Essence Communications, with the incentive of heading up a new beauty and fashion publication aimed at African-American women. Tentatively titled Suede, the new magazine is slated for a fall debut.

Although, I’ll be one of the first in line to buy the new magazine-gotta support the team-I still have to wonder why Essence would launch such a publication now. It’s not as if this category isn’t already oversaturated. Suede will not only compete with African-American women magazines like Honey and Upscale, but other mainstream beauty publications like Vogue, InStyle and Elle. Perhaps, the brass at Essence just felt it was a natural evolution; perhaps the timing’s just right. Essence itself was born in 1970 when Black Power and the women’s rights were all formidable social movements in the United States. Essence provided African-American women a platform to share their concerns and issues and to hear their stories being voiced month after month. Throughout the decades the magazine has tackled controversial race-related issues like affirmative action and interracial dating along with the usual women’s magazine fare of new hairstyles, healthy eating tips, and vacation hot spots. [The commemorative book, Essence: 25 Years Celebrating Black Women, (September 1995)is a great read by the way]. But let’s be realistic here. We’re living in what is quickly becoming an aesthetics-first society. If the ‘80s were the “me” decade, then this must be the “look at me” decade. While Essence has always dedicated pages to fashion and beauty, Suede can focus on this aspect entirely while piggybacking on the strength of Essence‘s existing readership and advertising base.

Despite what egotistical writers like myself would have you believe, competitive magazine publishing lives and dies by advertising. The numbers suggest that there is a very attractive market out there for typical fashion and beauty advertisers. African-Americans spend 25 percent more of their disposable income on personal care products than the general population, according to Essence‘s own market research. Also, it doesn’t hurt that a large percentage of African-American women are steadily “moving on up” so to speak, both educationally and career-wise. Highly educated and willing to spend, this demographic should be welcomed by advertisers and if there’s one thing fashion and beauty magazines need to stay afloat, it’s a high advertising-to-editorial ratio. Consider this: both Vogue and InStyle are packed with advertising and Suede is rumoured to be a combination of those two publishing powerhouses. If they can get the advertising down, what then will they offer in terms of editorial content?

We’ll have to wait and see how Suede‘s editorial will differentiate from other black magazines. No doubt they will highlight rising black beauties like Estee Lauder spokesmodel Liya Kebede, and successful urban lines like Baby Phat which grossed $21 million in 2001. I personally hope it will help shed some light on international black designers who are being left in the shadows by mainstream publications. We all know about fashion centres like New York, Paris, and Milan, but really when was the last time we’ve heard anything about South African Fashion Week and the like? Also, not many people know it, but some of the most well-known labels in the world are headed by black designers. Take for instance 36-year-old Patrick Robinson, who was Design Director for Giorgio Armani for four years, Sr. VP of Design, Merchandising and Marketing at Anne Klein for another four years and was last year named Creative Director at Perry Ellis. Black beauty is becoming big business and Essence is simply cashing in on this.

Today, countless television programs, music videos, and of course magazines are turning everyone into salivating style consumers and it doesn’t matter if you’re living it up Suzanne Boyd style or just struggling to make ends meet. It’s the reason why someone like me, a working girl on a tight budget, will go to a shady downtown pub and still order clichéd Sex and the City cosmopolitans. It’s the reason why for a disoriented split second I thought high heels paired with utilitarian cargo pants were cool. It’s the real reason why I ended up looking like a bad Beyonce impersonator after a hair colouring fiasco a couple months ago. When you pick up the dream world of fashion magazines and flip through their beckoning glossy pages, for a few hours your wannabe fashionista fantasies come true. So, it’s really no surprise that Essence is betting Suede will be in for fall 2004.

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