Thursday, May 17, 2012

A salute to Kirstie Clements

The Australian fashion industry had a reality check yesterday, with the announcement that Kirstie Clements had been unceremoniously dethroned as editor of Vogue Australia. Unceremoniously is putting it kindly. According to The Sydney Morning HeraldClements - up until yesterday the second longest-serving editor of the current Australian mainstream fashion magazine pack after Marie Claire's Jackie Frank - was escorted from the premises by security, with her phone confiscated [update 19/05: although Clements made no effort on Thursday or Friday on Twitter to correct this version of events - which we understand were witnessed by third parties - she has since denied to the SMH that her phone was confiscated or that she was escorted from the building]. The axing of two other senior NewsLifeMedia editorial executives at the same moment might have helped assuage the humiliation. This was business, after all, for News Limited, nothing personal. Given the accompanying press release, it was pretty clear that new News Limited ceo Kim Williams and his axe-woman, new NewsLifeMedia ceo Nicole Sheffield, had no idea just how personal a matter it would have been for Clements. They stated she had been Vogue's editor for 10 years, out of a total 13 years with the magazine. In fact, Clements was Vogue's editor for 13 years - but she originally joined the title in 1985 as a receptionist, before moving up through the ranks and briefly defecting to the newly-relaunched Harper's Bazaar in 1998. Some thank-you for almost 30 years of service to one of the world's greatest publishing brands.

Certainly some Vogue editors do seem to have a job for life.

Anna Wintour and Franca Sozzani have been at the respective helms of American and Italian Vogue since 1988. Alexandra Shulman has edited British Vogue since 1992. All three titles are directly-owned and operated by Condé Nast. Vogue Australia and many other regional titles are licensed to local news operators. Condé Nast exited Australian publishing in 2002, selling its Australian licenses to FPCLiving. News Limited acquired FPC's magazine assets in 2006.

While Clements might have been welcomed with open arms everywhere she went by the international Condé Nast publishing family, at the end of the day management of the local edition would clearly be at the discretion of the licensee.

With new management in the form of Williams and Sheffield – both of whom arrived at News Limited directly from the pay tv market; in Williams' case, Foxtel and Sheffield, the XYZ Networks – it is abundantly clear that News Limited has a new multiplatform focus. Given the tough economic climate and the dramatic changes in the media landscape over the past five years, notably the explosion in digital media, well it might.

Many - media analysts included - scratched their heads yesterday, wondering why Clements was let go.

After a turbulent period in the late 1990s, which witnessed four Vogue editors in as many years – Nancy Pilcher, Marion Hume, Juliette Ashworth and then finally Clements in 1999 – Clements has been the one constant with the title for 13 years and has played a major role in stemming the tide of erosion of Vogue's circulation and advertising.

Vogue might continue to be outsold by arch rival Harpers Bazaar in this market - and indeed, by every other mainstream Australian fashion glossy - but in the most recent audit period Vogue in fact fared better than its competitors, selling 51,013 copies in the six months to December 2011, down 2.3 percent on 2010. Compared to a 7.9 percent drop at Harpers Bazaar (54,158) and a 5.2 percent decline at Marie Claire (100,128) - with sales across the total fashion magazine sector falling 4.9 percent year-on-year (Audit Bureau of Circulations).

According to Roy Morgan, Vogue's readership dived 9.3percent to 361,000 in the 12 months to March 2012 - certainly a far greater decline than Cleo (-7.8percent to 378,00), Harpers Bazaar (-3.6percent to 213,000), Cosmopolitan (-3.5percent to 529,000) and Marie Claire (-1.3percent to 447,000). While ACP's Madison and Grazia jumped 23.8percent (265,000) and 24.4percent (194,000) respectively. But considering that all the other glossies outsell Vogue at the newsstand, it's worth noting that even under pressure, Vogue's readership remains higher than all but Marie Claire, Cosmo and Cleo.

During her Vogue tenure, Clements pulled off a number of editorial coups.

Arguably the biggest came in December 2004: the world exclusive first look inside the fairytale royal life of the newly-minuted Crown Princess Mary, following the native Tasmanian's May 2004 wedding to Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark.

Clements sweet-talked Karl Lagerfeld and Baz Lurhmann, among others, to guest edit special editions. She became the first Australian editor in a very long time to commission an illustrated cover: four drawings of Cate Blanchett by British illustrator David Downton for Vogue's 50th anniversary edition in 2009 – which was crowned magazine cover of the year in 2010. In 2011, Vogue was named Australian magazine of the year.

Clements not only got to steer Vogue through that major 50th milestone, she also co-edited an illustrated history of the magazine with Lee Tulloch – In Vogue Australia: Fifty years of Australian Style - which will remain a major Australian fashion reference book for perpetuity.

She wasn't the biggest fan of my news focus. When I joined as fashion reporter in 2007 and headed off to cover the Spring/Summer 2008 northern hemisphere show season, Clements declined any collaboration, telling editor David Higgins that it would be problematic because I criticise her advertisers.

In March 2010, during Clements' Q & A session with Calvin Klein's Francisco Costa and Malcolm Carfrae at the L'Oréal Melbourne Fashion Festival Business Seminar, she sent a frisson around the 700-strong audience after asking if Calvin Klein clips any negative comments from its Facebook page. They replied to the negative, but she volunteered that Vogue removes any comments in its web forum that are deemed to be critical of Vogue advertisers. I mentioned it in my WWD coverage of the seminar. The story was picked up by AAP and several media outlets in Australia and New York and sparked a mini debate on censorship.

Yesterday's NewsLifeMedia press release noted that new Vogue Australia editor Edwina McCann, who commences in early July, will be overseeing a "holistic" launch of "one Vogue" across all platforms.

Judging by this 48 hour-old interview with Clements that has just been published on, it appears Clements had already been given the same "one Vogue" mandate. She just didn’t get to follow through with it.

The lacklustre website - which nevertheless boasts 1.1million unique browsers and 9.1million page impressions per month - is in need of a revamp. The print edition has, however, most definitely been reinvigorated under Clements' watch and is looking better than ever, with some of the strongest art direction of covers of any Australian fashion magazine over the past 12 months (e.g. September 2011, below).

september 2011/via fashion model directory

Thirteen years is a long time in any job and as it has often been said, with the Liberal Party in power for 13 years, it was more a case of John Howard losing the 2007 federal election, than Kevin Rudd winning it.

Times are tough, so is competition and Vogue Australia needs to be absolutely irresistible to the new breed of fashion consumer – or risk losing relevance. McCann is seen as a new broom - for now. The announcement of her appointment certainly coincides with her May 2012 Harpers Bazaar cover of Nicole Kidman with baby Faith Margaret, which has generated a lot of publicity.

As for her new media chops, in November 2011 McCann oversaw the appointment of a côterie of Australian personal style bloggers for the launch of the Harpers Bazaar 'Style Network'. According to sources, traffic spiked considerably.

But the Harpers Bazaar Style Network was not an original initiative. Condé Nast's Lucky magazine was among the first US magazines to launch an affiliated blogger network last year. Lucky, at least, splits ad revenue with its bloggers – reportedly 50/50. Harpers Bazaar not only failed to offer the Australian bloggers any kind of split of the ad revenue, they declined even a token contributor payment and the biggest names eventually left.

There is life after Vogue and at the peak of her career, Clements will undoubtedly have no problem walking into any number of prestige positions.

Thirteen years as the editor of any Vogue is a rare feat and regardless of her undignified exit yesterday at the hands of the brand's Australian gatekeepers, she can hold her head up high.

So let's salute her.


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