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Fashion for the Masses

InStyle has redefined what's in, pinning together pop culture and the latest trends.

July 13, 2001|MARISA FOX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — As top editors of the most venerable women's fashion and lifestyle magazines play musical chairs, Martha Nelson is sitting pretty as managing editor of InStyle, attracting both readers and advertisers. A fashionista she is not. Her blond shoulder-length hair is more disheveled than coiffed. Her laid-back, casual demeanor is a far cry from the icy veneer of Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of Vogue. When Time Inc. launched InStyle in 1994, there were plenty of naysayers. The women's magazine market was already cluttered and Nelson and Time Inc. were newcomers to the world of hemlines, hairstyles and wall hangings.

'I remember when we started the magazine and I hired a beauty editor, one of the top editors at Time Inc. asked me, 'Do you really need a whole editor for beauty?" Nelson, now 48, recalls with a laugh. 'And I had to say, 'Guys, you'll have to trust me on this one.' It was certainly new ground for everybody."

Perhaps it was this outsider status that has helped InStyle bypass the insular world of socialites, style editors and Seventh Avenue and cut a different path to the 1.58 million mostly women who now buy it every month. It has turned Hollywood celebrities into the cover models du jour showcasing a California style that is young, fun, relaxed and mass in appeal. So far this year, despite softening newsstand sales and dwindling ad pages for magazines, InStyle is, for the first time, exceeding Vogue in ad pages and revenues, according to Publishers Information Bureau.

InStyle has mined star-and style-obsessed times, filtering fashion through the lens of pop culture rather than high society and avant-garde, arty layouts. It has made the once sacred world of fashion accessible by granting readers a front row view of the red carpet, VIP passes to exclusive parties, pages upon pages of clothing to suit any body type and the keys into the homes and closets of favorite TV, film and pop stars. It was the first to run full-length party pictures of celebrities and pioneered catalogue-like service pages.

The old guard might consider InStyle the McFashion magazine, claiming it is too overtly commercial and emphasizing class over mass with its shopping guides complete with 800 numbers lists but that hasn't stopped others from imitating the winning formula. Conde Nast, the upper-crust publisher of Vogue and Glamour, has a new monthly, Lucky, devoted solely to shopping. InStyle's influence even extends to similar celebrity and product layouts to magazines as disparate as Rolling Stone, Child and Town and Country.

'As a designer I get inspiration from Vogue and Harper's Bazaar,' says Christie Martin, a jewelry designer and co-owner of Nina at Fred Segal in Santa Monica. 'But I buy clothing the way they present it in InStyle.'

The magazine has redefined how a women's magazine looks, talks and markets itself, says media buyer David Verklin, chief executive of Carat North America. "It has tapped into a major cultural phenomenon in our country. We live a culture of voyeurism ....It's an insatiable area within the American reading and viewing public. This is a bedrock of our culture and they nailed it."

He said this is a time of "great turmoil" in women's magazines. Responding to this change has been difficult for a few editors. Harper's Bazaar, for example, suffered a real identity crisis under Kate Betts who tried to reach a younger audience. It recently lured Glenda Bailey away from the more populist but very successful Marie Claire, which also is shopper friendly. She is expected to bring a more down-to-earth perspective to Harper's, which competes directly with Vogue.

'What I knew going in--and there was a lot I didn't know--was that the conventions of women's magazines like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar have not changed in the past 100 years since they first started,' says Nelson, dressed in a simple black T-shirt and black trousers of unknown origin to her, a casual blue Armani blazer and purple jewel-encrusted Christian Louboutin mules. 'But when you think about what has changed in the past 100 years, everything has changed, and certainly the way in which we receive information about fashion has changed."

Gone are the days of Diana Vreeland, the late Vogue editor, known for issuing style dictums, of fashion catering only to socialites, of ateliers and obligatory linings. This is the era of cheap chic at Target and fashion becoming entertainment thanks to TV shows such as E's "Fashion Emergency" and cultural happenings likethe popular Jackie Kennedy exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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