Build it and they will come, theme park developers are wont to say. Put it online and they will download, that could be what The Straits Times is pronouncing with their new e-mag The Life Magazine. Launched three days ago, ST’s first digital monthly (appearing every last Friday of the month) covers “style, pursuits, travel, food, design”, as spelled out above a masthead that is oddly askew. The publication could be an attempt at what the Friday supplement Urban isn’t: an urbane title. If the durian doesn’t fall far from the tree, can The Life Magazine escape print-first ST’s style-lacking approach to covering those topics that are style-heavy? As ST reporter Grace Sung introduced in her near-full page report in last Friday’s main paper, the e-mag (as well as e-books that will come later) “will deliver the newspaper’s brand of journalism…” How quickly can one’s hope be dashed?
For a debut, The Life Magazine’s cover page is surprisingly bleached of excitement, or as the young, digital-media consumers of today would say: lame. Don’t judge a book by its cover, goes the common chiding. In the online world, however, the landing page does not escape judgment. Like it, we click, or swipe to the next page. Dislike it, we eye the X button. With a model that looks from the corner of her eye rather than directly at the reader and clothes that show nothing, what exactly is the first cover communicating? Perhaps The Life Magazine could not help it. The photograph is one provided by the brand featured—in this case, Louis Vuitton—rather than one shot or commissioned by ST’s creative team. It is obvious that this is either a look book or back stage picture, clearly not destined for the front page. A designed-for-impact magazine wouldn’t go for such a no-expense convenience. The Life Magazine’s first cover shot is, ultimately, empty of meaning.
Lest we’re mistaken, it should be noted that we’re not expecting New York Time’s T Magazine or Wall Street Journal’s WSJ; we have reasonable expectations. Or digital-first titles such as Ponystep or, more suited to ST’s taste, Rue Daily. If, however, there’s a team that can put a high-quality title in our portable devices, surely it has to be the people behind The Straits Times. Yet, The Life Magazine is not a compelling portrait of a digital era. Fashion (and, for that matter, much of what it covers) should be a seismograph that registers the shifts and changes of the times. The Life Magazine shows no seismic activity.
There seems to be a deliberate turning away from anything too pedestrian, but it’s still a walk on stony ground. ‘Style’ is a cover story of one of the most storied French luxury houses, but the report has as much depth as a wading pool. ‘Pursuits’ is a ‘people’ feature that shares with the reader the expensive clothes several rag-trade types collect: a look at items, not a peek into their wardrobe. ‘Food’, while underscoring a globally known star rating, is un-swish with a decidedly Sunday Life headline: “Michelin meals under $50 in Hong Kong”. ‘Design’ features the home of Tangs chairman Tang Wee Sung, but it’s a story that first appeared in the parent publication in November last year. Similarly, in ‘Travel’, ‘Best of Venice’ is an old report from two months ago. The other feature is a piece on ryokans, told in a manner not unlike Tuesday Life’s ‘bon voyage with sgtravellers’. The Life Magazine appears to be for the well-heeled and the well-travelled reader, but is this a title for what Carmel Snow would have called the “well-dressed mind”?
If you’re expecting a good read, you may need to look elsewhere. Urban’s beauty writer Gladys Chung’s portrayal of designer Nicolas Ghesquiere stands out for her lack of a view or an impression of the man and his work, which, for Mr Ghesquiere, is never an uncomplicated thing. She quotes what other publications opined without explaining, for example, why (or how), according to The Independent she cites, “Ghesquiere’s mix of technique and dazzling textile… elevated the simple inspiration”. Surely, it is an oversight to not consider a reader’s interest: what technique, what fabrics, and what inspiration? Based on her description, it is not unreasonable to assume that she had attended the pre-fall 2014/15 (or cruise) show from which her story’s photographs came, but whether the collection is good, it seems she couldn’t sniff it out. She does not talk about it. Instead, she gives a weak description of the Fall 2014/15 collection, shown four months ago, now reported to death. On the cover, a question is posed: “Can Nicolas Ghesquiere take LV to the next level?” In the article, an answer is not offered.
As we have seen in Urban and in Life, consummate fashion judgement isn’t the strength of The Straits Times. There’s no attempt at a discourse—no fashion equivalent of John Lui’s insightful film reviews, or Sherwin Low’s aware product testings (for Digital Life), just cursory reports of what have already been told elsewhere. Like fast fashion, you get the trends, but not the quality. It has been said that fashion reporting (let’s put criticism aside for now) is given the back seat because it does not draw in advertising. Music does not bring in the ad dollar, but that has not stopped Yeow Kai Chai from being opinionated and bombastic.
Fashion/style magazines have a long history. In the mid-1600s, the French gazette Mercure Gallant enthralled the ladies of the European courts with fashion reviews as well as news and anecdotes, presented in a gossipy manner not entirely unlike today’s Hello. The publications that were to become the epitome of style came from the US: Harper’s Bazaar (1867) and Vogue (1892). While initially society magazines, both evolved into serious fashion periodicals, notably in the 70s, which was also when prêt-a-porter emerged and glamour was as watchable as sports, prompting Andy Warhol to launch the celebrity-centric Interview. By the 80s, when fashion became as much a bubble-up effect as trickle-down, and a matter of self-expression, inspiring titles came from the UK, such as The Face and i-D. Writing about fashion from within as well as giving individuals the chance to express their unique visions (Ray Petri! Neville Brody! Dylan Jones!), these publications became the voices of the zeitgeist. It was an exciting time for fashion publishing. One of the most unforgettable titles was The Manipulator. Launched in 1984 and now defunct, it was the world’s largest magazine—measuring 50cm X 70cm (undoubtedly poster-sized)—and the most sought-after as each copy had a global print run of 450, and appeared only three times a year. The Manipulator would pave the way for the 90s’ highly collectible and mutable Visionaire, a magazine that mostly did not look like one. It wasn’t until the arrival of style.com, launched in September 2000, when fashion magazines saw the next wave.
By now, new media is really not so new. We’re really no longer in awe of the information super-highway like we did in the mid-1990s. Post-Tumblr and Pinterest, The Life Magazine’s touting of “new ways of storytelling” is intriguing enough, but can The Straits Times generate anything novel? First, the story (or stories): given so much user-generated content and peer opinions circulating online and streaming into our devices, any e-magazine will have competition. To draw and hold the reader (at least until his hand-held device’s next notification), surely it must have fascinating, if not absorbing reads? Second, the telling: surely the newspaper account is best left in the newspaper? Perhaps, a publishing culture can’t change the way a dress silhouette or hemline can: at will.
If you want a visual treat, elsewhere, too, is where you may need to seek. The Straits Times is not exactly known for their lifestyle photography, and The Life Magazine does not attempt to change this perception. It’s down to technological advantage that it is readable since viewing on screen, particularly with the likes of retina display, pictures ‘pop’—quite the opposite of what you get on newsprint. These are, however, not images that inspire awe (or inspire). Now that so many fashion/style photographs—those generated by brands as well as consumers—emerge from the wild fire of social media, it is even more vital that e-magazines be visually compelling to stay above the fray. The Life Magazine will be better served if their portraits, for example, don’t appear to come from resources shared with Life’s ‘The Monday Interview’.
To make the most of the multimedia potential of digital publications, The Life Magazine embeds token video footage in their stories. While we’re not anticipating the films of Nick Knight’s SHOWstudio, we aren’t bowled over by The Life Magazine’s offering, which, surprisingly, appears to be missing a real videographer’s input. The persistent unflattering shots of the side profiles of hosts and subjects are disconcerting. Fashion people should look like fashion folks. And a soundtrack that’s akin to royalty-free muzak is not fashionable. In this respect, The Life Magazine does not appear to set itself apart from the online edition of The Straits Times. Other than a videographer, a script writer may be required, too, when even a seasoned journalist such as Wong Ah Yoke, who is oddly in suit and tie to eat in under-$50 restaurants, stumbles over Singaporeans’ favourite “actually”, uttered thrice in the 40-second introduction of Hong Kong’s Hang Zhou Restaurant alone!
Since the advent of the music video in the 80s—a medium that merged music, fashion, film, and graphic design stunningly, multimedia formats have become audio-visual treats. Correspondingly, digital magazines now provide stimuli once thought to exist only on MTV. The Life Magazine, however, does not appear to have availed itself of the myriad tools to create a truly immersive experience. Despite its video footage and swipe functionality, The Life Magazine’s layout is still rooted in print, making it a static, web-disconnected read. While it sports a clean and unfussy UI, the navigation is not entirely intuitive, which, perhaps justifies the explanatory diagram that precedes the content page. As you read on, swiping becomes a little confusing, as pages do not flow directly from left to right. Some require you to read to the end before you can swipe to the next article, red arrows guide you along. Page zooming is possible, but the text—not sizable—cannot be selected, which means no copying and pasting. There are also no social sharing options, which, for so many share-crazy users of Facebook and the like, will be a bummer.
Once downloaded, The Life Magazine can be completed in about 20 minutes, hardly making it an experiential read. The newsstand, we’re quite certain for now, isn’t going to go under any time soon.
The free, first issue of The Life Magazine is available for download through the iOS and Android app ST Star