News & Scoops

2012 February 11

Departures' Funny Story...

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Richard David Story Richard David Story
Giorgio Niro
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(NEW YORK) Can you imagine decamping from the top fashion glossy to run an even more luxurious magazine...where you never have to think about celebrities or newsstand sales? Meet Richard David Story: Vogue alum, one-time Weisberger boss, and now, EIC of American Express Publishing’s crown jewel, Departures.

How do we subscribe?
You can pay $500 for the card! Departures goes to American Express Platinum Card and Centurion members, the most prosperous cardholders. It’s a mix of people, and the only thing they are really united by is affluence—the cardholders’ median income is $685,000. In 2001, there were 650,000 cardholders, and now, 1.2 million. This is not a mass magazine, and it’s not meant to appeal to everyone. The age of gilded luxury is dead. Luxury was always intended for a very specific audience.

But don’t you ever wish the average guy could pick up a copy at JFK?
Controlled circulation seems to be a very successful way to be a successful magazine today. There’s too much bad stuff out there. They’re running the same old stories while competing for newsstand space. People always want us to do it as a newsstand magazine, but what’s the point?

How would the newsstand change things?
Now, I don’t have to feature celebrities! Marketers tell editors that celebrities will help sell magazines, but ironically, sales are still down. It doesn’t seem to be working too well, does it?

So what does Departures offer?
It’s the ultimate lifestyle magazine! Departures provides access to people, places, or things that you can’t find on Google or in other magazines. Its wallpaper is global, and it’s about design, architecture, food, fashion, and yes, travel. I take the world of luxury as seriously as David Remnick takes politics, or Anna takes fashion, or Graydon takes celebrity.

What’s the voice?
We don’t talk down. In fact, I think we talk up to this audience. Departures is a club. Our ‘You Tell Us’ page, where readers write in, is one of the most important parts to advertisers and brands—it’s an exchange of information among club members, and they take it very seriously. A place usually goes off the charts when someone writes in because they’ve discovered and loved it. Departures is edited for a readership that’s very proactive. I just tell them what to buy and what to see.

Were you nervous in 2008?
I never had a problem with the word ‘luxury.’ Let the rest of the editors out there have problems with that word because they shouldn’t have been using it!

How did you fare compared with those other titles aimed at affluent audiences?
The ones that just show a bunch of product? Those are ‘dumb rich people magazines.’ I like to have people think with their heads as well as their pocketbooks. I wanted to protect this person. I wanted them to realize that what I was offering actually had value and quality. Departures is not just about a trendy and effervescent experience. 

So lots of celebrity readers, presumably.
Tom Ford is a big fan. So is Alec Baldwin—and funnily enough, he’s the only celebrity I’ve ever put in the magazine. He’s terrific, passionate, hip, and he seems real and authentic—for better and for worse. John Tesh always calls me for advice before he goes to Paris. Also, Departures is in the second to last episode of The Sopranos. One of the characters goes to pay his psychiatrist a last visit. He picks up a copy of Departures in the waiting room, rips out a page, and puts it in his pocket. The psychiatrist catches him doing it, and they have this whole discussion about it during the session. People thought that American Express actually paid for product placement. They definitely did not!

What’s happening from a business perspective?
Steve DeLuca is our new publisher—he’s really smart, funny, and stylish. He gets it! When he interviewed for this job, he was the most impressive candidate by far. He knew this magazine so well and really wanted to publish it. He’s really inspirational to work with. It’s been the greatest publishing experience I’ve ever had. Plus, we’re up 45 percent this year and a lot of that is fashion advertising, thanks to Steve.

What’s the best place you’ve visited lately?
My favorite city in the world right now is Istanbul. It’s incredibly new, modern, and energetic. The food’s wonderful. A design firm, Autoban, is creating very exciting small hotels and restaurants. I’ve been three times in the last two years!

Do you travel alone?
Mostly, to places I’m interested in story-wise. My wife has her own business, but she comes with me when possible. I’ve also traveled quite a bit with my publisher, Steve DeLuca, and Ed Kelly, the CEO and president of American Express Publishing.

Give us your best traveling tips.
Some trips are only as good as the guide! Departures is all about very customized experiences, and we have a big network of ‘friends and family’ that we depend on for this information. I don’t send a writer out carte blanche. They have to do a lot of work before they go.

What qualifies as a good, or great, hotel?
Unfortunately, I’m the type of person for whom the last trip I took is always the best. I was just at the House Hotel on the Bosphorus, only 23 rooms in a very gorgeous old piece of Ottoman architecture that was a grand 19th-century architect’s personal home. It had been in terrible disrepair forever and has now been completely redone. The day I checked in, Monica Bellucci had checked out, and Brad and Angelina were arriving later that week. It was just perfect!

Is anything ever too expensive for Departures?
I don’t need to justify the price, since I didn’t set it, but I have to explain it. 

Do you prefer more modest accommodations? 
As I always tell our editors, what I really want to discover is the perfect double room. The suite is easy to find—it’s just a big $5,000 room!

What are the three best trips you have ever taken?
One was diving in the Galapagos and swimming with seals and sharks on a trip with my son about eight years ago. I also did a safari entirely on elephant-back in Tanzania for four days, which was wonderful. Also, rafting by day and sleeping on the banks of Salmon River in Idaho under the stars by night, which was one of my first big trips. The stars were aligned, literally!

OK, enough travel—stories from the Vogue trenches, please! 
I had a very strong and uncomplicated relationship with Anna. I adore her! I learned much of what I bring to this magazine from her. She has impeccable taste, and she kept the bar very high. In the five years I was there as features editor, she killed maybe two pieces out of 150 or so pieces I assigned. Anna knew what she wanted, I knew what I could do, I gave her what she wanted, and it worked out great. I didn’t really want to leave—but I thought that if I was to become editor-in-chief of a magazine, which was the game plan, Departures would be a very good magazine.

What did you learn from Anna?
Anna taught me to think visually. One time, I wanted to do a story on [architect] Zaha Hadid. Anna wasn’t really interested—until we found out that Helmut Newton could photograph it, and then it became a story. It was the greatest lesson! Zaha Hadid maybe wasn’t the story at that particular time, but Helmut Newton on Zaha Hadid made it a story. Photography can give such weight and context.

What do you see happening in fashion today?
The big and important fashion houses are focusing on the luxury consumer again. A year earlier there was a fad of developing younger lines—that’s gone now. If you are focusing on the luxury customer, Departures is the book that sells it.

Where do you spend exorbitantly?
Expensive suits. I get them from all sorts of places—from Brooks Brothers to Century 21 to Armani.

What happened when you bid adieu to Vogue?
Anna’s assistant, Lauren Weisberger, came to work with me for two and a half years before she left to work on the The Devil Wears Prada.

What was your reaction to the book?
She was very sheepish when she first told me about it. ‘Well, I know you’re very good friends with Anna,’ Lauren said. I didn’t really know what the book was about. I just knew it was a novel. But Lauren’s terrific, and the book went on to become part of the culture.

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