2011 September 10
Gan, Baby, Gan...
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(NEW YORK) Two decades ago, Stephen Gan launched Visionaire, a shapeshifting tome and work of art, in each of its wildly creative thrice-yearly iterations—with a hefty triple-digit price tag to match. A more accessible but equally arty version came about over a decade ago with the advent of V, and shortly thereafter, then new Bazaar editrix Glenda Bailey tapped Gan as her creative director. From his hard-partying ‘80s days at Details to his recently-hatched friendship with Gaga, Gan remains one of fashion’s most intriguing visionaries. BY ALEXANDRA ILYASHOV
What was your original idea for Visionaire?
We called ourselves an art and fashion publication—which seemed like such a unique idea at the time. Now, you look around and everything straddles those two worlds. We were the first to publish Inez & Vinoodh’s work, and the first to do so with Mert and Marcus in the U.S. It was a mutual love affair between the artists and Visionaire, and some pretty incredible images came out of that. It’s about meeting young, talented, creative people and giving them a platform—for someone like Gaga.
How did you meet her?
Nicola Formichetti came by my office one day in May 2009, and we watched the “Poker Face” video on YouTube. I fell in love with her. She was everything new, and everything we were waiting for. We went for sushi soon after, and I felt an instant bond. I went to her concerts, and I knew fashion and music would never be the same.
At one point, you were discovered by Bill Cunningham. How did that happen?
I met Bill in the late ‘80s when I was a Parsons student and the coolest thing was to walk down West Broadway on a Saturday afternoon. Bill was taking pictures of my friends and me, and I told him I wanted to be in fashion magazines. He gave me a quarter to call Annie Flanders at Details. Bill is like an uncle to me.
And you got the job!
My first day, I walked into work and sat around for a while, waiting for the other staff members to get in. The next person to arrive showed up in the late afternoon and told me that Annie Flanders and her team never started work until after 4:30 p.m. It was an underground, very downtown magazine about fashion—and nightlife. We worked from 4:30 p.m. in the afternoon until midnight, and 90 percent of the staff would just go out clubbing together afterwards. I was 18 years old at the time, and I thought to myself, 'Oh, this is how every magazine works!' Little did I know that was such an oddity! It was the heyday of clubs like Area and Palladium, in ’87 through ’89. What a great time for New York nightlife.
Where do you get your clubbing fix nowadays?
There aren’t any good clubs to go to! In the ‘80s and ‘90s, New York had clubs for every night of the week. That’s why V throws so many parties!
Which publication is the most "you": Bazaar, V, or Visionaire?
All of them! When I first got the job at Bazaar, I was trying to create separation between my work at each. In terms of music, Harper’s Bazaar is like a commercial hit song. Visionaire is like a night out at a really good opera. V feels like a night at the club.
What’s the biggest difference between Cecilia [Dean, V’s editor and co-founder] and Glenda?
Cecila is pretty introverted—and Glenda is a complete extrovert.
What’s your favorite issue of Visionaire?
Our second year, we did the White Issue. We were so crazy back then. We’d say things to each other like, 'OK, now we’re going to do a publication with absolutely no ink.' We used Braille on every single page. Even the fashion credits were in Braille! That’s the issue that created my friendship with Mario Testino—it was the first time he’d contributed to Visionaire. When I showed Mario the finished copy of the magazine, he told me I was absolutely crazy. We had a bond from that point onwards. God, to be so young, innocent and brave. I don’t know if I’d dare to do that issue now.
What was the most difficult issue to pull off?
Tom Ford’s Gucci lightbox issue. It was battery-operated and had a light panel that required wiring—the issue arrived with AA batteries and everything. A couple of interns who were playing with the dummy version of the issue got electrocuted every time they touched it.
Visionaire is a collectible—what do you collect?
I don’t collect anything! It’s almost a joke. I see my private life as a brief escape, because I’m constantly surrounded at work by amazing art and beautiful prints. If there’s one thing I should’ve started collecting 20 years ago, it’d be beautiful prints from Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton or Mario Testino. Oh, and Bruce Weber. I’d die for a Bruce Weber print. I’ve covered Bruce’s work so many times, but I’ve never had the heart to ask him for a print. When you’re in it so much, it’s like working in a bar and being surrounded by alcohol all day long. The last thing you want when you leave is to drink!
Do you ever get stressed about money?
We’ve been really lucky. Visionaire has been described as the haute couture of the publishing industry, which is really sweet. For 20 years, those 2,000 to 5,000 people out there have consistently been able to afford a limited-edition art book collector’s item that costs in the realm of $200 and up per issue.
How exciting or daunting is it to scout the next wave of talent?
It’s like trying to find the rosebuds that are about to bloom. There’s a whole garden full, and some will bloom while others won’t. But that’s what keeps my work exciting; the promise of the new and the next. It’s what magazine people get off on!
What bothers you most about the magazine industry today?
I hate working in an atmosphere where you’re constantly being told that your medium is soon going to be extinct. Within and beyond the industry, a pretty grim picture has been painted. Long live print! It’s not about one medium over the other; there is content you’ll want to see in each medium.
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