The NS Profile - Conde Nast

Its magazines report the lifestyle of the dementedly rich but now, it thinks, new Labour is moving t

In any survey, more people would probably be able to name the previous editors of Tatler (circulation 85,673) and GQ (132,185) than the Sun (3,746,376), especially if you conducted the research in the purlieus of the Groucho Club. Last month's departure of Jane Procter after nearly ten years at Tatler's helm provoked even more excitable press coverage than the ejection of the laddish James Brown from GQ a few weeks earlier. (To save you scouring the dustbin of memory, the ex-editor of the Sun is Stuart Higgins.)

What the two glossy magazines have in common is that they are published by Conde Nast, an American company that has cornered the market in essential reading for a self-absorbed, style-obsessed and excess-loving segment of British society. Vogue is the flagship, and its other titles include World of Interiors, House and Garden, Brides, Vanity Fair and the newcomer Traveller. Journalists are obsessed with their internal politics because many of them aspire to be part of that milieu.

"Everything here is a big story," says the managing director, Nicholas Coleridge, professing amazement. "We get a completely disproportionate amount of coverage for every single little thing that happens. The stories about us are often highly speculative but that doesn't bother us because it adds to the buzz."

"Buzz" is a very Conde Nast word. It is the quality that Tina Brown, another famous Tatler ex-editor, always said she was trying to inject into the New Yorker during her contentious stint there. Coleridge and his communications director, Antonia Bailey, used the word several times as, sitting around the glass-topped table (World of Interiors circa 1990) that serves as his desk, they sought to define the firm's special quality.

"Our power comes from having this group of magazines at one end of the market that give us 73 per cent of upmarket magazine advertising - that's the blue-chip advertisers such as Estee Lauder, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Gucci, L'Oreal . . . I'm not going to use a cliche like the Thatcher revolution," he lied, "but there's no doubt that as more and more people became affluent, more of them felt that they had a stake in the lifestyle of these magazines."

Certainly there is an admirable consistency of agenda and attitude across most of the titles, to judge from the clutch of June and July issues that Coleridge grabbed from his sample shelf and thrust at me as I was leaving. The film Notting Hill is celebrated in interviews with Hugh Grant in Vogue (by Justine Picardie, the front-runner for the Tatler editorship), his partner Liz Hurley in GQ and Julia Roberts in Vanity Fair. The cover photos of Hurley and Roberts show them in today's fashionable state of deshabille, proudly flaunting their navels, while on the Tatler cover Catherine Zeta Jones exposes her midriff. World of Interiors and House and Garden have articles about two separate architect-designed beach houses in Uruguay - a notable feat of trend-spotting and cost-sharing by the writer Victor Carro and the photographer Ricardo Labougle.

Interiors is the Conde Nast publication that most graphically explores the lifestyle of the dementedly rich - the class of consumer sought after by advertisers such as Klein and Lauren. If a beach house in Uruguay seems a bit . . . well, a bit House and Garden, how about a converted clapboard church in Lithuania? To furnish it, turn to the "antennae" page and consider a planter made from a cast of a Greek classical statue with the top lopped off, based on an idea by Vanessa Bell (£195). And for those intimate Lithuanian moments, never be without your Vivienne Westwood corset, embroidered to match a buhl toilet mirror made in 1713 for the Duchesse de Berry at Versailles (£385).

James Brown's fatal mistake at GQ was to try to nudge the men's magazine away from these rarefied reaches of conspicuous consumption and import a different kind of excess - the in-your-face raunchiness that is the hallmark of Loaded, which he co-founded. The July GQ, prepared before the arrival of the new editor, Dylan Jones, still has Brown traces, in particular eight pages of detailed reporting and pictures of the porn star Kimberley Houston, who pleasured a record-breaking 620 punters, mainly men but including some women with dildos. This sat uneasily alongside the demure full-page feature about the former England cricket captain C B Fry - a symbol of a magazine with a split personality.

Coleridge admits that there has been a problem in finding the right level for GQ in the increasingly crowded and ever less inhibited men's market. "I want it to be the biggest-selling upmarket men's magazine, but somewhere north of the Daily Mail, with lively articles, enough girls and intelligence woven into it." Not so much for lads, then, as for chaps.

Yet when the six-monthly circulation figures are released later in the summer, they will show that, under Brown, GQ put on readers faster than any other Conde Nast title. Coleridge says Brown had to go because "he didn't work hard enough", but the immediate cause of his departure was the publication of a feature naming General Rommel as a style guru of the 20th century - a view not shared by the company's 71-year-old Jewish owner, Si Newhouse, nor his cousin Jonathan Newhouse, 46, who heads the company's international operations.

On the face of it, the Newhouses are an unlikely family to be running an international string of style bibles. Si's father, Samuel, born Solomon Neuhaus, founded the publishing dynasty in the 1920s by buying newspapers in Staten Island and New Jersey, two of the least stylish areas of the US eastern seaboard. In 1959 he expanded into magazines by buying Conde Nast, then in the equally improbable hands of Lord Hartwell, proprietor of the Daily Telegraph. Conde Nast was the name of the man who bought Vogue (founded in 1892) in the early 1900s, launching a British edition in 1916 because the first world war made it inconvenient to ship copies across the Atlantic. Other titles followed - Brides, Glamour, House and Garden - but in the thirties Nast became a victim of the stock market crash and the company was bailed out by Lord Camrose, Hartwell's father. When Hartwell took over at the Telegraph he decided to concentrate on newspapers and sold the magazines to Newhouse.

Si has increased the number of titles but insists that they must all occupy the same market niche. Jonathan, meanwhile, is in charge of starting new versions of them across the world. He featured in a hilarious television programme a few months ago about launching Vogue in Moscow in the depths of Russia's economic turmoil. The magazine sells about 100,000 copies, but is light on advertising.

While other large magazine groups introduce new titles and chop failing ones with increasing rapidity, Conde Nast sticks with what it knows. That is why the company has been accused of being conservative, slow on the uptake compared with its nippier rivals.

"The owners don't like coming in and out of markets," Coleridge explains. "We like to develop what we've got and increase market share. We're trying all the time to increase our size and power and authority in the areas that we're in. We don't start magazines because there is a craze for hula hoops or something. We want them to last."

As a private company Conde Nast does not publish its results, but he says that it does well and that the British operation turns in a better profit than any outside the US.

People who work or have worked there say it maintains something of a family atmosphere. Antonia Bailey was keen to stress the point as she walked me through the editorial floors at Vogue House, in London's West End - a disappointingly unglamorous HQ with packing cases in the corridors and clutter at every turn, relieved only by a nice montage of five green folding chairs ranged against a background of magazine covers at the entrance to (naturally) World of Interiors.

Everyone seemed companionable enough, bonding and buzzing eagerly, except perhaps at Tatler, suffering from being between editors and, perhaps, from the legacy of the Procter regime. One reason for her departure - after taking circulation from 30,000 to 85,000 - was reported to be that she alienated some staff and disrupted the valued sense of corporate togetherness. Editors tend to last longer here than in most media outfits: Min Hogg has been handling Interiors for 18 years, Sandra Boler has had 16 years at Brides and Alexandra Shulman ten years at Vogue.

The latest published circulation figures, for the second half of last year, show that Conde Nast's British titles made modest gains during a difficult time for the industry as a whole.

Their future must depend on whether they can continue to feed the changing appetites and excesses of their closely defined target audience. At least they have managed to negotiate the dangerous storms that blew up as the tempestuous Thatcher revolution evolved into the smoother waters of Blair's new Britain.

"I think Mandelson and Dolly Draper and the rest of them are all closet World of Interiors readers," Coleridge chuckled. "And do you know Alex Shulman? Her magazine is full of pieces about new Labour personalities. The pictures of Mandelson in his house that everyone used were from Vogue, in a 'Ten people of our time' piece that came out last year. At the last election I would guess that half my staff voted for Major and half for Blair. In Vogue the Blair vote would have been 75 per cent. Why? Because it's a cool, cutting-edge magazine."

"So you think new Labour is moving towards Vogue, rather than Vogue moving towards new Labour?" I asked.

"I do," Coleridge replied. "That's a very good last line, isn't it?"

This article first appeared in the 14 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kosovo: a rich and comfortable war