Lessons from the Gentlewoman

Martin Yambao - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Who sits at the helm of today’s most genre-defining womenswear publication?   

Fashion is often perceived to be a relentless, surface-driven world, but Penny Martin champions a “gentler,” more succinct point of view. Penny is the editor in chief of The Gentlewoman, the biannual sister publication to Jop van Bennekom and Gert Jonkers’ Fantastic Man. The independent magazine is enjoying cult status in the fashion industry for its spare yet sleek portrayal of women’s style and intelligent profiling. Fashion photography that depicts quiet elegance, stillness; that speaks of volume and depth. Words that capture an unretouched reality without compromising on beauty. Serving realness for the real woman to read, so to speak. 

The Gentlewoman is informed by Penny’s extensive career in publishing and academia; surviving the dearth of intelligent perspectives on fashion and style. The magazine resists the apotheosis of celebrity and chooses instead to profile contemporary women, icons (and iconoclasts) who represent a forward and ambitious outlook. A warm tone and candid approach is its literary signature.

Delivering a shrewd approach to publishing in her charmingly emphatic Scottish accent, Penny was one of the speakers at “The U Symposium 2015: Magazines Contemporary” held this past weekend in Singapore. The symposium brought founders, editors and creatives of the most sought-after independent titles in the publishing industry to date. Alongside The Gentlewoman, editor and creative director Jop van Bennekom was in attendance for Fantastic Man, founder and creative director Nathan Williams for the aesthetically renowned Kinfolk, editor in chief Chris Ying for food magazine Lucky Peach, among others.

YStyle was privileged to attend “The U Symposium” and hear Penny Martin discuss firsthand the discourse surrounding the underserved realm of women’s publishing. On the need for a monolithic point of view, the depleting state of digital versus the need for print, and the value of humor as a political tool for women, Penny shares a few lessons on becoming. Who exactly is The Gentlewoman?

Modern Icons

Icelandic art-pop chanteuse Bjork fronts the magazine in a full-color cover (for spring-summer 2015, a first in their 11-issue run) shot by Alasdair McLellan. On the origins of the publication’s name, “We’re not talking about gentility, or the demure, polite woman,” insists Penny. “It is the outward-looking woman, voracious, ambitious, of an interest in style. All those things you could easily attribute to a gentleman.” It was her way of re-appropriating a word to encompass the breadth of values that exist in their pages. 

“They might be Beyoncé, Robyn or Céline’s Phoebe Philo. It could easily be someone whom you feel could have been maligned in the press, like Yoko Ono,” says Penny. “It’s always a modern person, somebody that has a future.” The Gentlewoman does not restrict itself in terms of age, celebrity or upcoming exhibit launches (just sometimes). “I don’t care how old they are, it can be 80 or 18. As long as they can be someone or something in the future, icons, contemporary icons, she’s a gentlewoman.” 

Information Trashcans

In response to the constant demand for a female version of Fantastic Man, the idea for The Gentlewoman was born. It’s the first magazine dedicated to women’s fashion from Top Publishers, the same birthplace of BUTT, COS magazine and The Happy Reader. It comes from the same stock of genre-defining publishing that comes from the Dutch studio led by Van Bennekom and Jonkers.

The entry of The Gentlewoman was contextualized by the state of an underserved fashion publishing market. Penny talks about an industry teeming with information trashcans or “mag-alogues,” magazines that only concerned themselves with saleable content and representing women in a very singular way. The success of Fantastic Man represented a progressive movement happening to the men’s market, signaling opportunity for the women’s as well.

“Magazines weren’t speaking to women in very intelligent ways, they were addressing them like simple consumers. The online dialogue started to pervade women’s publishing — ‘love those shoes, love these clothes, love everything!’ There was no discernment; there was no hierarchy of interest. The Gentlewoman is conscious in wanting to address that,” says Penny.

Feminism in Fashion

The Gentlewoman is a fashion magazine at heart. Penny Martin has said in previous interviews that feminism can’t be found in their pages per se, but is certainly informed by those ideals. “What’s important to say is that feminism and fashion are not mutually exclusive. It might be difficult to get the balance but they’re not opposite.” Says Penny, “Our aim is to find an intelligent take on fashion, gender politics is just one of the facets that informs what we do.”

Penny puts emphasis on the magazine’s thrust of producing fashion photography that brings the same amount of ambition and production value that goes into most male-driven magazines, but with the addition of warmth and affection. “Models can be intelligent, real women can be beautiful.” Obvious things that often feel overlooked.

Women at Work

“When the editors of Fantastic Man shared their feedback regarding our first few issues, it was always ‘God, women love to talk about work!’” Penny shares. “It really hit home for me because I feel women are on a slightly different stage, aren’t they? You might have Tyler Brûlé or Tom Ford talking about their favorite hotel or a favored pair of cufflinks in an interview, but that’s only because they know that you know that they’ve already arrived.”

The Gentlewoman is assiduous in showing more of what women do, and less about what they look like. Women’s magazines often fall into the trap of focusing on the “pornography of the visual,” in turn trivializing their subjects. “Women who get featured in publications often want to make sure that you know that they’re serious about what they do,” says Penny. “It’s our job to make our subjects feel safe, developing this sense of being very careful to listen. It’s a part of our agenda.”

Funny Face

Personally speaking, one of my favorite things to read in issues of The Gentlewoman is their irreverent short pieces on simple objects. A feature that isn’t fashion, nor is it product. It was a space in the magazine that wasn’t about selling you something. Humor in fashion, as it turns out, is one of Penny’s favorite things.

She calls for personality and a subtle texture in these pages without resorting to slapstick. On the virtues of a bar of soap versus a liquid wash, for example, or a story on kitten heels modeled by two models, one short, one tall: “These are funny, almost invented observations that give us a chance to bring in a different texture to the stream of talk and portraiture.”

Humor is her way of counterbalancing the weight of their message. “I felt that women’s magazines were really lacking in humor for a time. They fell into extremes of either humorless, classical portraits or women pictured as oversexualized creatures. I felt like there was nothing in between. Girls don’t get to be funny,” it seemed. The Gentlewoman stands to champion wit, using humor as an important political tool. 

Printed Matter

Between her PhD from the Royal School of Art and her role as chair for fashion imagery at the University of the Arts in London, Penny Martin spent eight years (between 2001 and 2008) as editor in chief of Nick Knight’s pioneering fashion website SHOWstudio. “Our objective was to use up every opportunity that came to us technologically and figure out how to fit them into every genre of women’s publishing.” SHOWstudio led the boon of Internet-driven fashion film, reinterpreting the traditional tropes of magazine editorials on a digital platform.

Penny had undergone a reverse-renaissance, emigrating from online to rediscover the printed medium. The idea of magazines being very periodical in nature was a sharp contrast to the relentless pace of digital. It appealed to her academic side, “magazines in nature are not about then, it’s not about next, it’s about the exactly now. It gives us quite a definite state, it stops time. Working online, nobody’s energy can really go from the acme of activity to the nadir of slumping backwards. You’re just so depleted and exhausted. You’re never in a finite state, you’re somewhere in between.”

On the weight of the Internet versus the opportunity for clarity in print, Penny welcomes the reintroduction of editing as the solution to the useless noise within fashion publishing. “You need some kind of opinion,” she says. The Gentlewoman is about having a single perspective, or owning a specific authorship. “It’s been our response to digital, it’s about being monolithic in a sea of opportunity, variety and options.” Print means being specific, and being sure about your ideas.

On a lark, I was lucky enough to grab two minutes with the editor in chief after the event. We sat down for a quick YStyle exclusive.

YSTYLE: What excites you the most working in fashion publishing?

PENNY MARTIN: What I really love about working in fashion is that it allows you to think in the short-term future. When I was doing my research, I sort of discovered that I wasn’t really a marathon runner. I don’t want to do a project that lasts forever. Nor am I really a sprinter. I do want to have a mid-length kind of experience, to have time to come in contact with something to be able to really think it out.

I’m not the kind of journalist that comes up with that sort of headline off the top of my head. I really need to think about it. It’s that state of feeling modern but not completely in the future that magazines afford.

Fashion is a really sunny place to be. I think it’s good for your mental health.

YSTYLE: Thank you Penny, and I love you.

You’re welcome. I love you, too.

* * *

The Gentlewoman and Fantastic Man are both stocked locally at Univers d’Homme et Femme, One Rockwell.









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