Memo Pad: Tumultuous at Interview

Interview magazine's future hit by staff upheaval, recession.

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Photo By Courtesy Photo

Fabien Baron

Photo By Courtesy Photo

In September, Interview threw a splashy party for its relaunch at the Standard Hotel in New York’s Meatpacking District. At the time, the hotel was still under construction. Models, editors and other downtowners had to tiptoe on planks to avoid snakes of electrical cords around the unfinished penthouse, where the magazine’s owner, Peter Brant, and his wife, Stephanie Seymour Brant, held court at one end and co-editorial directors Glenn O’Brien and Fabien Baron at the other. Nine months from completion, the Standard was a shell of the chic hotel it was to become. But at least the foundation was there.

The reverse appears to be true of Interview. The title is now a shell of its former self, hardly the provocative glossy it was even 18 months ago under then-editors Ingrid Sischy and Sandra Brant, Peter Brant’s first wife. When in February 2008 Brant bought his ex-wife’s stake in the company to gain full control, he plotted to bring a mix of intelligence and downtown glam to a publication launched by Andy Warhol in 1969. Instead, Brant has withdrawn from the day-to-day operations of Brant Publications Inc. as he focuses on his contentious divorce battle with Seymour Brant.

Ryan Brant, Peter and Sandy’s son, has now taken over at the publishing company as acting president, and O’Brien was forced out early this month to be replaced by Baron, who himself was fired last fall but has returned as sole editorial director of Interview.

Given all the turmoil and a recession that has seen advertising at even behemoths like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Vanity Fair tumble by more than 20 percent, many wonder if Interview will be able to weather its storms.

After more than a decade of profitability, Interview, as Ryan Brant has recently described, has dipped “significantly” back into the red — although a company spokesman claimed it is “more profitable now” than in 2008. The firm’s smaller titles, Art in America and The Magazine Antiques, are, according to sources inside Brant, profitable, with significantly less overhead than Interview. But they also bring in much less ad revenue. Brant Publications, meanwhile, plans to launch a quarterly design magazine, Modern.

Clearly, ongoing financial support from Peter Brant will determine Interview’s future. But with its financial position, and a mind-numbing divorce to battle through, time will tell how much patience — and money — he will have to spend.

The magazine’s travails stem from a clash of business cultures and of egos among the top brass, as well as poor timing. Sischy and Sandra Brant had produced Interview since 1989, when the Brants bought the magazine from the Warhol estate for an undisclosed sum. Sischy’s Rolodex provided content for the magazine — friends like Elton John would interview their peers and other friends like Bruce Weber would photograph them. Sandy oversaw ad sales, and with her then-husband’s art world heft and her and Sischy’s contacts in the fashion world, brought in a steady stream of ad pages. The duo ran a tight ship — they didn’t pay their contributors much money, but they didn’t have to. Talent flocked to Interview because, for photographers and stylists, it was a creative outlet with few boundaries, unlike typically more structured — and higher-paying — commercial assignments. That formula drove Interview into profit from 1994 on — the title made $2 million at its peak — and to a rate base of 200,000.

But when Peter Brant took full control of the business, out went Ingrid’s and Sandy’s contacts and a new network had to be built. Among them, Christopher Bollen from V magazine became editor of Interview, and Karl Templer joined as creative director. Alan Katz, who had been publisher at Cargo and Vanity Fair, was named group publisher. Stephanie Seymour Brant was given a token title on the masthead: contributing fashion editor. O’Brien and Baron joined Brant Publications as co-editorial directors overseeing Interview, Art in America and The Magazine Antiques, and also reportedly received a small stake in the company.

The model seemed perfect: O’Brien brought connections in the art world and his editorial expertise to the table — he was an editor at Interview in the Seventies, and later wrote for Rolling Stone and GQ. Baron — a well-respected creative director, most recently at French Vogue, and founder of his own ad agency, Baron & Baron — brought deep connections to photographers, stylists, designers and luxury brands that would help boost Interview’s image among advertisers. “A photographer wants a good relationship with Fabien because he does all the ad campaigns,” said one creative director at a fashion title. “You want to work with him because maybe, perhaps you’ll work on the Calvin Klein campaign.”

Nonetheless, despite the buzz around the new team, observers took Sischy’s and Sandy Brant’s departure as a blow to Interview. “Losing Ingrid was akin to losing Jane Pratt at Jane,” said George Janson, managing partner-director of print at Mediaedge:cia, who handles media planning for Chanel, VF Corp., Gallo and Macy’s Inc., among others. “Although she wasn’t the namesake, she was so akin to that magazine.”

Things started off well. A sharply redesigned September issue, with an image of Kate Moss shot by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott, marked the new era. The issue carried 142 pages of advertising from the likes of French Connection, Rolex, Chanel, John Varvatos, Graff, Michael Kors and Missoni.

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