The intoxicating smell of Skyy Vodka and Redken hairspray spiced the air. At Toronto’s eau restaurant this past October, a crowd of four hundred polished and preened advertising types and a small number of media representatives were introduced to Strut a unisex fashion magazine base in Montreal. They sipped alcoholic drinks and watched a hair show that featured Edward Scissorshands-skilled stylists slicing away on a stage to the sounds of dance music. The two men who drew the most attention were Mark and George Batchoun, the twentysomething brothers who started Strut with the help of family finances. The dark-haired Batchouns, who own Montreal’s chain of StyleXchange fashion boutiques, wore tight and colourful T-shirts emblazoned with the Strut logo, navy blazers and blue jeans. When I asked George Batchoun what makes Strut different from other Canadian fashion magazines, he quickly replied, “We’re trend setters, not followers.”
StyleXchange alerted Mark and George to an ignored niche in the magazine industry when women’s fashion titles such as Elle Canada and Flare approached the boutique which didn’t want to be associated with trend-mongering to advertise. The brothers knew that other companies were also looking for a critical and inquisitive Canadian fashion magazine targeting 18- to 35-year-old urban men and women who are often relocating and are so bombarded by media that they are easily turned off. So with no experience in publishing the two retailers set out to create a magazine.
When Anik Decoste first met the brothers for a job interview she was told that as publishing director she could take the magazine concept anywhere she wanted. “They’re really persistent,” says Decoste. “You feel you have to follow them or you will miss out on something. They scream success.” Decoste was working in publishing at Spafax Canada Inc. and had handled marketing and production for VICE magazine. After she accepted, Decoste was handed her business card at the interview. In six weeks, Strut would be going to press and the budget had already been spent. But once Decoste and Adam Gollner, Strut’s former editor and a colleague of Decoste’s from VICE, saw the prototype they scrapped almost the entire content.
When Decoste approached the Batchouns she told them that the content – which included a profile on Montreal’s richest families, a look at the eight Montrealers everyone should know and an article on the best design stores in Montreal – was too local. The brothers had thought only as far ahead as one issue. Decoste said that if they wanted Strut to be national she had to make changes. The brothers agreed.
Decoste fired the entire masthead except for art director Dave Girard, also a former VICE employee. Decoste contacted writers and asked them to pitch ideas. This past November, Gollner stepped down to become a contributing writer and editor. Ilana Weitzman, who had worked as an editorial consultant for Strut, became editor. The serious and straightforward Montreal-centric articles in the prototype were replaced with humorous and cheeky pieces in what Decoste called April’s “damage control issue.” Since joining Strut, Weitzman wants the magazine to become more reader-friendly. “Most fashion magazines are called glossy for a reason,” says Weitzman. “We don’t want to be at arms length.” Strut has looked at a high-art and free-love commune in Rotterdam (“Welcome to the Orgy Room”), exposed Asia’s sex underground (“Showing Too Much Sin”) and questioned whether America killed Islamic hip-hop (“Lyrical Assassination”).
Decoste, who is adding editorial director to her title, often uses the Batchouns as a barometer for edgy content and runs each issue’s concept by them before assigning stories. Strut’s aim is to be fun, intelligent and young, but not offensive. She wants the message to be mainstream, but the approach unconventional.
For the winter issue, Strut sent a writer to explore legal swingers’ clubs in Montreal. And in the same issue, movie director Jacob Tierney and two actors from his latest film Twist were given the freedom to interview each other. When Mark and George didn’t agree that the accompanying pictures should be black and white, Decoste assured them when she said, “That’s not how we should do it, and that’s exactly why we should do it this way.”
Decoste describes the brothers as “the producers” who finance the magazine and sell advertising on a daily basis. The Batchouns usually see the magazine after it’s completed. Gollner was pleased with the editorial freedom at Strut. “Who else is covering Islamic hip-hop? This is terrain that advertisers could have problems with.”
To market the magazine to potential advertisers, Strut contracted Spafax, which publishes Air Canada’senRoute magazine. Strut’s ratio is healthy – sixty per cent editorial and forty per cent advertising. Diesel and Redken are Strut’s major advertisers, but others include DKNY Jeans and Adidas. The premiere issue featured an eight-page StyleXchange advertisement. In addition to its spot on the newsstand, Strut is placed in salons that carry Redken products and can be purchased in StyleXchange and Buffalo stores. About 78 per cent of Strut’s 15,000 newsstand copies sold.
Some companies have found the magazine too edgy for their conservative stable of Canadian-run ads. “Most people flip through the magazine and say, ‘Is this really Canadian? It’s so cutting edge it can’t be Canadian,'” says Cassandra Bowers, Strut’s Ontario director of sales at Spafax.
The premiere issue exuded a look and feel reminiscent of the U.K. magazines like The Face and Dazed & Confused. The kaleidoscopic and collage-like design that threatened to swallow much of the text veered from what Strut calls the consistently formulaic approach to design, content and overall appeal of other Canadian fashion publications.
Weitzman argues that just because Strut is produced in Canada it doesn’t have to rely on Canadian content, which can become a crutch. “Canadians have to have confidence in their own perspective and experience,” says Weitzman. And Strut offers this viewpoint of the world.
In spring 2004, Strut plans to increase frequency from quarterly to bimonthly and push up distribution numbers. There is talk of distribution to the U.S. within two years. And Strut’s answer to strengthening the brand? Throw more parties.