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When Sylvain Blais was 14, he knew he was hooked on fashion. Each month he’d pick up a copy of both American and Italian Vogue from the only store that carried them in his hometown of Sherbrooke, Quebec. As soon as he finished school in 1997 he started working as a freelance photographer for Montreal-based designers and publications such as Strut and Nightlife Magazine and eventually moved on to take photos for national brands like Buffalo Jeans and chains such as Reitmans and Bikini Village. On an afternoon in November 2007, between gulps of coffee in his Montreal dining room with two colleagues, the 32-year-old Blais said the words he had dreamed of saying since he was a teenager: “Guys, let’s start a magazine.”

“That’s a brilliant idea,” said Kathia Cambron, who would become the publisher. She had met Blais (now editorial and creative director) and Ewa Bilinski (future art director) in 2003, when they were freelance photographers. A few years later, they reconvened with the notion of opening an advertising agency for fashion brands and designers. With a small clientele in Montreal and no portfolio, however, the responses were not encouraging. Instead, they decided to reach their audience in a different way: through an arty, high-fashion magazine called Dress to Kill.

With a name inspired by a line from a Sister Sledge song—”He looks like a still/that man is dressed to kill”—the publication debuted almost two years ago as a free 100-page French-language quarterly with a distribution of 10,000: 7,000 in Montreal and 3,000 in Quebec City and smaller towns nearby. It features high-quality photography and editorial focused on avant-garde couture, plus profiles and features. What it doesn’t have are the little black dresses of fashion publications: service pieces and Hollywood stars, though it will include style icons who double as celebs. “Service pieces are like imposing orders, and I find that a bit disturbing,” says Stéphane Le Duc, Dress to Kill’s editor-in-chief.

In an effort to attract more national advertisers, the Dress to Kill team decided to launch an English-language version during last fall’s Toronto Fashion Week. “It was always a part of the primary plan,” says Cambron. “We decided to start in Montreal, and when we were comfortable enough, we moved to Toronto. We knew we had to push.” Ten thousand copies were distributed to more than 100 boutiques in upscale shopping districts like Yorkville, Bloor Street West, Queen Street West and King Street West. Printed standard-size on glossy stock, the 98-page issue included a mixture of elements: collages of accessories, a guide to local trends and short articles on topics as diverse as Karl Lagerfeld’s influence on Coco Chanel to the possible revival of a late-1970s clothing line, Parachute.

The magazine’s founders are sufficiently confident that their target 20- to 35-year-old reader is eager enough for what they have to offer that she (or he) will be willing to pay for it: 1,700 copies of each English-language issue are on newsstands for $4.99 per copy.

Le Duc believes the answer to overtaking big Canadian fashion titles like Flare lies in knowing DTK’s readers—fashion-savvy design lovers—are mature enough to create their own style through the magazine. “It’s inspirational. It’s about appreciating and discovering. It’s not about buying things,” he says. Nor is it about celeb clotheshorses: the audience should love fashion for fashion, not because it’s draped on Madonna, he says. So he and the rest of the team insist on bringing fashion back to its roots with models, designers and professional photography.

Jacquelyn Francis, executive editor of Toronto-based Fashion magazine, is rather dubious about this approach. “Service pieces are what everybody wants,” she says. She adds fashion should be educational, in a slumber-party sort of way. “It’s like standing in the change room with your girlfriends and talking about what looks good.” And realistically, she notes, celebrities sell.

However, Francis concedes that DTK could be onto something: “Niche markets may be the new gold mine because these publications can completely focus on their target audience and their advertising groups.”

Giorgina Bigioni, who spent 20 years as publisher at Fashion, among other titles, is a bit more skeptical. She believes celebrities are an important part of fashion inspiration, and without service pieces, she says, the magazine may become irrelevant to its audience, and could result in a loss of readers, or worse, advertisers.

But at the moment, there aren’t all that many advertisers to lose anyway, since only about 30 percent of the magazine is made up of ads (50 or 60 percent is not uncommon in fashion books). Given the 20,000-issue circulation of the two editions, which translates to about $40,000 in ad revenue per issue, Dress to Kill staff aren’t likely to be buying the Chanel shoes touted in its pages. In fact, Cambron considered lowering the magazine’s ad rates, but decided to expand its circulation to generate more ad sales instead. There’s more expansion ahead: the team is planning to make another debut in New York in March. “We’re not making money just to make money. We’re doing something that is important to us,” Cambron says. “And that’s offering people a sense of freedom that mainstream magazines don’t.”

Still, another fashion press insider, Leanne Delap, The Globe and Mail’s fashion editor, says of Dress to Kill’s non-commercial format, “[When magazines try] to get the mass numbers advertisers want, editors and publishers are forced to dumb down copy and content to get more readers. But hey, if someone wants to support a high-art fashion book with no filler material, then that just means more power to the publication.”

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About the author

Joyce Yip was the Deputy Production Editor for the Summer 2010 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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