It’s a dull autumn morning and Suzanne Boyd totters into her seventh-floor office in the Maclean Hunter building in Toronto, on a pair of Karl Lagerfeld stilettos. The office is in its usual state-her desk is covered with papers, her conference table is not much better.

On one bulletin board in the room hang her favourite covers-out of the 15 issues she has overseen as Flare‘s new editor, nine make the grade. A second bulletin board is covered with pictures cut out of various magazines. It’s her collection of aspirational images: “great hair”-a woman with wild hair just like hers; “books”-a floor to ceiling bookcase; “surfing”-an action shot that brings back teenage memories; “surreal”-models lounging in tubes in a pool; “fabulousness”-supermodel Naomi Campbell in St.Tropez; and of course, “stiletto”-because she’s devoted to killer heels.

She sits back with her usual café latte from Starbucks and reads a letter to the editor in the December 1997 issue of Flare. The reader was angry about an interview with the late rock-singer Michael Hutchence, in which Hutchence said that American men, caught up in political correctness, would congratulate a woman on a promotion, then comment on her body as she walked away. Australian men, in contrast, would just be straightforward. “I cannot believe that Flare magazine would publish such drivel,” the letter says, quoting the offending remark: “Jesus luv, you’ve got a great ass and good on the promotion.” Boyd breaks out in laughter. “Don’t you people realize that that kind of comment is grounds for sexual harassment? Please cancel my subscription.” She looks up, still laughing: “That’s great!”

What’s great? A few things. It’s great that Flare is getting more letters to the editor than ever before. It’s great that for the first time since the early eighties, Flare is publishing them. And it’s great that they are about content, rather than “I hate the girl on page 24.” Boyd puts the canceled subscription into perspective by making a literary reference, as she’s frequently known to do. “It’s like what Forster said in A Passage to India about the British settlement: it neither repelled nor attracted, so why was it there.”

In the year and a half since she’s been editor, Boyd’s been making sure her readers have lots to react to. It’s all in her anagram. FLARE: fashionable, literate, aspirational, relevant and exciting-and it is. Covers that are getting sleeker by the month; funky fashion layouts, with as good a balance of inspiration and affordability as Canada’s lone national fashion mag can realistically achieve; weighty issue-oriented articles offset by refreshing satirical pieces (sometimes misunderstood by readers still in serious mode-but that keeps the letters coming); and theme issues, from Men We Love (derivative of Esquire, but it worked) to Motherhood. Even those dreaded paper-thin issues only a Canadian fashion magazine seems capable of, deliver at least $2.95 worth of information.

That probably has something to do with the fact that features now account for 30 percent of the editorial content, up from about 20 percent under her predecessor. As part of the increased features package, Boyd introduced the Flare Forum in April 1997-an issue-oriented panel discussion with experts and lay people, moderated by journalists. The forum tackles a range of subjects, like debating whether RU-486, the abortion pill, should come to Canada; understanding the New Age self-help craze; and unravelling the science of falling in love.

It may also have something to do with the fact that “relevant” is the key word in the anagram. Take October 1997 for example-it doesn’t get more topical than that. The issue featured a panel on breast cancer with doctors who had attended the World Conference on Breast Cancer, a story on a renowned Victoria clinic for anorexics, which coincided with the release of a book on eating disorders written by the founder of the clinic, and an excerpt from the new book, How to Dump a Guy: A Coward’s Manual, by authors Kate Fillion and Ellen Ladowsky. “The issues have become a lot more relevant to what’s going on out there in the world,” says Boyd, who was particularly pleased with the issue.

The move toward relevancy and substance isn’t going unnoticed. Industry colleagues such as Rona Maynard, editor of Chatelaine, Shelagh Tarleton, publisher of Toronto Life Fashion and Robert Lewis, editor-in-chief of Macleans, have phoned Boyd to congratulate her on a mix that seems stronger and heavier.

Now in April 1998, Boyd is introducing the Flare Alert, a regular department that looks at such issues as how a woman’s diary can be used against her in a sexual assault case or how you can have your identity stolen through credit card frauds-and why that matters for women.

Increased weightier pieces is just part of the package. Leanne Delap, fashion reporter for The Globe and Mail, says the magazine is more cutting edge. Using a photo of bad-boy rock-singer Liam Gallagher and his wife, British actress Patsy Kensit, for a satirical piece on the “New Lout”-the nineties “boor” who is gaining popularity among women-is just one example. “You can’t get any hipper than that, says Delap. “That’s like winking at your reader.”

Boyd, a risk-taker, is also shaking things up at Flare by surprising readers-a male model solo on the cover of the February 1997 issue (a first in Flare‘s history and a rarity for any women’s fashion book), a model holding her baby on the cover of May 1997-another first for Flare and the best-selling May issue of the nineties.

Boyd’s changes are reaching a sizable audience. More Canadian women choose Flare over all other fashion magazinesóU.S. ones included. According to ABC, Flare has a circulation of 174,010-the core group of readers are women aged 18 to 34. Numbers have held steady under Boyd, although she is intent on attracting more readers 24 and older-the working women with more disposable income to whom she’s gearing the magazine. Its closest competitor, Toronto Life Fashion, has a circulation of 123,028.

Next to other women’s magazines in Canada, Flare has a much smaller share of the market. Circulation for Chatelaine is 806,757 and Elm Street, 701,378. But Flare‘s smaller audience didn’t affect ad revenue in the past year. In 1997, for the first time, Flare placed more ad pages than any other women’s magazine in Canada: ad revenue increased to $7,387,801, up almost $1 million from 1996.

Still, not everyone is a fan. Antonia Zerbisias, television reporter for The Toronto Star, says straight out that she doesn’t like Flare. “It’s neither here nor there. It doesn’t tell me enough about what’s available in Canada and it’s not good enough to measure up to the American magazines. What is the point of showing me a $2,795 coat? There is no option here. There is no way to duplicate this look.” According to Zerbisias, Vogue is fantasy because is shows the couture unattainable for most and Marie Claire is true service because it shows the same look at five different prices. Flare is neither of the two. “Who’s it talking to? Is it talking to the woman who makes $140,000 and lives in Toronto? Is it talking to the secretary who makes $30,000 and lives in Regina?”

Boyd acknowledges that as Canada’s only national fashion magazine, Flare has to appeal to a wide variety of people. But she maintains that the magazine is talking to both of those women. Although it may not duplicate Marie Claire‘s approach, Boyd says Flare does show a wide variety of prices. And it isn’t uncommon to see a model wearing a $500 pair of designer pants with a $48 sweater from The Gap. Boyd justifies the pricier items, saying retail trends show that people will pay more if they feel the garment is worth it. In fact, Flare readers are 71% more likely than the average Canadian woman to spend $1,500 or more annually on clothes.

Zerbisias’s criticisms don’t stop there. “I take great exception to the fact that it says “Canada’s Fashion Magazine” across the top, and I’m looking at an American model, in American clothes, shot by an American photographer in an American studio,” says Zerbisias referring to the November 1997 issue of Flare. One reader voiced the same concern in a letter: “I need to understand why a Canadian magazine, with articles hyping up how we rule [April], never features a Canadian model on the front.”

Although a few covers feature Canadian women wearing Canadian designers, the majority indeed show international models wearing international designers. Boyd argues that fashion knows no borders. “That may be true,” concedes Zerbisias, “but when this is in one of the magazines lobbying for cultural protection, it cuts two ways.” Boyd seems tired of arguing this point. For her, the answer is so simple, it’s a non-issue: “The nationality of a model is not content. The Canadian-ness of a magazine is not defined by where its models are born, but what the stories are about. And we have that Canadian angle. We have it right through the magazine.”

At about 10 a.m. in late October the Flare staff convenes in the boardroom to discuss production for the January 1997 issue. Suzanne Boyd, 35, slender and 5’10 1/2″, could be mistaken for a model rather than the editor of the magazine. Her lion’s mane of kinky curls is pinned up at the back. In contrast to her staff, who look fashionably homogeneous in black, white and grey, Boyd is wearing a bright red cheongsam , a dress that her mother bought for her in China, layered over slim black pants and 3-inch-high, thick-heeled boots. Luigi Carrubba, Flare‘s fashion editor, has just returned from the Paris and Milan Spring collections and the staff is trying to decide how to lay out the fashion well . “So what’s hot this Spring?” Boyd asks. “What are the things you have to have?” “Ah…What do I have to have?” Carrubba fantasizes for a moment and then he’s off. “A cropped pant, sort like of capri pants,” Carrubba continues. “Oh, I love that,” says Boyd. “Drawstring,” Carrubba moves down his mental list. Boyd jumps in again, “I bought a dress in Paris-I’ve never worn it-it’s blue with a drawstring. It’s a fierce dress. I found it in some hole in the wall. O.K. what else?”

“A shorter jacket.” The staff looks horrified. “Oh, no. Not bolero,” someone says. Carrubba is quick to appease: “No, no, not bolero-just shorter, like to here.” He places his hands at the top of his hips. “Like my Mimi Bizjak jacket,” Boyd jumps in. “I love that.” Once again, she has a found a wardrobe reference.

If there’s one thing everyone who knows Suzanne Boyd agrees on, it’s that she has style. “You haven’t seen her yet?!” Followed by laughter, as if anyone who hasn’t met her is in for a shock. “She’s quite a statement,” “She has great personal presence,” or “She’s wild,” are typical comments. Delap puts it into a wider context. “Suzanne has great personal taste and that’s important for the role that she has to play for the advertisers, and even for the public in general as a spokesperson. She’s fabulous the way a Diana Vreeland was fabulous in her time and Anna Wintour is at Vogue now.”

This is a woman who at 16 had a friend make her a yellow surfboard to match her yellow bikini, who wore stilettos with jeans long before it was fashionable, and who is photographed for The New York Times’ Style Desk section by fashion reporter Bill Cunningham whenever she’s in New York. This is also a woman who wore a $7 plaid wool coat from the Goodwill Toronto, (a second-hand store where castoff clothes are donated) to a New York fashion show that left fashion mavens Bernadette Morra and Tim Blanks cooing: “Great coat! Where’d you get it?” Boyd, who is proud of her entire wardrobe and seems to get a laugh out of impressing people with her used clothing, told them the truth.

Born in Halifax on January 17, 1963-“The same day as Muhammad Ali,” she’s quick to add-Boyd was raised in her father’s native Dominica from age 3 to 9, until her parents separated. Then she, her mother and siblings-a sister and two brothers-moved to Jamaica. There, Boyd attended one of the island’s finest boarding schools for girls, Immaculate Conception. An academically rigorous school enforced by corporal punishment, Immaculate taught Boyd that she had to always work hard to excel-things should never be fine, they should be perfect. “We were told we were the best and we had to act like the best and we were punished if we weren’t the best.”

When Boyd was 14, her family moved to a prestigious area of Barbados, where she spent her days in private school and her evenings surfing. Straight out of school at 18, Boyd landed a job as a trainee reporter on the island’s tabloid daily, The Nation. Boyd had always wanted to be a news reporter, although her father, a civil engineer who was in Barbados building the island’s airport (and who is still part of her life), tried to dissuade her. “He used to tell me: ‘Journalists don’t do anything for the world. They just tell other people’s stories,'” Boyd wasn’t convinced. “I loved the whole idea of someone running in with information saying ‘Stop the presses!'” She spent almost a year there before coming to Canada in 1982.

At her father’s behest she went to York University in Toronto for about three years, spending much of the money he sent for tuition, on clothes. She dropped out a few credits short of finishing her degree in Mass Communications and English, not telling her parents. “University was giving me nothing,” says Boyd. “When I was at York University, I was reading books in English literature that I learned at Immaculate in first form (grade seven).”

After she dropped out, the now defunct T.O. Magazine hired her on to intern as a fact-checker for 12 weeks. Just a few weeks into the job, Boyd got involved in styling “Hot Shops”-a column that surveyed new stores. “She didn’t know what she was doing at the time but she had great taste and wonderful style,” says Manuel Rodenkirchen, then art director at T.O.

Boyd then spent five years freelance writing and styling and eventually landed a job at Flare as associate beauty editor in 1990. The Flare opportunity came along at the same time as another very different one: a job in Geneva in the communications department of the World Council of Churches, which her mother, then director of development at the YWCA, told her about. “My mother really does help the world, so I felt quite conscioence-stricken that I didn’t take that route of being more serious,” explains Boyd. But sitting at a desk writing communiques sounded dreary. “It felt like it would be a very passive, bureaucratic bore.” And she soon came to terms with her choice. She realized that despite how the beauty industry is criticized for setting women up to feel badly about themselves-women think magazines give them tools to feel better about themselves and the way they look. “I began not to feel so frivolous and to feel that it was useful in its own way to people.”

In 1994, Bonnie Brooks became editor and within a year, had decided to groom Boyd to be her successor. “I identified immediately that Suzanne was bright and extremely with it and a hip girl-a hip girl with her own sense of style. And she was so ready to go further in her career.” Brooks sent Boyd to the fashion shows in Europe (she had never been), got her writing more fashion copy and eventually began teaching her the business side of being editor.

David Hamilton, publisher of Flare, says that Brooks was influential in Boyd’s getting the job. And the staff was grateful. “By the time Bonnie resigned, I think every single person there was hoping that Suzanne would get it,” says Maarten Sluyter, former art director at Flare. The “fun and approachable” Boyd really hasn’t changed much as her career progressed. And despite what Boyd calls her mercurial moods, she is adored by her staff.

In replacing Brooks, Boyd became the first black woman to head a mainstream Canadian publication, a role that she sees as a responsibility because of what it means to the black community. Indeed, young black girls ask her for her autograph and last spring she was honored as a “phenomenal woman”-a black woman who’s made a difference by excelling in her field-by XCLuSV, a Toronto-based group that promotes events within the black community. “If it’s important to other people-and it seems to be because it’s mentioned all the time-then I want to be good for them. I don’t want to fail at this job because I don’t want people to feel that a black person can’t do a job.”

But beyond that she doesn’t see herself as a role model. “I’m a woman and I’m black. That’s fabulous. I’m proud to be black and I’m proud to be a woman. But it really has no bearing on how I should do my job. I’m an editor who does a job. I do that job every day and it doesn’t matter what I look like. It matters what I get done on paper.”

And what she gets done on paper is not far removed from Flare‘s initial mandate. In 1979, Miss Chatelaine (founded in 1964 as the younger reader’s version of Chatelaine), was re-launched as Flare, and as Canada’s only national fashion magazine, it was meant to cover fashion designed for the Canadian climate and available in Canadian stores.

But under Flare‘s first editor, Keitha McLean, fashion and beauty did not take centre stage and the fashion spreads looked more like a catalogue than a fashion magazine. Instead, it ran articles on the arts-fiction, playwrights, dance-as well as jobs, food and, money.

Then came the glamorous eighties-and in 1983, Bonnie Hurowitz. Stylized photography dominated the pages. Gone were regular insightful editorials, gone was the letters page, gone was fiction. It was hello to sensationalism-society pages and interviews with supermodels for beauty tips. For the first time, Flare went international and covered the ready-to-wear fall collections in Paris and London. The magazine would retain all these elements long after Hurowitz became Bonnie Fuller, moved to New York and took over YM, Marie Claire, and then Cosmopolitan with annual profits of $50 million a year.

When Shelley Black replaced Hurowitz as editor, she offered a heightened commitment to showcase Canadian fashion. The look was clean and the fashion and beauty wells were arguably stylish. New departments (nutrition, home, fitness) were added and features were longer. But somehow, the glamour that made Hurowitz’s Flare exciting, went missing.

After six years, publisher David Hamilton says the magazine was no longer on target. So in 1994, Bonnie Brooks, an advertising executive and former vice-president. of merchandising at Holt Renfrew, took over. Under Brooks, the mandate was to offer “service with style.” She wanted the feel of a sophisticated American fashion magazine with a strong service component for Canadian women, since the main appeal of Flare was that the clothes and products it displayed were available in Canada. Brooks approached fashion from a retailer’s point of view-wardrobe workshops and fashion wells packed with at least three dozen outfits. Features were fewer and shorter.

Boyd ran with the repositioned fashion focus of the magazine and built on it with more exciting editorial. Apart from an overall improvement in quality of features, Boyd’s biggest change has been her development of theme issues. For instance, the Motherhood issue in May 1997, which showed fashion for pregnant women and featured a forum on child-rearing along with articles on artificial insemination and postponed motherhood.

As for fashion, women can still turn to Flare for the practical, though the spreads show fewer items and tend to be more artistic. Still, Flare is rooted in reality-it’s not a W or Harper’s Bazaar where you can’t even see the clothes. Boyd draws on nightclubs for social references, so the clothes are generally more funky than corporate.

The nightlife approach stems from Boyd’s life as a “club kid” in the mid-eighties. A time when the fashion scene in Toronto was growing-Queen Street West was a budding fashion centre and young up and coming designers hung out in the popular “Twilight Zone,” where Boyd worked while going to university. The experience has given Boyd a street authenticity and a connection to the fashion scene in Toronto that previous editors haven’t had. “It puts her in a better position as editor because she understands the industry from its roots,” says Delap. “Trickle up from the streets has always been the strongest force in fashion.”

Making Flare a stronger force in fashion writing, senior editor Deborah Fulsang brings in historical and sociological perspectives to her subjects. The tuxedo, for instance, and how it’s just as relevant in the nineties as it was when Griswold Lorillard invented it in 1886 by cutting the tails off his jacket and naming it after his country club. Or a critical piece discussing the caricature and fetishism that dominated last season’s fashion shows. Boyd’s Flare will sacrifice pictures for words, treating fashion as a subject-something that some say was previously missing in the magazine.

It also makes room to be entertaining. In “Demi, Me and More,” (November 1997) writer Liane Kotler recounts how she infiltrated the Paris couture shows. After no celebrities attended Gianni Versace’s first show of the day (to which she had a ticket), she hid out for two hours in the auditorium’s bathroom waiting for the second show to start so she could mingle with the famous. She then sat in a reserved seat at the Dior show (to which she hasn’t been invited) among stars, princesses and famous wives. And interviewed some of them, like Ivana Trump on what she thinks of her 16 year-old daughter modelling: “Well, I prrrrrefer de matematiks to de molelink. Sklool comes first.'” Profound? Hardly. Entertaining? Absolutely. What really makes the piece successful is its ordinary-Canadian-in-Paris premise, which allows ordianry readers to imagine being in the writer’s shoes. Boyd is unapologetic for the frivolity that thrives in fashion magazines. The answer is classic unadorned Boyd: “It should all be there.”

It’s a Saturday morning in January and Suzanne Boyd is lounging in her 17th floor condo in downtown Toronto. She looks casually sophisticated in black slim pants and a bulky dark grey sweater; her curls tucked away under a cowprint fedora. On her pedicured feet are a pair of black Fila slides-it’s a wonder she’s not in heels.

Her home is cozy, and big enough for someone who’s barely there, but a tiny highrise apartment reminds her too much of work. She yearns for a big deck and a garden-which she has no intention of tending herself.

The decor is eclectic-Thai cabinets, an aqua-blue ceramic coffee table with a mosaic of a crusader, a leopard-print area rug, and Oriental paintings on mustard colored walls. Books are stacked up underneath the coffee table, and the four she is currently reading-V.S. Naipul’s Way of the World and Enigma of Arrival, Toni Morrison’s Paradise and Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha– are piled up on a side chair.

Unlike her office, the house is immaculately tidy-almost too tidy, not quite lived in. The kitchen is stark white and bare, not a single appliance sits on the counters. In the dining room, a large painting takes up most of one wall. It’s oil and house paint on wood, with overlapping graffitti-like writing. Phrases like “smash the wall of,” followed by the words hate, discipline, marriage and silence, cover the canvas. It’s all about breaking inhibitions, says Boyd. She discovered it in a restaurant and had to have it. Sometimes she’ll walk over and just stare at it. “It makes you remember that your life doesn’t have to be in a box.”

Feeling constricted is one thing Boyd hates. Perhaps it’s a reaction to the regimented routine of her young life in boarding school. But her need to be free and to experiment is what arguably has made Flare more hip. She’s not afraid to put a man on the cover or run provocative pieces likely to offend.

She’s already excited about the April issue, a theme issue on single life, in which the magazine will feature an article on “spinsters” in the nineties. “I’m just dying to blast that word on the cover because I know people will be so offended by it,” says Boyd. Point being that whether people voice it, the stereotype that there’s something wrong with single women still exists. And Boyd-herself a single woman-would more likely laugh than cringe if you were to call her a spinster. Political correctness is just not on the agenda-for Suzanne Boyd or for Flare.

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About the author

Diane Bellissimo was the Chief Copy Editor for the Spring 1998 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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