Blend of gloss, guts draws men's attention to Details

April 09, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

NEW YORK -- Here sits the editor of a "major" men's magazine.

He's rarely seen in suits. His sandy brown hair is disheveled instead of slicked back. And behind his desk is a Gene Simmons doll.

James Truman heads Details magazine, the voice of a new generation. So don't try to sell this savvy British 34-year-old on traditional men's fashion -- or traditional men's fashion glossies, for that matter.

"In my experience, people in their 20s just don't buy the men's-magazines myth," he says with a sneer. "As if buying a $2,000 suit is going to sort of fulfill all your dreams -- turn your life into this sort of beautiful fake moment with a model on your arm and a Ferrari Testarossa outside your house.

"It just doesn't wash," he says.

Details is his solution.

This glossy focuses less on presenting jut-jawed men voguing in unattainable suits, posing with unattainable women and encouraging unattainable lifestyles, and zeros in more on music, trends and real life.

"We were thinking of deconstructing the magazine," says Mr. Truman, "doing it sort of raw and rough as a way of getting out of that patent of the sophisticated, upscale, sort of chic fantasy magazine."

So far, the deconstruction is victorious.

After more than two years on national newsstands, Details emerges as the only men's magazine to tap "Generation X" -- a market that Details defines as ages 18 to 34. The ad-heavy Details is hailed as a success in a world flooded by floundering glossies. Rival M magazine, for example, recently folded.

But going against common industry wisdom to create a brazen, entertainment-heavy men's magazine makes for a perilous climb.

Once upon a time, there was a local youth rag in Manhattan with plenty of club info, music bits, fashion tips and hipper-than-hip advertising. The motto for this old version of Details was: "If this magazine were a nightclub, it wouldn't let you in," says Mr. Truman.

Conde Nast Publications Inc., which owns Vanity Fair, GQ, Allure and other heralded publications, gobbled up Details more than two years ago and invited in young men across the nation with a glossy issue in October 1990.

That alienated the 100,000-reader core of its downtown Manhattan patronage, a majority of which was female, a majority which liked the old cliquish style. At the same time, advertisers were recession-wary.

"We were launching it at, I think, just about the worst possible time to launch a magazine," says Mr. Truman.

Indeed. Details apparently survived a first year only because of the deep pockets of Conde Nast. But it was more than just the economy that daunted Details.

Advertisers were shy because the magazine had few boundaries, especially with its visuals. An early issue featured a photo of two men holding hands. Another featured a comic strip about what rock stars' futures might look like. Madonna was depicted as a chubby-cheeked, multi-chinned housewife pushing her own brand of spaghetti sauce: "Take it from this Italian mama, it's the sauce that's in 'vogue.' "

More than a year ago, Mr. Truman took a hint from Conde Nast owner Si Newhouse and turned his volume knob down a bit.

"We started out being a little too in-your-face," says Stephen Croncota, Details' marketing director. Advertiser "Georges Marciano left after the first issue."

And now?

"Two months ago the publisher got a call from Georges Marciano," says Mr. Croncota. "He said, 'I want to be in this next issue.'

"He is a current and future advertiser," Mr. Croncota says. "And this sort of thing is literally happening on a daily and weekly basis."

Sources at the magazine will not reveal its financial ebb and flow, but Mr. Truman says that it takes about five years for any major publication to start making money. Still, the ascent of Details' advertising -- the magazine has gone from staples to square spines to accommodate its 128 percent increase over the last year -- puts little doubt in the industry's mind that Details has made it and will stick around.

Circulation, too, has climbed, from 100,000 for the old Details to a 250,000 average so far this year.

"The magazine has gone through a transformation," says John Reidy, a media analyst for Smith Barney Harris Upham & Co. "It is definitely alive and well."

Why? Because, instead of speaking yuppie-ese, Details speaks the language of youth and breaks street-level trends faster than any other major media organization. It focuses less on pleats and politicos and more on compact discs, clubs and young #i celebrities. It also tends to be irreverent, and it has wit and bite.

Details was the first to write about the youth subculture's "rave" phenomenon, for example, when it did a piece last year on the exploits of rave-crazed youths in Southern California looking to organize all-night dance parties at amusement parks. And nearly every month the magazine features an article on a fresh youth scene, whether it be in Seattle, Santa Cruz or Prague.

Editor Truman has out-and-out lamented that 1960s counterculture lingers (despite Details' best efforts) as a measuring stick for the youth-culture landscape.

DTC And though the magazine's shock volume is down, the internal debate at the magazine over the value of jolt-journalism is long past: "Details is the antithesis of airline magazines," Mr. Truman says.

9- "Anything bland is sort of inadmissible."

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