The Story of The Face

Britpop your ears! The May 1994 cover of The Face

May 1992 proved pivotal in the life of The Face, the pioneering British independent magazine founded by music press journalist Nick Logan a dozen years earlier in the teeth of a recession with £3,500 in savings.

In spite of these unglamorous beginnings (one contributor told me that such were the circumstances in which the magazine was produced in the early days “it was as if Vogue was being put together above a kebab shop in the Balls Pond Road”), The Face had become established in the intervening decade-and-a-bit as the style bible for all that was cool in design, fashion, film, media and music.

The UK’s “alternative” television network Channel 4 was modeled on The Face, while leading ad agencies adopted the magazine’s neo-Constructivist typography, hard-edged photography and provocative graphics to hawk everything from mortgages to foreign travel to young consumers. When Levi’s used a favourite Face model, Nick Kamen, for a retro TV commercial, sales jumped 800 per cent. Kamen was even granted Madonna’s imprimatur; she co-wrote a single for him which became a modest hit and sought out another cover star of The Face – teenager Felix Howard – to scamper with her in the promo video for “Open Your Heart”.

A wave of titles – i-D, Blitz, Details to name but a few – emerged in the wake of The Face to form an entirely new “lifestyle” sector, and Logan’s subsequent launch of companion publication Arena laid the foundations for a yet another sub-sect, of new magazines targeting the minds and pockets of young British males.

It is a sign of The Face’s reputation that in the 1980s the late Condé Nast legend Si Newhouse invited Logan to lunch in Manhattan to discuss his proposal for a U.S. version (in the event Vanity Fair’s publisher invested in Logan’s company Wagadon in return for a hefty stake and subsequently poached Logan’s New York editor James Truman to become editor of the recently acquired Details).

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Ruder than the Rest, vol. 1 2 , no. 30, March 1991

Yet there had been hard times; Logan survived jaw cancer at the turn of the 90s only to return after a nine-month sabbatical to face a libel lawsuit from singer Jason Donovan over an article imputing the Australian heart-throb was gay.

The High Court jury hearing the case found against The Face, awarding Donovan £200,000 in damages and costs. This figure would have poleaxed any other indie mag, but such was the public support for The Face (a series of fund-raisers were set up and trendy boutique staff refused to serve Donovan, who was also turned away from hip niteries by angry club-runners) that the cash was found to keep it in circulation.

The Donovan verdict coincided with the May 1992 issue, entitled Love Sees No Colour, which expressed the themes of tolerance and diversity with contributions from the likes of Gilbert & George and David Bowie and Iman. A towering example of magazine publishing, the month of its publication also witnessed the fourth successive election victory of Britain’s Conservative Party, confirming the placid John Major in the position of Prime Minister he had assumed since the toppling of his predecessor Margaret Thatcher a couple of years earlier.

Major’s invocations of a Britain of “long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs and dog lovers” jarred dramatically with the reality of the country then facing economic crisis over the UK’s membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. Withdrawal would result within a few months in huge trading losses and the calamitous devaluation of sterling on what became known as “Black Wednesday”.

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No. 45, January 1984

Richard Benson, these days a best-selling author, was an editorial assistant at The Face at the time; he later became editor. Benson’s belief is that both the Donovan case and the general election result in fact played to the advantage of The Face.

“They gave us a sense of urgency in documenting modern Britain; that was our objective,” says Benson. “It’s slightly cringe-making to think that the phrase ‘modern Britain’ was used at virtually every features meeting around that time, but we shared our views with the smarter people who would come out of Britpop such as (Blur’s) Damon Albarn and Jarvis Cocker (of Pulp).”

The dirty realism and provincial pride of the new pop avatars was mirrored in the work of fresh fashion photographic pioneers such as the late Corinne Day, whose starkly-cast cover story Young Soul Rebels appeared in the issue of The Face immediately succeeding the election result; Day’s shot on the front of the June 1992 issue portrayed a greasy-haired Rosemary Ferguson, while Kate Moss appeared undernourished but defiant inside.

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The Daisy Age in the special issue, The 3rd Summer of Love, vol. 2, no. 22, July 1990

“It all tied in with the more open and egalitarian sensibilities of the time,” says Lindsay Baker, the young journalist who wrote the accompanying text. “I interviewed Rosemary, Kate and others who personified that new attitude and diversity. They were unconventional looking compared to the six-foot 80s glamazons glossily portrayed by Bruce Weber.”

This chimed with the sense of confidence abroad at The Face. And the insurrectionary mood of the editorial team matched that of young people around the country.

“There was definitely a conscious anti-80s spirit,” says Benson. “I remember in a meeting us all criticizing a cheesy, Southern Comfort ad for having an 80s aesthetic of success as opposed to 90s reality, actual life as it was lived in Britain. One of the overlays was the strongly felt sense that there was too much interest in American popular culture.”

Benson identified Suede as a group with which the magazine could align. “They had that Bowie/London thing down, so expressed a Britishness; the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses had been very much about being ‘Northern’. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—I’m from up North—but it was time for something more all-embracing.”

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Vol. 3, no. 15, April 1998

Benson says that the April 1994 suicide of Kurt Cobain signalled the need to pull focus from U.S. music, setting the tone for the dominant genre of the mid-90s, Britpop. Certainly the issue of The Face published immediately after Cobain’s death expressed the more positive side of new British bullishness, with Damon Albarn in quasi-Mod get-up against a Union Jack on the cover and headlined “Blur: Brit Up Your Ears”. Inside, a feature entitled “British Art Special” showcased such up-and-coming names as Damien Hirst, Gary Hume, Sam Taylor-Wood and Gavin Turk.

But, as BritArt and Britpop coalesced in the public imagination, a game-changing newcomer to British monthly magazine publishing from the conglomerate IPC was making its presence felt: Loaded.

The mix of “babes”, booze and football soon proved intoxicating for the young British males whose less charming interests and characteristics were legitimised by the mediagenic editor James Brown, like Logan a former editor of the New Musical Express with a feel for the pop culture surrounding pop music, but invested with a Northern mickey-taking sense of humour.

“What fresh lunacy is this?” Brown asked by way of introduction in the first issue published in May 1994.

Loaded is a new magazine dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of sex, drink, football and less serious matters. Loaded is music, film, relationships, humour, travel, sport, hard news and popular culture. Loaded is clubbing, drinking, eating, playing and eating. Loaded is for the man who believes he can do anything, if only he wasn’t hungover.”

According to Richard Benson, Loaded “made The Face look old-fashioned and up itself in terms of cultural positioning. It felt like the zeitgeist was moving on.”

The first issue of Loaded sold slightly fewer than 60,000 copies, just about the circulation achieved by Logan with his first issue of the Face 14 years earlier. In January 1995 Loaded broke through the 100,000 copy sales barrier; in eight months the new IPC project had achieved the commercial standing that took Logan’s magazine eight years.

The times they were a-changing. Again.– Paul Gorman

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The Story Of The Face: The Magazine That Changed Culture by Paul Gorman (Thames & Hudson)

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