As editor in chief of The Gentlewoman, Penny Martin’s manners are failing her. Actually she is being perfectly polite, but a request for an interview is slowly cogitated, and then rebuffed. It’s London Fashion Week and she’s simply far too busy. I hear she is hugely politically aware, but also takes enormous pleasure from the exuberance and pomposity of the fashion industry. I’d probably enjoy talking to her, but she’s a woman on a mission and has no time for a tête-à-têtê.
“Penny is super-smart, funny and considerate,” urges her great friend, the journalist Andrew Tucker, joined by a coterie of admirers—all effusive in their admiration for this staunch and upright character. Publishers, writers, photographers and academics—people from every strand of her life—are united in fulsome praise. They call her ‘uncompromising’, ‘brilliant’, and a ‘powerhouse of ideas’. They eulogise about her professional virtues and personal charm with such gusto it’s hard to believe this person isn’t running the country. “Penny is one of the smartest people in fashion,” says author and lecturer Hywel Davies; while British fashion journalist Iain R. Webb declares “she has a clarity of vision that is an imperative for a successful magazine editor. Her ambition is contagious.”
Penny Martin is certainly the most academic magazine editor you’re ever likely to come across. She did a PhD on Women’s Magazines of the 1980s at the Royal College of Art, and worked at the University of Arts in London where she presided as Chair of Fashion Imagery at London College of Fashion. Add to the CV her important curatorial roles, work as a brand adviser, and her notable tenure as editor of SHOWstudio, and the trajectory is clear. She is clever and creative.
If there were an average reader of The Gentlewoman it would be Martin herself: educated, independent and emphatically anti-fantasy. The 44-year-old Scot was hired for her intellect and taste, and went on to produce an intelligent fashion magazine for adult women, filled with edifying content and subdued imagery. She wasn’t interested in the dumb consumer as fashion slave. “We’re defined by what we’re not,” she said in 2010, and that has certainly rung true.
The Gentlewoman is the independent wife of Dutch men’s style title Fantastic Man. “It’s challenging, beguiling and has a sly sense of fun,” says Tucker, “so unlike a lot of fashion titles, particularly independent ones, the writing and imagery share equal billing. In some titles the text is almost an afterthought or an accompaniment to the main fashion editorials, not so at The Gentlewoman. In fact, nothing is gratuitous there.”
Webb concurs: “It was launched with perfect timing; a moment of stealth glamour and understated elegance, when style overshadowed fashion. It is a perfect fit for the urbane modernist who appears to know her Pravda from her Prada. The Gentlewoman’s aspiration as a fashion magazine for real, intelligent women is an extremely seductive proposition.”
Martin’s cover stars are always on the money. From the doe-like gaze of Adele, to a stripped back Beyoncé—enigmatic women with fearless attitude and coherent voices are chosen for their character, not consumer expectations. She took Angela Lansbury when she could have had Angelina Jolie, and prefers an author’s thoughts to discourse on modern, cosmetic anxieties. “I wanted to make something very edited and opinionated,” she has mused. “It had to have a point of view.”
“It runs parallel to the rise of brands such as Céline,” offers current SHOWstudio editor, Lou Stoppard. “It’s informed, refined, considered, clean. There is a certain loftiness to The Gentlewoman—it’s never gushing or overworked, which really does mark it out from other women’s magazines. I don’t think it lacks in warmth, but I also don’t think it dumbs itself down. The certain chilliness is probably part of the appeal. It’s demanding of its readers. It took the model of men’s magazines—amusing, clever, vaguely political—and offered it to women.”
“I think discerning readers of all ages recognise Penny’s direction,” agrees Tucker. “It’s not throwaway journalism, in an era when so much of what’s on offer is completely ephemeral.”
What resonates most strongly is Martin’s dedication to the project. There is a perfectionist at play here who takes her role very seriously. “I would say that we’re all pretty much perfectionists here in our company,” argues the magazine’s publisher Gert Jonkers, “but Penny combines it with the skill to encourage and energise people. I’ve never seen her perfectionism as suffocating or discouraging, but more as a sign of her high standards. She displays these standards in such a natural way that they’re not frightening, but very inspiring.”
Cerebral she may be, but that doesn’t stop Martin in the pursuit of fine apparel. The Gentlewoman’s wardrobe is lined with tasteful pieces, often photographed in monochrome reality, with just the right amount of stylish subtext for the modern working gal.
“I think the fashion has a very strong point of view,” says Tucker. “Visually it offers a very modern and minimalistic discourse on womenswear, which isn’t over sexualised or full of pastiche. I think women relate to that and certainly the best—and I mean the best—photographers in the world are happy to shoot for it, that’s telling you something.”
‘Periodical, timely and ambitious’ is how Martin has described her niche title, but she could well be talking about herself. With her tidy blonde bob and Céline wardrobe, she cuts a smart, controlling figure who epitomises everything the magazine has aspired to and has since become. By all accounts this exacting editor, the ‘ruthless perfectionist’, expects the same from those around her. “Surely it’s an essential quality in every good editor, particularly in these times of #alternativetruth?” comments Tucker. “Penny brings a level of integrity to every page, which is really her whole philosophy for the magazine. She is producing something different and it cannot be slapdash.”
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INEZ & VINOODH
Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin are two names that are quite a mouthful. Between them, the Dutch photographers boast ten tongue-twisting syllables. Like the photographs they produce; fashion images, portraits, advertising campaigns, their names have become synonymous with a space between normal and strange, light and dark, self explanatory and the mysteriously glamorous.
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The voice of experience
On the face of it, Tim Blanks, the renowned fashion critic, doesn’t fit the preconceived idea of a fashion journalist. Famous for his year round uniform of short sleeved floral shirts, he has been producing whip smart reviews for more than three decades that concentrate on the runway soundtrack and the current political climate as much as they do the clothes.
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Encounters with chthonian spirits—who leave their subterranean dwellings only when the beasts wake them—are rare. Talking to Monika Bielskyte, the Lithuanian-born creative director, consultant, strategist and self-proclaimed “techno nomad”, is like conversing with a good friend you might have only known from a prior life. You feel in good hands with her.