FLARE thrives at 30

Success depends on several factors in Canada’s competitive fashion magazine market. Industry insiders, experts and consumers help uncover how FLARE secured its spot on the newsstands.

By Afton E. Aikens

Compare FLARE of 1979 to FLARE of 2009. Society’s view of women’s appearance and behaviour has changed drastically over 30 years, Lisa Tant, the editor-in-chief of FLARE, says.
Compare FLARE of 1979 to FLARE of 2009. Society’s view of women’s appearance and behaviour has changed drastically over 30 years, Lisa Tant, the editor-in-chief of FLARE, says.

By Afton E. Aikens

Lisa Tant studies FLARE’s September 1979 cover, which hangs on her office wall in Toronto. Model Deborah Varig’s hat, printed shirt and colourful makeup look worlds apart from the magazine’s September 2009 cover, which features Canadian model Daria Werbowy in a blue Versace dress and stilettos.

Tant grew up with FLARE, which was launched in 1979 after it shed its former title Miss Chatelaine. She’s had a subscription to the Canadian fashion magazine since 1984 and loved to read it at the start of her career. She’s been the editor-in-chief of the publication since 2004. This year marks its 30th anniversary.

“On the surface, it looks different, but the spirit is the same,” Tant said. “The energy, the celebration of fashion, the excitement for young women…it’s stayed constant.”

FLARE still thrives today because it has a strong connection to readers and provides unique Canadian content in every issue. However, the magazine faces tough competition from within its market. Its income also shrunk in 2008 due to the recession. FLARE fights these challenges to prove a print publication needs passion to stay in style after 30 years.

Canadian connection

Kim Pittaway, a freelance writer and editorial consultant in Toronto, says the content in a women’s magazine should resemble the information a reader would get from her slightly smarter and more fashionable best friend. Pittaway, who was the editor-in-chief of Chatelaine from 2004 to 2005, says the gap between editors and their readers has shrunk, changing their “teacher-student relationship.” Now, readers contribute to the conversation.

Kim Pittaway, photographed here, says women’s magazines could benefit from publishing more long-form pieces that many people don’t have the patience to read online.  (Photo courtesy: Tina Pittaway)
Kim Pittaway says women’s magazines could benefit from publishing more long-form pieces that many people don’t have the patience to read online. (Photo courtesy: Tina Pittaway)

FLARE’s target audience is 18- to 35-year-old women. However, Tant focuses on psychographics more than demographics, because to her, a reader’s love of fashion is more important than her age.

“Fashion is very much a lifestyle now,” Tant said. “When (readers) come to FLARE, they get a package of lifestyle information.”

That includes career, relationship, beauty, health and travel-related stories, and most notably, Canadian content. Tant says FLARE reflects the international fashion realm from a strong Canadian viewpoint. The magazine also highlights homegrown talent, from fashion designers and models to musicians and more. Its October bonus issue boasts “30 of Canada’s Most Influential Young Women.”

“We always make sure we bring it back home,” Tant said.

The photography in FLARE reflects this country from coast to coast. The September issue showcases a photo shoot in Prince Edward Island and a shoot in the Yukon will be featured this winter.

Readers appreciate FLARE’s effort to stick to its Canadian mandate. Jayne Erickson, a FLARE reader in Fredericton, loves how the magazine suggests stores to check out in different Canadian cities. For Kaila Mitchell, a FLARE reader in Ottawa, the accessibility of items shown on the pages is important.

“My biggest pet peeve is looking at American magazines and seeing something I want, just to realize I most likely will not be able to get it in stores in Canada,” she said.

Charles Oberdorf is the academic coordinator of Ryerson University’s Magazine Publishing Program. He says people who get other lifestyle information from American titles often return to Canadian publications to read about fashion.

FLARE still gives readers a look at fashion trends from around the world.

“Our readers…expect (us) to look just as good as the international magazines,” Tant said. “And when I look at what we do, I really believe that we achieve that.”

Recession realities

The poor economic climate has created challenges for fashion magazines as they aim to produce quality editorial content that attracts readers. Pittaway says the temptation to blur the lines between editorial and advertisements has increased due to competition for advertisers’ spending. She cautions editors to “keep an eye” on advertisers.

Publications are also making a greater effort to accommodate readers’ budgets. FLARE’s September 2009 issue reports on “How to Get the Look for Less.” Bernadette Morra, the editor-in-chief of FASHION chose to focus on smarter spending in her magazine’s November issue.

“There was only one Jackie Onassis… How many women have an unlimited shopping budget?” she said.

Rita Silvan, the editor-in-chief of Elle Canada says readers can still afford to be fashionable in a recession if they choose pieces for their wardrobe carefully and consider whether each has been well-crafted.

FLARE faces off

Canada’s fashion magazine menu consists of FLARE, FASHION, which has been on the newsstands since 1977, and Elle Canada, which entered the market in 2001. Tant says celebrity and décor publications also create competition because they report on fashion as well.

Doug Bennet, the publisher of MastheadOnline, which reports on the Canadian magazine industry, calls FLARE a huge success. “Those folks are smart magazine operators,” he said.

FLARE generates more revenue and circulates more magazines than its two major competitors. It ranked seventh from 2006 to 2008 on a list of the top 50 earners in the country, published by MastheadOnline. Elle Canada climbed four spots to thirteenth in 2008, and FASHION fell two to fifteenth.

FLARE’s competitors get passed around to more readers, though, according to data released by the Print Measurement Bureau. FASHION broke the 2 million mark in the first half of 2009. Elle Canada coasted behind at 1,595,000 and FLARE finished at 1,550,000.

Doug Bennet, photographed here, says fashion magazines should focus on mainstream style. “If they…start becoming too…haute couture, they’re going to lose the middle. That’s where most folks are.” (Photo courtesy: Doug Bennet)
Doug Bennet says fashion magazines should focus on mainstream style. “If they…start becoming too…haute couture, they’re going to lose the middle. That’s where most folks are.” (Photo courtesy: Doug Bennet)

FLARE has also suffered more in the recession than the average Canadian publication. It lost almost six per cent of its total revenue from 2007 to 2008. Overall, total revenue for the 50 titles in MastheadOnline’s report increased by one per cent.

Ad pages for the industry were down in 2008, according to data released by the Leading National Advertisers Canada (LNA). The decline continued into 2009 for 75 magazines, including FLARE.

Kerry Mitchell, the publisher of FLARE, was asked why the publication ran fewer ad pages this year.

“FLARE has fared better than the market in general,” she responded in an email exchange on September 28.

The numbers tell a different story. FLARE lost 24.5 per cent of its ad pages in the second quarter of 2009 compared to the same period in 2008. On average, ad pages for the 75 titles tracked by the LNA dropped 18.2 per cent.

Oberdorf and Bennet agree that current figures indicate a rough patch for the industry, but are no reason to panic about the future.

“People stopped doing a lot of discretionary spending,” Oberdorf said. “If you’re worried about your job…you don’t pick up…a copy of FLARE to check out.”

Bennet says the numbers are the result of the economic climate. “(They) don’t reflect on any particular publication.”

He remains optimistic about FLARE’s performance within its market.

“The competition has really helped…to grow the pie, rather than take away slices from FLARE… They’ve…given advertisers choice and benefited the whole industry,” he said.

FLARE’s September 2009 issue was 32 pages larger than the previous year’s, according to an article published on the Globe and Mail’s website in August. That’s a positive sign for the magazine’s print division.

Sampling vs. savouring

Looking good on paper isn’t all that matters. FLARE.com is an essential part of the brand. Tant’s blog is published weekly on the website and her staff also blog and tweet to readers from events like New York Fashion Week.

“Readers want to feel like they’re there with you and we can really do that online. It’s fun,” Tant said.

Shelley Burgoyne, a FLARE reader in Toronto, says magazines benefit from existing across multiple mediums.

“If I see something in the magazine that says, ‘Go to the website,’ I will go to the website,” she said.

Teenflare.com was launched in 2008 for young fashion lovers. Bennet says the website is a good tool for grooming potential FLARE subscribers.

Lisa Tant, photographed here, says a magazine’s longevity depends on its ability to stay in touch with readers and reflect their needs. (Photo courtesy: George Pimentel and FLARE)
Lisa Tant says a magazine’s longevity depends on its ability to stay in touch with readers and reflect their needs. (Photo courtesy: George Pimentel and FLARE)

“You always have churn,” he said. “You always have to replace readers who’ve outgrown the magazine. That’s the number one job of a good circulation department.”

Although FLARE treats the online medium as an ally, it still poses problems for print publications. Pittaway says competition from multimedia sources coupled with everyday time constraints on society pressure fashion magazines to not only attract, but hold onto readers’ attention.

Silvan agrees. She says print products must re-evaluate their offering or “why they deserve to live.” She hopes the result will be more originality within the market.

Bennet has a different perspective on the issue. He says fashion magazines play a vital role in the fashion industry and that isn’t about to change. The cover of a fashion magazine is fixed in time, making fashion more adaptable to a magazine format than any other type of information, he explains.

“That’s the beauty of print. It’s portable and it’s permanent. Everything else is very ephemeral.”

FLARE readers aren’t going to trade in their earmarked pages for a mouse anytime soon. Lindsay Benoit, a FLARE reader in Halifax, says it’s more fun to wait for the surprises in a new issue. Suzanne Hartman, also a FLARE reader in Halifax, always flips to the back of a magazine first and then reads to the front. She likens it to a relaxing ritual.

Oberdorf says FLARE isn’t threatened by the internet because the vivid visuals that sprawl over its glossy pages can’t be replicated on a computer screen.

Pittaway adds that magazines are a better destination for readers who want a “good, juicy read.”

“Magazines are a medium that you…engage and savour and sort of smack your lips over. That online experience is really more about sampling than engaging,” she said.

Passion proves profitable

A poor economic climate and competition from multimedia don’t necessarily translate into a weaker connection between fashion magazines and their readers.

Silvan says if an editor and his or her team are enthusiastic about the topics they cover, readers will be too. Tant agrees that in the industry, passion is the most important quality to have, although it can’t simply be learned.

“You have to have an insatiable curiosity…to want to know about (fashion) because you can’t fake it,” she said.

Pittaway says fashion magazines must continue to take advantage of the print medium through the visuals in their stories. She also suggests they surprise their readers in every issue.

“You want to create the kind of conversation where she’s saying to her friends, ‘wow, did you see that great article?’” she said.

Bennet advises fashion magazines to keep their prices competitive and continue to reflect readers in their content. He also notes the importance of a magazine’s profile in other media.

“(Editors) have to be…the voice and face of the magazine outside of the magazine,” he said.

FLARE has succeeded in all of these areas. It ranked nineteenth on MastheadOnline’s list of the 20 most influential Canadian magazines of all time in 2008. Its catalogue of editors includes iconic names such as Bonnie Fuller and Suzanne Boyd.

It will also have a long run on the newsstands, according to Bennet.

“If there’s any magazines left standing a hundred years from now, it will probably be fashion magazines,” he said.

Tant is also confident FLARE will celebrate many more anniversaries.

“This magazine has such a powerful brand name and readers are so engaged,” she said. “It’s going to be booming along long after I’ve moved on.”