The long-range vision of Monocle

by Sandra Barron

For a jet-setting, award-winning media, design and branding entrepreneur, Tyler Brûlé is pretty accessible. When he called last week, a few days before the opening of his highly anticipated Monocle Shop Tokyo within the new Francfranc Village building in Aoyama, he was at the site making last-minute preparations. Instead of doing the old number- protecting PR rep hand-off, he called from his own British cell phone. “Of course, we, being the Western import, are the last to finish,” he said with a laugh. “All the Japanese shops (in here) could open today if they wanted to.”

A former BBC and print journalist, Brûlé is the founder of Monocle, a design-heavy global-affairs magazine that, like the successful Wallpaper* magazine venture he launched in 1996, deeply reflects his own interest in international culture. Acquiring every item on any one of the magazine’s “must-haves” lists would likely require a new passport.

Printed on quality paper with high priority given to its typography, design and photography, each issue of Monocle includes a fashion spread that gives almost as much attention to the texture of the location as it does the clothing. At ¥11,400, the one-year subscription rate is substantial. But the first issue comes “hand-wrapped in Monocle-designed paper” and its 150,000 subscribers worldwide do get perks. In addition to the 10 issues a year, which they receive before the magazine hits the stores, they receive unlimited access to the online archive and invitations to exclusive Monocle events.

In the magazine’s most recent back-page message from the editor, Brûlé added his e-mail address and invited readers to drop him a line for an invite to the Tokyo Monocle shop opening.

Tokyo’s Monocle, a cube snugly tucked into Francfranc’s cavernous atrium, is the independent company’s third store after London and Los Angeles. It’s not just 9 sq. meters of seriously curated retail space, it is an experiment in a new model of media financing. While other media properties are struggling, Monocle became profitable before its third anniversary this February. Retail is a part of that success, and it’s an experiment that is being watched closely by other media outlets.

In an interview with The Japan Times, Brûlé talks about his long-standing love of Japanese culture and aesthetics, his hesitancy to embrace all forms of digital media and the importance of storytelling.

How is the Tokyo shop different from the other stores in L.A. and London?

The London shop was a former florist, a traditional London store front, with all its quirks. Here, the whole structure is built from scratch. It responds to the housewares environment of Francfranc, and the fact that we’re from the UK.

Our other stores have a big Japanese lineup, so we had to de-Japanify it slightly. Tokyo will see the premiere of a special English ash-wood bench and a milking stool, both made and designed in England, in limited edition. They’re quite small in scale and would certainly work well given the dimensions of Tokyo living space.

Any other products that you’re particularly excited about?

We have the V bike from Skeppshult of Sweden. It’s a flagship product for them. The scale of the bike is nice, it’s very much geared toward the commuter. Even though it doesn’t fold up, it has good Japanese dimensions. We’ve also worked with the Matsuyama Fats and Oils company and they’ve created their first product for us, which is a sugi-tree shower soap, and that will be a Tokyo premier.

What is it about Japan that you love?

Tokyo is a city with a 24-hour metabolism. Customer service in Japan has an enthusiasm, a sense of “going for it,” that’s consistent. Whether it’s in a convenience store or a hotel, there’s an attention to detail. In the West, in too many cases, doing things “quickly” has become “slapdash.” I’d rather take time and know that I’m going to have the best looking present on the table.

I flew here on ANA and in the Duty Free they asked, “Would you like that wrapped?” Who, working on any airline, would ask a passenger “would you like that wrapped?” It’s just part of the culture. Much of Europe and America has been reduced to competing just on price. There’s a price element in Japan, too, but competition is based on the level of service as well. And I think, elsewhere, that’s been largely deleted from the consumer experience.

Who are your readers in Tokyo?

It’s pretty mixed. At an event at the Peninsula hotel last December, the audience was more Japanese, and incredibly mixed, from the retail community to Japanese people working at the U.S. embassy and at international law firms. Our audience is very hard to pigeonhole. Given that the new shop is on Aoyama-Dori, which has high foot traffic, and that we stock Monocle issues 1-34, we will also find new readers through the entry point of retail.

Why is the subscription more than the cover price?

Our flat subscription price is 50 percent more than the cover price, a very different model than what most American and European subscribers are used to. We feel that if you want access to the magazine’s archive online, et cetera, then you need to pay more. It’s just common sense that we shouldn’t open up our Web site for free.

Is this a model ailing media brands could follow?

I don’t think it’s a model that everyone can follow. But if we’re talking about media entities that are print brands at their core, I think the niche players could do what we’re doing. That is, have a single international edition, really invest in good journalism and invest in storytelling rather than chase the latest digital platform.

Does that mean you don’t have plans to have the magazine on mobile devices?

When your business is content, it’s always a good idea to focus on the content, rather than on developing it for 20 different platforms. Our view is that we don’t have to be the first, or even among the first, to be out there on the latest tablet device. We won’t be pioneers. When the time is right, then we will look at a tablet.

Why are you staying committed to operations in Japan when other media is moving out?

We’ve been praised and criticized for the amount of Japan coverage in the magazine. But for the moment, Japan is the world’s second biggest economy. There’s an extraordinary amount of dynamic creativity here, and yet, when you look at a lot of mainstream media, Japan is a basket case. It’s either some tale of economic catastrophe or a weird trend. There are so many other stories.

Tell us about the bureau you’re opening in Hong Kong this summer.

Hong Kong is going to be an experiment in terms of how we’re launching it and funding it, because it’s actually going to combine a news bureau and a shop — all within the same four walls. The shop is one that we already know will do quite well — it’s an incredibly strong market. It helps finance at least the real estate, the desks and the assistant. At a time when lots of companies are scratching their heads trying to figure out “how do you do international news?” I think we’ve got an interesting model.

Monocle Shop Tokyo is in the Francfranc Village building, 3-11-13 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku. A one-year subscription to Monocle (10 issues) costs ¥11,400. Back issues are ¥3,500 apiece. Products mentioned in this article: British stool, ¥26,500; British bench ¥60,000; Skeppshult V-bike, ¥114,000; Matsuyama Sugi shower soap, ¥3,500.