There are precious few publications standing against the accepted status quo that print media has had its day and the future is digital. Taking a stand among their ranks is lifestyle magazine Monocle, which even eschews social media, choosing to address those who seek its singular lens via a 24-hour radio show rather than by 140-character posts.
The brainchild of magazine publisher Tyler Brule, Monocle embodies the culmination of the Canadian’s career in media that has included an active life in journalism and the founding of Wallpaper, a magazine that helped change the face of interior and design publications during the 1990s with its eclectic mix of design genres. Now marking its 10-year anniversary with a redesign and an issue focused on the Japanese fashion market, Monocle is very much part of the media landscape, albeit an increasingly unsteady one.
“Print media is not dead,” declares Brule at a recent interview in Tokyo. “Maybe I can say that because I have just come here from Frankfurt, but in Germany and Japan there isn’t this pervasive unilateralism that digital has won the day and that you have to make apologies for print. Frankfurt is only an hour plane trip from London, but the attitude to print is very different. Germany is the only one taking Facebook and Google to task — to court — to defend print.
“Likewise in Japan, there is a real understanding and celebration of paper. You don’t have to go any further than the average newsagent’s at the station to see print alive and well,” Brule continues. “The numbers are in flux but what is amazing about this market is that new magazines continue to come out all the time. Of course, you cannot ignore the rise in small independent publications that pop up in design capitals, but in Japan it is big publishers bringing out new weeklies and monthlies — that just isn’t happening in English-language print or anywhere in the world.”
For Brule, encountering this phenomenon is no accident, and understanding the robustness of the domestic Japanese market was formative in the development of Monocle.
“I wouldn’t say our style, but our thinking behind the magazine was informed by spending time late into the night behind the stacks at Tsutaya (book and magazine store),” he says. “That found its way more literally into the pages when we started — we even had a manga — but it was more the density of imagery and text, the sheer volume of information.
“Regarding fashion, the degree of segmentation is key. Compared to the West, where you get GQ and Esquire trying to cover as many bases as possible without veering too far in any direction, Japanese media is targeted.”
As for the extremes that exist, Brule notes, “Yes, you get edgy fashion media in the West, but it rarely gives any service to the reader — it becomes a portfolio piece for the stylist looking for their next job. Japanese magazines, however, understand their readers, form real relationships with them and think about what they are giving back for the cost of the magazine.”
Japan has also been an often-visited subject of the international magazine ever since its very first issue, when an image of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force even took over the cover.
“We never wanted to just dip in,” says Brule. “We have had our office (in Tokyo) for 10 years and it helped us stay away from being a European prism as most fashion and style magazines are.”
When the publication started, Brule says that, to many, Japan was still “the land of novelty and of the freak show,” and laments that to some media it still is.
“It always struck me that there was so much beyond the three themes of Akihabara, Harajuku and Japan Inc.,” he says. “We wanted to correct that and focus on the more credible craft culture that now seems to be getting recognition. But it has also been frustrating to see the people with the power and money (in Japan) be so far behind the curve — so many opportunities missed.”
Beyond clear admiration for the country and its culture, Monocle has not been afraid to keep a critical eye on Japan, particularly after the Great East Japan Earthquake, by shifting from passive appreciation to actively encouraging the creators they feature into action. “You can’t tell people to be spontaneous, but you can’t keep having companies sit on great ideas for four years — you need to act,” he says.
So is Monocle the product of a personal love affair with the country?
“I went to Japan on a press trip in the early ’90s, and I can’t say it was love at first sight,” says Brule. “Oddly enough, it was the forces in the rest of the world that pushed me toward Japan. It was the era of rationalization and self-service in the West — the era of the consultant. We lost the dignity of service and gentility, the very things that people used to admire about America and the United Kingdom.
“That was stripped away and Japan became the defender of those values. You go to Isetan or Mitsukoshi and you realize that these are things that need to be preserved.”
“Ultimately,” muses Brule, “as with print media, you have to draw a difference between convenience and culture.”
The 10th anniversary issue of Monocle is currently available in bookstores, with the 102 issue published on March 23. For more information, visit monocle.com.