The next generation media entrepreneur who caters to the passionate few
The three irregular titles created by one – man publishing phenomenon Luis Venegas – Fanzine137, Electric Youth! and Candy – have niche appeal and are hard to find. Yet some of the biggest names in fashion are keen to get involved. Could these magazines provide a template for the survival of print?
Photographed by: Olivier Zahm
Written by: Murray Healy
Luis Venegas arrived back from the airport a matter of hours ago and is now in his Madrid apartment rummaging through his luggage. He wants to show me something in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, which he picked up in New York the day before and is now fishing out of a holdall. Pausing briefly to enthuse over the cast of Glee on the cover (‘Do you watch that show? I love it!’), he turns to a double-page ad that features a portrait of Olympic champion Michael Phelps adjusting his goggles. The accompanying headline reads: ‘We surf the internet, we swim in magazines.’ Created by five of the biggest magazine publishers in the US, it makes a clear and impassioned case for the continued relevance of print.
The boldness with which the advert confronts the much-mooted death of old-fashioned ink on paper took Luis by surprise. ‘I was like, “Wow, finally a reaction from printed magazines to internet media.” I love the internet – I look at loads of things on there just like everybody else. But I don’t think this means the end of magazines, especially not for me, with this strategy of making limited editions that do not come out every month.’
Luis has built up a small but influential publishing empire with his niche, beautifully crafted and irregularly published magazines: their scarcity sits in direction proportion to the devotion they inspire in their readers. First there was Fanzine137, a magazine whose diverse contents (from Ryan McGinley to Julio Iglesias, from to Grace Coddington to Wim Wenders – and, every issue, Barbra Streisand) are united by nothing more than the fact that Luis is obsessed with them. That same passion for his own fixations inspired the labours of love that followed: first Electric Youth!, a large-format portfolio of boys in pants splashed with banner headlines and interviews that document the minutiae of its subjects’ lives; and then Candy, a magazine devoted to trans and androgynous aesthetics, full of boys who look like girls and girls who look like boys.
His magazines break all the rules of conventional magazine publishing: know your audience, make yourself accessible, keep increasing your readership, hit the newsstand regularly and on time, expand your brand. To take on those points in order: Luis has never known who his readers are, as his magazines are personal projects that he makes for his own satisfaction. They are also hard to find, as the print run for each title is severely restricted – 1,000 for both Candy and EY!, and 1,137 for Fanzine137 – and even though demand outstrips supply and printing more would dramatically increase his income, he has no plans to do so. His publishing schedule is erratic: more than a year has passed since the last issue of Fanzine137, for example, as he will only hit the printers when he feels ready. And there’s no online version: his website, byluisvenegas.com, hosts a single-page taster for each magazine. And yet his titles are so cherished within the fashion industry that the likes of Bruce Weber and Steven Klein are happy to work for them for no other reason than the fact that they love what Luis does.
Luis has loved magazines since he was a child. Most of all, he loved the imagery of fashion magazines, ‘the way they transformed clothes into fantasies’. He remembers as a teenager going to newsstands to buy the latest issue of Italian Vogue: ‘It felt like it was burning in my hands because it was so good.’ But Spain in the 1990s was hardly a world leader in fashion publishing, and Luis figured that the best way of getting close to the world he loved so much was to study fashion itself in Barcelona.
It was only after fashion school that Luis made the transition into magazines. ‘I became an art director in a very natural way: I started to take pictures, lots of pictures. It’s all very intuitive.’ He worked for Spanish Marie Claire for a while, a period he recalls as ‘the worst time of my life’. ‘I warned them that I wasn’t a graphic designer – I’ve never studied graphic design, and I have no idea how InDesign works – but they said that was OK, they just wanted someone with ideas.’ However, his dissatisfaction with the nine-to-five routine meant that he didn’t stay there very long. ‘I was well paid but in the wrong place. It wasn’t the right place to have innovative ideas.’ He went on to work as a freelance contributor to magazines a little closer to his own sensibilities, including Acne Paper and Butt.
Yet when Luis came to set up Fanzine137 in 2004, hoping to create something he could obsess over the way he had once obsessed over Italian Vogue, he had no knowledge of paper stock, spot varnishes, bar codes and all the other practical considerations that go into printing a magazine. ‘Now it’s different – I love to go to printers, watching every page go by and saying, “Oh, I think her lipstick here is too pink, can we add more yellow?” But at the start? I had no idea.’ One thing that hasn’t changed though is that Fanzine137, like the titles that followed, remains a one-man operation. ‘Except for the graphics – I always have someone I can tell how to do the graphics. But I’ve never had a team. Even when it comes to sending out magazines for distribution, it’s me putting them in boxes, with a personal note to each of the shops, then writing out the address and taking them to the post office. It’s me doing everything. My magazines are just my computer, my phone and me.’
Given that he has to haul the boxes to the post office himself, it helps that he keeps his print run so low, although of course there are more important reasons. ‘It means I keep control of distribution – where the magazines are on sale and who is on the mailing list; I like to know that. I don’t want them on every newsstand in the world.’ Their scarcity only makes them more desirable: Luis wants his readers to be as passionate about his magazines as he is. ‘I’d rather they be kept for people who are really interested in them, people who search them out and keep them. For me as the audience, if I have a chance to find a copy of a book that exists in an edition of 1,000, I feel so excited to get one – it makes you feel so special. So it’s like: “Have you heard of Candy?” “Well, actually yes – I have a copy!”’ Those who have heard of his magazines, or have come across scanned pages online, vastly outnumber those who have ever been able to pick up a copy. In an age when even the most arcane information is supposed to be more accessible than ever, this perverse elusiveness bestows upon his titles a mythical gleam.
From a conventional business perspective, however, this strategic scarcity could be considered financially disastrous. Not only does it mean turning away customers who would be happy to pay, it also drives up the production costs of each issue, a fact that is not lost on Luis. ‘Candy had such a great response that I could have easily have printed more and I would have earned much more money, because the cost difference between printing 1,000 and 2,000 is not much.’ But he values passion over profit, fearing that a magazine which is too widely available runs the risk of being taken for granted. ‘I mean, I really love magazines. But even I have started to get a bit bored of magazines lately. And if that is true of someone like me, then many other people could be thinking the same thing.’ He makes a similar case for his irregular publishing schedule: ‘It’s not like you see a new issue every month and become bored with it. People are more excited about it then. And it gives you more time to think about it, more time to work on it. You can focus on the content and make it better.’
It’s not like he needs to rely on his titles for income: Luis is also a freelance consultant for various big brands, with Carolina Herrera and Loewe among his regular clients, and he lectures in contemporary culture at Madrid’s main fashion school. Nevertheless, he says, he has made a good living from advertising revenue. ‘Until 2008,’ he says, ‘just like everybody in this industry.’ But the recession has only made him more determined not to increase his print run. ‘Some advertisers still believe the more copies the better, but I don’t think that’s really as meaningful as before. I think many magazines lie about how many magazines they print anyway just to please advertisers. I prefer to be honest about how many I print. And if an advertiser wants to be in one of my magazines, it’s more about building a relationship with its audience. After all, this is probably a magazine that nobody is going to throw out after they’ve read it.’ That some fashion advertisers (Marc Jacobs, Thomas Engel Hart, Zac Posen, Viktor & Rolf and Rodarte are among who appeared in the first issue of Candy) are still keen to appear in his magazines despite their limited circulation is surely a testament to their standing within the industry.
American Apparel has been particularly supportive, not only as an advertiser in Electric Youth! but also as its principal stockist. This is an arrangement that has been in place since issue one, with almost half his print run going to the stores. ‘I think my advertisers have understood my projects from the very beginning. Of course I don’t have many brands, otherwise I would be very rich! But they are loyal and understand what I’m doing.’
So what is the readership that these brands are trying to reach? Even Luis isn’t sure who buys his magazines. ‘When I started Fanzine137 I had no idea who the reader would be, and even now I don’t know.’ They are, he supposes, people with the same interests as himself, and you can’t help thinking that’s what his advertisers are thinking too. ‘There was never any business plan, no “I’m aiming at the fashion industry”. Instead it was a case of “let’s do this and see what happens”. I did Fanzine137 specifically to please myself. Like, every issue there’s something about Barbra Streisand – that’s something personal to me. I don’t know how other people relate to that.’
He reckons that if he’d known everything he needed to know when he started Fanzine137, he would probably have been too scared to go ahead with it. But the experience meant he knew what he was doing when he came to launch Electric Youth! in 2008. Fanzine137 alone wasn’t enough: ‘There are other sides to me that I needed to express through other magazines.’ Electric Youth! was inspired by the heady, hormone-crazed pages of teen mags like Bravo and Tiger Beat. ‘I wanted to do that but in a different way, getting great photographers to shoot sexy boys. And doing the Fanzine somehow gave me the standing as an editor to have people like Alasdair McLellan and Steven Klein doing issues. I wanted it to be the opposite of Fanzine137, which is full of things from the past which for me are still relevant now, projected into the future: lots of thinking and interviews.’ Electric Youth! was designed to sit at the other extreme of the intellectual spectrum. ‘It had to be very visual: just big, full-page images, big headlines and short interviews. And now there’s Candy, which I think is a natural mix of both Fanzine and Electric Youth!, but in drag.’
Given the edgier approach of both Electric Youth! and Candy – one puts boys in painted-on Speedos, the other dresses them up as girls – I wonder whether he comes up against any problems when casting the models for them. ‘No. Again, it’s all about being very honest. I tell them everything from the beginning, so if they are not OK with it we can find someone else. It’s not a big deal.’ Electric Youth! has presented former Miley Cyrus boyf Justin Gaston in Y-fronts that were virtually see-through, and a cover showing one half-naked boy sniffing another’s armpit – garnished with the killer strapline, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit!’ ‘But it’s not porn,’ says Luis, ‘it’s not dirty. It’s always sunny and innocent somehow. It’s about being young and excited. It’s about that age when you discover new things, like sex or maybe a new film director that you will love for life. It’s never been about, “OK, we want to see your cock.” I like the fact that most of the models are unknown, and I like to put big headlines as if what they have to say is relevant, like, “I like Kellogg’s for breakfast.” I think that’s funny.’ His ambition for the magazine is that, 15 years down the line, ‘people will look at some of these issues of Electric Youth! and think, “Oh, this is how young people were in the late Noughties.” When I take a look back at old issues of The Face, I feel like, “Wow, how great was that, that time, those people.” I’m recreating that feeling, only much more sexy.’
Like he says, no big deal. But what about getting Luke Worrall, Britain’s top celebrity male model and fiancé to Kelly Osbourne, into a blonde wig, full make-up and frock for the cover of Candy? Did that take some persuasion? ‘I really wanted Luke for that cover. I had this feeling that he could be something like a contemporary Marilyn Monroe or Madonna from the early Nineties.’ So Luis cleverly surrounded him with familiar British talent to make sure he was comfortable with the idea. ‘I give all the credit to the people who were involved on that shoot. I asked Brett Lloyd to do the photography – he’s from the UK like Luke, so I thought this might make it easier for Luke to understand. Murray Arthur did the production, and Kim Jones did the styling. I think that was really good for Luke could see it wasn’t going to be something tacky. And Luke’s agent was really, really supportive, and I deeply appreciate things like that. I have to say since I started my magazines I have been very lucky to find a lot of very generous people, who somehow agree to get involved in my crazy projects. I’m so grateful to all of them. I don’t know how it happens. Like when I asked Bruce Weber to be in Candy and he said yes – that was like, “Wow, this is magic!”’
Such is the esteem that Luis is held in that the big names come to him. It takes a little persuasion to get this story out of him, but he eventually confesses that it was Steven Klein who approached him to shoot an issue of Electric Youth! ‘I already knew Steven as he’d done things for Fanzine137. I don’t want to sound too proud of myself or anything, but he was like, “Hey Luis, I really like Electric Youth! – I’m going to Argentina, would you like me to do an issue for you there?”’ And so the ‘Argen-teen-a!’ issue was conceived.
One of the attractions of working for Luis is the creative leeway he gives his contributors. ‘I’m very picky with everything related to my magazines. But at the same time I like to give all these people as much freedom as I can to do really great stuff, their own stuff, because they are really great artists. I mean, people like Steven Klein don’t need any promotion at all. It’s not like he needs it, he only does it because he’s enthusiastic about it.’
Given that he’s so happy being king of the niche fashion magazine it’s tempting to assume that Luis would balk at the idea of working on a more established, mass-circulation title. Surprisingly, this isn’t the case. ‘Working for a magazine like American Vogue is something I’d love to do! So you can you write this in capital letters if you like: if anyone wants to hire me to do something for a glossy, high-distribution magazine, I would be happy to do that!’ And then he adds: ‘Of course, it would have to be the right thing…’
As such a job offer is surely just a matter of time, would this spell the end of his trio of titles? ‘I don’t know. It depends. Once
I have the offer and the proposal I will decide!’ he laughs. ‘I really like to do the things I do: the title Fanzine137 comes from the fact that I really am a fan. But life changes and sometimes things come to an end. Great magazines like The Face stopped eventually. Mine could also; why not?’
In the meantime, he has a fourth pet project about to hatch, but this is one subject – possibly the only one – that will send him into silence. ‘Err… I’m not going to tell you what it is! I can tell you that it’s not going to be a printed magazine. Or maybe it is, I don’t know. I want it to happen soon, though. As soon as I get new ideas, I try to make them happen.’ Whatever form his latest brainchild takes, though, it will, like the rest of his magazines, centre on a subject close to his heart. ‘I like to have fun more than anything. I want to enjoy my life. OK, we have to work to make a living – so let’s do something we love.’