An Unconventional Magazine Makes it Big

Five years ago in early 2007, a group of investors with a smart and extremely enterprising editor-columnist named Tyler Brule bucked the global trend and launched a monthly print magazine called Monocle.

Dubbed “a briefing on global affairs, business, culture and design,” the book-like journal, with its crisp, boxy design and pleasantly offbeat editorial content (fashion shoots in Sao Paulo, airports in Liberia, hat-makers in Vienna and property prospectuses from Bogota), soon became a firm favorite of the jet set.

Debuting just before the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the ensuing global financial crisis, Monocle survived the retail and luxury industry implosion of those years. Indeed, the magazine has thrived amid the turmoil as its eclectic mix of fashion, travel and lifestyle meshed neatly with new post-G20 zeitgeist.

While it may seem a long shot to link a glossy if erudite journal to the rise of the BRICs and the decline of the G20, Monocle is an important cultural “marker.” For starters, Monocle reverses the flow of nearly a century-long tyranny of the North Atlantic powers both in terms of geopolitics, money and style.

Suddenly, the New York-London axis (with Los Angeles/Hollywood as an add-on) and its in-house magazine Vanity Fair seem altogether irrelevant and elitist. All this despite the fact that Monocle itself is based near the very elegant Marylebone High Street in North London.

By placing the periphery at the center (it has featured places like Angola, Azerbaijan and the Netherlands Antilles), Monocle reverses the news flow. Turning its back on the tiresome world of celebrities — no Brangelinas here — it also strikes a blow against the idea of a “metropolitan” center, something that is very much akin to the flatter, more egalitarian networks generated by the Internet. Ironically, Monocle as a print magazine is a product of the exact mind-set that has resulted in the mushrooming of the cybersphere.

The magazine is a bold advocate of good design and manufacturing. However, in a neat twist firmly rooted in its detailed global coverage, Monocle rejects the current obsession with cheap Chinese products.

Instead, the magazine promotes local producers and indirectly the idea of the genus loci ( the genius of place, an extension of the French idea of “terroir,” or distinctive local produce and products that reflect a specific geography, climate, culture and history).

In this way, Monocle roams through with a breathtaking catholicity. Small, boutique players with atelier-scale production, whether they’re from Zug in Switzerland, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Sarajevo, Naples in Italy, Mexico’s Guadalajara, Beirut, Lebanon or Kagoshima in Japan, are given equal prominence as the Guccis and Salvatore Ferragamos are left on the sidelines.

The pages are refreshing and alive, all the more so when the focus shifts to the manufacture of industrial equipment, trucks and airplanes. The latest spread on a nascent aerospace cluster in southern Poland is a case in point.

The magazine imbues its interview subjects, the owners, workers, baristas and shopkeepers, with dignity and pride. Its key message is that we don’t have to be investment bankers to live a good life.

Fulfilment can come from living in and with a vibrant and dynamic community. And expanding from that, there are the monthly surveys of different neighborhoods in cities rarely featured in the Financial Times or the International Herald Tribune. Once again, the magazine strikes a blow against the faux tyranny of metropolitan centers with its loving descriptions of long overlooked quarters, from their housing stock to their schools, shops and metro stops. This is perhaps unsurprising as Brule has very strong ideas on what constitutes good urban planning, many of which are folded into the magazine and reflected in its global ranking of the world’s most livable cities.” While there is a clear bias toward mid-sized European locales, there’s a growing awareness of the excitement generated by living cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Bangkok and Istanbul.

Of course, as a Southeast Asian I don’t agree with his obsessive fondness for gloopy Japanese curries, ankle-length pants and his seeming lack of interest in my favorite cities, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. I’m still waiting for Monocle to feature the Goods Department in Kemang and Kebayoran with the same fascination and detail as it’s lavished on Seoul’s Shinsegae department stores, Ipanema and Tokyo’s design practice Wonderwall.

But one should never lose hope.

(Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Malaysia and Indonesia. His column also appears in the Jakarta Globe.)