The Story of The Face, writer and curator Paul Gorman's homage to the iconic youth culture publication, couldn't come at a more interesting time. The magazine industry is at a turning point: British Vogue is entering an exciting new era with Edward Enninful at the helm just as women's publications across the board close down in the face of a growing digital content landscape; meanwhile, the independent zine scene continues to thrive.
Gorman's book traces the highs and lows of The Face, the first magazine that truly captured youth culture. Running from 1980 to 2004, it showcased world-class photography from industry giants such as Nick Knight, Corinne Day and David Sims; era-defining graphic design from the likes of Neville Brody; and faces including Kate Moss, Boy George and David Bowie. Whether or not you've ever picked up a copy, you'll recognise the aesthetic of The Face – perhaps you've Pinned a photograph from one of the editorials, or seen a feature headline referenced online.
Earlier this year, the magazine was acquired by Wasted Talent Ltd., gearing up for a relaunch of the brand in 2018. We spoke to Gorman about its lasting legacy on popular culture, the boom in indie publishing, and what The Face might look like in the age of Instagram.
Tell me why you wanted to create this book on The Face.
Most of my work involves assessing things in visual culture that are either misunderstood or haven’t been recognised. The Face was such a big part of the '80s and '90s, particularly in Britain, but when [founder] Nick Logan sold it in 1999, it wasn’t digitised and then it sort of slumped and closed. It was still pretty good, but there was so much competition that the circulation couldn’t hold within a corporate structure.
Less than seven years later it had disappeared, but it popped up on Tumblrs, Pinterest and Instagram, so there was a generation of people who were used to the digital world but couldn’t really comprehend this analogue beast. One of the things that made me realise this was when I was going to the initial meetings for this publication, I used to bring copies of the magazine with me. I sat on the Tube when everyone was reading books on tablets, these grey objects, and I’d open up the pages of The Face, which was this kaleidoscopic explosion, and it would kind of blow people’s minds that you were doing this eccentric, old-fashioned thing. Which only 12 years before would have been the norm. So I was being a missionary for it, saying, "Look, fuckers, this was actually a really important thing that altered the way we look at and experience visual culture and how that's communicated today."
Despite the photography and design being circulated online now, I wonder how aware people are of its origins. How would you describe The Face to someone who has never seen a copy?
To use an old-fashioned term, it was a 'general interest' magazine, because it was never a pure fashion magazine. Generally, it would have stories about social issues. In the last issue that Nick produced in 1999, there’s a really great seven- or eight-page feature on the arrival of Eastern European immigrants in Leicester. There are pieces on the miners' strike in the '80s, there were pieces on the government versus acid house, and the clampdown on rave culture in the early '90s. So you got writers talking about how our basic human rights were being clamped down on, but in that same issue you would have a great fashion shoot by Corinne Day of Kate Moss, as well as a really great music interview, and each would have an individual angle. So it wasn't like this segregated, atomised world that we now work in, everything had its niche.
But at the same time it was a general interest magazine that appealed to young people and presented the best across those worlds from media, architecture, design, interiors, fashion, music. There’s a really great quote at the end of the book by [editor] Sheryl Garrett, the second most important person in the story of The Face. She says, "If you come from Mars, or even from 2017, and you want to know what was happening in popular culture in the 1980s and 1990s, pick up The Face and it'll tell you all you need to know".
You talk about the survival of printed media. Today's most successful publications seem to be the most niche. Do you think there’s anything more all-encompassing out there right now that reflects youth culture as well as The Face did?
Look at NME, one of the great loves of my life when I was a kid in the '70s: it's now given away as a music paper on the Tube. That’s because the cost of production and the corporate environment aren't actually the right place for this type of expression, which is quite niche and needs its own audience. And that’s why right now is interesting, because as the corporate structures fail, the independents really start to build an alliance of really exciting activity and I’m really, really positive about it.
I think magazines like gal-dem and Burnt Roti do what The Face did then – they're led by a lot of young women, which I think is really exciting. I think Sheryl and Nick would be very proud. Nick, starting with Julie Burchill in the first issue, gave loads of strong, opinionated women an arena to express themselves in The Face. And I think today to survive in media, in the digital age, one has to be niche. At its height, it only sold 126,000 copies, which is nothing – it was quite niche itself, it was for tastemakers and people who were ahead of the pack. I think in terms of 'We've made our statement, now what are we going to do with it?' Penny Martin at The Gentlewoman has done that incredibly well. She's done what Nick did in assembling this great editorial team and having the highest standards.
With The Face's recent acquisition, what do you think it needs in order to survive – is a digitally focused youth going to engage?
I see that the most successful magazines, Monocle and The Gentlewoman for example, are multi-platform. They’re alive and well in the digital age, but the physical manifestation of the title isn’t just an afterthought, they’re making it the focus of it all. These are actually books and collectables, things of value. You may be able to only sell them to 10,000 people where you used to be able to sell them to 100,000, but if you can get the business model right, it will work for you.
Do you have a favourite shoot or feature at all?
The "Love Sees No Colour" issue. There’s a whole chapter dedicated to it in the book, about how the chips were down because of the Jason Donovan court case [the singer took The Face to court for implying his homosexuality in a feature], and Nick was facing ruin. During that, he and Sheryl came up with this image which really resonates today because it's about the rise of the far right, it’s about our ties to Europe, and about protesting for tolerance, inclusivity and diversity – all about the great things that made popular culture great at that period. They sent out a brief that simply said "Love Sees No Colour" to everyone from David Bowie, to footballers, via Paul Smith and Boy George. It’s just a great collective outpouring of positivity, and, without being too hippy about it, it’s really beautifully realised.
Ashish referenced that in his AW17 collection – it was a beautiful celebration of diversity but, like you said, in a non-hippy way.
Exactly. And we must always have time for that, especially in these benighted times. Really I think one of the areas independent magazines have used culture and pop culture is in approaching topics like Brexit. Look at American magazines; journalism in America right now is just among the best it's ever been. They're really on their game at trying to hold that wretched creature in the White House to account and I think that if The Face was around today, for sure they'd be addressing Brexit, but they’d be doing it in that inclusive, quite rousing and celebratory, British way. We’ve always been accepting – scratch us and we’ll say ‘My granny is from Ireland’. We‘re sons and daughters of immigrants, we’re not from where we live now, we’re a great diverse nation and that’s really the challenge for independent magazines today because it's the greatest issue that faces us all.
Click through to see our pick of the photography, covers and features from The Face archives.