Elle UK editor outlines vision to bring magazine back to its roots as fashion enters a ‘revolution’

nne-Marie Curtis and creative director Tom Meredith during the design process of the new-look Elle

The changing of the guard in two of Britain’s most iconic fashion magazines – Elle and Vogue – has triggered a “mini revolution” at the glossies as traditional fashion directors return to the helm. Elle’s editor-in-chief of four months, Anne-Marie Curtis, reveals how she intends to use her creative flair to reimagine Elle as the boundary-pushing brand it used to be.

Speaking exclusively to The Drum, Curtis – who describes herself as a “real Elle woman” – explained how she is steering a visual and editorial overhaul of the 32-year old magazine that promises to be more “bold, brave and authentic”; ideals she believes the “nervous” publishing industry has lost sight of.

The new-look Elle - which hits newsstands on 15 August - adopts a font evocative of the first issue of the UK magazine, together with colourful graphics, "brave" visuals and “zeigeisty” features (there’s a beauty feature on pubic hair, Curtis revealed).

“To me, every page defines what the new Elle is,” she said.

The first issue of Elle magazine in the UK, November 1985

The reintroduction of colour is important to Curtis to make Elle feel like a “happier place” - a haven for readers to immerse themselves in a world that, today, feels very dark: “In the last year or so things have got a lot worse politically and globally. For me I feel like people want print to feel really positive again,” she continued.

“It is not going to be all silly clappy-happy on every page, but there is a sense that people want more positivity in their lives from print, because as soon as you switch on your phone it is not like that. Everyone wants a bit of escapism.”

That Curtis has not come from the same background as most magazine editors is a critical factor in the visual-overhaul at Elle. While once common, a fashion director stepping up to editor-in-chief has, until recently, been a rarely trodden path.

Curtis had been fashion director of Elle for 13 years when she succeeded Lorraine Candy as editor-in-chief in April. Her ascension from stylist to editor marked the first time one of the UK’s mainstream glossies had appointed an editor from a traditional fashion background in nearly 30 years - the last time being British Vogue’s Liz Tilberis in 1988.

But change is afoot, Curtis said, pointing to the hire W magazine fashion director Edward Enninful as Vogue Britain’s next editor-in-chief. The return of creative visionaries as magazine editors is, she said, a “mini revolution” and “a different approach than it has been for quite some time”.

“Things are cyclical in publishing, it felt like there was a change afoot,” continued Curtis. “And it was time for change: it is a real positive for the industry.”

Her belief that there is a dawning of a new era for the fashion title will be welcome news after a month that saw one of the industry’s biggest names – former Vogue fashion director Lucinda Chambers – claim that the influence the glossies wield is dying, and their relevance waning, at the hands of management preoccupied with pleasing advertisers rather than readers.

Curtis, who knows Chambers personally, refused to shed light on the contentious comments, instead offering her view that "everyone is entitled to their opinion."

"We want to inspire and inform with what we do, and part of that is believing in freedom of speech and being authentic," she said.

It’s ok to mix politics with Love Island

When it comes to her vision for Elle’s future, it’s not just the look of the glossy that Curtis is looking to shake-up. To compete with the various other outlets from which women can now garner their fashion advice, she wants Elle “feels like your friend” as opposed to somebody who is dictating to you and for readers to feel smart when they flick through magazine, not patronised.

“I feel very strongly that you should never underestimate the intelligence of your audience. I want to inspire, I want people to feel part of Elle, that they can be an Elle woman. You need to always feel - however brilliant and however much fantasy there is in the fashion vision - there is a real woman in there,” she said.

In line with that, Curtis believes there is a role for content that empowers and educates, as well as the kind of topics that women talk about “on a night out with a girlfriend”. The two are not mutually exclusive, she said, nor do they play to stereotypes of women that the feminism movement is trying to break down, as some critics have suggested.

“This has been a criticism that is constantly levelled at women’s magazines. There are certain things I wouldn’t run because I don’t think they are woman-friendly or speak to our readers,” she explained.

“But at the same time, we want Elle to feel like a night out with the girlfriend. When you’re on a night out with a girlfriend you cover everything from high fashion to politics to botox to Love Island. That is how women think: we need to cover off all those points in Elle.”

Weighing up tokenism with keeping print alive

Recognising that print titles are having a “tough time” on newsstands and that more titles will be forced to close over the next year, Curtis suggested print needs to focus on “serendipity”.

“You shouldn’t be 100% driven by your numbers - sometimes you have to give people content they are not expecting them and surprise them That to me is what is going to keep print relevant and exciting: you can’t rely on old formulas anymore,” she says.

To do this, Curtis is planning a series of special issues. The first one - the Wonder Woman issue - will land in November. The message of the issue is “you can be an Elle women whatever age you are” - part of the magazine’s drive to be more authentic and accepting and ensure it is not alienating its readers by age, shape or ethnicity.

But attempts from fashion titles to appear more diverse by running special issues have been heavily criticised in the past. One need only look to Vogue’s diversity issue in March as an example, in which the magazine came under fire for dressing white model Karlie Kloss as a Japanese geisha and featuring just one plus-size model in what was dubbed a vein attempt at inclusivity.

Vogue's March diversity issue featured a spread of model Karlie Kloss dressed as a Japanese geisha

In an industry where tokenism is at play, Curtis doesn’t want diversity to be a trend but “a natural part "of what it does:“The aim should be that this doesn’t even become a conversation.”

“I don’t think we are there yet though and we are still working to get that to that point, so we do still need positive discrimination, and we need to champion these things to make it become a normality,” she surmised. “We are moving in the right direction, albeit baby steps. As editor, I will be doing everything I can to support those issues.”

Jessica Goodfellow

The Drum's media reporter covering everything from publishing, TV, social media, radio and technology.

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