Success Breeds Imitation, Which Breeds Trouble

Media Reviews for Media People: 'InStyle'

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Too many news stories I read about magazines paint the picture of a medium on the cusp of extinction. Ad pages are down. Costs and competition are up. Paper itself is, like, flammable and totally not nutritious. After digesting these and other premature obituaries, I half-expect my next issue of Entertainment Weekly to arrive in pamphlet form.

InStyle's March issue, at 424 pages, can serve as doorstop, paperweight or child's booster seat.
InStyle's March issue, at 424 pages, can serve as doorstop, paperweight or child's booster seat.
And then the missus' copy of InStyle lands in, and completely clogs, our thimble of a mailbox, and I no longer fear for the continued subsistence of my preferred toilet-reading genre. At 424 pages, the title's March issue can serve as doorstop, paperweight or child's booster seat. Given this expanded utility, the content almost seems besides the point.

But more than any other well-received and successful title, InStyle has let all the warm notices go to its head. The magazine once had a distinct differentiating point: high-end fashion reflected through the prism of low celebrity. Ever since that approach was co-opted by tens of publishers, online and off, InStyle hasn't bothered to refine its mission. Indeed, the only thing now distinguishing InStyle from its newsstand/checkout brethren is its heft.

Need evidence? Just check out the March cover. Overstyled starlet? Yup. Listicle teases? Two. Exclamation points? Five!!! Tell me how this differs from the March covers of Lucky or Glamour, two titles that, at least in theory, belong to different women's-mag subgenres.

The March InStyle owes its bulk to one of the few slam-dunk hooks left for magazines -- spring fashion -- and deserves credit for staying maniacally on message. At the same time, the content feels stale, showcasing Golden Globe duds that have long since been deconstructed by the weeklies.

When the issue isn't occupying space with nail polish that matches the user's laptop shell or celebs with hats pulled low, it goes the duh-really route, listing "getting more sleep" among its "10 Ways to Have More Energy." While the mag's numerous "How to Wear" tutorials offer more guidance than "pull pant onto leg, repeat," few of its style tips seem inventive -- and that's coming from a guy who wears jeans and a haircut styled by a mental patient with a machete.

It's not like anybody gravitates toward InStyle for its rhetorical wizardry, but the magazine's intermittent text spasms have devolved from standard gal-mag giggliness to semiliterate babble. The March issue revels in clumsy alliteration: We read about "depth-defying décolletage," about a "bohemian beauty ... taking it all in with easy, elegant style," how spring "exposes legs in all their long-limbed glory." The "Your Look" expose of personal shoppers should've been meted out to a writer with a trace of personality or wit. As for the Anne Hathaway profile, it starts with a harrowingly detailed I AM SETTING THE SCENE! flourish -- "On a crisp afternoon on the Lower East Side of New York City, Anne Hathaway gives her boyfriend, actor Adam Shulman, a quick kiss goodbye before stepping into the Pink Pony café for lunch. She's dressed in a cool mix of layers: a vintage striped scarf and an Express herringbone wool coat, a menswear-style black blazer worn over a simple Comme des Garcons black cardigan, and fitted black jeans from 7 for All Mankind tucked into black motorcycle boots by Burberry" -- and heads south from there.

Thank heaven there's an excerpt from Amy Bloom's beautifully voiced collection "Where the God of Love Hangs Out" to up the literacy bar. Wait, did I say "Where the God of Love Hangs Out"? I meant "How to Never Look Fat Again." My excerpt of the excerpt: Wear clothes that fit. You're welcome.

InStyle does better on the design front, packing its pages with product and offering a few genuinely creative touches (e.g., a jumble of clothes and accessories arranged into the shape of a heart). While I can't speak to the sanity of the highlighted fashion trends, the magazine presents them ably, whether in a feature about "Trekker Chic" (sexy sherpas = newsstand gold) or a survey of prints that toe the fine line between exotic pattern and Rorschach blot. No woman in her right mind would don 30% of the stuff here -- particularly gear like the leather-and-wood platform boots, which seem apropos for comic-book sirens and perhaps anyone who ever appeared in a Scorpions video -- but InStyle manages to showcase every item in a flattering light.

As for the ads, there are lots and lots and lots of them; the advertising side of Team InStyle is more than holding up its end of the bargain. I wonder, though, how much benefit marketers receive from appearing in a 400-page colossus. This is an environment in which it's impossible to stand out.

After poring over the March InStyle for several hours, I can say with reasonable certainty that ads for John Deere, Spike TV and Axe Three-In-One Body Spray/Wiper Fluid/Anticoagulant do not appear in it. Unfortunately, I can't tell you what does. I vaguely remember an ad that features either Madonna or a woman who looks just like her, but I'm not sure if it belonged to Dolce & Gabbana or some other couturier. This is a problem.

InStyle might teem with such marketing content. It might weigh in at 14 pounds and boast more Twitter disciples -- it has almost 1.6 million followers -- than The Economist and Cat Fancy combined. And don't forget the 1.8 million people who either subscribe or buy it on newsstands. Ultimately, though, the title might also be living off a reputation forged when it had an editorial thrust all its own.

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