The nineties, as middle-aged people such as myself are fond of
recounting, was an era when it was harder than it is now to find cool
things. It is easy to romanticize the labor it took, back then, to hunt
down moderately obscure music, movies, or books—to see it, in
retrospect, as a character-building experience. At the time, it was just
annoying. But, in those years, even dull suburbs sometimes had
bookstores with interesting magazines. (The one in my town was called A
Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books.) And magazines provided
comprehensible glimpses into the vast elsewhere. When I discovered a new
one, I read every word, including the ads, because a good magazine
communicated a coherent sensibility, an intoxicating jumble of ideas,
images, and things to buy.

I learned about the British magazine The Face in high school, when a
worldly friend started talking about it and I pretended to know what it
was. It featured the same kinds of stories you’d see in other
guy-oriented publications, broadly speaking: profiles of movie stars,
authors, and new bands; fashion spreads and music reviews. But, unlike
most titles on the newsstand, which would at least hint at what was
inside or how often they published, The Face maintained an air of
mystery. It was founded in London, in 1980, and it revelled in the
multi-racial, multicultural sensibility that was taking shape there; the
pages themselves, full of vivid photography and experiments in layout
and typography, communicated the era’s new possibilities. Over time, the
magazine’s musical center shifted, from post-punk, soul, and
2-Tone—which fused elements of Jamaican music with punk rock—to hip-hop,
electro, and club culture. But The Face was always about fluidity and
collision, the strange things that happen when something drifts from its
original context. It was at its best telling stories of mutation across
borders, as in 1991’s “Ruder Than the Rest,” a legendary fourteen-page
feature by John Godfrey, Derick Procope, and Karl Templer, which
celebrated the street fashions and micro-trends of various London
neighborhoods. An unfashionable French label called Chipie, for example,
discovered that its roomy “Pascalou” jeans were global duds—except at
shops scattered throughout England. “The kids have taken to it and done
their own thing with it,” one of the store managers explained.

Paul Gorman’s “The Story of The Face: The Magazine That Changed
Culture
” (Thames Hudson) recounts the magazine’s twenty-year history
under its founder, Nick Logan. (Logan sold the magazine in 1999, and it
folded in 2004.) Logan created the magazine after five years as the
editor of the popular British music tabloid New Musical Express. In
Mod lingo, “the face” referred to the coolest person in the scene—the
best dancer, the one with the sharpest outfits. Logan had grown tired of
the tightly wound hype-cycles of places like NME, which covered the
newest bands and concert reviews as if they were breaking news. The
Face
was about style and taste from a bottom-up perspective; Logan
wanted to know about the ad-hoc communities and collectives from which
sounds and styles emerged, the stories of subcultures just before they
crossed over and became scenes. The magazine’s writers and photographers
paid attention to the minute gestures and badges that divined the real
from the fake—Gorman argues that the magazine’s cool aesthetic even
persuaded bands to dress better, or at least to adopt more provocative
looks, so that they could keep pace with what was going on a few pages
over.

“The Story of The Face” has the size and heft of a coffee-table book,
with plenty of striking reproductions of famous covers and spreads.
(This makes it somewhat cumbersome to read.) Gorman is a steadfast
admirer, and much of the text is given over to meticulous,
moment-by-moment accounts of the magazine’s inner workings, which are
alternately tedious and illuminating. Reading about staff members’
deliberations, as they dealt with a serious lawsuit surrounding the
supposed “outing” of an Australian pop singer, one thinks of the
publishing industry’s near-constant state of fragility, even in more
gilded times. When Logan was growing up, his household’s finances were
always precarious, owing largely to his erratic father. As a result,
Logan took the business side of The Face very seriously, and he
insured that every single issue under his tenure turned at least a
modest profit.

It is easy to become frustrated with “The Story of The Face” not
because of what it is but because of what it could never be: a big stack
of the magazines themselves, the beautiful, self-contained objects that
they were. Among the magazine pages that the book reproduces is a
particularly uplifting one from the May, 1992, issue, “Love Sees No
Colour,” which considered how questions of identity and tolerance would
play out in the decade to come. “We could live in a grim, cold Fortress
Europe,” Sheryl Garratt, the magazine’s editor in the early nineties,
writes, “shuttered from outside influences, and allowing ‘foreigners’ in
only as guest workers on short contracts who can be shipped home
whenever we’re ready. Or we can opt for an exciting, dynamic mix of
cultures and races working together.” Reading it, I found myself
wondering how this Zeitgeist ran through other articles in that issue,
or surfaced on the letters page or in the sneaker ads. What albums came
out that month to clinch the feeling that they were living in such
special times?

The magazine produced a series of memorable covers over the years, from
the “Hard Times” issue, from September, 1982, which anticipated a
right-wing backlash against urban youth; to the “Third Summer of Love”
issue, from July, 1990, which was credited with launching Kate Moss’s
career. The final cover during Logan’s ownership featured Natalie
Portman, and served as a tie-in for the latest “Star Wars” movie—exactly
the kind of thing a younger version of The Face would not have even
been in the position to reject. But one generation’s subversion is the
next generation’s marketing plan. The magazine would survive for a few
more years, but its identity had crumbled, in part because so many
aspects of it had been nicked by others. James Truman, formerly the
magazine’s New York editor, helped relaunch Details, which was
probably the closest America came to having its own version of The
Face
. Direct British competitors, such as Loaded and Dazed and
Confused
, emphasized the thrills of club culture not from the vantage
of the utopian or the connoisseur but, rather, the mad-for-it hedonist.
And a crop of what would become known as “lad mags” picked up on the
magazine’s adolescent-male gaze, turning street-fashion brinksmanship
and aspirational rituals of dressing up into a kind of shameless lust.

In Mod lingo, “the face” referred to the coolest person in the scene—the best dancer, the one with the sharpest outfits.

Photograph by TheFrontPage / Alamy (Campbell); TheCoverVersion / Alamy (Cobain, Tricky Martina); Joe Bird / Alamy (McQueen)

LEAVE A REPLY