An Interview with Geri Brin and Heidi Boncher

Figure magazine

Debuting in late August, 2003, Figure is the newest plus-size fashion and lifestyle magazine on the market. What makes this publication unique in North America, however, is that it is a custom magazine sponsored by the Charming Shoppes corporation—which consists of the Fashion Bug, Lane Bryant, and Catherines retail chains.

In the following interview, we learn a little bit more about the philosophy and content of Figure from two of the magazine’s representatives. Not only is this discussion interesting as a “sneak peek” inside the pages of the new publication, but it also reveals many significant (and surprising) facts about fashion, magazines, and timeless beauty.

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Geri: Hi Heinrich. It’s Geri Brin and Heidi Boncher. Sorry we were delayed a little bit.

HSG: That’s quite all right. I can well imagine how busy you must be, preparing for the forthcoming launch of Figure. So, for the purposes of this interview, I am speaking with Geri Brin, who is the editor-in-chief of the magazine, yes?

Geri: Yes—and co-publisher.

HSG: And Heidi, your position is…?

Heidi: I am the sales and marketing director.

HSG: Thank you. By the way, I grateful that you gave me this opportunity to ask you a few questions. After all, it isn’t every day that the plus-size fashion world gets a new publication, so this is an event of some significance. First, how did the concept of the magazine originate?

Geri: It originated very simply because I had been with Fairchild Publications as an editor and publisher for 23 years. And being an editor, covering everything from the home furnishings to the fashion business, and being on top of the “trends,” I’ve long believed in custom publishing as a way to reach a very targeted market. I certainly have been aware of the growth of the plus-size industry from the fashion standpoint, and I approached Dorrit Bern—who is the chairman, president, and CEO of Charming Shoppes—

HSG: Oh—you approached her?

Geri: —before they had bought Lane Bryant and Catherines, when it was just Fashion Bug. And I knew Dorrit because she was originally at Sears, and then moved over to Fashion Bug. And so, because of my position at Fairchild, I knew Dorrit from my Fairchild days. So I was able to approach her, and I recommended a magazine because, at that point, three years ago, MODE, I believe, no longer existed, and I felt that there was a need in the market. And Dorrit wasn’t ready at that point, three years ago, to launch a magazine. She had not bought Lane Bryant yet, or Catherines—

Heidi: I would like to correct that MODE did exist, but it was not at its height, and it wasn’t that well known, and there was only one other magazine out there—which was MODE.

Megan Garcia (Goddess, NYC) modelling for Fashion Bug, Fall 2002.

Geri: And I approached Dorrit because, being a publisher, I realized the power that retailers have—I covered the retail industry for years at Fairchild—the power that retailers have, to be leveraged with their loyal customers—if (and this is a big “if”) they handle it right. First, you have to have the retailer believe that a custom magazine can do something for them. Dorrit recognized that immediately. She happens to be—I mean, I can’t tell you what praise I have for her, not just as a businesswomen, but a marketing woman, and for doing this project, because she did not want this magazine to be a puff piece for her stores. It is truly a magazine for her stores in the sense that her customers will see themselves portrayed as they are, not as two-inch models. But the editorial is definitely as good as…better than other magazines. We’re going to do everything with a twist. We’re not going to have typical stories. So, after Dorrit bought Lane Bryant and Catherines, she realized that she is, or should become, the authority in the plus-size business. And what better way to do that than to communicate with her customers—in many different ways? So she does her “Speaking Woman to Woman” column, and this magazine will be another way for her to cement her loyalty to her customers, and vice versa—but I can’t emphasize this enough, not as a magalog. This is not a magalog.

HSG: I understand the importance of making that distinction, because there is some association of that word with a “puff piece,” as you call it, whereas this project is being taken much more seriously. I’ll ask you more about your content in a minute, but I have at least one question first—the name. How did you come up with the name Figure—which strikes me as a very interesting choice?

Geri: To tell you the truth, we kicked around so many names, you wouldn’t believe it. But you know, they have to go through the lawyers to make sure there’s nothing else on the Web, and there’s nothing else in magazines. We originally considered Charmed, but Aaron Spelling owns that for his TV show.

Yanderis (Irene Marie, Miami; Click, NYC) modelling for Fashion Bug, Summer 2003.

HSG: Hmmm. Perhaps it’s just as well that you didn’t adopt that one…

Geri: Ultimately, what happened was, we came up with this almost by hook or by crook. I’m serious. About seventeen people had their names in the pot, and we were going over lists, and Dorrit did not want it to be associated with any one of the stores—

HSG: Right, because when we first heard about this project, we heard the name Lane bandied about. But that would inevitably have been thought of as just a Lane Bryant publication.

Geri: You’re so right. The truth is, we loved Lane. It sounded very sophisticated, and we just loved it, even though it wasn’t meant to be associated directly with Lane Bryant. But over time, we, and Dorrit, thought it wouldn’t work, to just have it associated with one of the chains, even mildly. And that’s when we switched it, and came up with Figure.

HSG: I can understand that decision, especially since many of us are quite partial to Fashion Bug’s campaigns. Now, how about your tag line, “The new shape of fashion”? When they see that, many readers will immediately think of MODE, which had a similar slogan on its covers. Why did you adopt that significant phrase?

Heidi: Actually, there’s one letter difference. Ours is, “The new shape of fashion.” MODE was, “The new shape in fashion.” Well, MODE hasn’t been around for two years now. It is the same market but…only very savvy people like you are going to pick up on this.

HSG: [Laughter]

Geri: Actually, Heinrich, there was no intent to do that whatsoever. We admired MODE, but really, it’s just kind of the obvious way you’d put it. Figure—“The new shape of fashion.” I must tell you, and this is the absolute, honest truth, I came up with “The new shape of fashion,” and I didn’t even know it was associated with MODE. Everybody loves puns—

HSG: Sure, and in that light, your title is quite clever as well—Figure, implying that this is a magazine for a reader who actually has a figure, as opposed to those who don’t. Now, on to the content. What sort of articles might we expect to read in the magazine?

Geri: Aside from the fashion—which I hope, and trust, that when you see the pages, you’ll absolutely love them. They’re wonderful—

HSG: And you do stress that this will be a fashion publication, first and foremost?

Geri: No, not at all. If I had to bill it, I’d really put into the classification of a “women’s lifestyle.” But you can pick up any women’s magazine, and putting the fashion aside, whether it’s Glamour, Seventeen, Mademoiselle, Vogue, etc., you can read about, “Ten ways to have an orgasm,” “Fifty ways to do this,” “Forty ways to do that.” I don’t want to do that stuff. I just don’t. We’re not going to have any celebrities on the cover. We’re going to have real models on the cover, who are plus sized. Seeing if it works, we might have real people on the cover, too, but I know that’s difficult because they don’t really know how to respond to the camera like a model does.

HSG: True, and besides, there is a growing fan base for plus-size models, and those fans certainly look forward to seeing their favourite faces in magazines and ad campaigns.

Geri: So the stories we have that are non-fashion—because at least a quarter of the book will always be fashion—will be women’s lifestyle, including beauty, home, relationships—

Heidi: Entertaining—

Kati Kochanski (Irene Marie, Miami) modelling for Fashion Bug, Summer 2003.

Geri: —books, food, and entertaining. It truly is an extraordinarily well-rounded book. And by the way, what we have posted on the web is kind of a version of the first cover. It is not the actual cover. The actual cover is even better than that. The actual cover shows three models, all different ages, one representing a woman in her 20s, one in her 30s, and one in her 40s, all of whom are dressed in identical tops, and identical pants, all of whom are obviously plus sized, all of whom are beautiful looking, and it is quite a departure from any magazine cover we’ve ever seen. It simply says, Figure, and the tagline is, “Strong, sure, and sensual: America’s new beauty.” I don’t want to give away what we’re doing for the November cover, but it’s going to be quite dramatic; and it’s going to involve a model, but it’s going to involve the real story of a model, and her issues with a lot of different things. The fashion will be all Lane Bryant, Catherines, and Fashion Bug—but no different, as I see it, as an editor, than any other magazine. If you take Vogue, Vogue is nothing more than a custom magazine for Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, and Calvin Klein. They’re not writing about those designers only because they’re such talented designers—and I’d say this for the record all over. If I’m ever interviewed on TV I’m going to say this. They’re doing it because those designers are paying their bills. You look at tons of pages on Ralph Lauren’s clothes, and Calvin Klein’s clothes, and Donna Karan’s clothes, as if they were the only designers in the United States and in the world, because they’re spending the money to support Vogue. Period. And this magazine is no different. So when you see our clothes, for the plus-size woman, you will see beautiful clothes that are not Giorgio Armani (he doesn’t do plus size anyway). But that’s the truth, and I’m not trying to be flip, nor am I putting down the way magazines operate. They have to live too.

HSG: I understand completely. And in retrospect, it’s a shame that it wasn’t possible for MODE to come to an arrangement of some kind that would have made its survival possible. So you say that the quality of the images in this magazine, the technical quality of the fashion layouts, will be top notch, just like—

Gabrielle (Ford 12+ NYC) modelling for Fashion Bug, Winter 2002.

Geri: Heinrich, they’re gorgeous. I will tell you they’re beautiful. We’re using top photographers, we’re using top stylists. The team that’s been assembled, from the editors on down, all have experience. I mean, my experience at Fairchild for so many years. Trish Jett, who works with me, is a top fashion editor. She lives in Paris, but she comes here to work on the magazine four times a year. She was the fashion editor of the Herald-Tribune. She was the first American editor of Elle magazine when it was still Paris-based. And she happens to be plus sized!

HSG: That’s quite a team.

Geri: And the editorial for the non-fashion stories is very interesting. For example, we have a story on why nobody RSVPs any more. You can be throwing a party, or a wedding, or a business event, and at the last minute there are fifty people who you don’t know whether they’re coming or not. So we have, “What’s happening with RSVP?” We have another one on bed & breakfasts. But interestingly, we’re not trying to tell everybody who reads this book they shouldn’t eat. On the contrary. We’re saying you can eat, you can eat plenty, but you can eat healthy. We have another article on tailgate parties, on how to have a great tailgate party.

HSG: And needless to say, since you bring up the subject of eating, I have to ask this out of respect to my readers—you aren’t going to have any diet ads, are you?

Geri: Well, you know, it’s a good question. Not in the first issue.

HSG: Urrrr! I have to tell you, you might get panned if you do…

Geri: No, we won’t have diet ads. If we have an ad, it’s not going to be about how to diet, it may be about how to eat well, but that’s not dieting. Yes, we will have stories about exercising. But everything we write is going to have sensitivity to the plus-sized woman. We might write about great desserts and have a recipe for Thanksgiving with eight million calories in it. We’re not going to dictate what people eat.

Liis (Ford 12+ NYC; PB Miami) modelling for Fashion Bug, Fall 2002.

Heidi: It doesn’t matter who you are. All of the women who work in this office are different sizes and shapes, and I’ll tell you, we all have one thing in common. We’re all looking to eat better, feel better, look better. I mean, that’s common no matter what size you are.

Geri: And we are totally aware, as is Dorrit, about that business about diet pills. No, we’re not going to have diet pills, and that—

HSG: Good!

Geri: We’re not, Heinrich. We’re not.

HSG: Will you be targeting teens with this magazine at all?

Geri: No, not now, because in Lane Bryant, Fashion Bug, Catherines, the audience is not teens. Fashion Bug, however, there are younger people shopping there. But that doesn’t mean—and it’s something I absolutely will bring up with them—

Heidi: We don’t have the customer base to really support it.

Geri: But that doesn’t mean that we can’t have editorial geared towards that.

Heidi: Also, talk about your editorial philosophy, Geri, about how this is “ageless” editorial. Anybody from eighteen to eighty would be interested in these stories.

Geri: Heidi is absolutely right. The editorial is not designed to be age-specific. I would say that any woman from late-college age to seventy-five or eighty would relate to the editorial. Except for the fashion, which really is not for a woman who is eighty, it’s really and truly ageless. And very informative.

Heidi: And that doesn’t mean that it’s generic. It means that, the things we choose to write about just really do appeal to people of all ages.

HSG: Right. Now, you gave me some really intriguing numbers with respect to circulation…

Geri: The circulation to start is 400,000. And we will, with the second issue in November, be in Barnes & Nobles, Borders, newsstands—not every newsstand—and we don’t have them all finalized yet, so I’ll be able to report back to you on that later. It takes six months to place magazines in those kind of outlets. The company we’re working with, Soho Publishing, which is doing the placing of it, we didn’t have enough time to get it in for the first issue, in as many outlets as we wanted. It’s going to be for the November issue. You see, primarily the distribution, and the sales, will be in the stores.

HSG: But that leads to the question of why you took the intriguing step of putting the magazine in bookstores and newsstands at all?

Tracie Stern (Irene Marie, Miami; Click, NYC) modelling for Fashion Bug, Spring 2003.

Geri: A short answer is—ad agencies. Everybody wants to know where it is. Not everybody trusts, in the advertising world, that a custom magazine can be a real magazine. And so, we really didn’t care whether it was on the newsstands. We really knew that it was going to have great editorial that was going to appeal to a wide variety of people, even if they didn’t shop at Fashion Bug and Lane Bryant—and that’s the truth. You don’t have to be a shopper there to want this magazine, and if you are a shopper there, it will be great because you’ll see what you can do with the clothes you can buy there. So this company we’re dealing with, that we have a joint venture with, SoHo publishing, which is doing all the distribution, not with the stores, but outside distribution, and the layouts, we work with them very closely, we have kind of a strategic alliance with them, and they do the layouts, they have great connections with the newsstands, and with selling it that way, and we said, why not? So that’s their expertise, and that’s what they’re doing, and it’s really great credibility for Charming Shoppes because it shows that it is a real magazine.

HSG: Undoubtedly. Now, here is a question that I’m sure will be of interest to many readers. You are making an important choice in presenting the fashions on genuinely full-figured plus-size models. As you know, many plus-size retailers still do not adopt this approach. What led you to exhibit your fashions on models who have the same proportions as many of your readers?

Geri: Heinrich, we’re tired of everybody saying, in the magazine business, “We are a magazine for real women,” but they don’t know what a real woman is. That really is the answer. And that’s what’s funny about the magazine. In a way, it’s a magazine not for the plus-size woman, but for the real woman. That’s why we don’t need to say that this is a magazine for plus-size women, because America is plus-size women. We’re talking about women who want to look good and feel whether they’re a size 14, 20, or 22, and that to me is what it’s all about.

HSG: Now, you have also said that you will be drawing your models from the top agencies, so you have chosen to stress beauty as well. You are not throwing beauty out the window, as it were.

Silvia (PB, Miami) modelling for Fashion Bug, Spring 2003.

Geri: Oh no, not at all. And I wrestled with that. It’s an interesting question. I said, “Well, why don’t we use real people? Why don’t we use real plus-size women?” And somebody said to me, “Well, because you still have to be beautiful, because that’s what people want to look at.” And I guess the answer to that is, yes, we do want to have beautiful models to do magazine covers, and to do beautiful things, and we want to be able to hire them. That doesn’t mean that if we didn’t find the most gorgeous plus-size woman on the street one day, walking to work, or whatever, that we wouldn’t use her.

HSG: Yes, and many people will applaud you for that, because you will be showing that full-figured women can be just as beautiful—no, more beautiful—than thin women.

Geri: We’re also going to have a makeover feature. And we want to involve our reader as much as possible in the magazine. Not just in the “Letters to the Editor,” as you will see, but we’re going to do a column each month called “Passions,” a little column of 500 words where we want someone to write in about a passion they have. All different ways to involve our readers so they feel it’s their magazine. Why shouldn’t Vogue be “my magazine,” if I read Vogue—I don’t read Vogue, but why shouldn’t it be my magazine, except for letters to the editor? Why do they dictate to me? Why can’t I tell them how I feel? That’s what we want.

HSG: How do you think plus-size fashion is changing, and how will Figure reflect that change?

Geri: Suddenly, somebody woke up and said, “You know what? Being bigger doesn’t mean you’re not beautiful, and can’t fit into beautiful fabrics, beautiful clothes, beautiful tailoring, and look great.” I think it’s changed in every way, shape, and form. I think it still has a way to go. I don’t think it’s there yet. And I think, the day we wake up—and believe me, I wouldn’t be surprised if this happened in the near future—and we see…if Donna Karan got smart—well, she hasn’t done it yet—she would do plus size.

Heidi: I hear through the grapevine that Donna Karan is doing plus size.

Geri: I haven’t heard that.

Heidi: I read it. Like The Gap and Old Navy, the mass brands, are doing plus size.

HSG: The only shame is, they don’t promote it. And without those images, without images of plus-size models wearing their clothing, it’s only a partial victory, and the message is, “You can wear it—but we don’t want to see you wearing it.”

Geri: It’s changed from the designers’ standpoint that it’s become more accepted. Their smaller-size fashions can be translated into plus sizes. No one ever thought that could be done. But it can be done.

HSG: Why do you think that there have been so few plus-size fashion magazines to date?

Geri: Because magazines go by one philosophy, and that is that we have to be aspirational. If we don’t show thin people that everybody aspires to, we won’t get advertising. That is not the case any more. People don’t read magazines any more because they want to look like Gwyneth Paltrow. They don’t, because they don’t look like Gwyneth Paltrow. People accept themselves in ways that they never did before.

HSG: Do you think that there is a generational shift among women in their attitudes towards body image?

Shannon Marie (recently of Plus Beauty, Miami) modelling for Fashion Bug, Spring 2001.

Geri: Yes I do. I do think there’s a generational shift. I think women who are older obsess about their bodies. Now, for some reason, maybe our daughters are nauseous of that. Not to say that women still don’t want to look great. But to answer you question, I think magazines are afraid. I think they’re afraid that their advertisers aren’t going to want to be associated with women who aren’t trim and petite in the fashion business. You see, we’re lucky. We don’t have to worry about that.

HSG: That’s why it’s so exciting to have a magazine like yours, in which you will have images that readers can aspire to, but the aspiration for them is not to be thin, but rather, to be beautiful and to love themselves as they are. Is there anything else about the magazine that you would like to mention at this point?

Geri: Just that besides involving the reader editorially, we want to do great stuff for them, but simple stuff. We are going to have a sweepstakes to win a bedding ensemble. We want just to be real, homey, and fun. It’s going to be quarterly to start. There will be incredible offers inside from the three chains. We’re really going to have strategic alliances with other retailers, like Linens ’n Things is going to be advertising in the second issue and having great offers only for customers of Charming Shoppes. So if you get the magazine, you will be able to get offers that nobody else will for Linens ’n Things. We’ll try to have those strategic alliances.

HSG: Sounds great. By the way, here’s a little suggestion for you, for an upcoming issue. Next year, when Lane Bryant stages its annual lingerie show in February, I highly recommend that you do a full photo layout about the show. I guarantee that your sales will go through the roof. I know that it’s a very popular event, and that the public would love to see coverage of it, and where better than in your magazine?

Geri: We’ll absolutely make that recommendation.

HSG: Thanks to both of you for your time, and best of luck with the magazine.

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