‘People want to see magazines back’: ELLE returns in all its glossy glory

Next week, ELLE Australia returns to newsstands – and that’s not just an antiquated turn of phrase. The beloved print magazine version of the fashion bible is back in all its glossy glory as the sector enjoys a renaissance period.

ELLE was one of eight magazines closed by former owner Bauer Media in 2020 during the pandemic. Continuing as a digital-only publication under new owners Are Media for the next three years, the site now boasts 270,000 unique visitors, and 530,000 page views a month.

Considering that Are Media now boasts more than six million readers across its print magazine range — a stable that has seen six quarters of continual growth — the time seems perfect to relaunch ELLE as a print title, with two issues in 2024 and four in 2025.

Grace O’Neill started at ELLE back in 2014 as the magazine’s intern, and was there six years later when the print magazine closed. She then joined Harper’s Bazaar Australia, as global content editor of its newly relaunched print title, and has also found time to edit culture magazine Par Femme, co-found boutique creative content agency Dollface, and co-host popular podcast After Work Drinks.

O’Neill is now back in Australia and back at ELLE, as the publication’s new editor.

As she explains to Mumbrella ahead of the first issue’s launch on March 4, ELLE magazine and the Australian public are a unique fit.

Let’s start with the first issue. It’s amazing you are bringing back a print magazine.

It’s very exciting. I think it’s a magazine that belongs, I think it uniquely fits Australia, the Australian market, and Australian women, and the way Australian women consume fashion. It’s got this high-meets-low approach to style. It’s got this huge focus on features and great writing, along with fashion. I’ve just always felt like it uniquely suits Australia. So I’m very, very excited that it’s back.

You came from Harper’s Bazaar, after being at ELLE for a decade. What is it about print magazines that you think has driven this renaissance in Australia, especially in the glossy fashion space?

The analogy I always use is, the whole time in high school and uni, I worked at different movie theaters. And that was during the boom of streaming. There was this discussion that cinemas would close because everyone would watch things at home – and that petered off. And now everyone’s still goes to the movies. Print is a very similar thing. It’s a completely different experiential thing to reading something online. And I think, sometimes, there has to be this shift in the landscape to get back to an equilibrium where people discover that they really want something, and that they miss it, I guess.

I think that’s what we’ve seen in Australia. We had this period during COVID, where there were these closures of lot of key titles, and they’ve all come back. And, I think it’s because there is nothing quite like the physicality of a product, where you can look at beautiful fashion photography and read really fantastic in-depth features. The experience of doing that is so different with a magazine than it is doing it on a desktop or a phone.

When we look at our screens, we associate it with all the emails we haven’t answered, or texts we haven’t responded to, all work things that we’re leaving to the wayside. With a magazine, you can actually sort of escape the horror show of being on your phone all the time and and experience a specific type of relaxation or unwinding or detaching that I think is so rare these days.

I agree the physicality of it is important. It’s like a luxury product that is also very affordable. It’s beautiful, it’s glossy, the paper-stock’s really thick, it’s well-presented – all of which must be good for advertisers, obviously.

This is something I know from having worked in magazines now, for 10-12 years, is that luxury advertisers, which is obviously our target market, love being in print. They spend millions, tens of millions of dollars on these huge, beautiful campaigns that are devised and designed to be encountered physically.

So, whether it’s huge billboards, beautiful side-of-bus advertising, and then in print on beautiful paper, especially with fashion, I really believe that fashion photography, and the imagery that is created by the kind of artists that work in fashion photography, needs to be seen 3D. It just doesn’t resonate in the same way across the screen. And, I think that fashion, luxury advertisers are so aware of that, and they want to be in an ecosystem where you’re looking at the most beautiful fashion imagery in a physical space.

Editorially speaking, what sized team are you starting with? Do you have mainly freelancers, or do you have a strong on-ground staff?

It’s a mix of both. It’s the same company that publishes Marie Claire [Are Media], so we have a few key team members that work across both for the first issue. Naomi Smith is our fashion director. She’s phenomenal. I worked with her back when I worked on ELLE and Harper’s Bazaar before when it was at Bauer. Sally Hunwick is our beauty director. She works across Marie Claire as well, she’s fantastic. Both hugely respected. And then we have designers, assistants, copy directors, people who are full time in-house there.

We also have a really robust list of contributors: we have Bri Lee as contributing culture editor, she’s written two really amazing pieces this issue, Elfy Scott, Diana Reid, we have a lot of really phenomenal, amazing writers who are contributing to us in a more ongoing capacity too, which is a nice way to work.

How much international content will you be including, given there’s 45 international editions?

When I got the job, I went to Paris and spent a couple of days with Lagardère, who’s the owners of the ELLE license, and went through all the incredible work that the international editions do. Plus, they have an international team who create content just designed to be syndicated by the different editions.

This issue was the first one, and I was feeling very ambitious. We shot and wrote a lot of it ourselves. It’s 244 pages, and I don’t want to get the percentage wrong, but almost everything is shot by us, or written by someone local. And the calibre of talent they have access to, internationally, is so phenomenal. We have a piece written by Eva Wiseman, who’s an incredible London-based journalist whose work I love; being able to have access to things like that is pretty phenomenal. And I think, going forward, we will definitely be leaning on that.

But, for the first issue, I really just wanted to showcase all the amazing Australian writers, and photographers, and stylists.

So, you’ve got a September issue, and then four next year. How far ahead are you planning?

Pretty far ahead. We’re already talking to talent about March 2025 covers. Obviously, being in the editor role, you just want to be ahead of the game as much as you can, and the talent that we work with and want to work with – they get booked up!

I mean, we’re already thinking about September: we’ve pretty much got the September cover style locked in, we’re talking to a lot of our contributors about what they might want to do for the next issue. I quite like to have that longer lead time; we started on this [March] one in November. That sounds like a huge amount of time, November to March, but it still felt like it went by in an instant.

Grace O’Neill. Photo credit – Gabby Laurent for ELLE Australia

Are you gonna blow out the page count for September?

I think we’re gonna keep it the same. It might get bigger, I would quite like to. I feel like, now, I’ve got this appetite for making it bigger every time. But I mean, 244 pages, it’s a lot. It’s a really big book. And, it required an incredible amount of effort from everyone. So, I think we might be still being pretty ambitious, keeping it there. But we’ll see…

Are Media is going really well at the moment with print magazine. So that must be a comforting stable to launch out of.

It’s an incredible place to work. I was working with Harper’s Bazaar, but I was also freelance for the last sort of four or five years. And, coming into Are Media, there was this really palpable sense that the executive team, obviously led by Jane [Huxley, CEO], really understanding the current media climate, and then making very, very intelligent decisions.

Even the way that they’ve approached bringing back ELLE, the fact that we’re starting with two issues, and we’re building up the identity and the relationships with advertisers and the team. It’s a slow, sensible, smart way to bring a print magazine back and we’re really thinking strategically about how many do we eventually want to get to. Is that 12 issues a year? Or maybe is six issues a year the perfect amount. We’re talking to advertisers, we’re thinking about how this print content lives on different digital formats.

We’re exploring podcasting — we have a podcast coming in April — it’s just a very considered and strategic approach to why print exists in 2024, and what we want it to be, and what we want to do with it. I think that Jane and the team at Are Media are very much a part of why that’s been done so smartly.

What will the podcast format be?

It’s called ‘What The Elle’, and it’s going to be hosted by me. It’s basically just an interview series with really interesting people in fashion and pop culture and film and art. We’re partnering with Kerastase on the first iteration, the first couple of months. And we have quite ambitious plans to grow that out. I have a podcast myself that we’ve managed to build quite a strong audience around. I just believe very strongly that ELLE needs to exist on many different sorts of platforms. And, I think podcasting is a platform that really resonates with the exact sort of audience that we’re trying to speak to. So I’m very excited about that.

It’s a slower form of media, podcasts, they unfold slowly – at a conversational pace. 

Yeah, exactly.

Is there anything else that you wanted to touch on?

I mean, there’s things that we’re very proud of, like we’ve far exceeded our advertising budget for this issue. And the feedback, it’s just been really phenomenal. We’ve seen this huge pickup, as well, in terms of how the announcement of the print magazine coming back has lifted digital revenue.

When I was speaking to [Are Media general manager of fashion and beauty] Nicky Bridger, when I was putting together my pitch for the job, the way I thought about it is that the print magazine is almost this keystone that everything else in the ELLE universe is built around. And if that’s not really strong, all the other elements — the website, YouTube, podcasting, TikTok, social media — they are less strong because of it. And I think we’re already seeing that is true. If you create a really strong, dynamic, amazing print product, every other part of the ELLE universe is strengthened because of that. And we’ve seen such a huge amount of positive feedback from our advertisers for this issue that’s kind of confirmed that idea.

So that’s very exciting. People want to see magazines back, people want to see them doing well. And I think the audience and appetite for them is really there. I’m excited for this issue to prove that.

ELLE hits news-stands on Monday, March 4.


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