The Americanization of Elle

By Epstein, Sue Hoover | Folio: the Magazine for Magazine Management, August 1985 | Go to article overview
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The Americanization of Elle

Epstein, Sue Hoover, Folio: the Magazine for Magazine Management

The phone was ringing off the hook at Elle Publishing. Publiser Marybeth Russell answered her own line, and in the course of an hour politely told three aspiring job seekers that she was fully staffed, made two business appointments for the next day and reviewed advertising rates.

Russell is remarkably calm, considering the hoopla surrounding Elle's rapidly approaching September launch. She spent a million dollars between April and June to generate awareness of her product--an American version of the French magazine noted for its superlative graphics and high-fashion tone.

"We're a magazine about style," she explains. "And the style thread predominates through fashion, beauty, home furnishings and so forth." The ads that she commissioned from the Peter Rogers Agency to promote the magazine reflect what Russell calls the Elle attitude: "high-spirited, witty, daring and a little outrageous." One ad was outrageous enough (it featured a barely bathing-suited female torso with the headline "No one's as hot as Elle") that The New York Times refused to run it.

Russell herself, a tall, soft-spoken woman with precise gestures and a gentle demeanor, hardly seems outrageous. But she's certainly animated when it comes to discussion Elle's editorial and business possibilities. "It won't be for everyone," she says, smoothing down a page of the French version featuring a model wearing a fur coat over a sweatsuit. "Elle will show people a new way of looking at things."

The business side of the magazine is Russell's bailiwick, and she's handling the business of establishing a corporate identity with dispatch. With 17 years of magazine experience behind her (the past 11 years at Conde Nast, most recently as advertising director of Glamour), Russell was a natural candidate for the job.

Short, confusing history

The history of Elle magazine in this country is short, but complex. The largest-circulation women's magazine in France and the most affluent in terms of demography, Elle first arrived on these shores in 1983 as part of a Bloomingdale's "Fete de France" promotion. A special version published in English and featuring Catherine Deneuve on the cover was distributed through the store and on newstands. Ninety thousand were sold.

"This gae the French the idea that there was a market for Elle in the United States, but they feld they wanted an American partner," explains Russell. "They found one in George Green [then-president of The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.]."

A joint venture between Hachette, the French publishers, and The New Yorker produced two biannual issues in 1984, which were extremely well received. More than 200,000 copies of the spring/summer book were distributed, says Russell, with a 75 percent sell-through.

"It's extraordinary when you make money on a test," comments Janet Muir, who was associate publisher of Elle during The New Yorker/Hachette partnership. "I feel Elle will truly be successful."

But, when Hachette decided it wanted to take Elle monthly, the two companies couldn't agree on several aspects of how to go about it, according to a spokesperson for The New Yorker. Other soures there note that the feeling at The New Yorker was that the timing was not right to undertake such a step.

Enter Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch is so enthusiastic about his joing venture with Hachette, geared toward getting Elle out to Americans every month from September on, that he's tesing the waters in Great Britain as well. Hachette also has separate licensing arrangements with companies in Japan and Saudi Arabia.

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