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What Magazine Publishers Can Learn From Couture Houses

Couture came back from the brink. So can magazines. Here's how.

It's couture week, and with it comes the requisite "Couture is dead!/Long live couture!" stories, citing double digit growth for many of the houses—including Dior, whose couture business has long been a top performer. Giorgio Armani, who joined the incredibly-hard-to-crack Chambre Syndicale couture calendar in 2005, recently told WWD that his couture collection continues to garner "positive results."

Yes, it's true that couture is thriving. More and more young designers are aiming to show during couture week, even if they are not welcomed onto the official calendar. And beyond those two weeks in January and July, designers are incorporating couture techniques into their ready-to-wear. (Joseph Altuzarra's spring 2013 collection was a great example of this.) But the truth is that couture will never be the money-making pillar of a fashion house. And for the major luxury brands, neither will ready-to-wear. That money comes from accessories, the high-end world's version of fast-fashion.

Which brings me to magazines. For magazines, their fast-fashion equivalent is the internet. Right now, major publishing houses are where couture houses were around 1968. Back then, as more customers demanded ready-to-wear, the fate of haute couture was in question. (And it continued to be questioned for another 30 years.) Today, as more and more customers abandon print publications for the web, publishers are trying desperately to ignore the new circumstances. The hope for many of them—even if they're not willing to admit it—is that someday, those readers will come back to the "crown jewel."

It took couture 30 years to realize that those former customers weren't returning. But instead of closing up shop altogether, they refocused their businesses: on new markets, mostly, but also by shrinking their staffs. And the craftsmen who remain have been given a new spotlight: in June, 3,000 visitors came to the Dior atelier as a part of LVMH's Le Journées Particulieres, a two-day open house.

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Like the fashion house owners 30 years ago, it's hard for magazine publishers to believe that the web will ever be as profitable as a print product. (Or as distinguished.) There are a few that have figured it out, but not in the fashion space. The Atlantic, for instance, adapted a "digital first strategy" in 2007. The results speak clear: 2010 was the magazine's first profitable year in several decades, according to Mashable. And in 2011, digital ad revenue topped print for the first time ever.

What The Atlantic has done is very similar to what Dior or Chanel or any of the other couture-first houses have done: focus sales on the low-hanging fruit (sponsored web content), and charge enough for the upscale product (aka, the magazine) that it is still worth making. Today, sales at most magazines are still focused on the book, when in reality every salesperson should be thinking about the web and mobile. Making the web staffs bigger and creating smaller magazines with a tinier, more select group of people will result in a better product all around (and in most cases, more money for everyone).

Of course, there have been hiccups at these new "digital first" publications. Who can forget The Atlantic's sponsored-content debacle? I'd liken that bump to the licensing mistakes fashion houses made in the '70s. It too will pass.

The other set that have benefited from this shift are the independent publishers. Much like a tiny fashion house, the margins are tight and the staffs are minuscule. But they have the opportunity to create something devoid of commercialism, do what they love, and not worry about whether or not they sold enough ad pages that month. For the purest of creators—whether she's a designer or a fashion editor—independence, not wealth, is the greatest mark of success.