Kate Lanphear surprised the fashion industry in September when she announced she was leaving her plum post at T magazine for a job as editor in chief of the men's magazine Maxim. It was a peculiar move for the fashion editor/stylist/street style star, who began her career at Vogue and Harper's Bazaar in Australia and was the style director at Elle before joining T as style director.
Lanphear's first issue as editor in chief hits newsstands this week, and the cover alone already illustrates the kind of influence she is having over a brand that used to veer on the tacky side of soft-core porn. The March cover was shot by fashion photographer Gilles Bensimon, one of Lanphear's mentors, and features a close crop of model Candice Swanepoel's face -- not her body. Maxim's new chapter has officially begun.
"It was a hard decision to leave T," Lanphear said. "The team there was so incredible, we were like family — but this is such a unique opportunity. I was really excited do something different and I knew I just had to be part of it and put my stamp on something."
Maxim was acquired a year ago by billionaire Sardar Biglari, with whom Lanphear says she has a "collaborative" relationship and who is committed to reinvigorating the brand. "I think the fact that he approached me for the position really shows that he is forward-thinking and how committed he is to embrace change," she said.
The magazine currently boasts over 2 million subscribers, so Lanphear has been careful to research their lives and interests. The average reader is 34 years of age and the brand has more married readers than any other men's magazine. "I figured they would be very interested in the automotive sector and gear and tech, but there were parts of my world, or the world I come from, that they were very, very interested in," she explained. "Like fashion, style, grooming and culture."
Lanphear says she has been "charged with a clear vision" for the title— which includes international editions, licensing and digital platforms — and even though she insists that the vision is a work in progress, key points have emerged. "I want to celebrate luxury and celebrate stories of success because I think those really inspire people," she said. "And punctuate with great style coverage, because style permeates every area of our lives, and with some fun. Keep it aspirational but not completely unrelatable. I want our guys to feel rich reading us because they are driven and building their way towards success and a better life."
For now, each issue will be centered around a theme, starting in March with "Raw." Lanphear has chosen to unify the issues around a concept to focus the staff's energy and help narrow down the kind of content covered. "I just really wanted unexpected themes, not something cliché for the first issue like 'rebirth' or 'disrupt,'" she said. "Raw is such a visceral word, it's really powerful but kind of vulnerable at the same time. It's something in it's simplest form that's not fully shaped yet, so it really felt like how we were feeling."
To help shape the style direction of the new Maxim, Lanphear has enlisted the help of longtime friend and former fashion director of GQ Australia, Wayne Gross. And while she is closely involved with the aesthetic, she is not actually styling as of now. "Let's see what the future holds, it's too early to tell," she says. "But for now we're just collaborating as a team to really try to shape what the fashion coverage is going to be."
For editorial direction, Lanphear brought Aaron Gell from Business Insider to focus on long-form features. "I think there is such a strong tradition of really great journalism in men's magazines, so we really wanted to create a space to preserve that," she said. The March issue features a personal essay about the theme by novelist Andre Dubus III, a piece on spearfishing by Thayer Walker, a photo essay on former Soviet Union boxers with introductions by Mike Tyson, a portfolio of power tools (which Lanphear calls "boys' toys"), a profile of Vietnam War hero Major Jim Capers by former Marine Corps correspondent Ethan Rocke and an essay by New York magazine columnist Maureen O'Connor about "the female posterior." "I really want to give space to words," said Lanphear.
But what about Maxim's signature tradition of sexualized female imagery? Has that element completely disappeared? Yes and no, says Lanphear. "I can't compete with the Internet," she told us. "There is something sexy about mystery and leaving something to the imagination. I want women to be portrayed as three-dimensional as they actually are, that they are confident, healthy and energetic and happy. I want women that men can fall in love with and not just objectify." Cover girl Candice Swanepoel's shoot is case in point. The model was chosen for the cover in part because she topped Maxim's most recent Hot 100 list — a signature yearly event that may or may not continue under Lanphear's leadership — and while she appears on the inside pages wearing a wet t-shirt and almost nude, she looks makeup-free and comfortable. The objectifying male gaze remains, but it has softened under Lanphear's direction.
As a whole, Lanphear's first issue of Maxim as editor-in-chief looks like a radical departure for the brand. The taste level is significantly elevated, the writing is more sophisticated and the typography and design feel cleaner and more mature. The larger question that remains, however, is whether those 2 million readers will be on board for the redesign. Advertisers are betting they will and have bought 30 more pages than they did in March 2014, with a 1300 percent increase in the fashion category.
"We want to curate content for a guy's guy and perhaps offer it in a way that he wouldn't be able to get anyplace else," said Lanphear. "I've walked in the door with such a robust audience. I just want to remain as relevant to them as I can."