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How 'Town & Country' EIC Stellene Volandes Keeps America's Oldest General Interest Magazine Looking Forward

The editor got her start at 'Vogue' and is also a contemporary jewelry expert (with a new book to prove it).
Stellene Volandes. Photo: 'Town & Country'

Stellene Volandes. Photo: 'Town & Country'

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

Newly appointed editors-in-chief are almost always brought in from outside the magazine, making Town & Country Executive Style Director Stellene Volandes's promotion to the top job in March a significant anomaly. "I also worked with my staff as a colleague, so I come into this position differently than those people; this is my family and they're my friends, but they're also my editors," she said last month at her office in Hearst Tower. 

Following the departure of Jay Fielden to Esquire (he is still T&C's editorial director), Volandes was tasked with celebrating the magazine's 170th anniversary in October. So how does the oldest continually published general interest magazine in the country stay relevant today? "We're always digging into the archives," she said. "Whatever historical thing we did [in the anniversary issue], we made sure it was a question that had to be answered today." In a digital world, print fashion publications have had to find a space to succeed as a premium product, and T&C has a leg up on the competition because it has a loyal audience for its insider view of the most rarefied segments of society and culture. In fact, when Hearst announced Volandes's promotion, it said T&C's revenue has grown 48 percent in the last five years. "But really these magazines are created for someone to receive at home and sit down with and engage directly with, and I never ever want to lose sight of that," she said. 

In many ways, Volandes was destined to become an editor-in-chief. As a student at Vassar she interned in the city every semester at titles like New York Magazine and Elle Decor. "To suddenly see how they worked and came up with ideas and collaborated with each other... it was a moment where [I thought], I want to be a part of this," she said. After college (and a master's degree), she was hired as an assistant at Vogue to two editors who would become mentors: Richard Story and Michael Boodro, now editors-in-chief of Departures and Elle Decor, respectively. After a three-year stint as a teacher at LaGuardia High School, she followed Story to Departures and stayed for nine years, during which she became the style editor and discovered her fascination with jewelry. She joined Town & Country in 2011.

I spoke with Volandes about what luxury means today, how she protects and leads a legacy print brand and what makes for a perfect T&C story.

Photos: 'Town & Country'

Photos: 'Town & Country'

How has luxury changed over the course of your career and what does it mean today?

I have been writing about luxury for 18 years now, and I think that when I first start writing about it… the word luxury was so rarely used. [Now] the word itself has been overused, but what true luxury is has stayed the same. Whether it's about a bag that takes a craftsman over a year to make or it's about a bag that someone waits for a year to buy, I think that that idea of time is integral to what luxury is, and I think luxury is about a certain intelligence. I think that it is created with an eye for what quality is, for what heritage is and craftsmanship is. 

How have you honed Town & Country's point of view in this difficult market for magazines?

We are the oldest, continuously published magazine in America, and I think that idea of that singular history informs every decision that we make. Every piece that we put in this magazine has to feel relevant to not only our past but also to exactly what's happening today, how we define what should be in the magazine and what shouldn't.

But I think what ultimately really separates Town & Country is that we treat every single piece of writing about the objects, the experiences, the shows and the exhibits that are opening with the same inside intelligence and authority. We are writing for a readership that is so well informed and so well travelled. They're not going to trust someone who writes something old hat about a $70,000 bag. Even people with a lot of money, they spend it wisely and you need to appreciate that as someone who is presenting them with things that they are going to buy. So whether it's a classic L.L.Bean tote or it's a half-a-million-dollar necklace, our readers can buy these things and they do because they are anointed by T&C.

What did you learn from your mentor, Richard Story at Departures?

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I learned never to lose enthusiasm. He's been at Departures for decades and still when I ask him what's happening, he talks about stories and new writers with such excitement and he just absolutely loves Departures so, so much. And I think I feel the same way about Town & Country now. He really also taught me about the reader experience: Do they know what that page is about without looking at anything? Are you giving them some time to rest? Are you giving them a moment to laugh? Are you showing them something they didn't know about before? Richard was a great mentor to me but coming here five years ago and working for Jay [Fielden], also presented a whole different kind of experience for me, and I think that the way that I manage is sort of a fusion of the two.

What makes a story right for Town & Country?

There's a journalistic integrity that I think we brought to the magazine, and that the magazine has had for a long time, that also helps us edit. There is so much now being written about what we call "the 1 percent" — if you look at our archives it was the “upper crust” or “people like us.” What is a type of behavior we want to salute? In September, we had a great piece by Jessica Pressler about Socialite Rank. You sit at a fashion show and the celebrities in the front row, some of them have movies, some of them have Instagram accounts, when did that happen? And Jessica really brilliantly traced it back to this one year and this website that showed a certain crowd, that they did have social currency beyond just their circuit, that there was great interest in them and they could capitalize on it. And that's what makes that a Town & Country story.

What kind of content resonates better online than in print, and vice versa?

I think that everyone has found that certain kinds of stories work really well online, right. But the story that did so well for us on our website was our profile of Thomas Keller from the October issue. And so you begin to see that good content works across all platforms. It’s a story, really, of getting kicked in the teeth and getting back up again, which is a human story. And it also came out like a day after that Pete Wells New Yorker profile, so we were really part of the current conversation.

Your first book, "Jeweler: Masters, Mavericks, and Visionaries of Modern Design," came out in September. How did this project come about?

Rizzoli approached me about a year and a half ago, and they've done a lot of jewelry books on historic houses but they've never really done a book about contemporary jewelry. So we really zeroed in on the sort of artisan jewelers that maybe were not well known, were not widely available but that for a sort of jeweler connoisseur were really some of the giants working today. My criteria was that they all had to have created an aesthetic that was immediately recognizable as their own. So if you see a piece of bakelite jewelry studded with sapphires and diamonds, you know that's Mark Davis or it's somebody copying him. But he has really created an aesthetic and stuck to it, and been loyal to it.

The T&C October issue marked the magazine's 170th anniversary. Did you dig into the archives for this special edition issue?

The thing that I kept in my mind as I was putting together this issue was it absolutely could not be a nostalgia trip, and I think what we have achieved is the opposite of that. It celebrates history but it connects anything historical with something that is happening right now. How do you do a Slim Aarons story that feels new? He is the most Instagrammed photographer on the planet; he has reached this whole new generation. So we assigned Patricia Bosworth a story to investigate why Slim, who is adored by Instagram, is still not as well respected by the art world.

I think that the thing also with producing a magazine like Town & Country is you want each story to live up to its legacy. Brandon Maxwell: suddenly he is the future of American fashion, there is so much joy and excitement around him and when he told [Style Director] Whitney Robinson that his dream was to dress Lynn Wyatt, [we thought,] “We can make that happen.” And that is a perfect story, and that is a one-of-a-kind idea. You have to come to Town & Country for that idea, and that's what makes print so compelling and so important. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Homepage photo: Town & Country

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