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'Tonal,' a New Magazine Celebrating Women of Color, Launches This Month

Founder Zarna Surti explains why she chose this medium and this focus.
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Photo: Carmen Chan for Tonal

Photo: Carmen Chan for Tonal

To put it mildly, traditional print magazines have had a tough go of it over the past few years, but similarly to brick-and-mortar retail, that doesn't necessarily mean it's a channel we should eliminate entirely. For a new print magazine to ignite interest, it seems to be increasingly important that it provide something special — perhaps covering a topic overlooked by most mainstream media — presented in a unique and beautiful way. One new example is Tonal, a print publication launching April 6.

Los Angeles-based Zarna Surti, formerly managing editor at Nasty Gal, decided about a year and a half ago that she wanted to launch a print magazine based around the women of color whose voices and faces she felt were missing from existing publications. "I'd been in fashion and entertainment and all that for a long time and it felt like I just wanted to tell their stories more and celebrate them even more," she says. "This is before the election, but kind of when a lot of these issue were already coming to light." 

Surti became even more passionate about the project after the election and felt it was one way she could help. "I was also trying figure out how to make my own statement and my own place within everything, and I think that a lot of times we have to use our skills to do that, and that's my skill and that's how I know how to have a voice," she says, adding, "I think there's something nice about it being a group of women doing it for other women."

Photo: Benjamin Askinas for Tonal

Photo: Benjamin Askinas for Tonal

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She acknowledges print media's decline, but felt strongly that it should be a print, not online, publication. "Yeah, I think it makes no sense [to go into print], but I love it. I think I just wanted something that people could touch and feel," she explains. "Then I kind of looked to, what can set us apart? A lot of people start magazines but they're so similar to other ones that it's hard for them to be distinct." In addition to featuring women of color as contributors, profile subjects and models in fashion editorials, each issue of Tonal will center around one color theme that will inform both its aesthetic and overall vibe. The first is nude (though there is no nudity); the second will be red. "It's almost choosing a feeling first and then a color."

Having never worked in print, she also had to literally figure out how to make a magazine, which she saved up her own money from various jobs to launch. A fan and collector of indie mags herself, Surti's research involved looking through titles similar to she wanted Tonal to "feel like," Googling and turning to friends who had magazines. The first issue is nearly 300 pages and has a linen hardcover; it doesn't have any ads, which Surti says was intentional, and will retail for $50. According to Business of Fashion, she hopes to work with brands on "non-traditional advertising" going forward. Surti also runs Tonal Studios, a creative agency that works with business owned by like-minded women of color, which could likely help produce such content.

While Tonal's stories won't all explicitly focus on the subjects' experiences as women of color, it will be an ongoing part of the conversation. "We always insert questions like, 'What's it like to be a first-generation business owner?' 'What's it like to be Korean-American in the landscape?'" Representation is also a constant focus: "I know for the next issue I want to make sure we have a trans woman; that's really important to me. I want to make sure we have more Latina representation."

Surti hopes for Tonal to be biannual and, yes, there is a website but it will only serve as a place to see beautiful imagery and purchase the magazine. There's also an Instagram account with original video and imagery as well as inspiration. She seems to be keeping her expectations manageable — "I'll be so excited if 10 people buy it," she says — but didn't skip a beat when I asked who her dream subject would be: Michelle Obama, with a double black and white cover, is her ideal final issue. "I want [all the issues] to sit on the shelf almost like an encyclopedia, so hopefully that's a possibility."

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