Commentary

Harper's Bazaar

Just as a cross word has never passed my lips, so too has Harper's Bazaar never passed my mag-stacked coffee table--or really, the coffee table of anybody I know. I've cast my steely glare upon many an acquaintance's copy of Vogue, many an Elle, veritable dungheaps of InStyle. But Harper's Bazaar? Not so much.

Upon perusing the mag's April issue, I realized why: content-wise, it's basically indistinguishable from the aforementioned titles. Presentation-wise, it sits a full tier below. Attitudinally and tonally... well, start digging the hole now.

As I understand it, to exist in the world of haute couture, one needs clunky, oversized sunglasses, a healthy contempt for those who would deign to venture into Applebee's, and the ability to annihilate an unfelicitously bedecked peer in seven words or fewer ("Darling, those cuffs practically scream 'dust bowl'"). Enjoying Harper's Bazaar demands those same three things, plus a willingness to pore over pages more cluttered than a sorority gal's hair-scrunchy drawer.

Given that it purports to cover a business that simultaneously prides itself on its minimalism and fabulousness, the mag's mode d'expression (that's four years of high-school French right there) doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The "What's New" and "Great Finds" pages are fashion journalism for the ADD set, each festooned with around ten images, five subheads and pithy spasms of text. Harper's Bazaar packs even its front-of-section introductory pages with a mishmash of fonts, point sizes and sidebars, and seemingly poaches its retro-'80s fonts right off a Bloomingdale's bag.

Then there's the words. Not that anybody reads a publication like Harper's Bazaar for its turn-of-a-phrase dexterity, but the magazine's stories generally fall somewhere between laughable and appalling. Yes, the editor's note recalling the late '70s/early '80s punk-style heyday avoids fashion-world preciousness. But as far as first-person recollections go, the "Personal Style" in-search-of-pants expedition ain't exactly In Cold Blood.

"Living Without Regrets" serves up wishy-washy introspection like "memory is a dreamscape, and a dreamscape has no expiration date." Unlike borscht, ma cherie (four years of French--impressive, no?). Plus captions like "Tisci winked at the gravity of couture with geek-chic glasses" tend to generate overly dramatic eye-rolling among those who wink at those who wink at the gravity of couture, bespectacled or no.

Too, the April issue shoots itself in the foot with alarming frequency. Its "Shop Like an Expert" piece suggests that personal shoppers may be as accessible to Janey Strip Mall as NASCAR or Leno's monologue, yet the story almost entirely betrays that central premise with a photo captioned "Nicole Richie leaves Maxfield with a security escort." Sure, you and I may have been escorted out of any number of chi-chi Madison Ave. boutiques by security, but it was likely for decidedly non-customer-service-related reasons. The whole you-have-access proposition is thereby bunk.

Not surprisingly, the April Harper's Bazaar does best when it concentrates on the purdy gurlies. As opposed to the front-of-the-book one-pagers, the "Fashion's Best Looks" photo spreads afford their subjects plenty of room. You can't tell a whole lot about the duds featured in "Brave New Shapes," but the spare use of light and color render the shots among the issue's most alluring. I'd comment here about Kate Moss rebounding from her recent PR problems with a nine-page spread, but to my untrained eye she appears as blankfaced as ever--and isn't that what the industry always dug about her in the first place?

Harper's Bazaar also scores points with its tacit acknowledgement that women over the age of 28 actually exist. The "Fashionable Life" retrospective on Anjelica Houston comes across as considerably more knowing than the usual where-are-they-now? dreck, while the 25 or so pages devoted to age-appropriate fashion and beauty choices give equal love to gals in their 20s and 60s.

Ultimately, though, the magazine just doesn't offer enough that can't be found in much better form elsewhere. Slapping cliché headers like "Hottest, Newest, Latest" and "Update Your Look" and "Hot List" atop one-page spreads might allow a section editor to leave the office a few minutes earlier, but their women's-mag ubiquity renders them meaningless. Like any number of fashion titles, Harper's Bazaar could really use a more cogent raison d'être (again: four whole years).

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