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Welcome to the new Maxim—or the magazine's "moment of reinvention," as newly minted editor-in-chief Kate Lanphear calls it in her editor's letter. Back in September, Maxim poached Lanphear from T, where she served as style director. The hope was that Lanphear, a sharp editor with a deep fashion background (she also spent years in the fashion department at Elle) and plenty of street style cred, could help the struggling magazine veer off in a different direction.
"We're architecting a new Maxim," Lanphear tells Racked. "It's been two decades since the brand was first published. We wanted to reshape it to reflect the times we are living in now—really, it was about evolving. We plan to build it into a lifestyle brand for men."
There was a time when Maxim was considered one of the most popular men's magazines in the US. Started by British publishing mogul Felix Dennis in 1995, Maxim's tagline was "Sex Sports Beer Gadgets Clothes Fitness." The magazine reached 2.5 million readers a month, expanded to 16 editions sold in 75 countries, and even invoked copycats. Under parent company Dennis Publishing, Maxim continued to expand into the 2000s, with the launch of its website, as well as some unsuccessful attempts at additional brand extensions like a failed casino and radio show. This foreshadowed greater trouble to come.
In 2012, the magazine's annual ad sales dropped 18 percent; it was losing between $3 billion and $5 billion annually at the time, according to a report by Bloomberg. That year Maxim cut circulation from 2.5 million to 2 million and decreased its publishing frequency from 12 issues to 10. The magazine has also lost some 90 percent of its value in recent years. In 2014, the publication was sold to Texas entrepreneur Sardar Biglari for between $10 million and $15 million; it was sold to private equity firm Quadrangle Group for a whopping $250 million in 2007.
"Lad magazines kind of stopped happening—they petered out."
There's been a general decline in the popularity of "lad mags"—men's magazines that feature ribald content like women in barely-there lingerie, who are more dressed than Playboy bunnies but less high-fashion than GQ.
FHM ceased publication in 2006, Nuts closed its operation last year, and the overall circulation of lad mags in England (perhaps the category's largest market) has plummeted in the last several years. In 2013, a New York Times story on Maxim noted that the magazine influenced the creation of characters like Schmidt on New Girl, the Hangover bros, and just about anyone that Will Ferrell plays, but the magazine had since "outlived its power to provoke and titillate" because of the shifting cultural landscape.
"Lad magazines kind of stopped happening—they petered out," says Adam Rapoport, editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit and former style editor for GQ. "Times have changed and there's not much of a market for them anymore. Readers are interested in religiously edited magazines with high editorial standards. Most guys don't want to feel embarrassed to read a magazine on a subway."
Besides, those who are looking for images of unbelievably attractive, almost nude women have infinite (and entirely free) places to find them online. They don't need these types of photos to be packaged as part of a sort-of-glossy-sort-of-raunchy lifestyle magazine.
"Society moves forward. What we consider taboo, risky, and interesting, especially in terms of sex and body image, changes," notes Jason Diamond, an associate editor at Men's Journal. "Getting a magazine with a woman in a bikini doesn't appeal to readers as much anymore because they can find that photo anywhere. When they pick up a magazine, they are hoping to learn something. They want to read something that helps them live their lives better. They are looking for an aspirational element."
"Getting a magazine with a woman in a bikini doesn't appeal to readers as much anymore because they can find that photo anywhere."
This is precisely the tack Lanphear is taking at Maxim, implementing what she knows best: fashion.
"We're going to increase style and grooming coverage in the magazine," she explains. "Men are increasingly interested in looking great, and I want to showcase that. I want to inform our readers and offer them vocabulary so they can have great style too. I would like to architect a brand that is sophisticated and covering style as it enters into all areas of life."
Fashion-focused editorial pages make sense for Maxim, given the cult followings that Complex, High Snobiety, and Hypebeast enjoy. The New York Times is rolling out a style section dedicated to men's fashion, and on the heels of the momentous success of New York Men's Day, the CFDA announced just last week that menswear in New York will finally get a fashion week of its own.
"Guys definitely care more about fashion than they once did," adds Diamond. "Some of them care about sneakers, some of them care about heritage brands, but the interest is there. Fashion keeps changing, but there are some elements of men's style that don't. There's always an audience for it."
Describing the average Maxim reader as a "guy's guy" who "is generally pretty comfortable with himself and wants to look good while also having a good time," Lanphear knows the Maxim audience will not necessarily buy into the advanced looks pushed by GQ and Details.
"I have a long history of working for commercial magazines with broad audiences, and it is always my approach that aspirational does not necessarily equate with unrelatable," she says. "We'll definitely be covering luxury brands, but I'd like Maxim to offer refined ruggedness, style coverage that is straightforward and unpretentious. It's about making suggestions, not rules. You don't want a guy to feel bad, that he's not good enough."
"I'd like Maxim to offer refined ruggedness, style coverage that is straightforward and unpretentious."
Then there's the push for real reporting, something that has distinguished Maxim's now-direct competitors for decades. Esquire helped pioneer New Journalism; GQ consistently wins National Magazine Awards for its longform.
"I'm really interested in storytelling," she says. "I think there's a great tradition in men's magazines, and I was really married to creating a space that preserves that. I want Maxim to offer an experience where you want to sit down and don't just flip through the magazine, but go through it and read it."
Adds Rapoport, "Quality publications are the ones that remain afloat. It's the middle ones that have problems. If you make a good magazine, you'll stick around. If it's so-so, you can stick around and catch a wave, but you'll be exposed."
The March issue is beautifully designed, with bold type and striking photography. There are, of course, some near-nude women as well, though the aesthetic is decidedly less lad mag-y this go-around. The cover, for example, was shot by fashion photographer Gilles Bensimon; it's a closeup of Victoria's Secret Angel Candice Swanepoel, with only her face in the frame.
When asked how she deals with those who criticize the magazine's portrayal of women, Lanphear firmly responds that "anything that's pushing the envelope is going to have critics. As a magazine, Maxim's never been afraid to have a perspective."
"It's about inspiring readers, but punctuating it with some fun."
"We're going to celebrate beautiful women: that's an essential part of the Maxim brand," she continues. "That said, I don't think nudity or semi-nudity should be equated with poor taste. There is certainly a wrong way to depict women and—as a woman and EIC—I'm aware there is a fine line. What you'll see this March are photos that capture a women's beauty. Yes, they're sexy, but they're fun and exude confidence."
When speaking with past and present Maxim readers, many pinpointed the magazine's "frat humor" as a point of difference. Lanphear's vision doesn't entirely dismiss this legacy, though it certainly gives it a polish.
"It's about inspiring readers, but punctuating it with some fun," she says. "I don't think everything in every page of every magazine has to be so serious. It should be an immersive experience where you get to have some fun."
As Diamond puts it, "It can be a men's magazine, but it doesn't have to be a boy's party."