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What Is Going on With Fashion and Zines?

Everyone from Calvin Klein to Kanye is putting out their own version of the counter culture standby

While some brands are getting app-happy — Sephora just launched on Kik, and Burberry and Balmain are among those who have tried their hands at Snapchat —others are shunning of-the-moment tech trends in favor of a much more old-school approach. Instead of attempting to chase Gen Z cool kids via ephemeral apps, designers like Calvin Klein and Stella McCartney are hedging bets on a much more OG cool kid fave: the zine.

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Magazines can’t seem to stop folding and print ad sales have never been lower, but that’s precisely why now is the perfect time for zines — with their counter-culture roots and DIY ethos — to make a comeback. Of course, you can’t get less counter-culture than Justin Bieber modeling CK briefs, and there’s nothing DIY about the publication the label is planning to hand out on select Purpose tour stops, but it’s still a valiant effort on the publicity department’s end.

Zine Fair at a Primal Screams concert. Image: Noam Galai/Getty

Zines, which Kanye West helpfully taught us are pronounced "zeens," go way back. Women’s suffrage pamphlets, the earliest iteration of the zine and forebear for the riot grrl zines of the ‘90s, first took hold in the 18th century. What followed were a bunch of technological advances that now sound humorously antiquated but at the time were revolutionary, making throwing together one’s own print publication much simpler. Rotary stencil machines were invented in 1900, and the IBM Selectric Typewriter, a development that allowed multiple typefaces, surfaced in 1961. But nothing revolutionized zines quite like the xerox machine, which hit its heyday in the late ‘70s. (And then, decades later, nothing ruined zines quite like the internet.)

The debate over what is and isn’t a zine is older than the dusty copy machine in your parent’s basement. An oft-cited guideline is that circulation must be less than 1,000, though the run is often closer to 100, and that profit is not the primary intent of publication. It should be self-published, of course; extra credit if a photocopier is involved. A zine can be a lot of different things: political commentary, literary experimentation, subculture theory, music critiques. But one thing it’s not — or hasn’t been, until recently — is a way to sell stuff. Hand-produced mixtapes, a product old-school punk zines often peddled, are one thing; luxury fashion is another. The DIY ethos of a zine is pretty at odds with mass consumption. But don’t tell Kanye that.

Last March, Kayne published a zine. It was a glorified lookbook, with lots of NSFW images and few words. He followed it up with a second edition, Seasons Two, in February. He even threw a proper zine party, not unlike the zine fairs you frequented when you were a punk kid with an eyebrow piercing in high school. Well, except there were no zines and lots of A-list celebrities.

Although Kanye didn’t credit anyone for his idea (does he ever?), Othelo Gervacio likely inspired his slapped-together publication. Gervacio, the creative director of bicoastal creative agency Alldayeveryday, has designed graphics for Hood By Air’s Shayne Oliver, Lyz Olko’s Obesity + Speed, and, most notably, Kanye-whisperer Virgil Abloh’s Off-White label. He recently collaborated with artist and DJ Roman Grandinetti on The Circular, a fashion and culture zine that mocks celebrity culture rag culture — the New York Post’s Page Six, in particular; prior to that, he worked on The Newsstand, a pop-up shop in the Lorimer L subway stop that stocked artisanal snacks and fancy greeting cards alongside hundreds of niche zines.

Or perhaps Kanye was drawing inspiration from his frequent fashion collaborator, Adidas. In early 2015, the athletic brand published a zine around the launch of capsule collection StellaSport. They enlisted the help of 25-year-old London artist and party promoter, Lotte Anderson, who brought some authenticity to the project due to her background making cult fanzines for club kids.

Still, it’s possible Kanye was paying homage to his boy Justin Bieber, the occasionally-dreadlocked performer who sings Yeezy’s favorite song of the year. In addition to meet-and-greet sweepstakes, which may or may not be voided after Justin Bieber decided interacting with fans face-to-face was too emotionally taxing, Calvin Klein launched a limited-edition zine with outtakes from his spring underwear ad campaign. What makes this publication a zine, as it was called in the press release, and not a lookbook or a catalog or even simply an advertisement is unclear.

It’s not that zines are anti-fashion, nor are they new to the fashion industry.

In the ‘90s, there was no shortage of cut-and-paste creations that served as studies on niche styles like rockabilly and mod or obsessive odes to cult-favorite designers or style icons. These days, creative-minded teens are more apt to start a Tumblr to document their passions, but pre-Tumblr (and pre-Xanga, for that matter), zines were the best way to make something that felt like it mattered. Before the blog-to-book-deal business model of the early aughts, it was possible—though never the intention—to turn a beloved zine into a publishing deal. Jennifur Brant, creator of Pesky Meddling Girls, may be the most famous example. At 21, she morphed the biannual vintage shopping bible she made in her parent’s basement into a bestselling book and a column in ElleGirl. That may have been the last time a zine turned into a glossy gig, but it’s not the last time glossy magazines attempted to recreate the vibe of a zine.

In October, legendary makeup artist Pat McGrath teamed up with Vogue to roll out a 32-page zine filled with iPhone snaps and ostensibly candid selfies for the launch of her makeup line Phantom 002. It was likely printed by the same company Vogue uses to put together its glossy every month, and it was more or less a work of sponsored content, given that every last page was intended to promote Pat’s makeup line. The line between making a zine and making a catalog and calling it a zine is as fine as the metallic Gold 001 dust Pat was selling in the publication.

Prior to McGrath’s publishing, Marni launched a zine called Anticamera in 2011 (it was digital, which sort of goes against the ethos of an authentic zine, but it’s Marni, so we’re counting it); Urban Outfitters & The xx published a zine in 2012; and a year later, the Vena Cava girls handed out a zine, aptly named Zina Cava, to all fashion show-goers. At the time, WWD reported that Vena Cava designer Sophie Bahai was emphatic that it would not be online, "We’re only making five hundred, and if you don’t get one now, well then, you’ll just have to borrow someone else’s."

That same year, Kenzo designer Humberto Leon and Carol Lim made a limited-edition print publication called Kenzine, which was the same name as their brand’s blog at the time. Leon and Lim, of course, are no strangers to zine culture. Opening Ceremony not only sells zines, but also once had its own. In 2012, Rizzoli published a now nearly out-of-print tome called Opening Ceremony, dedicated to the beloved NYC boutique. Inside was pull-out zine masterminded — and written — entirely by Spike Jonze, in which he expounded on the history of the brand.

Some brands have had more luck than others printing an authentic-feeling zine. In February 2015, Refinery29 produced a fashion zine called Editions. Though it was dubbed the "inaugural" issue, it has not made a reappearance since. Their first print effort was not unlike the millennial-targeted periodical Hearst put out that same year. The publishing giant didn’t brand TrendingNY as a zine, but rather a "freemium magazine," which is a decidedly less appealing name (and might, in fact, be why it’s no longer around). Refinery29 tried again last summer, publishing a zine in partnership with H&M. Called Amped, it was a zine "celebrating the very best in sound and style" and distributed in 300 (of 3,924) H&M stores across the country. Whether fans were amped about the pub remains to be seen, but H&M is working with Refinery29 again this festival season, but tbd on whether the zine will make a return.

If the goal of a branded fashion zine is simply self-expression and the sheer joy of creating something tangible, it’s undoubtedly worth it. But if the intention is brand awareness — or worse, selling stuff — probably best to stick with Kik.

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