penny martin: the gentlewoman

As Editor In Chief of The Gentlewoman, the publication 'for modern women of style and purpose', Penny Martin knows more about the shifting face of print publishing than most.

Known for its obsessive level of detail, outstanding portraiture, elegant and depthy long reads on a variety of interesting women from a variety of interesting genres, The Gentlewoman is unique in the world of publishing. Following on with the success of Fantastic Man, The Gentlewoman was founded by Gert Jonkers and Jop Van Bennekom in the middle of 2009’s recession. WIth their highly guarded cover features varying from Beyoncé to Angela Lansbury (shot in Terry Richardson’s yellow tinted glasses no less), the magazine doesn’t aim to hawk product to the reader, rather invite them in and guide them round the lives of the featured women – from ceramicists to musicians, known to unknown, each woman is treated with absolute editorial equality, chosen as a reflection of modern life.

Kicking off her career at SHOWstudio from the early 00’s, Editor In Chief Penny Martin has been at the helm of the magazine since it’s inception. We caught up with her to find out how she does it.

How did you enter life at the Gentlewoman?

I’d been at SHOWstudio for seven years, until 2008, and Gert and Jop asked me if I’d be interested in starting a women’s magazine with them. It was only a possibility but took so long to happen that instead, I left the commercial fashion industry and went back to academia. I accepted an offer of a position as Chair at London College of Fashion, to be the Professor of Fashion Imagery. But it didn’t suit me. So I had to go back and ask Gert and Jop if they were still interested. Jop and I went for lunch and I was praying that it would work out – the workplace has to be very harmonious for me to function.

Had you worked on a magazine before?

No. I’d worked online, but I had no idea whether that would be similar to working in print. It felt a little like there was all this mysterious industry law that I wasn’t party to, which was slightly true. There was loads of stuff I didn’t know how to do so I had to brazen it out in an extremely elite environment. Torture!

What didn’t you know?

I was plunged into five months of making a magazine from scratch without a clue; the month where editorial and design comes together is massively combative and intense. I spent the first time learning the language, literally but also metaphorically because Gert and Jop are Dutch, and they know each other so well they no longer even need to speak, they can just nod. I really had to work at getting them to externalise what they were thinking – I was like their really annoying little sister!

How much of an initial vision did you have for the first issue?

Well, there was a precedent because Fantastic Man already existed. So we knew certain things that we wanted, like the conversational tone, long form writing and the intimate, un-retouched, candid, beautiful portraiture. We also had a strong sense of we didn’t want, which we could see in contemporary women’s publishing at that time: it just felt like there was a pornographic sea of women’s bodies on newsstands, without any sense of their voices. Funnily enough, we’re only talking about seven years ago but I think it was extremely acute at that time.

I’m aware that all the strange things we place around those famous people kind of tamps down any veneer of celebrity insincerity.

What are deadlines like for you?

Well, we’re in production for a month, which is unusual for a magazine, so we’re exhausted by the end of that; you’re at the zenith of six months of anticipation and terror. I’m personally really deadline focused and can’t bear going beyond the competition date because I rarely keep anything in reserve. Whereas Veronica, our art director and my partner in this, is very used to being at the end of a chain activity since she’s a graphic designer. So sometimes she’ll say, “Well, we’ve maybe got an extra half a day to get that really right,” while I haven’t mentally budgeted for that extra time. That moment can be quite fraught! And then the wait for the magazine to come back from the printers is a combination of relief and fright. I dread finding a mistake. It’s so ridiculous! I once opened up a new issue at the cinema and saw “shirt” written instead of “skirt” and couldn’t concentrate on the film I’d just paid to see. Obviously, I’m still not over it or I wouldn’t be mentioning it now! When I first started working in this industry, I used to get the giggles about that level of neurotic scrutiny. I thought it didn’t really matter that much and couldn’t understand why people would get hysterical over a minor error. I told myself I’d never be like that, that I’d always see the 98% good and not focus on that 2%. But somewhere along the line, I became that person that sees the 2%. And in the end, you know there’s probably not that many people that can see the difference between 98% and 100%. But that’s all I can see.

Tell me about the little extra layer of detail you add in.

I’m very lucky to work for a company owned by two people who are makers themselves that want to spend a month in production because no corporate company would think that’s a sensible use of time. To have the entire company working fifteen hours a day for a month, creating those extra little Easter eggs – the reference sections, the fun facts, the abstract chapter pages, maybe a sitters’ family tree or the artists portfolios and so on – for the 0.1% of number of people who care about the difference these details make.

That’s why magazines are like clubs. The Gentlewoman launched in the last recession – does that seem ridiculous now?

I started in 2009, and that whole year I was being advised that launching a consumer title in the middle of a massive recession was ludicrous, but the magazine disproved the rule and we’re still growing. I’m aware it’s really difficult in consumer publishing right now, but I think the biggest threat is to titles who have barely changed and reacted to how people consume media over the last 10 years. The idea of trying to make print media more like the tone, content and pace of digital is deeply flawed. I like my digital quick, efficient and disposable and my print luxurious, informative and for keeps. Doesn’t everybody?

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