About a decade ago, Gert Jonkers and Jop van Bennekom created a fashion magazine that would become a stylistic reference and a revolution. Fantastic Man brought back the idea of being both fabulous and real. I spoke with the visionary Jop van Bennekom, who is one of the minds behind the Dutch “magazine factory” that churns out The Happy Reader, Butt magazine and The Gentlewoman.
What are you working on right now?
We just finished a new issue of COS Magazine and we’re also launching our new issue of The Gentlewoman next week. Every season COS, Fantastic Man and The Gentlewoman are made basically, in one go. That’s always a very stressful time of year in the build up, and especially in the execution. We lock ourselves up in our offices and we just do it.
How long do you lock yourself up for?
About 3 weeks straight, very concentrated. I used to work every day for 12 hours, but that was some time ago. The more I do, the more I managed myself. [Laughs].
What’s the inspiration behind Fantastic Man?
I come from a super realist school and I started Re- magazine in the ‘90s, which was about real life, not media. With Fantastic Man, we wanted to create something that we felt was fabulous again. We missed that kind of velocity in fashion for men in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s—pop stars, hair, make-up for men—it was quite camp actually. There weren’t so many propositions for men out there in men’s magazines. I thought, “let’s look back.” That’s why the first magazine was so referential because we were very much trying to reanimate all ideas about masculinity, which can be quite feminine, or super butch. Just having fun with masculinity or the idea of masculinity could result in a lot of different things. We also covered a lot of personal styles. Another arena in fashion was the way people wear things rather than the way fashion designers want you to look, or suggest you to look like. We wanted to celebrate the man that we are inside.
“With Fantastic Man, we wanted to create something that we felt was fabulous again.”
You push all aspects and you seem equally obsessed with design, photo, text and fonts as well. Where does your obsession with words come from?
I wanted to become a graphic designer when I was 16. I discovered Peter Saville and I actually discovered a lot about the profession. What I liked about it was the fact that it was media, and the fact that it was images and words. I was obsessed with magazines anyway. I was always traveling to nearby cities to buy Blitz and Z, I had to travel an hour on the bus each way to buy media. So that experience was sort of “the mystery world of British magazines” whilst living in the countryside. It took me some time because I went to art school, then I did my master’s. I was already doing catalogs and all these kind of art projects as a graphic designer and I thought, “That’s not the career I want. I want the media and to be in the newsroom.” I thought, “I want to be the first one to hear about news or to feature people or more elements than just design.” That’s why I started my own magazine and started experimenting with text and with shooting pictures myself. Then it got out of hand.
How do you approach a new cover design? Is it a brand new experiment each time or do you have some rules you like to follow?
Everyone is busy diversifying and almost making covers with Instagram. I really like for our covers to be, not timeless, but iconic and stand out in a simple way. It’s quite straightforward with Gentlewoman, Happy Reader and Fantastic Man. I think the whole concept with Gentlewoman is a different thing because we chose to do something really old-fashioned; the design is almost a non-design.
“The bar was set really high for us, and we just became a bit of a magazine factory almost.”
Tell us a little bit about The Happy Reader, how did that happen?
Penguin approached us—they wanted to do something with us, and were thinking about maybe doing books with Fantastic Man. They said, “Maybe we can make a magazine,” because they’d never made a magazine in their existence. We talked a lot about what the approach would be. Penguin had the idea of it being about literature. Something to do with The Penguin Classics range, something that’s respectful to literature, a bit more light, something people want to read. Inspirational, but something that didn’t exist yet. So we said, “Let’s make a magazine that’s not about literature but about reading.” That’s how we developed the magazine. We came up with the magazine in two parts. One part is the interview, someone who takes inspiration from reading and from books. It’s also about how literature feels, the creation of actors, or of someone like Grimes, who is on the cover of the latest issue. In the second half of the magazine, we explore a classic book of literature by looking at different angles, and at different aspects of the book. For instance, the last issue, the book of the season was “Au Bonheur Des Dames” from [Émile] Zola which was all about a department store. We explored the idea of shopping and retail and 19th century Paris. It’s an inspirational way of approaching literature. It’s looking at different sources. It’s only 64 pages,super simple, and doesn’t cost a thing. Really, really easy to produce, and very easy to take with you. Very democratic.
How many more titles are you going to create?
I don’t know, not so many, I don’t think. I’ll leave it at this point.
It must be a tremendous amount of work.
It is. It’s just creating all the confidence in one. The bar was set really high for us, and we just became a bit of a magazine factory almost. So I don’t have so much ambition to create new titles—it was fun to do Happy Reader because literature was a different area and that was inspirational. I am a very dedicated New Yorker reader, non-fiction. I stopped reading fiction. For me it was difficult to get back to fiction again. Since we started Happy Reader, I read and enjoy fiction on a personal level.
You spend full time working on these titles, and the revenue is from the advertisement?
It’s wonderful because that’s quite difficult to have, these days.
Now it’s quite stable, especially when we started making two magazines together, The Gentlewoman and Fantastic Man. Of course doing contractual publishing, that’s another story. And a different business model all together, where the money doesn’t come from advertising. Doing all these projects simultaneously makes our company quite successful.