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How GQ has redefined itself in an era of a new masculinity

I am sitting in a conference room in the Lower Manhattan headquarters of GQ magazine, staring at an image of Pharrell Williams. The Grammy-winner is wearing a lemon yellow Moncler coat that flows well past his feet. It looks like an upside down lily flower waiting to bloom. His hands are clasped at his chest, his facial expression is soft and the overlay text says “The New Masculinity Issue.”

The imagery, the colors, the psychedelic typeface and the gender-fluid Williams made me wonder, “Is GQ still a men’s magazine?”

Sitting across from me is Will Welch, the editor-in-chief of GQ and GQ Style. Earlier, in his office down the hall, he told me that GQ is not just written for or by men. GQ’s readers are anyone who has “an interest in seeing the world through a filter of stylishness,” Welch said.

For Welch, the answer to if GQ is a men’s magazine is an emphatic “totally.” But Welch knows that what it means to be a men’s magazine has changed. In his leadership role, he’s grappling not just with the changing landscape of the media industry but with new perspectives on men and masculinity.

When Welch took over as editor-in-chief of GQ in January, he didn’t see the 88-year-old publication, where he’s worked at since 2007, as broken. He saw the need to redefine what a men’s magazine could be. He wanted GQ to help its readers — whether men, women, or gender non-binary — with their “personal evolution,” he told CNN Business. Men can wear dresses, put on makeup, and get pedicures. GQ shouldn’t tell anyone exactly how to be a man because there’s no one way to do it.

When Welch and I met in his office at Condé Nast’s headquarters he was wearing white pants, a white shirt, and a black denim jacket. I didn’t ask him about the designers or labels behind his outfit. We weren’t there to talk about fashion, even though Welch wouldn’t have minded. “There’s nothing wrong with nerding out about clothes or caring too much about the silhouette of a pair of pants or what kind of shoes you’re wearing. We’re into that stuff, unabashedly,” Welch said.

GQ started out as Apparel Arts, a men’s fashion magazine, in 1931, before switching its name to Gentlemen’s Quarterly and eventually GQ. Over the course of its history, GQ’s print pages have served as a bible for fashion-conscious men. In 2016, GQ launched a separate, quarterly magazine, GQ Style, to further explore fashion and luxury. Welch was named editor-in-chief of the spinoff. Despite titling his letter from the editor at launch “a new blueprint for thriving” he told CNN Business that the publications, and the brand overall, shouldn’t be prescriptive.

“Instead of being like in order to be cool or fashionable or stylish or successful in the office, you need to look this way, it’s how can we help you become your best self, essentially,” Welch said.

Magazine monolith and GQ parent company Condé Nast, now under the leadership of former Pandora chief Roger Lynch, has been trying to recoup losses by cutting costs and redefining its business for the digital era. For example, Condé ended Glamour’s print publication last year. It’s continued to invest in digital content, like video, across its brands. In addition to GQ’s two print magazines in the US and several international editions, the brand launched GQ Sports, a YouTube channel.

Welch has reworked GQ magazine by deemphasizing style guides and other how-to’s. Those pieces now live mostly on the website and in GQ’s newsletters. The idea is that people looking for a new fall coat or a pair of hiking boots probably won’t go to a newsstand and buy a copy of GQ. They’ll turn to Google or maybe GQ.com directly.

“How-to is not print at its most glorious,” Welch said. “When you’re in an industry that’s undergone as much change as the media industry in general, and the magazine industry specifically, you really have to look carefully, take a hard look at any places where you’re grasping, gripping, trying to hold on to what it used to be.”

GQ brings in the second-most revenue of Condé’s magazines, under Vogue, according to a leaked company presentation in July reported on by WWD. A GQ spokesperson declined to comment on that, but Susan Plagemann, chief business officer of Condé Nast’s style division, told CNN Business that GQ under Welch’s leadership has continued to resonate with advertisers.

“GQ has long been the arbiter of men’s fashion and style, but under Will’s leadership, the title has found a new, more precise lens, inspiring a deeply enthusiastic community,” Plagemann said. “Our partners depend on us to deliver access to the most modern and relevant conversations happening today, and GQ is doing just that, across all its platforms.”

The November issue makes Welch’s vision for a new GQ clear. In the cover story, Pharrell tells Welch, “I think the truest definition of masculinity is the essence of you that understands and respects that which isn’t masculine.” Journalist Nora Caplan-Bricker leads a package titled “Voices of the New Masculinity” in which actor Asia Kate Dillon, NBA player Kevin Love, rapper Killer Mike and others share their perspectives of what masculinity means today. There’s a beauty section, featuring men in glittery makeup and a profile of Billy Idol.

As the voices featured in the magazine show, there’s no one definition of masculinity. While Welch hoped the latest issue of GQ makes a statement on the matter, he said the conversation for him and for GQ’s audience is far from over.

“I think what’s cool about this issue, the way that it’s structured, is predicated on the idea that this is an ongoing conversation and the conversation didn’t begin with the release of this issue nor does this issue set out to end it,” Welch said. “As the conversation evolves, our storytelling will evolve with it.”

Welch wrote in the November issue’s letter from the editor that when he told a friend about his new position as editor-in-chief of GQ, the friend said, “Hell of a time to be in charge of a men’s magazine.”

Indeed, women are speaking out about toxic masculinity. Last month, journalist Liz Plank released “For the Love of Men,” a book that explores the pervasiveness of it. She writes, “No matter where I turned, masculinity wasn’t something that was intuitive or intrinsic; it was carefully learned, delicately transmitted and deliberately propagandized. Toxic masculinity wasn’t just a problem in America. I saw it everywhere.”

When asked if GQ helped perpetuate toxic masculinity, Welch was quick to dismiss the notion. “It’s not like GQ was harmful until I took over. That’s definitely not the case,” he said.

The magazine’s latest issue was not its first foray into topics that defy gender stereotypes. I recalled older pieces about men getting manicures and pedicures. There was one in August 2017 titled, “A Man Cave, but for Manicures.” Another was dated January 2000. Welch opened up to me about the nervousness he experienced when getting his first pedicure in his early 20s.

“I just didn’t know how to feel about it and then I just went and did it and I was like, ‘Oh, this is not a big deal.’ If you want to go get a pedicure, go get a pedicure no matter who you are. I think there’s so much of that, that we imagine there are these hard lines that we can’t cross and if you cross them, what will people think,” Welch said.

CNN