Celebrating 35 years: FASHION editor-in-chief Bernadette Morra sits down with the magazine’s first editor-in-chief John MacKay to discuss the differences between then and now

John MacKay, 1986
John MacKay, 1986

Back in the 1970s,Toronto Life magazine began to experiment with supplements about food and men’s and women’s fashion as a way of generating more advertising dollars. These looked like separate magazines, with their own covers, but they were stapled or bound into Toronto Life. FASHION became the first supplement to spin-off into a separate magazine. Current editor-in-chief Bernadette Morra sits down with FASHION’s first editor-in-chief, John MacKay, who now runs his own fashion and beauty publicity and marketing firm, MacKay & Co., to talk about some of the differences between then and now.

Take a look at some of FASHION’s early spreads »

BM: “How did you become editor-in-chief of FASHION?”
JM: “I had been doing the men’s fashion supplements for a couple of seasons when the decision was made that the women’s supplement was going to become a magazine named Toronto Life FASHION.”

BM: “What was your editorial point of view?”
JM: “We were a city magazine, even though we would later become national on the newsstands. So we were celebrating the city, which made absolute sense because if you looked at the times, we weren’t a global world in the ’80s. People travelled, but not to the extent that they do now. Very few people went to the collections. And so even fashion-oriented or quite sophisticated people in Toronto experienced fashion through retail. And in the social scene, everybody was 30. Imagine a world where everyone was 30.”

BM: “You’re talking about the baby boomers…”
JM: “Yeah. That generation that had come out of the counterculture to disco, to their first careers and their focus on self. No one was thinking about having babies. It was that narcissistic generation where clothing and the development of visual identity became so important. So we were functioning in a world where retail was really exciting, with Creeds, Chez Catherine…. It was totally frontier land. [Fashion media] was new. None of us had ever done these jobs before. We didn’t have developed fashion photographers, so we mentored them. We were all inventing it. We’d find the young talent and work with them. It was just this enormously fertile, creative period for us.”

BM: “It sounds like you had a lot of freedom to do what you wanted.”
JM: “This was also the time of so much newness. It was the time of the growth of the working woman. That whole idea of young professional women who were going to go out and build great careers was new. And we were there to help her look good in the process, to empower her and support her sense of entitlement.”

BM: “Sounds kind of idyllic.”
JM: “It was, but there were challenges too. In our earlier issues we would have only eight colour pages and then it went up to 12 colour pages. So we were doing stories where we mixed colour pages with black and white.”

BM: “How did you approach your covers?”
JM: “We didn’t have money for cover shoots, so we’d try to get a shot from one of our fashion shoots. We didn’t have the kind of pressure that you have to compare yourself to other newsstand magazines. If you look at the range of covers at that time, there’s no formula to them whatsoever.”

BM: “There also wasn’t much fashion on your covers.”
JM: “It was a headshot world out there.”

BM: “That’s so funny. Fashion magazines featuring headshots and not much actual clothing.”
JM: “If you look at Vogue or Bazaar during that period it was about the headshot, and probably there was a sense that that’s what sold magazines.”

BM: “How much of your editorial was local coverage, and how much was international fashion?”
JM: “We only had available to us what was at retail. And a small handful of Canadian designers and the tiny handful of American lines that had reps here. That’s one of the reasons there was so much Anne Klein in all the magazines—they had a rep here.”

BM: “One of the things that strikes me looking back is the lack of celebrities. Now there is such an expectation that there are going to be celebrities in the magazine.”
JM: “Does it have to be? Could you function successfully without them?”

BM: “On the cover, no.”
JM: “So it’s clear, celebrity sells. And if it’s a model it has to be a real celeb model. We didn’t have access to U.S. celebrities. But we were not so global in our thinking, either. We came out of Toronto Life, which had the best writing in the city, so we had this tradition of a 4,000-word piece. David Livingstone would go out and do a profile and we would let it run because we wouldn’t dare tamper with that. The writing was everything to us in the book.”

BM: “What other differences are there between then and now?”
JM: “We had less editorial space and we had a lack of colour. When you look at those front of book pages, it’s single column, because we weren’t able to sell full-page ads. People didn’t have the money for them. Those pages didn’t have a lot of life to them and we didn’t know how to give them life.”

BM: “Today, FASHION features both Canadian and international design, but you didn’t have access to foreign samples…”
JM: “And we wanted to support our designers. And we were a smaller world. Everybody knew each other. They too had that enormous sense of possibility, but they faced the same issues: Money, the small industry, inability to grow. The chances of a Canadian collection being taken out of the country were nonexistent. There were very few Mimrans around in those days to kind of make things happen. Do you do as much local coverage now?”

BM: “In a way, local coverage is mostly handled by the internet. And as a magazine, we are adjusting to all of the coverage that happens in other ways around us. We have 350,000 Twitter followers. So we’re covering things in that way and we have 1 million page views a month on our website, so we’re covering certain things that way. What gets into the book is a minute percentage of everything that’s going on. Is it right? Is it wrong? I don’t know. In that way, I think we’re feeling out what we’re doing, the same way you were feeling out print.”
JM: “You are in frontier land in another kind of way. Do you ever feel like you’re managing to handle anything to the depth that you want to?”

BM: “Do people want that now?”
JM: “I get so disappointed when I start to read some-thing and I like it, and I see that it’s only 1,500 words.”

BM: “But we live in a world of 140-character messages, so a 1,500-word story is long. 4,000 words? That would never happen.”