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The rise and fall of a youth-culture bible

The Face that launched a dozen imitators

How a subversive youth magazine pioneered an edgy style that was soon adopted by the mainstream

How a subversive youth magazine pioneered an edgy style that was soon adopted by the mainstream

Harriet Fitch Little | November 15th 2017

London, 1980: biting recession, growing unemployment and a prime minister not for turning. And yet for the magazine industry this was a year of radical rebirth. A trio of glossies was launched – the Face, i-D and Blitz – all clamouring to be crowned champion of subversive youth culture.

The Face didn’t last the longest but was perhaps the most influential. That’s the argument put forward by Paul Gorman in “The Story of The Face: the Magazine that Changed Culture”, published by Thames and Hudson. Gorman casts the magazine as the bible of lifestyle and culture for at least the first 15 years of its 24-year run. The Face was an incubator for cultish figures. It promoted new models – a 16-year-old Kate Moss appeared on two covers – and wrote about a rising generation of musicians including Spandau Ballet, Boy George and Duran Duran.

But Gorman’s book is more than a roll call of famous faces. He argues that the Face was the first magazine to grasp that youth culture wasn’t a frivolous offshoot of “real” culture but a potent creative – and commercial – force. It took teenagers seriously – from the clothes they wore to whether ecstasy or acid was their drug of choice. It moulded its coverage of film, music and art to reflect the fast-changing zeitgeist. 

As the 1980s faded into the 1990s, a decade with a more egalitarian mood, the Face swapped its edgy Soho models for kids raving in fields. Then there was Britpop to write about, then heroin chic, then…what exactly? Gorman suggests the magazine floundered because nothing sufficiently cool came along to replace it. By the mid-1990s, the rise of the lads’ mag left the Face playing catch-up. It bled into the mainstream it had once set itself against. On the cover of the last ever issue, in April 2004, was Mischa Barton, star of “The OC”, a decidedly non-edgy American television drama.

But for Gorman – who is a fan before he is a critic– the Face never really died. If, at a certain point, it started to look like other magazines, it was only because everything else on the news rack had copied it. 

“The Cult with No Name” (Issue 7, November 1980) 

The Face didn’t launch as a style magazine. It first rolled off the presses as a sexier take on the weekly rock-music magazines known as “inkies” – Nick Logan, its publisher, had overseen a redesign of the NME. Then, a few issues in, a 21-year-old writer called Robert Elms turned up at Logan’s Carnaby Street office and persuaded him that no one wanted to read any more interviews with po-faced men with guitars. On Elms’s suggestion, the Face got behind the New Romantics, a new generation of style-conscious, Soho-based musicians and hedonists. The magazine announced its new direction with a feature in issue seven, “The Cult with No Name”, illustrated with snaps of Soho nightlife by the photographer Derek Ridgers.

 

“The Werk Ethic” (Issue 23, March 1982)

It took two years for the Face to establish a visual identity as distinct as its editorial stance. Neville Brody, a freelance designer, announced his arrival as the magazine’s visual mastermind with his layout of an interview with Ralf Hütter from the German band Kraftwerk. Brody, who was soon appointed artistic director, was influenced by punk and Dadaism, and deployed typography and white space as illustrative components. His graphic innovations were soon copied by more mainstream publications. From 1984 onwards, Brody often drew custom type faces, telling a colleague he worried the Face was being ripped off so relentlessly that “it will start to look like all the other magazines”. 

 

Buffalo collective cover (Issue 59, March 1985)

By the mid-1980s, the Face had positioned itself as “the almanac of all that was cool”, particularly in the emerging sector of men’s style. Instrumental to this was the Buffalo collective, a loose grouping of photographers and stylists who pushed the magazine’s fashion coverage in a hard-edged, experimental direction. This cover, which features a 13-year-old model with the word “Killer” placed in his hatband, was their best known. To critics, this prioritising of aesthetics over everything else meant the Face was an increasingly hollow vessel. Dick Hebdige, a media theorist, accused the magazine of having “flattened everything to the glossy world of the image”. 

 

“The Third Summer of Love” (Issue 22, July 1990) 

Logan paid heed to the accusations that his magazine was peddling a pretentious urban agenda. The death in 1989 of Ray Petri, a stylist who was a leading force in the Buffalo collective, was a turning point for the Face. It embraced rave culture, a more democratic cultural movement – “these kids dancing around in fields” as Logan enthusiastically put it. Kate Moss, 16 and not yet a star, became a muse when Corinne Day photographed her for the July 1990 cover: “The Third Summer of Love”. A spirit of messy, playful realism prevailed.

 

Blur cover (Issue 68, May 1994)

The early 1990s presented a conundrum for the Face, because British youth culture was being dictated by external forces – American grunge foremost among them. For the first time in the magazine’s history, editors were chasing after interviews abroad rather than championing a home-grown scene. Salvation came in the form of two cocky British bands. Blur and Oasis’s battle for chart supremacy in 1994 was seized on by the lifestyle press; Britpop gave editors an excuse to return their focus to home shores. The May 1994 issue of the Face that ran a picture of Blur’s Damon Albarn on the cover also included a spread on Damien Hirst and the rise of the Young British Artists. 

 

Alexander McQueen cover (Issue 15, April 1998)

By the mid-1990s, pressure was mounting on two fronts. The ascent of lads’ mags like Loaded and FHM made the Face, which had a predominantly male readership, appear tame and earnest. Meanwhile, a new wave of hyper-cool lifestyle magazines such as Dazed and Confused were gaining pace, and taking jabs at the Face as they did so. Nick Logan sold the magazine to Emap, a media conglomerate, in 1999, which closed it after a five-year death rattle in 2004. Gorman sees the 1998 issue featuring Alexander McQueen, a fashion designer, as a rare highpoint of the magazine’s late period. With McQueen styled as a strung-out goth, the cover hit the sweet spot that had first made the Face famous: the intersection of high fashion, street style and radical design. 

“The Story of The Face: The Magazine that Changed Culture” by Paul Gorman (Thames & Hudson)

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