The Next Magazine: Magnus Berger on His Appointment at WSJ.
In a year full of industry shake-ups, WSJ. magazine’s announcement earlier this week that it had hired Magnus Berger as its new creative director was just the latest bit of news to chew on. The co-founder, along with business partner Tenzin Wild, of The Last Magazine and of the creative agency Berger & Wild, Berger brings a decidedly “emerging” sensibility to a publication that’s often seen as catering to the seasoned reader. But as Berger tells it, nothing in today’s world of fashion media is quite that simple.
At Berger & Wild’s Houston Street headquarters—above Serge Becker’s hip restaurant, Miss Lily’s—the Swedish multitasker spoke with Style.com about The Last Magazine, the dissolving boundaries between uptown and downtown, and the future of WSJ.
Some people out there seem surprised that WSJ tapped you. Was it unexpected for you?
The offer was unexpected, but to me, it made sense. WSJ. is not a defined fashion title—it’s really positioning itself for style and luxury. And I have never seen The Last Magazine as a fashion magazine, although we’ve always had big models on the cover and launched [new issues] during New York fashion week. It’s a very different demographic, but content-wise they’re actually quite similar.
The simplistic storyline here is that an uptown luxury magazine is going for a downtown vibe.
I mean, Wall Street is more “downtown” than Soho and Lower East Side. [Laughs.] I don’t know what that really means anymore, to be honest. Look at Art Basel, in Miami—it’s downtown and uptown coming together for a few days. A lot of the younger designers, like Altuzarra, for example, are very downtown and uptown at the same time. And this news about Alexander Wang going to Balenciaga—he’s young, but super successful, and now he’s taking over for one of the most talented designers of the last 15 years at a super credible old house.
I was a little surprised to see you described as “edgy” in one of the news items.
Yeah, I don’t know where that’s coming from. If you look closely at The Last Magazine, it’s not crazy design-wise or content-wise. It’s quite straightforward. But maybe in the outside world, they’re sort of just grouping things together because it’s easier, the same way we might do with anything that’s going on above 14th Street. For us it’s more about what we put in the magazine. I’ve always been attracted to magazines that are run with a clear vision—Purple, Self Service, Fantastic Man, Gentlewoman, Visionaire.
That scrappy world of smaller magazines seems more communal than it is up at the top of the food chain. I mean, T and WSJ. are always depicted as being engaged in this battle royale.
I don’t know that it’s a real rivalry, but people talk about it that way.
It’s like with movies—it’s not just about whether they’re good or bad, or even what they’re about; it’s who won at the box office. And now you see this intense interest in the games of musical chairs being played in the fashion world, not only with designers but with editors and people like yourself.
Yeah, the whole “She left Vogue and she went to this, and now she went from this world to the newspaper world.” Obviously when it comes to The Times and The Wall Street Journal, the readership is just gigantic in comparison to a lot of these other titles, which is why I think it’s become an issue for the fashion world, where you fight for advertisers.
Weren’t magazines supposed to be on the way out?
Our first issue of The Last Magazine came out in 2008. The name was a bit of a joke, but I honestly thought it might actually be the last one. It’s not always a huge commercial vehicle. It’s a platform for us, with a lot of freedom, and hopefully one that also attracts people for commercial projects. Rather than go and chase clients, we say: “This is who we are, come to us and we can work together.”
Part of your experience with Last must be watching these people whose talent you supported early on go on and become established.
I wouldn’t say establishment, I think that’s a little exaggerated, but there are certainly people in that group that are very successful—both in terms of contributors and people we feature in the magazine, like Carey Mulligan. I believe we were the first U.S. magazine to feature her. And we had Alexander Skarsgård and Lykke Li very early, and a lot of our photographers.
I imagine the wrangling will be a little different at WSJ.
We had my first editorial meeting on Monday. When you’re talking about the people you want to put on the cover or the actors you want to feature, for us at The Last Magazine it would be, “Oh no, but she already did a few movies. She’s too established.” And up there it’s almost like, “What are you talking about? She hasn’t even been Oscar- nominated!” So there’s a huge difference there. But the more people I meet there the more I see we can talk about the same things.
What have they told you about your role?
I met Kristina [O'Neill] first and then I met with Robert Thomson. I’m very excited to work with Kristina and it was a very immediate connection, but at first I was trying to figure out, like, “OK, what is it that you want?” And Robert especially was like, “We’re not here to tell you what to do. We’ve seen your magazine, love it, and just want you to do what you do best.” I think it’s about your channels also—who can you get? I certainly have access to people WSJ. wouldn’t have access to, or who would be more hesitant about doing something with them if I wasn’t there. That’s my perception, at least.
What kind of people do you think you’ll be bringing in?
Obviously I can’t give you any names, but I think if Last is all about the younger and the new, I want to sort of take the top end of that slice and extend it upward. Tenzin and I had a huge conversation about this. We’re established now, and the most natural thing is obviously to just go with it and evolve as they evolve. And then 30 years later Last Magazine is the same generation as when we started. I think that’s more natural than trying to be 25 years old when you’re 65. That might work for some people, but it’s not the way to go for us.