The story of ‘M,’ Peter Kaplan’s latest ambition

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'M' hits newsstands Monday. ()
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"The 'A' can't point down!"

That's what Fairchild Fashion Media editorial director Peter Kaplan said when he got his eyes on the page proofs for the opening essay of his new magazine, M.

It was a relaunch of a publication Fairchild had previously put out until 1992. But Kaplan, former longtime editor of The New York Observer, was putting his own stamp on the reincarnated periodical: A men's magazine with as much of a debt to the old business and general-interest lifestyle magazines of the midcentury as to any of the conventions honored by Esquire, Vanity Fair or GQ.

Kaplan had decided that M shouldn't open with a traditional front-of-book section, but with a reported essay by one of his erstwhile Observer writers, Leon Neyfakh, who now works at The Boston Globe. The subject of the piece, as well as the theme running through all 100 pages of the magazine, was "ambition." Hence the "A" on the first page of Neyfakh's story. Former Observer art director Nancy Butkus (now Fairchild's special projects art director) was looking for a way to punch up the design, so she turned the "A" upside down.

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Kaplan wasn't having it. Ambition doesn't point down, he explained. It points up!

"That was a real Kaplan moment," said Jim Windolf, yet another Observer veteran who worked on the issue.

Kaplan moments leap off the page, too, from the bylines of Observer alumni he fostered and whose copy and editing smarts fill M (Windolf, Neyfakh, Jason Horowitz, Adam Begley, Philip Weiss), to the playful lyricism of the headlines ("Super-Duper Bradley Cooper"), to the heavy matte cover stock selected by Kaplan because it was the same paper Henry Luce launched Fortune with in 1930. (It looks like nothing else on the magazine rack.)

"I think Peter can't stand the idea that there's no one around today who is as bold and as cool as the guys from the past who have always really mattered to him," said Neyfakh. "I got the sense that he goes back and forth on whether that's the case or not, and that, as an editor, he's kind of always hunting for proof that it isn't."

After a few rounds of e-mail tag, I wasn't able to nail down a phone interview with the elusive Kaplan, who was my boss for two years at the Observer, where I also worked with various others mentioned in this article.

But flipping through the magazine and talking to some of the people who helped put it together conveys a sense that this is neither a vanity project nor some shallow scheme to lure luxury advertising (of which there is a fair amount, by the way—41 pages in all, including Giorgio Armani, Versace, Dunhill and Louis Vuitton). It is just a smart, sophisticated and beautiful-looking magazine that you'd want to be seen reading on the train and to feel in the palm of your hands. It even smells good, owing its card-store-like aroma to the thick, uncoated paper of the feature-well. (The front and back few dozen pages of the magazine are glossy.)

"Magazines now are something to have and to hold," said Butkus. "That's what we were going for. You have to have an experience with it."

A text-driven title with a bold but understated design, M fuses the delicate composition of a lit mag with the debonair sensibilities of the modern European men's magazine, with much of its content shepherded by staff from Fairchild's flagship title, Women's Wear Daily. Though it's not explicitly about fashion, there's a sartorial thread woven throughout. (That and a Karl Lagerfeld interview.) So for instance, when you get to W.W.D. reporter  Erik Maza's profile of cherubic New Republic owner Chris Hughes, it's clear that the accompanying photo spreads of Hughes and his suit-clad colleagues were styled to the nines.

Other big features in the debut issue, which is on-stands Monday, include Lynn Hirschberg's cover-story Q&A with Bradley Cooper; profiles of supermodel Sean O'Pry, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Brooklyn Nets C.E.O. Brett Yormark by Weiss, Horowitz and Matthew Lynch, a W.W.D. editor, respectively; and a big list of "Ambitionists" from Twitter C.E.O. Jack Dorsey to Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein to 15-year-old cancer researcher Jack Andraka. (This is a magazine for and about dudes, after all.)

At a quarterly frequency and a circulation of 75,000, M replaces the production cycle of Menswear, a more trade-oriented title that Fairchild discontinued after its most recent June issue.

Unlike its predecessor, M is no trade, but nor is it just W, Fairchild parent-company Conde Nast's high-end women's glossy, flipped upside down. And though you may have seen Bradley Cooper on the covers of other manly magazines, the coverage would have been written in a different voice, said Windolf, who joined M as a consulting editor in August after a brief stint editing the now-shuttered iPad magazine Punch!. He described M as "very much a written magazine," as opposed to one filled with the endless charts and listicles that seem to make water spring to the mouths of advertisers these days.

"When we talked, [Kaplan] just said, 'We have a chance to do something real,' and I knew what he meant by that," said Windolf. "It's not like he was doing a magazine out of obligation. He knew he had the chance to put out something that's really good. Not fake good."