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Betts Intentions

Smart, quirky, and supremely self-assured, Kate Betts is remaking Harper's Bazaar in her own image. But can fashion's youngest editor escape the long shadows of its two most enduring legends?


Perched behind a large L-shaped desk in a spartan corner office overlooking Broadway, dressed in a casual sweater and black skirt, Harper's Bazaar's new editor is looking a bit piqued. Turns out she barely slept the night before, nursing her 6-month-old son, Oliver, through his first flu. With a dummy of her first issue perched on her lap, she stops to issue worried orders to her nanny while picking disinterestedly at a plate of takeout sushi. These have been stressful days indeed for Betts, the 35-year-old former heir apparent at Vogue, who, just before the birth of her son, jumped from the fashion flagship to head up its historic rival.

As the youngest editor-in-chief of America's oldest fashion book, Betts was ordered to inject the esteemed but embattled monthly with new energy, and she responded with mercenary zeal: In four months on the job, she redesigned the magazine from cover to cover -- including the 135-year-old logo -- reconceived its content, and replaced two thirds of the masthead, all the while stoically ignoring a steady drizzle of bad press.

"She had to create something so spectacular that advertisers, readers, and all the fashion professionals sit up and take notice," says one high-profile fashion insider. "Anything less would be deemed a failure."

And after weathering the wrath of Condé Nast to escape the long shadow of Anna Wintour, Betts also had to contend with the legend of Liz Tilberis, the celebrated Bazaar editor who died of ovarian cancer last April. Although the magazine suffered both newsstand and ad losses under Tilberis, the soft-spoken and personable editor was beloved by her staff and lionized by the fashion world.

"The whole process has been very . . . delicate," Betts admits, choosing her words carefully, as usual. "It's delicate on a personnel level and on a personal level; I have big shoes to fill, and I realize that there are a lot of people who are still upset and grieving. But I came in with a vision, and I always kept my mind on fulfilling it. I knew from the beginning what I had to do."

Friends say that beneath her smartest-girl-in-the-class demeanor, Betts can be dryly self-deprecating, a fashion insider who likes to mock the shallowness of her world.

The move signaling that Betts meant business was her bold decision to scrap Harper's revered "classic modernist" logo. "I had many a sleepless night about that," she admits.

To set the tone for a more accessible and up-to-date magazine, Bazaar is now rendered in block lettering, with the word Harper's running vertically along the B. "Once we got it right, there was no going back," Betts says. "The first person we showed it to, even before the Hearst people, was Craig McDean, the photographer who shot the February cover, which features Gwyneth Paltrow. He just said, 'I can't remember what the old one looked like.' That was it for me."

Her accomplice in this adventure has been Michael Grossman, the designer best known for helping create Entertainment Weekly's signature look. Now at Meigher Communications, which publishes the handsome glossies Saveur and Garden Design, Grossman had never worked on a fashion title, and Betts thought he'd bring fresh ideas.

Bazaar had been dominated for close to a decade by Fabien Baron, the tour de force art director who created a stunning, austere style, widely admired and copied but intimidating to many readers. Betts resolved to replace his mannered elegance with a fresher, more casual feel.

"We both felt that design had to get out of the way of the photography," says Betts. "Before, it had been competing with it too much."

Uncomfortable talking about herself, Betts comes alive when discussing layouts and typefaces, the nuts and bolts of magazines: "Most fashion magazines look exactly the same," she says. "You have the requisite party pages, the requisite beauty pages. I wanted each department to have its own character, each page to have a point."

Though Betts deliberately steered clear of Bazaar's archives, she insists she has remained true to the bold graphic standard set by Alexy Brodovitch, the art director who defined the magazine during its heyday in the fifties.

"Brodovitch issued just one mandate to his staff," says Betts. "He kept saying, 'Astonish me.' I think at a time when magazines look exactly alike, and people don't have a lot of time, our challenge is to astonish the reader. I want every page to be a surprise."

Long before Kate Betts was out the door at Vogue, she was lobbying for her vision of a new kind of fashion magazine. "Kate was constantly trying to make Vogue hipper and more current," says one staff member. "She was always trying to get Anna to go into the street, to cover hip-hop and pop culture and the Internet, but Anna wasn't interested."

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