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.”
“I always wanted a magazine that’s avant-garde and up-to-the-minute,” Betts says. “The whole point of fashion is to showcase what’s happening and what’s new.”
It’s precisely that quality that attracted Hearst Magazines president Cathie Black to Betts when she was seeking to fill the top slot at Bazaar. “Kate is a new-generation woman,” Black says. “She adores fashion and yet has very good commercial instincts. That’s exactly what we needed.”
Betts, who is married to the writer Chip Brown, thought the magazine also needed to be a lot smarter; to this end, she dismissed many of the magazine’s writers and replaced them with a stable of literary brat-packers like Bret Easton Ellis, Meghan Daum, Mary Tannen, and A. M. Homes. She also hired Hollywood journalist Lynn Hirschberg to write a monthly column on fashion and got former New York Times editor Sara Mosle to write a column on politics.
Signing top-tier photographers has been more problematic. With not much experience as a fashion sittings editor, Betts doesn’t have as many personal relationships with name-brand fashion photographers as Tilberis did, though she did manage to keep Baron protégé Patrick Demarchelier on board.
So, partly out of necessity, she has turned to a new guard of photographers, like Alexi Hay, the 25-year-old who shoots documentary-style spreads like December’s Playboy Mansion story, where Gwyneth Paltrow and Tori Spelling mingled with lesser-known, equally beautiful people. Michel Botbol, a highly regarded stylist who was lured over from W, recently signed on as creative director, and he is expected to make the fashion spreads sexier and more provocative than they were under Tilberis.
Betts has also packed the magazine with a raft of new, servicey elements, including a roundtable of industry experts weighing in on pop culture and a section called “The Bazaar Report” that bears an uncanny resemblance to the “Vogue Index.” And she says she plans to do broader theme issues like April’s dot-com package, devoted entirely to fashion in the cyber world, and an “Extreme” issue that will run in May.
“Fashion magazines are usually pegged to themes – you have to do fall fashion, accessories, fine jewelry – but I wanted to do more unconventional themes as well,” Betts says.
Will all these energetic enhancements give a boost to the magazine that has in the past decade languished in third place in circulation (behind Vogue and Elle) and fourth (behind W) in advertising?
“I think Anna views her ideal reader as an Anne Bass type,” says a Vogue staff member. “She thinks the Vogue reader doesn’t give a shit about hip-hop. Harper’s Bazaar has a real chance to pick up readers who find Vogue too stodgy and too old. Kate’s targeting a younger, smarter, edgier audience.” An audience that happens to be a lot like her.
Katherine Hadley Betts was born and raised in Manhattan, the daughter of a patrician, artistic family. Her father is the well-known architect Hobart Betts; her mother, Glynne, a photographer. In 1982, she followed her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather to Princeton, where she spent her days studying European history and her evenings cultivating an eclectic group of friends, mostly black-clad artists and writers who stood out from the university’s sporty, blue-blood elite.
“I had these roommates who were rowers,” she recalled in an interview with Princeton’s alumni magazine, “and they used to ask me every day why I wore makeup.” Betts herself wasn’t the sporting type; friends remember her as a hardworking iconoclast who flirted with theater but dropped out when she discovered she couldn’t sing. By her sophomore year, she was spending much of her time off working as a reporter at The Daily Princetonian. A longtime Francophile, she moved to Paris right after graduation, writing articles for American publications in order to pay her way.
It was one of these articles – an essay on boar hunting in Brittany – that caught the attention of John Fairchild, the flamboyant, famously grumpy founder of Fairchild Communications. Impressed by her quirky style, Fairchild offered Betts a job as a feature writer at W’s Paris office. Eager to make her mark, Betts chased fashion news over the countryside, charming locals with her near-perfect French. On Fairchild’s idiosyncratic orders, she brought back stories from the Abbey of Senanque’s lavender fields, sneaked into closed fashion shows, and convinced Jeane Kirkpatrick to sit down to a gossipy meal. By 1990, she had become the magazine’s Paris-bureau chief.
After Vogue poached her from Fairchild eight years ago, Betts ascended just as quickly through the ranks at Condé Nast. Smart and incredibly hardworking, she quickly became Wintour’s darling, and in an office where the boss’s iciness struck fear in the staff, Betts’s brassy confidence was an asset. She set about improving the magazine’s fashion news coverage, and editing the magazine’s fashion features. In time, she became Wintour’s most valuable lieutenant.
Her stock at Condé Nast rose even higher after she created the “Vogue Index” in 1995, a user-friendly compendium of health, beauty, and style tips that became one of the magazine’s most popular sections.
Betts’s entry into Harper’s Bazaar wasn’t entirely smooth. First, a blind item in “Page Six” reported that Betts had insisted that both her nanny and her baby be allowed to take the Concorde to the European shows. (Betts denies this.) She also denies a story that recently appeared in the press that had her chastising Bazaar staff members for posting family photographs in their cubicles, complaining that the office had started to resemble a sorority. In private, disgruntled staff members began referring to her as “Anna Junior.”
But while detractors complain that she can be arrogant and officious, her friends say her brisk single-mindedness is often misunderstood. “I think people are intimidated by the idea of her, but you can totally bond and joke with her,” says Richard Sinnott, the former accessories director at Bazaar who just left for a position at Michael Kors. Sinnott says he is in awe of Betts’s ability “to suck up information. Kate always wants to know what the newest, coolest thing is out there. And she is really welcoming and responsive to new ideas. She creates a really comfortable and open environment.”
Others add that beneath her occasionally brittle, smartest-girl-in-the-class demeanor, Betts is self-deprecating, generous, and very funny – a fashion insider who likes to send up the shallow world in which she travels. “She’ll moan about how silly it all is, rolling her eyes about the latest slashed-T-shirt look,” says a colleague. “But she also adores the whimsical aspect of all this. She says, ‘What would I rather be doing, the police beat?’ “
But making venerable books fresher and more provocative has undone many an ambitious makeover editor, who learns too late that hip is not necessarily a hit with readers and advertisers. Though sources say Vogue’s Anna Wintour has mandated that her magazine get “fresher,” she still seems queasy about foraying too deeply into pop culture. Last month, the magazine was scheduled to feature a special music issue, with pieces on Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, Britney Spears, Chrissie Hynde, Missy Elliott, and Busta Rhymes. In the end, Wintour ruled that the mix was too young and funky for Vogue. The special section, which was to have taken up 25 pages in the feature well, was replaced by leftover fashion photographs.
For Betts, says one fashion-world insider, “the danger in turning a high-end fashion magazine into this young, pop-culture thing is that she’ll come up with Jane. And there already is a Jane. Her challenge is to make Harper’s young and hip without making it cheap.”
“I think it’s exciting to have new blood in a magazine which hasn’t been doing well for a very long time,” says Oscar de la Renta, who happens to be both a fan of Betts and a close friend of Wintour’s. “The fact is that Harper’s Bazaar hasn’t come into its own, so I think Kate has a great opportunity to make something different. In the end, competition is good for everyone.”
Additional reporting by Kevin Gray.