Thursday, November 18, 2010

Olivier Zahm's Purple Diary and the Era of the Blog-O-Sphere

by Alexandria Geisler

Sea of Shoes, Fashionista, The Sartorialist, The Cherry Blossom Girl, Fashion Toast, Manolo the Shoe Blogger, Jezebel and Purple Diary. With more fashion blogs than one could possibly hope to keep up with, what, if anything, separates Olivier Zahm’s Purple Diary from the rest? More generally, in the realm of the fashion industry, what purpose do blogs serve and who are their consumers? With the extreme proliferation of fashion blogging in the past few years, will magazines still maintain their prominence? Editors, critics, fashion designers, photographers, and publishers alike have searched for these answers as media as we know it adapts to the new technology of the decade: the Internet.

Born in 1964 and raised in Paris, Olivier Zahm is a French art curator, critic, photographer, fashion blogger, and editor. In 1992, Elein Fleiss and Zahm created Purple Magazine, “an underground fanzine,” focusing on contemporary artists and their exhibitions (Morgan). The magazine underwent several transformations in an effort to reach the largest audience possible, featuring photography, poetry, fiction, and prose. Although Fleiss later retracted from the magazine when readership was waning in 2004, Zahm saw the project through on his own. Remodeled with a sensual and avant-garde approach to art and fashion, the magazine has since grown into a bi-annual, $35-an-issue pop-culture haven. Inside, subscribers find the provocative works of industry leaders such as Terry Richardson, and Richard Kern.Each issue sells about 60,000 copies, with the goal in mind of closing the gap between the art world and that of the fashion one.

Zahm’s blog, Purple Diary, developed later, not as a replacement for the magazine, but an addition to it. In a detailed interview with’s Dirk Standen, the blogger explains his purpose in creating the site was not in anticipation of the eventual demise of his magazine, or the magazine industry in general for that matter; but rather, he sought a place where he could display his own personal photographs. Criticized by some as displays of nothing more than egotistical hedonism, the blog, which is divided into several sections including fashion, love, music, news, night, and sex, plays with the idea of blurring public and private spheres in Zahm’s own life. The contrast “between what’s really intimate, like sex and love, and what’s really public, a party, a fashion show, an exhibition, is exciting” (Standen). Zahm notes that in a way, he is “breaking the barriers of something,” mirroring exactly what the medium of the Internet is meant to accomplish itself.

The blog is characterized by black and white candid photos, taken mostly by Zahm himself, of his company at certain events, whether that be a night out at the Standard Hotel in New York City or backstage at the Miuccia Prada show during fashion week. The people in the photographs are not only models and celebrities, such as Mickey Madden (Maroon 5) and Naomi Campbell, but also Zahm’s six-year-old daughter, the staff at purple magazine, and anonymous women of either Paris or New York with enviable street style. The fashion section is dominated by streaming videos from the latest runway shows, shot by Zahm himself. The videos are uploaded almost instantaneously, providing more immediate access than most other fashion sites, including the infamous (home of VOGUE online). The night and sex sections portray Zahm’s closer friends and lovers in more intimate ways, filled with mostly erotic images and sensual connotations. The text diverges little from naming the people, place, and event under each photograph. There are no op-ed pieces, or stream-of-consciousness segments, and the write-ups of small art exhibitions or performances rarely exceed more than a few lines. Rather, the message is in the photograph, the moment, and the medium.

Purple Diary’s most intimate and sentimental post, which read about 200 words and garnered overwhelmingly positive responses from fans, ran under the subject headline, “Bad news from the stars” (Zahm). In the post, Zahm describes the end of his love affair with girlfriend and muse Natacha Ramsay. “She dumped me on Sunday... ran away with her lover (with whom she had a long romance that I was aware of and accepted) for a summer of love,” he adds to his already blunt revelation of the pain he felt as he tried to get her back. The reason for such personal self-disclosure remains unknown, but it marks one of the few incidents where Zahm essentially utilizes his “diary” organically.

The site’s 100,000 weekly visitors amount to almost double the readership of his magazine, and generate active threads and discussions off of almost every post in a matter of hours. His main demographic is estimated to be 23-37 year old women, with a predominant interest in pop culture and fashion. Even so, when asked whether he believes the Internet will replace magazines, Zahm steadfastly responds with a “no.” The Internet is not a creative medium, due to which Zahm adds, “in fashion photography (you must) show not only the last collection and the clothes, but the way they should be worn, you capture a spirit, a certain moment in time… It’s a way to incarnate and interpret fashion... I think a magazine is the place for (this) creativity” (Standen).

He predicts that commercial magazines, which tend to be most popular in Japan and the smaller European countries, have the potential to be replaced “because the internet is a better place for commerce and immediate information” (Standen). Magazines where the content gives way to the advertising space maintain no purpose in their medium. These are the magazines that will diminish in numbers, as the Internet increasingly provides “more information, contact, and the possibility” of the purchase for commercialized endeavors. On the other hand, the creative magazines, the ones in existence to honor the great minds of Yves Saint Laurent or Karl Lagerfeld, “will be good” (Standen).

Olivier’s strong voice, evocative of anti-conformity and rebellion, is reinforced in his decision to ban the possibility of advertisements on the walls of Purple Diary. The anti-blogging blogger hopes to avoid the commercialization trend in order to preserve the unique personality of his site. Zahm’s willingness to turn down a profit for the sake of saving creativity is one of the many things that sets him apart from fellow bloggers.

Garance Dore, illustrator, photographer, and blogger, is the founder of another popular fashion blog, “Une Fille Comme Moi.” Beginning in 2006, Dore’s blog featured photos of inspiring street style, not unlike her now boyfriend and founder of The Sartorialist, Scott Schuman. However, when perusing the site, one cannot help but gaze at the various advertisements, which line the right-hand margins. Whether it be the names of American Apparel or Barney’s flashing near each post, the blog leaves readers with a feeling of a more commercial, professional exchange of fashion tips and trends, rather than the personal relationship a reader feels is established when visiting Purple Diary. Nevertheless, Dore’s 50,000 hits per day, and her opportunities to shoot for prestigious industry leaders, such as Vogue Paris and the Love! Moschino ad campaign, seem to suggest there may be worse things than commercialization of one’s business. So, will conformity in fact prevail over the nonconformists, leaving Zahm with no other choice in order to profit? Or, is there perhaps room for both perspectives in such a competitive market?

Garance Dore shares one belief with Zahm however, voicing her opinion that blogs will never be able to replace magazines. In an Interview Magazine interview, she reasons that the two media are simply not the same, agreeing a blog may be more intimate, but “you have to work a lot harder for a magazine photo,” which creates an irreplaceable story through each and every creative spread (Voight).

If the bloggers themselves are neither looking to, nor believing their blogs will come to serve the role of traditional magazines one day, why has such a debate become so poignant, diffusing itself through the public eye? Does it, in fact, maintain any real pertinence? David Kline and Daniel Burnstein, two technology journalists themselves and authors of “Blog! How the newest media revolution is changing politics, business, and culture,” believe blogs gave the public what “it had become thirsty for… news unfiltered by editors, facts boldly stated and supported, and unvarnished opinion openly expressed for all to see and judge” (10). In this sense, a reader feels he or she is receiving more “real” information, and does not have to wait an entire month for the next issue to receive it. The initial conspiracy theories of the diminution of magazines arose from the immediacy threat. Publishers and editors worried that “in the future, people will no longer look for the news, the news would have to find them” (Qualman 11).

While the answer to the debate may still lie ahead, it seems the magazines that have adopted supplemental websites are headed in the right direction. VOGUE’s, Elle’s, and Harper’s Bazaar’s personal site offer more personalized information, such as “how-to’s” on incorporating the trends seen in the magazine into one’s wardrobe. Rather than replacing the print industry, perhaps the Internet has the potential to enrich it.

VOGUE’s Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour certainly seems to think so. In a discussion with WWD, Wintour acknowledges that her average reader “is completely engaged in the world of technology,” therefore it became a requisite to “take the authority, quality, and beauty of VOGUE and bring those values to the digital realm.” She concedes the modern news world is far too immediate “for a monthly publication to encompass.” However, rather than “covering everything” all the time, Wintour articulates the site will cover “just the right things.”

Whereas the print version remains true to its presentation of large, beautiful spreads shot by some of the most famed photographers in the world, the online site has become an epicenter for slideshows and video. Streaming live feeds from fashion week and showcasing designer lookbooks, the site seems not to encroach upon the magazine’s domain at all.Furthermore, the site’s forums allow for readers to leave commentary and provide their feedback, creating a sense of a “VOGUE community.”

Perhaps the print industry in general must look no further than some of its early adopters to see the possibility of a dual existence. Rather than competing with the Olivier Zahm’s of the world, a collaboration may be possible. Whichever is the case, it seems Olivier Zahm will not disappearing any time soon, and Purple Diary will only grow in its relevance within the fashion, art, and journalistic fields.

Video Clips:
Zahm's hatred of fellow bloggers:
For the French Speakers, Zahm's perspectives on life,fashion, style

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