“I feel like we just came out of nowhere from the Netherlands with a men’s magazine and it was like, ‘Oh wow, where the fuck is this coming from?’” I’m sitting across from Gert Jonkers and Jop van Bennekom in the Holborn Dining Room, here to talk about the tenth anniversary of Fantastic Man. “You want to surprise people, or you want to show something in a way that other people are not showing it,” Jop carries on. “Is that risky?” says Gert. “Maybe if other people don’t do it, but I’d say it’s almost riskier to do what other people do.”
Despite its relatively small print run, Fantastic Man caused a stir when it launched in 2005, familiar neither to the readers of glossy fashion magazines or conservative men’s titles of the sports-and-cars ilk. Mostly black and white, with its rule lines and two-column layout, its pared-back design and reams of text set it apart as a fashion magazine meant to be read and not just looked at. “I really don’t think it’s a very interesting proposition for a magazine to be a picture book,” Jop explains. “We both like books and newspapers maybe even more than magazines. We want lots of text, lots to read, something to share. What’s more sexy than a handsome man with a whole page of text next to him to read?”
Even in its tenth year, the magazine continues to set the bar not just for men’s media, which it has quietly galvanised, but for the wider publishing landscape. From the outset, editors and co-founders Gert and Jop have eschewed the faddish, youthful wont of modern media and presented more mature men in long, thoughtful profiles. They have built fashion stories on whims, steered clear of seasonal trends and ultimately they have celebrated those who have lived a little and seen some. From artists like Jeremy Deller and Ai Weiwei to designers like Raf Simons and writers like Bret Easton Ellis, the cavalcade of intriguing men on Fantastic Man’s cover has never included those with an agenda to push.
“We always say people are more interesting to talk to when they don’t have anything to sell. It’s so much more interesting to speak to Bret Easton Ellis when his book isn’t finished yet because he’s in a different state of mind,” says Gert. “I think Helmut Lang was a cover we were especially proud of. It was exactly when he had really disappeared from the fashion scene and nobody had seen him for a while, and all of a sudden he shows up with this amazing body holding a black cockerel.”
The dual covers of the current issue – No. 22 – feature Kyle MacLachlan of Twin Peaks fame. “It’s amazing to have your old heroes [on the cover]. Those are the high points, I think,” Jop tells me. “We need to be fans of someone or at least be really intrigued to celebrate them. The title of the magazine sort of implies that.”
The Dutch duo are by now bonafide publishing veterans. They met when Gert, then writing for a Dutch newspaper, interviewed Jop about the magazine he launched as a graphic design graduate in 1997. Jop’s Re-Magazine started as one-man show and later went on to run for 12 issues with a constantly changing design agenda. After discovering their vision for publishing was a shared one, the two worked together at a Dutch lifestyle magazine Blvd. and a couple of years later launched the much-loved, pale pink gay culture title, Butt in 2001. Then came Fantastic Man in 2005, shortly followed by The Gentlewoman, a regular magazine for Swedish fashion brand Cos, and a quarterly publishing partnership with Penguin, The Happy Reader.
Fantastic Man’s influence can be seen everywhere from luxury e-commerce sites like Mr Porter to the casting of “real” men in advertising campaigns. More importantly, it anticipated the burgeoning menswear industry as a catalyst for changing attitudes towards masculinity. “It’s always interesting how things trickle through the system,” says Jop. “You see things sitting front row at the shows and then you see them in the Dutch countryside four years later completely differently. With Fantastic Man, and also Butt magazine, the idea of masculinity and how we play around with masculinity has, I think, been influential.”
Finding ways to stay ahead of their imitators has been a quiet driving force behind the magazine. “It’s interesting to think that the story we did on shaving off your beard was almost the most controversial thing we’ve done. It’s not controversial at all but there were a lot of people who almost saw that as killing our darlings. We didn’t really feature people with beards after Issue 17 because everyone was doing that,” Gert weighs in.
To celebrate a decade of Fantastic Man’s soft-spoken innovation, a new book published by Phaidon compiles interviews with 69 of the stylish and influential men featured in the magazine, all shot by the likes of Juergen Teller, Wolfgang Tillmans and Inez and Vinoodh. Fantastic Man: Men of Great Style and Substance spans 21 issues and the unexpected or insightful stories gleaned from their pages, whether its architect Rem Koolhaas’ dreams of being a fashion designer or actor Christopher Waltz on what it’s really like to become a film star at 52 years old.
Neither a tome nor a shrunken magazine, the thick but surprisingly light book is perfectly readable. “We’re size queens, I can tell you that,” Jop says when I ask about the well-proportioned volume. “There used to be a magazine called Handjobs, which was a magazine for erotic stories, and you could hold it in one hand – for some reason,” he jokes. “I thought it would be good if you could hold the book in one hand.”
Equal parts wry humour, clean and clear editorial design and relaxed style, the publication reflects its creators, who seem as playful as they do self-assured. Interestingly, they tell me from the first to the newest issue, the magazine is much unchanged. Of course angles have disappeared, their team has grown – almost the entire first issue was written by Gert and Jop – and the design has undergone constant tweaks, but the core character and feel has been fairly unwavering.
“I think the interesting thing for us is seeing the book and having these conversations where we have to compare the first issue with the most recent one, we’re realising we haven’t changed so much. I think from the very beginning we’ve had quite a clear idea of what we wanted to do and there’s never been a need for a complete overhaul. You realise certain things still work years later and it’s nice to be reassured of that quality,” Gert explains.
“I think it’s a very complete world, Fantastic Man,” says Jop. “In this most recent issue I feel like we’ve been revisiting a lot of ideas and inspirations and thinking about why we started and what it all meant. It’s reflected in the book of course, but making the book and making this issue are part of the same process. It’s something that keeps on giving. I think for us as publishers, we work on a lot of other projects, and our world just gets bigger and bigger and the book is part of that.”
Fantastic Man: Men of Great Style and Substance is out on 26 October, published by Phaidon