Interview: Penny Martin, editor of new magazine The Gentlewoman

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HANDBAGS and heels and hair and heterosexual relationships. Scan the rows of shiny women's magazines on the shelves of any newsagent and you'd be forgiven for believing that women's interests don't extend beyond such narrow, specific subject matter.

• Originally from St Andrews, Penny Martin was hand-picked to take the helm of The Gentlewoman, a magazine she says will show that women are interested in much more than just handbags. Picture: Liz Collins

Interviewees are more likely to be asked about their boyfriends than their jobs, images of women tend to be either retouched to unrealistic proportions or deliberately candid in order to highlight physical flaws, and fashion is about spending money, not pursuing style.

A new biannual magazine hopes to offer readers an alternative and to prove that style and substance are not mutually exclusive. The sister magazine to the hugely popular Fantastic Man and the latest from celebrated Dutch publishers Gert Jonkers and Jop van Bennekom, The Gentlewoman went on sale yesterday, and the title's Scottish editor-in-chief, Penny Martin, is keen to give a glossy platform to smart, interesting and stylish women with something to say.

Raised in St Andrews, Martin, 37, studied in Glasgow, was the editor of photographer Nick Knight's acclaimed Showstudio website for seven years, and is a professor of fashion photography at the London College of Fashion. She was hand-picked by those two very picky Dutchmen to take the helm at The Gentlewoman, and she's passionate about its ethos.

We meet in a dark cubby-hole of a room in Edinburgh's Prestonfield House. She's just flown up from Paris Fashion Week and is enjoying a strong cup of builders' tea, something of a novelty, she says, after the weaker offerings favoured by the French. Dressed in black, with a monochrome Herms scarf overflowing at her neck, her pale blonde hair is worn in a long bob.

She is elegant, polished and put-together, but warm and accessible. She's articulate, witty and smart, but not intimidatingly so. She likes to laugh, she loves women and she definitely knows how to dress. In short, she's the personification of the magazine she now edits.

"A lot of people, when they first heard our title, thought of it as two separate words," she explains. "They thought that it was about gentility and decorum. I don't think that's what we think of as a gentlewoman now. It's very easy to think of the values of a gentleman, yet people are kind of anxious about thinking about taste and style and wit and humour when it comes to women. I'm not quite sure why. So I guess what we're trying to do is define a modern woman of the future as opposed to the past."

The first issue features Phoebe Philo, the creative director at Celine, on its cover. The women profiled inside include an artist, an architect, a downhill mountain biker, a model, a winemaker and an ocean swimmer who describes her experience of swimming from Egypt to Jordan. In her first letter from the editor, Martin says that "elegantly side-stepping the passive and cynical cool of recent decades, The Gentlewoman champions the optimism, sincerity and ingenuity that actually gets things done. These are the upbeat and pragmatic qualities defining gentlewomen of today."

An editorial called Tall n' Small features two models in shorts: one tall and one small. Another feature shows readers how to achieve various up-dos. Captions are arch and knowing: "The Fold & Twist looks best when very tight, which can induce headaches. It is advised to relax the scalp beforehand by taking 400mg of ibuprofen."

Unusually for a style magazine, many of the images – including the cover shot – are monochrome. The pale ointment pink of the cover is repeated throughout, but the design is simple, almost minimal. Some interviews are long, weighty and in-depth. Others are sparse and focus on a specific topic: model Daisy Lowe is quizzed on housekeeping, print designer Josephine Chime on transport and Scottish fashion designer Louise Gray on time-management.

"I wanted to make sure that for every one part fashion and celebrity, there would be four parts other things, because this is an exercise in restoring the balance that I remember in publishing," says Martin. "Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, women were writing about travel and education and philosophy, and that's somehow disappeared. We have the opportunity to do these things, and yet if 50 years from now you were to look at the magazines we're consuming, you'd think we were just interested in handbags."

Far from shying away from some of the more controversial issues within publishing, Martin is keen to discuss them. She does not want The Gentlewoman to be heteronormative. She will not feature only white women in her pages. When it comes to the topic of skinny women, she is "just interested in healthy-looking happy women" and likes "nice substantial thighs". There happen to be, she says, no beautiful obese woman in the first issue, but she'd have no reason to exclude such a woman in the future. On airbrushing she is firm.

Some retouching will almost always be used to tidy images, and she has no desire to use unflattering shots of the women featured; however, from pores on faces to hairs on legs, the things that make a person look human are not airbrushed away.

"We were adamant that we didn't want the very retouched aesthetic you've almost got across the board in women's magazines," she says. "We have a strict 'no fantasy' policy. It's not about some Russian princess on the moon and it's not about a visual confection of slick, heavily retouched photography. We are interested in what these women are like. The models are called by their names, and we include information about them, to make sure that everyone has a personality. The women aren't really allowed to hide, and we're choosing people who want to stand up close to the camera and just be great."

She strikes a strong, defiant pose at this last line. She wants The Gentlewoman to congratulate "great" women, and certainly it reads much like a conversation between a group of fantastic women.

"Visually, women are very well served by magazines," says Martin. "But I'd feel really quite depressed if we put all this trouble into a thoughtful and careful way of making these women look great and people come away saying, 'Oh, doesn't she look good for her age' or 'isn't she thin' or 'isn't she cool' or all those crushingly back-handed compliments. I just want people to say, 'God, she's great, I love her.'"

What's really great about The Gentlewoman is that, rather than being talked at, the reader gets to be one of those fantastic women. She gets to know that if all the women on the pages of the magazine were to attend a party, she'd be invited. More than that, she'd have a ball, and she'd be at the centre of that conversation, where anything from politics to platforms might come up.


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