By Colin Crummy
When Neil Boorman wants to make a break with the past, he tends to set fire to things. At Sleazenation, he burned an image of Victoria Beckham on the cover and declared the magazine a celebrity no-go zone. Rebranded as Sleaze, the new-look title lasted less than a year, as did Boorman’s next project, the recently deceased Good for Nothing.
Now, in a gesture that looks like a fiery farewell to his publishing past, Boorman is intent on burning what are the financial foundations of these magazines — branded goods.
Boorman is used to seeing things go up in flames. Sleaze met its maker in 2004 and GFN, the free London-centric magazine he set up in January 2005, closed last December. The new venture, Bonfire of the Brands, is an experiment in brand expulsion from his life, detailed in an ongoing blog and a book due out August 2007.
This means goodbye to his Puma trainers with Burberry trim, the £400 Louis Vuitton satchel, the Liebherr fridge — everything bar the kitchen sink, unless that kitchen sink too has an aspirational brand attached to it.
"It’s partly a reaction, in no small part to the experience I’ve had working in style-mag publishing," says Boorman, sitting amid his impeccably stacked stuff in his central London apartment, "coming a cropper from being with these brands".
Dose of self-therapy
The book, as much as paying the mortgage, sounds like an old-fashioned dose of self-therapy for Boorman, following the swift implosion of two publications in less than three years.
GFN closed, he says, for a plethora of reasons — from online competition to a tough advertising market, to the strain of trying to manage an eight-person team in the increasingly competitive style sector.
But more than that, Boorman, a selfconfessed brand obsessive, says he was sick of the delicate dance between editorial and advertising.
"I had a very bad experience when I set up Good for Nothing; the experience of having to bleed money out of the brands," he says.
"I simply wasn’t good enough at sitting there lying to brands telling them how much I liked them for scraps of money here, there and everywhere."
Sitting in his perfectly preserved Reeboks and pouring designer tea, Boorman reiterates that he isn’t on some evangelical anti-corporate crusade. Brands, he says, are important for helping us make everyday decisions.
In media terms they’re "a fundamental aspect of publishing," he adds, "but it seems to be that kind of relationship is becoming more one-sided by the day."
By his account, life at GFN wasn’t easy. Between trying to woo advertisers into bed with it, the title faced strong competition from the likes of Vice, an off-kilter style magazine with international clout, and the merciless efficiency of the internet, where daily ‘zines continuously outdated the monthly print titles.
"What on earth were we doing?" he laughs now. "We’re trying to connect with young people, but printing thousands of magazines and lugging them all over town is not the most expedient way to do it."
Despite this, GFN had its fans.
Boorman was brought in by James Brown to discuss a fresh approach at Time Out. He even tried for the editor’s job, but missed out to the former Observer Sports Monthly editor, Gordon Thomson.
"Basically I went in and told them you need to own London," says Boorman. "The Evening Standard has owned London for too long. According to the Standard, London is SW1 and AA Gill and noncey new sushi restaurants up West, which is a very small percentage of what London means to people living here."
Time Out’s subsequent relaunch wasn’t a GFN imitation, but it did demonstrate that with a Londonfocused magazine, Boorman had been on the right track. Time Out, with its wider, mainstream appeal and heavyduty brand, was able to turn that idea into sales — up 1.4 per cent over the June to December ABC period to 89,503 copies a week.
Clearly, Boorman has brand value of his own. He’s worked for broadsheets and in brand consultancy for media planning agencies, where he tends to be embraced as a sort of edgy, youth culture informant.
The Guardian’s Guide had him as a columnist, despite the main newspaper suing for a pastiche of its Weekend section in his Shoreditch Twat ‘zine. He’s since claimed to have been "booted out" of the Guide for one too many "stereotypes of non-white people".
Similarly, the latest brand burning exercise may be making a statement about the style press obsession with consumerism, but it will be celebrated alongside adverts for Gucci in the same magazines it must inevitably berate. The question as to how this latest stunt might affect Boorman’s career reveals further contradiction. Puma, a GFN advertising stalwart, may have already made it clear they’d be reluctant to get involved in a project with him again, but he claims he’s been offered more brand work since he started the blog about ridding his life of them.
It suggests two things: that advertisers can turn a negative into a sell, and that Boorman’s commitment to severing ties to his old life is ambiguous.
Boorman hasn’t taken up any more brand work, but he doesn’t discount it.
Nor does he rule out a return to magazine publishing, despite saying the way forward for him is through books and blogging.
The rules of the project mean he won’t necessarily have to give up all brands, just the ones that sell "aspirations" as opposed to simply feeding and clothing you.
Somehow though, you find it hard to imagine he’ll live up to his throwaway suggestions of getting non-label clothes made for him, or rummaging through the racks of George at Asda. And you sense, too, that the inner ‘zine geek who kickstarted his career with Shoreditch Twat in 1998, would relish another bash at a print magazine.
These shades of grey fascinate Boorman, who at least pretends he hasn’t thought this latest project fully through (I say "pretends" because then there wouldn’t be a story to write, if he’d already reached its conclusion).
Ultimately it’s impossible to abandon brands altogether, says Boorman.
"The final twist in the book, if the book is a success, is it doesn’t matter how many brands I get rid of, one new brand is created — and that’s Neil Boorman, the anti-brand bloke."
As he burns bridges, Boorman manages to build them. "I’ve always kinda liked that kind of duality and contradictions. Sleaze and Sleazenation was a style mag that hated style culture, but we fed off one another and it’s just interesting to have those contradictions, work through them and see if there are any answers at the end."