For someone who has spent the last 24 hours dealing with endless flight delays, different time zones, dramatically different weather and long meetings, Nicholas Coleridge, vice-president of Condé Nast International, is unbelievably perky.
I watch as he picks up what I imagine is his fifth cup of coffee (“No sugar, thank you, I’m not allowed”) and settles in comfortably for a long chat at the firm’s office in Mumbai. Dressed in a navy blue suit and white shirt cinched at each wrist with monogrammed gold cufflinks that he found in his pudding at a Cartier Christmas party, Coleridge looks alert and raring to go. After all, a man who heads some of the most glamorous, glossy magazine brands in the world ought to know a thing or two about surviving late nights.
But as we get talking, 53-year-old Coleridge appears to be as far as one could possibly get from those flamboyant magazine publisher stereotypes. A Cambridge-educated Old Etonian with a bloodline going right back to the Romantic English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he’s extremely warm, polite and attentive and appears to have the energy of someone 15 years younger.
Storyteller: A successful novelist himself, Coleridge can trace his lineage to the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Jayachandran / Mint
He’s at his desk at 7.30am, leaving promptly by 6.15pm to get time with his four children. That’s before he heads out to an “average of three” events every evening. He enjoys flitting from a Yves Saint Laurent lipstick launch to a promotional party for one of their own magazines. While the late-night networking and champagne fuelled partying isn’t really his thing, Coleridge is happy to have his editors put on their designer threads and head out. In fact, he considers it a prerequisite of being a modern-day magazine editor. No surprises there, considering most of the group’s glossies are run by editors of celebrity status and employees who resemble the supermodels they write about.
“It’s not always the case,” he says, thinking aloud. “Condé Nast has some editors who are very quiet, very private and very brilliant. In my personal opinion, you have to be able to do the job. But it is also helpful if an editor is capable of projecting the magazine in a way that is exciting to readers,” he says. He cites the example of Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief, American Vogue, who he believes is brilliant at it. “You need to remind people all the time of your publication and its merits.”
Even so, isn’t the golden age of magazines with their society editors fading? Aren’t publishing houses increasingly turning to data, focus groups and research for cues? “We do market research, but no publishing house places editors on a higher pedestal than Condé Nast,” says Coleridge. A fact that is well-documented in novels and films such as The Devil Wears Prada and The September Issue.
It was the romance of the medium perhaps that drove Coleridge to magazines in the first place. He could actually trace the precise moment he fell in love with magazines if he had the diary he kept as a teenager. He was 16 years old when he was sent home from boarding school to recover from an illness. “I was lying in bed at home and borrowed my mother’s magazine, Harpers & Queen.” A magazine he, many years later, edited and which is now one of their competitors. “I was absolutely entranced by it, the mixture of fashion pictures, serious articles, light flippant articles…all coming together with the sheen of glossy paper and wafting of fragrance from those scent strips,” he says, closing his eyes and inhaling some imaginary heavenly aroma. “I remember thinking my life would be complete if I could have something written by me published in the magazine.” He promptly sent them two handwritten articles on “How to survive teenage parties!” “Incredibly”, they were published a few months later.
After that, Coleridge started writing a lot for magazines, working as an intern during the holidays and then while he was at Cambridge. At 23, he was appointed deputy features editor of Tatler under the editorship of the legendary Tina Brown. Luckily for him, there was a high turnover of staff, allowing Coleridge to rise through the ranks from No. 14 to No. 2 at an “unusually dizzy rate”. “It was high risk working for her, a little bit like being a member of Idi Amin’s cabinet or Saddam Hussein’s circle. Each day, a body would be found floating,” he says in jest.
Apart from five years between 1981 and 1986, when he worked in news, Coleridge’s love affair with magazines has been a lasting one. “I love that mental stimulation of meeting and interacting with people,” he says.
“I probably read, or certainly page through, 125 magazines each month,” he says. Coleridge also writes books on weekends, both non-fiction and fiction. But he leans towards the latter because “the great joy of fiction is that you can make it all up as you go along”. Of his 12 books, most are based largely on his professional life (The Fashion Conspiracy, Paper Tigers, With Friends Like These) or are social novels (Godchildren, A Much Married Man, Deadly Sins). They’re not mega best-sellers, but they usually scrape into the top 20 somewhere.
When he’s not working or jet-setting across the globe, he says it’s a treat to come to India. He proposed to his wife Georgia here and also backpacked through India in the early 1980s, staying at practically “every Lonely Planet recommended place”. Also, before he had children and four sets of school fees, Coleridge used to buy both Rajasthani miniatures (he now owns 60 or so) and larger 19th century oil paintings of maharajas.
Favourite things to do include sunbathing and water skiing. But most of all, spending time in office. “I like to pad around the office building, it’s a good way to pick up what’s going on, look at layouts and gossip with editors!”
He loves magazines. We get it.
So it’s easy to see why it makes him “cross” when media conferences pose the question, sometimes with utmost certainty, that magazines are in some sort of terminal decline. “I would be surprised if there isn’t a strong magazine market in 25 years’ time.”
This optimism seems to be flowing through the air-conditioning ducts at Condé Nast International. Which is perhaps why chairman Jonathan Newhouse continues to encourage the roll-out of more titles in India. Vogue and GQ are already available in the country and popular travel magazine Condé Nast Traveller will be launched in October.
Condé Nast’s success is what makes it the “No. 1 target” for young people looking for work experience. Sometimes from 16-year-old school girls who have been told that their applications must stand out. “So on more than one occasion, I’ve received handwritten applications in envelopes packed tightly with glitter,” he laughs, “the kind that have a tendency to explode all over the desk.” And in some cases, applications that have been sealed with a kiss, leaving a telltale lipstick mark. “Initially, my PA thought they were from my godchildren. Now, she is extremely censorial about anything with lip prints,” he says. “They are sent an automatic rejection.”