The Mr Porter editor talks about her career in fashion journalism and the leap from print to digital media
Words by Ryan Thompson
When I walk into Dover Street’s Aubaine, part of a small chain of Provençal-style restaurants in London, Jodie Harrison is already sitting in a quiet corner towards the rear of the restaurant. In an email sent at 28 minutes past midnight the previous evening (‘I had to speak with talent based in LA’), she had asked to move the interview back by half an hour, presumably to cadge a few extra minutes in bed. But here she is, 20 minutes early even for herself.
With a tasselled black suede jacket folded at her side, Harrison is dressed in jeans, a white silk blouse and a richly patterned black and gold scarf wrapped loosely but precisely about her neck. She sits in the way that all mothers wished their sons would sit, effortlessly upright, with bright, alert eyes and relaxed hands. The remnants of an upbringing in the Yorkshire Dales can still be heard in a voice that is quick but never hurried. She speaks as assuredly as she looks, which is to say confidently, while having the rare knack of holding eye contact that can be comfortably reciprocated.
As editor at Mr Porter (a position she has occupied since its launch in February 2011), Harrison is charged with the responsibility of making men want to improve themselves in their own image and the image of others. The vehicle at her editorial behest is The Journal, Mr Porter’s engaging online magazine that at once curates, educates and entertains with a weekly multimedia stream of lifestyle- and style-related pieces. These range from eulogies on muscle cars and advice on felling a tree to profiles of style luminaries such as Alain Delon and guides on wearing trainers with suits. It’s eclectic, with high production values and a refreshing complement of journalistic voices. Although its raison d’être is, ultimately, to drive sales, it does so in such a naturally oblique and unobtrusive way that one is never in any doubt that the integrity of the articles comes first.
It’s quickly apparent that Harrison loves her job. She describes it with passion and great enthusiasm, which speaks for her character but also volumes about the way Mr Porter has entered the e-commerce and digital-publishing space. Having previously been executive style editor at GQ for more than seven years, the leap from print to digital has been one she has not looked back on…
CS: I’ve been a big fan of The Journal since it started, and one of the things I love about it is the very natural way you have integrated lifestyle content into what is a fashion retail platform. Was that a conscious decision from the get-go?
JH: That kind of happened quite naturally, actually. When we set out, we knew that men shopped differently from women. They do their research, they invest in quality and they look for things that will last. These pieces become a part of their everyday lives, and as such take them places: to foreign countries, to interviews, to their local coffee shop. In The Journal we wanted to make style relatable for real men, not fashion bunnies. We use language and context that’s comfortable and familiar and we never, ever use fashion-speak. We call it the ‘pub test’ - if you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying it to your friend in the pub, you won’t read it in Mr Porter. Luckily, this approach proved worthy. We saw from data that men prefer practical style guidance that is also realistic. Data is a wonderful thing and unique to digital editorial.
CS: Data. Imagine that, a publisher listening to and accommodating for its readers’ habits!
JH: That’s the amazing thing about working for a digital publisher - the data you can extract is incredibly insightful, enabling you to react really quickly. You are able to see patterns and relationships and behaviours in real time. You can see which films are successful or which shoots generated the most sales or the most social shares. It’s a truly fascinating side of what we do and it’s why I’d never in a million years go back to pure print. We quickly learnt what made the Mr Porter man tick: it’s food, lifestyle, holidays and practical guidance pieces - all the things you’d expect. But what’s interesting is the lifestyle features still generate sales for us, even though there is no direct link to products. It tends to inspire people to spend some time with us, trust us, and then shop.
CS: I can personally vouch that it’s a model that works. As a writer but also a customer, what engages me most about The Journal is the integrity of the stories. I feel as though I am reading or watching the creative accomplishments of writers and filmmakers who are genuinely inspired by their subject matter and are unencumbered by a need to push products.
JH: It’s great to hear that from you because that is exactly the intention. It’s something very precious to us. From the beginning we said there had to be balance. We have to do commercial features cleverly and also offer non-commercial features where men don’t feel pressured into buying anything. Otherwise we just turn into a promotional channel. Many brands put massive KPIs on their content and they’re all expected to deliver on sales and traffic, but what makes us unique is that we’re about building a brand and a place where men want to spend some time.
CS: It’s sad that much of print media has become an ad-driven promotional channel. Is that why you left GQ?
JH: No. I left print because I had been at GQ for seven years and felt I wasn’t learning anything new anymore. Leaving there and then working for Jeremy [Langmead, formerly the editor-in-chief at Wallpaper* and British Esquire who launched Mr Porter and was editor-in-chief until late 2013, when he left to join Christie’s as chief content officer, before returning to Mr Porter in June 2015 as marketing and content director] was something of an epiphany because all of a sudden I was having guidance and being trusted to take a jump to the next level and beyond. It was so exciting. Someone was trying to develop me, which was a massive boost for my confidence. Leaving GQ was a huge leap and I was honestly terrified about the world of digital. I had been there for seven years in a cushy little role but with limited opportunities to rise up the ranks. I thought to myself at the time, I’m nearly 30, I want a proper salary; I want to develop and I want to learn digital. That was five years ago and you could sense the panic starting to set in at print titles. You felt that you were just managing decline, that it was just a matter of time. Even though GQ is a market leader, and in many ways utterly secure in its position, I still felt that I was in an industry that was slowly, slowly stagnating. As soon as I got to Mr Porter the culture was ‘Yes, let’s do that, let’s try this’. You could be in a meeting and make massive decisions and then just go away and do it. The joy of that culture. It’s experimental - and that’s what I just love about Mr Porter as a company.
CS: I had a similarly lengthy tenure at Men’s Health while you were at GQ and remember thinking that everyone was just asleep at the digital wheel. The whole ad model felt so tired and uninspiring, especially to someone who writes on style. There was very little journalistic independence. Then out of nowhere you had a start-up called Mr Porter, which completely changed the playing field with its seriously good content that wasn’t your usual PR-driven celeb interview.
JH: Ha, yes, true. But you know, magazine people were so sniffy about us at the start, and to be honest they still are! They say, ‘Well, you’re just a shop.’ Yes, well you’re just a magazine. We generate really high traffic, reach a global audience rather than just a national one - plus, we’re making money!
CS: And, critically, you have editorial independence to boot.
JH: Yes. We have more independence at Mr Porter than most magazines because we are not beholden to any advertisers. We talk about products and brands we love, brands we have chosen to sell because we believe in them. They are our products, our choice.
CS: Tell me about the creative process at Mr Porter. Does it differ hugely from the print magazine process?
JH: As you would imagine, going from a monthly title to a weekly one was quite overwhelming at first. Let’s be honest, print can be fairly sedentary at time, at least during the years I worked in the industry: some weeks you were swanning around doing appointments and then for a few days a month you were working absolutely flat out to get the issue finished. At Mr Porter it’s a constant stream of content. Every day, we are commissioning, editing, generating ideas, checking layouts, signing off film edits, planning social projects - the list goes on and on and the projects come in thick and fast. And every day is different. That said, people work reasonable hours. We are out of the door before 6.30pm most evenings.
CS: Even though you sent me an email at 12.28am putting this breakfast back half an hour!
JH: Not a common thing, I promise. I needed to chat with people in LA about a few projects - not that it made any difference to my schedule because I can’t help but get up at 5am every single morning. It’s so annoying!
CS: The work hours must have been strenuous when launching Mr Porter, though?
JH: Sure, they were really long at the beginning. It was tough but totally amazing. Now we are in the flow; I’ve got an incredibly talented team I believe in. I got to choose most of them, which was such a great learning curve. The trick is planning- and lots of it. We do key commissioning sessions that look quite far ahead. We’re currently planning up to September.
CS: How does the subject matter get chosen?
JH: Anyone at Mr Porter can come up with a great idea. Any ideas that John Brodie, current editor-in-chief and I like make the cut. It’s then over to certain people and teams to make it happen. Generally, we shoot two to three stories per week and the rest is a mix of archive imagery-led pieces and illustrations. We have a fantastic production team who put everything into action. We shoot around the world, but mostly in New York and - particularly for our fashion stories - in LA, because that’s where a lot of the talent is based. The whole process feels so natural now. It’s relentless, but I just have to keep on top of it. We commission a lot of long-read pieces, so a huge amount of my day - and John’s time, too - is spent copy-editing. John is a book editor and so since his arrival the copy has become much more of a focus. I’ve learnt the difference between how Americans edit copy and how the British edit copy: it’s considerable.
CS: That’s interesting. I remember reading a fantastic article by John McPhee in The New Yorker a few years ago about the fact-checking department there. The lengths they went to to verify a fact were incredible . It’s reassuring to know that you invest a lot of time and energy into making the copy tight.
JH: People often also have this misconception that because you’re writing for online, the copy doesn’t have to be accurate or it doesn’t need to be the standard it should be if it were going into print. But why? At Mr Porter we want the copy to be tight - we don’t want mistakes because they reflect badly on us. We are a publisher in our own right- we just happen to be a digital one.
‘Everybody is doing their own newspaper, everybody is doing their own content, but not everybody has the culture where they are willing to dedicate the time and resources towards original content. It’s quite rare to find that’
CS: I’ve noticed you commission a lot of young, upcoming talent to create content. Is that a particular strategy you use?
JH: For sure. It’s really nice to meet and highlight young directors and photographers because it gives them the opportunity for their work to be exposed on a global level and it can really help their careers. We’ve been going for four years now, so I’m aware there’s a need to keep moving forward and trying new things because there’s a lot more competition in the marketplace now. Everybody is doing their own newspaper, everybody is doing their own content, but not everybody has the culture where they are willing to dedicate the time and resources towards original content. It’s quite rare to find that.
CS: A question you probably get asked quite a lot is why menswear?
JH: I love menswear and I love working with men. I find the culture a bit more laid-back and a bit more supportive. I grew up in farming country in the Yorkshire Dales so I’m pretty direct and no-nonsense. I guess I’m not particularly a girl’s girl. But I always knew that I wanted to work in magazines. It was features I was most drawn to. My first-ever work experience was at Company and I found it quite terrifying, actually. The culture of women at a magazine that was not at the top of its game was pretty aggressive, and as a work-experience girl you were sometimes made to feel the lowest of the low. So after a month of that I’d kind of had the wind knocked out of my sails. I thought I was going to be in a really collaborative and supportive environment. Then I went to Esquire for another work-experience stint. The editor at the time was Simon Tiffin and the features director was a guy called Shaun Phillips. Mansel Fletcher, who now writes for Mr Porter, was also there. They were all so amazing with me and the atmosphere was so different to what I had just experienced. I had lined up a few work positions after my stint at Esquire but I really wanted to stay there because they let me write and got me involved and published my articles. It was so exciting. Then I went straight to Glamour and again, I just didn’t enjoy the vibe, but there was a lady there called Michelle who liked me and she put me forward for a style assistant job with Charlie Porter at GQ. I learnt a huge amount from him about good fashion writing and the whole thing rolled from there.
CS: Yes, tell me about GQ. It must have been a good learning experience for you.
JH: GQ was brilliant in lots of ways. I grew up there and they were my seminal years, when I really started to understand fashion and the business of fashion. But it was the right time to go, and having the opportunity to work with Jeremy in a start-up environment was one I couldn’t miss. I can honestly say that in the first year at Mr Porter, I probably learnt more than I did in the previous five. I was sat there in the first week in meetings not knowing what the fuck people were talking about - it was top-nav this and wire-frames that! One really important thing I had to learn fast was how to hire people. That’s a real skill in itself. I made a couple of decisions in the beginning that didn’t work out, but now I can see the potential in people quickly - who is self-motivated and who isn’t, because in a fast-paced environment you can’t be managing people all the time. A good rule of thumb, I read somewhere, is to never hire a person you wouldn’t like to go out to dinner with. I mean, come on, you spend far more time with your colleagues than you do with your partner, so you’ve got to get it right.
CS: Speaking of your partner, am I right in thinking you were married quite recently?
JH: Yep! Donnie and I were married in September 2013, but we’ve been together for 13 years. We met while I was at university in Glasgow. He was a bike courier. He’s a brilliant person and he’s a great sounding board for my ideas. He’s a guitarist so he’s away a lot. He’s been touring for a month with Paolo Nutini but is coming back next week. It’s been a long month!
[It’s at this point that the writer’s six-and-a-half year old daughter - who had until now remained curiously but honourably silent - removes her face from a plate of scrambled eggs and decides to make her mark on the interview]
‘My mummy is in Italy doing fashion. She’s always going away.’
CS: Yes, I’m effectively a single-parent family. A poor fashion widower. It’s the Easter school holidays, hence why my young assistant is here.
‘Because I love school! I’m glad I didn’t choose boys and girls.’
CS: You mean you’re glad we put you in an all-girls school?
JH: Boys are quite rubbish sometimes, but you might change your tune about that one day, missy! We don’t have children yet, but yeah, one day I’m sure it will happen. I keep putting it off because I love my job too much.
CS: It’s a huge dilemma for a woman. I was relatively young to become a father by modern standards. I was 28 and my wife was 36, but her career was already well established so she felt the timing was right. Then we had another one three years later and it took a lot of hard graft for her to regain the momentum she had.
JH: It’s so difficult because often just at the time you’re ready to have children, you’re also about to make a big career decision, be it a new position or an entirely new job. I feel like I’ve got real momentum in my career at the moment and I don’t want to step away from it. I don’t care what anyone says, and I know I’ll get flack for this, but I believe you do lose your footing by having a baby at that moment. Also, my career allows Donnie to have his, because unfortunately his is very up and down, very unsteady, so it’s really on me. I might just get a dog.
CS: You ran a dog feature just recently. Clearly The Journal is just a Freudian conduit for your id! Let me change tack and ask how you see the menswear landscape right now?
JH: Menswear on the whole is in a great place. It feels very natural now, not forced at all. Our DNA is about style, about being timeless rather than about what’s trendy, so for us, supporting British brands is always high on our agenda. We cater for classics but we also cater for the more fashion-forward customer.
CS: Menswear also doesn’t move at the same insane trend-based cadence as womenswear.
JH: True. One of my greatest frustrations is that I still can’t find a publication that actually represents what I’m interested in as a woman. Trends are all very well but as you get older they become less important… she says, wearing a tasselled leather Saint Laurent jacket! Seriously though, as you get older your style becomes more set and you know what suits you and what doesn’t. You veer off the path less. I just wish trends were not always the focus in womenswear. With menswear there’s that classicism that’s more permanent - and there’s a sense of nostalgia, which I love. In fact, I try to inject that into a lot of the features we do. For example, last year we did a piece about patina - about objects that guys have had all their lives, stuff that is significant and special to them. One of our art editors had a Patek Philippe watch that his father had given him, while my husband had a beautiful old hip flask that had been dented by his dad’s leg from having it in his pocket for so many years. So we try and put meaning and significance behind the products, which isn’t always easy because at the end of the day we are pushing newness. But buying investment pieces is important to men. What’s interesting is that our biggest brand in sales terms is Saint Laurent, but the next biggest is Nike. That’s a massive difference in price-point but it shows you the breadth of customer. I love that the same person who is shelling out £4,000 on a leather jacket is also spending £50 on a pair of Nike trainers. It’s more like womenswear used to be in terms of mixing. That’s what our customers are looking for now.
CS: Nike is truly exceptional in the way it evolves and markets its products.
JH: It is amazing. It’s still really disruptive, but it’s interesting to learn that Nike doesn’t make all its own content. It uses agencies all over the world to produce really innovative marketing campaigns, which give it this amazing freshness. It’s so aspirational for such an attainable brand. For a while it perhaps lost its relevance but now it’s stronger than ever- its fashion, its style, its performance sportswear, everything. To stay relevant today, a brand has to be involved in so many different channels.
CS: Speaking of different channels, do you think Mr Porter would ever consider a bricks-and-mortar retail experience?
JH: We’re always having conversations about immersive experiences and pop-up stores, that kind of thing. We would never rule it out, but who knows? We had a pop-up store for the launch of Kingsman and people loved it - it was a rare moment for people to get hands-on with our brand. That kind of experience is never meant to be a big sales channel; it’s a marketing tool. At the end of the day, we’ve got the biggest store in the world on our website. That’s our priority.
CS: The Mr Porter x Kingsman tie-in looks to me like a bit of a game-changer with regards to how film and brands work together in the future.
JH: It was a risk, a total risk. The idea came about thanks to Natalie Massenet, Matthew Vaughn, Arianne Phillips and Toby Bateman putting their heads together and coming up with a first-of-its-kind venture. The starting point was the idea that men always wanted to buy the watch that James Bond wore, or a particular suit he had on, but couldn’t. So we created the first shoppable spy movie. The risk was that it was a mass-market film with a high-price-point product range, but because the spy genre appeals to such a broad audience the collection has been a total success and is selling really well. The most successful item was the Cutler and Gross eyewear, which isn’t surprising given the entry-level price-point,but the double-breasted suit has also done phenomenally well. Some customers came online and bought the whole range. So now we’ve got this successful brand on our hands that we are going to keep on growing and building on season after season. It’s so interesting working for a brand with all these different ideas, different areas you can delve into and make an impact on. The scope is ever-growing, ever-expanding. Magazines can seem very one-dimensional in comparison.