Architectural Digest Turns 100—And is getting younger by minute
January 23, 2020
It’s hard to imagine a more stressful experience than having than Amy Astley over to your house. It’s not that Astley is a monster. Quite the contrary, the editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest, is a sophisticate par excellence. The picture of poise, like the ballerina she once trained to be.
But, oh, the homes she’s seen.
“I go out every night and it’s all about finding houses, finding interesting people,” she says on the latest episode of the “Ad Lib” podcast. “I have houses I’ve been tracking for three and a half years since I arrived. I still haven’t shot them.“
Astley is a Condé Nast lifer. She joined the media empire straight out of college to work as an assistant at House & Garden. When that folded, she moved over to Vogue to work under uber-editor Anna Wintour for 10 years. In 2003, she became the founding editor of Teen Vogue, where she presided for 13 years.
Since May of 2016 she has been the editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest, which turns 100 this year. On the occasion of that anniversary, she joined the podcast to discuss what it was like to inherit a prestige brand that had grown a little stuffy over the decades. In her time at Architectural Digest, the magazine has seen its audience grow 63 percent across print and digital; its social footprint has increased by 169 percent.
Excerpts from our conversation:
You came in three years ago. You made a splash right away. Talk about the influence of social media on what you’ve done and how you articulate modernizing this brand.
Well, it’s the big question, it’s the right question. AD, I describe it as “it was a sleeping beauty.” Obviously, it’s a legacy brand, incredible 100 year heritage and it’s meaningful to a lot of people. When I started three and a half years ago, I felt the notion was stuffy, elegant, rich, rich people.
A little elitist.
Elitist and maybe something their grandmother read or that was in a doctor’s office. The trick for me is how to keep the feeling of prestige and authority and access that really signal AD, but bring it into the modern age. So, we had to build a digital brand. It didn’t exist when I started.
Fewer than a million followers on Instagram, no video angle at the time. You now have 2.6 million followers on YouTube, 2 million on Twitter, 5 million followers on Instagram. How do you broaden the appeal in a digital age of a brand that is historically all about premier luxury experience?
Your question sums up the challenge. For me it’s keeping the print magazine feeling very premium, but modernizing it, enlightening it so that it has a wider appeal. But still, we’re very selective. There are only four to five houses in every issue. There are 11 issues, so we’re very, very selective about what houses will be photographed and shown in the pages. AD is about best in class.
Do people submit their homes to you? Or do you have scouts?
There are about five or six of us on the staff who I would consider house whisperers, including myself. I spend a lot of time tracking houses and they come in all different ways. We’re all connected to the architects, the landscape designers, and the decorators, the interior designers of course. And then from me, my long career in my long life in New York. I’m active in the fashion world, in the art world, and the social world. I go out every night and it’s all about finding houses, finding interesting people. I have houses I’ve been tracking for three and a half years since I arrived. I still haven’t shot them. Houses take a long time. It’s very different from say fashion where I’ve also spent a lot of time, which is all about quick and disposable.
You must have had to gently turn down some very powerful people.
I’ve turned down many powerful people.
Can you name any of them?
No because I think there could be a hit on me. One is terrifying.
When you do something like Wiz Khalifa’s house, then, was that in print or only digital?
Wiz was not in print, Wiz was living in a rental. Again, sometimes you’ll make an exception, but generally speaking, I don’t want to show a rental property in the magazine because we want to know that it’s yours and that you live there, but Wiz was great.
It was a traffic monster.
Thirty-eight million views. Wiz shared it and I love him and I felt that it helped to signal a fresh direction for AD which goes back to your original question: “How do you revitalize something that’s legacy that people think is staid?” So my first cover, Mark Jacobs, I had his dog on the cover with his Instagram handle and the printers called us and said, “Is this a mistake?”
So you’re building this robust YouTube video presence, you’re building this robust Instagram platform. Talk about the demands because you still have to put out a monthly magazine which is a beast.
Everything about it suits my metabolism. I love having a ton to do and for me it’s not challenging to be thinking about web, web extensions, social media, the magazine, the business side. The secret sauce is you have to be a good leader. Your vision has to be clear. You have to hire the right people to implement. You have to empower them. They have to build strong teams.
And AD must have different audiences in those different places.
YouTube is a broad, democratic platform, but it skews young and the engagement there is incredible. And the comments, I do read the comments in the first few days of a video going up. Cara and Poppy Delevingne, yesterday it was Tan France, seeing what those people say and how they relate to the people in their home.
YouTube comments scare me.
It’s incredible and it’s totally a totally different kind of viewer. They’re looking at something very different from what the person who’s obsessed with the magazine is looking at. With the magazine, the expectation is that it’s going to be a real standard of beauty, of elegance and of design sophistication. That’s what we have to uphold. That’s what the reader expects. That gives the aura to the whole brand, you know?
You’ve launched new verticals: AD Pro is trade-oriented and Clever is a youth brand. There are events, some forays into ecommerce. Talk about how in the past three years how you have been able to, essentially, bring in more money, which every publisher is trying to figure out.
We make great money on the print product. [AD Pro and Clever] was really me coming from when I started three years ago saying, “How can we address all the different audiences and make AD dominant across everyone interested in shelter instead of just a small category that it was addressing?” Yes, ecommerce is in its future for sure. We did a very successful collaboration with Urban Outfitters last year, sold out. It was like a capsule collection. Those little experiments show me we can go further, we can do more. There’s no rush. We take our time building it. We’re 100 years old, but I feel very bullish about Clever. It drives like 30 percent of our web traffic.
Beyond AD, it seems like the entire upscale shelter category seems to be having a bit of a moment in a good way. Why do you think that is?
Yeah because the thing about a house, and this is very true at AD, you don’t find these houses on the internet. You find them in Architectural Digest and then we share them on the internet, but they’re not, otherwise, there. And I think this is a huge problem across the [publishing] industry, is that all the information is already there. You want fashion information, certainly want news, financial information, whatever kind of information you want: It’s all on the internet for free. But the homes that we show, this goes back to access and authority. We’ve done Jennifer Aniston; we’ve done Mark Jacobs; we did Lenny Kravitz on his fazenda recently, which is a great example of you’re not going to see his house in Brazil anywhere on the internet. It’s not there until he’s allowed AD to photograph and video it.
That’s your point of differentiation.
Yes. And people are private about their home and they want it showed correctly, the kind of homes that we do. It’s just something that the internet can’t necessarily always compete with, showing that kind of home. Certainly a celebrity home. Lenny’s a great example of my perfect world, of what we’re doing, where everything integrates. He’s on the cover, there’s a big story in the magazine, it’s on our social platforms. He shares it on his social platforms. He’s proud and happy. There’s a big YouTube video, think it’s out about 5 million views at this point?
You have to fish where the fish are.
There are also young people who only watch YouTube. And my daughter, who’s 17, will come home and say to me, “Everybody loved Tan France, everybody loved Kylie. Everybody loved Cara and Poppy Delevingne.” That’s exciting to me to see that you can reach people in high school, people in college, people in their twenties and thirties, I know so many of them who say to me, “I love AD’s YouTube channel”, and that’s where they’re involved. Hopefully they’ll become magazine readers, but you know, honestly if they don’t, it’s all good, you know?
You worked a bit directly with Si Newhouse? What was that like?
Amazing. One for the ages. He’s a legend with good reason. He had extraordinary taste. I was fortunate enough to see his apartment in UN Plaza. I felt very elevated aesthetically and he was a great business person. He loved editors, he loved magazines. When I was made editor in chief of Teen Vogue, he called me in to give me the job. I was hugely pregnant. He didn’t seem to notice. He was a great boss. You knew where you stood with him.
You joined Condé in the late ’80s. How would you characterize Condé today versus Condé then? Like every publishing company, it’s been centralizing certain core capabilities. It’s been contracting, using fewer staffers to do more. Do you get nostalgic?
It’s all a continuation and I’m definitely not nostalgic. There’s so much more opportunity for so many more people now. It’s a much more open world. There’s digital opportunity. You can expand your brand in so many really meaningful and important ways you can let more people into your brand, which is what we’ve been discussing. You have to move on. To be honest, when people talk about the glory days, there was a lot of drudgery and I did it. You know, I was an assistant to editor-in-chiefs. I worked the fax; I was excited when the fax came. I knew how to change the toner and the cartridges in the copy machine. I remember when they brought computers around in 1990. I was just starting at House and Garden and we used to type everything on a typewriter. So I’m not nostalgic for that stuff.
Condé has a newish CEO in Roger Lynch. What sort of conversations do you have with him?
Well, limited because he’s busy, but he has shown himself to be very open to the team. I mean he’s much more transparent, I would say, than what you’ve seen at Condé in the past.
You initially trained as a ballet dancer?
I’m still ballet involved. Architectural Digest remade the dancers lounge at American Ballet theater. I quit when I was 18: I just wasn’t good enough. Such a harsh world. Thank God. Dodged that bullet.