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07.03.2017

Laying to rest months of WhatsApp speculation and malicious gossip, ELLE India’s parent company, Ogaan, is about to send out a press statement that will put the official spin on what the h-elle’s been going on at their fashion magazine. About time: the publication has been without an editor since the end of February, when boss Aishwarya Subramanyam finished serving her notice period.

In an additional jolt, last week, CEO Gaurav Mashruwala announced internally that he will shortly part ways with ELLE.

Edit team churn is par for the course in the magazine industry. But for the last three months, rumour, emerging from a person in the upper echelons of the editorial hierarchy, is that Subramanyam, far from resigning, was fired from her job.

This week, when Mashruwala stepped down, an insider at the magazine claimed to a bpb writer that he’d been asked to leave too. (Publisher Arif Ayyub, formerly of Vogue -  and brother to journalist Rana Ayyub -  is rumoured to be next in line for his position.)

Interviews with current and former editorial staff suggest that the book is being handled by a skeleton crew, with associate editor Serena Menon helping to pull the issue together.

***

Over several conversations with people in and around ELLE, we tried to get to the bottom of these stormy stories. Aashti Bhartia, CEO of Ogaan, and Mashruwala both declined to comment, saying separately (and only) that they were “still searching” for an editor yesterday – although we’re half expecting a happy announcement in today’s press release.

Almost all the editors credibly rumoured to have been tapped by ELLE declined to confirm whether they’ve been in talks with the magazine. They include Bandana Tewari, fashion features director at Vogue; Nandini Bhalla, editor, Cosmopolitan; Pearl Shah, former fashion director at Marie Claire; and Anindita Ghose, former features director at Vogue who’s now editor at Mint Lounge.

Aashti Bhartia, CEO of Ogaan, and Mashruwala both declined to comment, saying separately (and only) that they were “still searching” for an editor yesterday – although we’re half expecting a happy announcement in today’s press release.

Ghose said a headhunter had called her on behalf of ELLE, but she didn’t pursue it because she’d already accepted the Mint job. Sita Wadhwani, former digital editor of Vogue and currently content director at fashion retailer Arvind Internet – NNOW.com is an obvious choice, and has been approached for the position before, but declined to pursue. Read her thoughts on why here.

Signs point to major media headhunters Accord India running this round of hiring. Neither they nor K & J Search Consultants – who oversaw a previous round of hiring  – will confirm involvement.

***

For a variety of reasons, depending on whom you ask, working at ELLE grew more and more stressful over time both for Subramanyam and her dwindling team.

Over multiple conversations with us, Subramanyam said that she resigned in December after ELLE’s big anniversary issue because working there “had stopped being fun.” During her four years at the helm, she cracked the fashion magazine facade with unusual cover models, clever, warm-hearted writing and what Mumbai Mirror’s gossip page called “fresher and edgier flair.”

However, her unorthodox approach was not appreciated by everyone. Furthermore, working with Subramanyam was “disorganised” at best, according to one former employee; a stylist and two photographers who’ve worked with ELLE in the past told bpb that they found her unpredictable and tough to work with.

During multiple conversations with us, Subramanyam said that she resigned in December after ELLE’s big anniversary issue because working there “had stopped being fun.”

The editorial team, tasked with expanding digital content and programming events as well as bringing out the print magazine, shrank over time. (Mashruwala said that “the company” employs over a hundred people at present, but would not confirm how many of those are ELLE’S editorial staff.) It’s hard to determine who was responsible. A former member of ELLE’S edit team told us that Mashruwala actively nudged editorial staffers out the door, in order to cut costs and reorganise budgets. “His refrain was that Archana (Pillai, current vice-chairperson and former CEO of ELLE) had run the magazine into the ground.” This edit team member felt that Mashruwala himself was responsible for ELLE’s current state of affairs. On the other hand, at least two ELLE contributors who didn’t enjoy the experience of working with the magazine suggested to us that Subramanyam was ultimately accountable for the mess.

The reality likely lies between the lines of all these allegations, but the guesswork around the situation has been flagrant and often false. For example, speculations that ELLE is in dire financial straits came up with almost every non-ELLE source we spoke to: an editor at another lifestyle magazine claimed that ELLE hadn’t paid staff salaries for three months. Subramanyam categorically denied this, and Cheryl-Ann Couto, ELLE’s deputy editor until she left in September 2016, says that ELLE’s payroll is “at industry standards.”

***

So where does ELLE go from here? Forecasts are as unpredictable as their March cover girl Kangana Ranaut.

“Last year was the best ever for India’s luxury goods market -- before demonetisation, of course,” a skeptical industry insider said. They suggested that if ELLE was incapable of making the most of the windfall, then this year’s demonetisation-hobbled atmosphere will be even more of a challenge. 

Another challenge is how quickly the role of a fashion magazine editor is changing, suggests Sita Wadhwani. “What is a fashion editor in today’s multichannel landscape?” she said, and pointed out rather blasphemously that “what you put in the print edition is less and less critical. But what mix of channels (web, event, social, print, search) you employ for every content moment and how you restructure for agility and performance, is what will get you hired.” And, presumably, what will keep you from getting fired.

This might be why ELLE isn’t alone in being the object of churn. Subramanyam’s high profile and intra-industry bitterness may have contributed to the general air of doom (“schadenfreude,” as one interviewee said), but a number of top jobs at other publications – including at Vogue, which is looking for Ghose’s replacement, and Verve, whose CEO just resigned – have also fallen vacant.

Finally, ELLE itself is no stranger to editorial revolutions. “Something similar happened back in 2000, when seven people of a team of nine resigned along with outgoing editor Superna Motwane,” Neerja Shah, former publisher and editor at the magazine, told us. “It’s just another day in the life of a magazine. The book will be out regardless.” Or like her wincingly cliched lover and boss reminds ELLE's cover girl in her newest movie: the show must go on.

Ranaut's response: “But what will I wear?”

Getting there: The March 2017 issue of ELLE is expected on stands soon.

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