The State of It Report: Our Local Fashion Media Scene

Industry leaders share the story of how fashion media is changing, and what happens as we turn the page.

By Jessica-Belle Greer

From being in the fold to worrying if the publication you work for is going to fold – the editorial talent of Aotearoa New Zealand is often working on edge. But, as this rather meta media report shows, the industry is experienced in trying on new trends, while figuring out its own enduring style.

Ensemble editor and co-founder Zoe Walker Ahwa has enjoyed a 20-year career of constant change. “But that is what makes working in the media exciting,” she says. Working for cross-platform companies since the early days of media websites in New Zealand, and going on to become associate editor at Viva and editor-in-chief at Fashion Quarterly, she has had a fabled ‘front row seat’ to the industry’s ins and outs – and she’s been taking notes.

Ensemble editor and co-founder Zoe Walker Ahwa

“The issues facing fashion media are a microcosm of media in general – all areas are having challenges, from broadcasting (see: TVNZ and Newshub) to the news,” she says. “What I have noticed in fashion media in New Zealand, is that there is much focus on serving brands, PR and the industry – rather than readers. I’m not saying the former aren’t important but the latter should be a priority.”

Following the closure of Bauer Media NZ (which owned Fashion Quarterly and a stable of the country’s highest-performing magazines), Walker Ahwa founded Ensemble with another industry insider, Rebecca Wadey. As editorial director of Ensemble, which is now under the banner of Stuff, she continues to challenge what fashion and ‘women’s interest’ media can be. 

“I’m really proud of our creative whimsy and journalistic grounding,” she says. “Our audience continues to grow – on-site, on social, our newsletter, the events we do etc – as do our commercial partners. But what means the most to me is that Rebecca and I have built something that I think has already made a difference, not even four years in, and that we speak directly to a community that’s super engaged and really cares.”

As one of my favourite former editors-in-chief (I was the features editor for Fashion Quarterly and Simply You magazines before Bauer Media NZ closed that book), she has some wise words. “As the traditional advertising model continues to buckle and the media becomes more reader-revenue focused (i.e. subscriptions, events, memberships), I think some publications will find it a challenge. Why would a reader pay to read rehashed press releases or news they can get directly from brands, who are also content creators now. Also: is it media, or marketing?”

“No matter what the ‘content’ platform is – something in print, a website, a social platform, a newsletter – People still want trusted and careful reporting, well-written stories that are accompanied by beautiful visuals, thoughtful and original perspectives. Fashion media can and should offer all of that – it’s just how and where they are ‘consuming’ it that has shifted.” 

Social media has, of course, changed the approach to imagery. “The concept of a 10-page editorial spread with no real point or angle feels irrelevant now, when everyone is extremely photogenic and taking photos of themselves wearing clothes – but it hasn’t replaced the reporting or journalistic side of things,” adds Walker Ahwa. 

The paper cut, for Walker Ahwa, is a lack of resources – most importantly, people and time. “As editors and reporters, we’re all stretched beyond belief, but it is our job to go out and find fresh stories and new people and perspectives,” she says. “The trick is being careful about what our extremely small team prioritises, and that is stories that we know will actually resonate with our audience or that are important to the platform, and working with brands that support us commercially.”

“I am desperate for young upstart fashion media – young perspectives that feel fresh and capture the moment or a scene,” she adds. “That’s what the likes of Cha Cha, Planet, Pavement and blogs did. It doesn’t have to be a magazine or a website: it could be a fashion student reviewing NZFW shows on TikTok. It could be a lofi zine, or a newsletter. Maybe I’m just not being served this content, but this is what I hope is the future of the fashion media here – unique, irreverent and diverse points of views that aren’t being fed by PRs or an algorithm.”

Dan Ahwa, Creative Director of Viva

Dan Ahwa, the creative director of Viva, is also not afraid of the fabled ‘red pen’. “We work in such an image saturated industry, I often wonder why people do fashion shoots right now. What is it trying to say? I see photographers doing work that looks the same across multiple clients and I wonder what the appeal is for that client.” he says. “It’s not so much a drop in revenue, but rather a drop in originality and substance. People think shoots are a big part of working in fashion media, but actually they’re not the be-all and end-all, so there needs to be some real reflection when it comes to creating a fashion shoot right now – what is its point? What value does it bring to the conversation?”

Don’t get me wrong – I still love a beautiful shoot and think there’s so much you can still say with a well-thought-out fashion image. It’s eternally important to do things to fuel creative desire, too, but when do we get to the point where, as an industry, we ensure our creatives are appropriately being reimbursed for their work and creativity? As someone who commissions and gets commissioned, I see both sides of the table whether it’s commercial or editorial. When do we as an industry start to focus on building up fees for our creatives so they are appropriately reimbursed for their time and creative energy? Let’s address that first before we keep feeding an already image-saturated industry.

 Amanda Linnell was Ahwa’s editor for ten of her 15 years at the publication – before she left last year. “There were editors before her, but she really understood the value of commercialising Viva. From reader-only events to podcasts, video series, the quarterly magazine, books, restaurant awards, partnerships and marketing opportunities – Amanda did that,” says Ahwa. “This is vital to remember because everyone who worked with her on the team has learned this to some degree, which I think is important for anyone working in fashion media, let alone media. You have to be open to that part of the business otherwise you won’t survive. So I think the Viva team have come from a really unique position in that we’ve been trained to be agile out of necessity.”

Over time, Viva has evolved to become a digital-first publication, under the Viva Premium offering. “These days, you have to be nimble and malleable to the changes in the market, and while this can present some challenges, I’ve learned over the years having experienced media at its most volatile moments, that you have to try and find the work, the stories and the moments that mean the most to you on a deeper, personal level,” says Ahwa.

As Viva’s enduring editorial work shows, the team has to make every, costly cent count. “Fashion shoots are expensive if you want to do these properly,” says Ahwa. “Right now, we still have the capacity to do good fashion editorials, but not as much as we used to – which is actually a good thing. The world doesn’t need another forgettable shoot.”

Working on Viva’s quarterly magazine, which launched as a one-off glossy edition in 2020 – and extended to ten – was another learning opportunity. “I was able to see supermarket scan data of how many magazines we sold compared to other magazines in the market and it was interesting for me to see how many magazines operate on smoke and mirrors,” says Ahwa. “The decline in fashion media partly comes from having to compete with people who aren’t being entirely truthful about their statistics.”

While editorial teams focus on the success of their next issue or post, the collection of our stories matters most. “Our stories and our shoots are a way of understanding our identity through clothing and what this says about who we are as a nation. Fashion media provides context into our identity,” says Ahwa. “In a world where so much of us are questioning our moral compass, when we have the freedom of choice to decide what to put on our back, that speaks volumes.”

Signing up for digital or print publications becomes all the more important when it also means subscribing to the team’s values. “I can’t create the work I do and support the marginalised voices in our industry unless that same support is being reciprocated,” says Ahwa. “People here are so used to receiving their fashion content for free, so we’ve had to prioritise stories that people engage with and are prepared to subscribe to. That’s a balancing act not everyone working in fashion media will understand, unfortunately, but is one I am grateful to be able to work on with the support of our wider teams at NZME.” 

Sometimes, the answer to publishing work you are proud of is to take a magazine into your own hands. Sarah Murray worked as editor-in-chief for Fashion Quarterly in 2021, after it was picked up by Parkside, now known as Via Media. By the end of 2023, she acquired the legacy title and began changing the narrative for local media ownership.

Sarah Murray editor-in-chief for Fashion Quarterly

“Most in the industry understand that it’s not the most stable career and are not doing it for the money but for their love of taking stories to the rest of New Zealand and the world,” says Murray. “All media are facing financial pressures due to the current economic downturn adding to the increased competition for advertising spend from non-traditional media players, such as social media and influencers. The current challenges mean the traditional media model is no longer sustainable – media needs to adapt to how consumers are getting content and meet their audience where they are.”

Fashion Quarterly has risen to the occasion with the formal addition of FQCollective, FQEvents, and FQInsider under Murray’s cross-platform media business Elcoat Media. “A 360 offering that finds different audience demographics through print, digital, social media, and events.”

The response so far? Like a well-tailored outfit, it’s on point. “I feel so supported by the fashion industry in New Zealand, by our advertisers, former and current people who work in media, other independent publishers and our passionate FQ team,” says Murray. 

In the first week of the new issue being on shelves, sales increased officially at the tills, and anecdotally with the magazine being picked up faster than it could be restocked. Hot off the press, the flow-on effect of this could be significant. “Part of our new strategy (which we developed when I took over FQ) is to grow our NZ audience in order to support developing more editorial content that is created in NZ,” says Murray.

Tim Phin founder of Remix Magazine

Moving with the times, Tim Phin launched Remix magazine in 1997, and the majority of its editorial work is still produced locally (by an internal editorial team and local contractors) – except for its celebrity covers. The focus is on appealing to specialist interests, including fashion and pop culture, that attract all ages within their specific demographic. “Remix and niche magazines/media in general are having a moment,” says Phin. “The brands that stand out from the crowd and engage with the reader and consumer.”

Content creator Caitlin Wiig

For the media personalities, the approach is even more social. Content creator Caitlin Wiig started posting on TikTok during the lockdown of 2021 “out of boredom”, and her following grew naturally. She began working with brands through gifted campaigns to show the level of content she could produce. “I looked at that as an investment into my future,” Wiig says. – It paid off, and the engagement she garnered helped her negotiate paid deals and realise the importance of posting quality of quantity.

Content creator Laura Hadlow

Digital creator Laura Hadlow began sharing travel and style content on her Instagram account while attending university and interning for fashion PR teams. “If I think back to the beginning, I often worked on a ‘contra’ basis,” she says. “As with any career, it is a good way to build relationships, make connections and also gain experience in an industry.”

Now, she will not work on a contra-basis due to her time restrictions (she also works as an in-house marketing and PR manager) but still tries to keep her communication style organic. “I feel very lucky to have worked with some incredible brands over the years and to have some amazing clients that I work with year-on-year, which I truly value,” says Hadlow. “If I am gifted a product and I enjoy using it then I am happy to share it organically but that is not guaranteed. Only good things come from being genuine.” 

Photographer, stylist and costume designer Karen Inderbitzen-Waller

Freelance experts are now also wearing many hats. Photographer, stylist and costume designer Karen Inderbitzen-Waller of Smoke&Mirrors, started as a fashion editor at women’s magazines, then moved on to do both styling and photography at Pavement in 1999/2000. “Pavement was the first to ever believe in and commission my fashion work and they were unarguably the best, most international title we ever had in New Zealand,” says Inderbitzen-Waller. “They paved the way for later publications like Black and No Magazine.”

Social media has also become the focus of her work in recent years. “This is one of those times where there is so much unprecedented change that is bigger than us, and we can’t fight it,” says Inderbitzen-Waller. “We can only continue to love the physical media, contribute to it, and support it to keep it alive.”

However, it does create new ways of seeing. “Photography-wise, with social media so very much in play, there has also been a huge shift to us needing to always vary or allow different versions of our natural compositions in order to cater to so many formats and devices – because it’s not just a publication anymore, it’s not just Internet anymore, it’s a kaleidoscope of requirements.”

Emily Moon Director of Loupe Agency

Director Emily Moon of Loupe Agency, which represents Inderbitzen-Waller and Ahwa (as a stylist and brand consultant), has a zoomed-out perspective on these new angles. “For the most part, the work we do is in commercial advertising and fashion, so in the past we would typically look at things from a print media perspective. However, ‘content is king’, as they say, so it’s no surprise we have all seen a huge pivot towards the digital space in the last few years,” Moon says. 

“From my perspective, there has definitely been a noticeable shift in advertising priorities, with clients increasingly directing a large portion of their budgets towards digital and social platforms. A trend driven by the need for greater value, and enabling clients to produce content more regularly while keeping costs down. More often than not, our clients are looking to produce a higher volume of deliverables within the same time-fame and budget.” 

“While this does put additional pressure on the industry, it also opens doors for a wider range of creatives and emerging talent who otherwise might not have had these opportunities. It means photography and video can collaborate more often, ultimately providing more visibility for both the artists and clients/brands.”

Smaller budgets go to more frequent, snappy roll-outs, while more considerable marketing spend is channelled into one-to-two feature campaigns, which are shared across print and digital.

“Aotearoa is home to some exceptional creatives; photographers, fashion stylists, make-up artists, set designers… Editorial content should always serve as a platform to showcase the outstanding stories and concepts crafted by local artists,” adds Moon. “The hope would be that businesses and brands recognise the value in supporting our local talent pool, and be more inclined to invest in them and their work, if they’re presented with fresh and clever creative.”

Elle Australia editor Grace O’Neill

In Australia, a similarly shifting media landscape, there is more reason for hope – most recently through the relaunch of Elle Australia. New editor Grace O’Neill worked at the publication for years before it closed in 2020. During the pandemic years, she focused on freelance writing and co-hosting the After Work Drinks podcast, with New Zealander journalist and editor Isabelle Truman. When the opportunity came to relaunch the title – alongside the fashion and beauty general manager at Are Media, Nicky Briger – it was a full-circle, and full-circulation moment.

“My ambition was and is simple: to create a magazine that blends the most beautiful, aspirational, creative fashion imagery with the best-written features. It’s a love letter to the women I know and love: wickedly smart and beautifully put together,” says O’Neill.

The first issue, aptly titled ‘Bright Young Things’, sold out at dozens of newsagents and supermarkets. “The response has been phenomenal. I had people telling me they had to visit five separate stores to get their hands on a copy.”

Harking back to what attracted her to the industry in the first place, O’Neill says: “I’m not surprised that people are excited to read magazines that speak to them like the intelligent women they are.”

While Elle Australia was previously a monthly publication, it is dipping its toes back into the ebb and flow with two issues for 2024, and next year this will extend to four issues. At the time of the print launch, the publication released two digital covers, and its online reach continues to grow, with a podcast soon to reach its readers “in a whole new way”.

You heard it here first. A whole new way, straight from the editors’ desks.