As Playboy’s famous Mansion goes on sale and the US print title launches its first non-nude issue, Amuse talks to James Mac Lewis, Playboy’s creative director about casting on Instagram, why naked girls on super-yachts aren’t relevant any more, and how the title plans to stay on top.
First up, what does a creative director actually do?
On a magazine a creative director basically manages its entire look – from concepts and ideas to directing photo shoots, working on layout and page designs, then going through the editorial process with the wider team until sign off. We’re then straight onto the next issue. And it works like that in cycles.
You initially came on board three years ago to launch a redesign. What was your vision for the mag then?
To simplify the design and return to a format that felt more traditionally Playboy – the humour, the big interview, Q&As, and try to modernise those things by working with new photographers and illustrators. I wanted to make the magazine look cool again.
So you’ve gone from referencing Playboy’s past to a situation where nudes are no longer being featured – how do you navigate that sort of giant leap?
The decision itself wasn’t something I was involved with – it was very much a business decision. So I admit, at first I was like, “Woah, what?!” I’d never even considered we might go down that route. But from a creative standpoint, it’s a challenge and I’m fully supportive. Trying to refigure what constitutes sexy for a different era of men is pretty exciting.
So what does that new kind of sexy look like?
We’re going after a new younger millennial audience – so shooting a girl on a super yacht just doesn’t feel relevant. We want the mag and the stories that we tell to be much more grounded – less fantasy lifestyle, more attainable lifestyle.
How do you hope to capture that sense of realism, while maintaining the ‘thrill’ that Playboy is known for?
The still-life fashion pieces will include things people can actually afford, while remaining aspirational and being beautifully shot. And the girls themselves will seem more ‘real’ and down to earth. We won’t be dressing people in high-end things; they might be wearing Adidas trainers and a t-shirt. We’re doing lots of our casting from Instagram and the style of imagery definitely reflects a more candid aesthetic too.
Tell us more about Instagram’s influence on the shoot style and type of stories you’re hoping to tell.
There’s that sense with Instagram that you’re part of someone’s life – and we want to try and capture that connection and sense that you’re sneaking a glimpse into someone’s life. A magazine can never be the internet; it’s not instant – but we’re pulling its themes into the mag.
In terms of the girls you’re casting then, how much are you looking for a personal story as much as their physical attributes?
We’re really concerned with the energy and personality of the girls we work with, more so now than ever before. I look up all our girls on Instagram to get a sense of who she is before casting her. It’s the things she’s into – from poetry to music and travel that I’m interested in. Lots of the girls have entire other jobs alongside modelling – and it’s where those two worlds collide that we can really make something interesting happen.
Will you be going after lesser known photographers as well as girls?
We’ll be using a mix of established names and new talent. Because we’re changing the look and feel of the mag and the target audience has shifted, going after emerging talent feels right. The same goes for illustrators and artists.
Other print titles have responded to cultural changes by featuring plus size, male or transgender models on their covers – can you see a future where Playboy follows suit?
Yeah, I would never say never. We’ve featured men on the cover in the past – they weren’t our best–selling issues, but that’s not to say we wouldn’t do it again. We plan to get a lot more experimental. I’m really cool doing a cover with no person on it, so long as it feels us, looks cool and is relevant.
Creatively speaking, what’s been the biggest hurdle with the new design?
Trying to figure out ‘where the line is’. What is sexy and what pushes that line too far? And in many respects, we’re figuring all that out on the fly. When we started the non-nude process, we did five or six different shoots with different photographers and girls to try and hone in on what we felt worked and didn’t. When we got the shots back some were actually way too risqué and some felt too fashion, so there’s a fine line we’re treading, and it’s something we’ll continue figuring out as the issues unfold.
With so much change afoot how much involvement does Hef have with the mag?
He’s still super involved, and like me he’s almost entirely focused on the magazine. We send him every page and layout for feedback and sign off. I speak to him or one of his representatives most days.
To anyone wondering if Playboy’s heyday is over, what would you say?
I wouldn’t say that Playboy’s heyday is over! I think that the heyday for magazines is over in general. So it’s all about adapting now, which is why I think the decision to shoot non-nudes is the right one – we’re responding to our perception of what we feel the target audience wants. I’m hoping that our best days are around the corner.
In the past, Playboy has featured work by Haruki Murakami and interviews with people like Vladimir Nabokov and Martin Luther King Jnr, with stars like Madonna and Naomi Campbell posing nude. Can the title compete with its own heritage? Do you think there’s a risk that Playboy’s past success might be Playboy current’s own undoing?
We aren’t competing with our own heritage. We’re embracing it as part of the evolution process by returning to basic principles that originally gave Playboy such a strong cultural voice. We believe this is the key to attracting and engaging new audiences and future generations of readers.
Playboy’s first non-nude issue is out mid February.