Sunday Interview As Tyler Brûlé prepares to bring his Monocle magazine to the Gulf, Philippa Kennedy talks to the Wallpaper* founder about his singular vision.
Man of style and substance
In the world of glossy upmarket magazines where branding is everything, Tyler Brûlé is practically a brand of his own. The founder of two major international style "bibles", namely Wallpaper* and Monocle, has stamped his mark on just about everything that surrounds us, from the fine cotton shirts that he wears (specially made for him by a little shop in Como, Switzerland) to the cities that subscribers to his magazine consider to be "most liveable".
When Monocle pronounced that Copenhagen gets the gold medal, the city declared a happy hour with free drinks all around and invited Brûlé and his team over to present the award. It's hard to say whether the actor George Clooney discovered the Como shirt shop, called Incotext, before Brûlé, but both get their shirts made to their exact specifications there. Brûlé also buys his trousers there and has his jackets made in Japan.
When he arrived in Dubai last week, the only discernible brand name was a heavy steel Rolex worn on his right wrist. Nothing flashy. Just stylish and understated apart from an unusual silver ring. "The Rolex is pretty tame. My dad was Estonian so I wear an Estonian ring. I have pretty much a uniform, beige chinos from a company in Venice and white cotton shirts. The trousers are so well constructed. They fit around the bum and the buttons don't fall off. So many brands try to be all things to all people, but this company just says, 'We make trousers, we don't do anything else'. That's really to be admired today," he says.
He is staying in the elegant Park Hyatt Hotel rather than the flashier five and seven-star hotels of Jumeirah Beach. He is in the UAE to speak to potential advertisers as he and Monocle start to focus their attention on the Gulf. A succession of meetings with the top seven brand names in Dubai and Abu Dhabi were scheduled, and Brûlé hopes that the particular mix of top-notch writing and edgy journalism aimed specifically at the globe-trotting business subscriber will appeal to the likes of Emirates airways, Etihad, Nakheel, Emaar, Istitmar, the Emirates Palace hotel and the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority.
"We haven't really focused on the region up until now. The markets where we have traditionally done well are Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Australia, Europe and North America, but we've been publishing for a year and a half now and we're happy that we've laid the appropriate foundations. So it's time to broaden our focus." A writer has been signed up to cover the region from Beirut and Brûlé plans to develop Monocle's coverage, which in this month's issue amounts to precisely five paragraphs by the architect Ali Wazani.
Brûlé, who has visited Dubai several times and stayed at the Madinat Jumeirah on his previous visit, has mixed feelings about the city. "I don't need to take a dhow to my room," he says. He admits he was prepared to dislike the ostentation of the seven-star Burj Al Arab, where he has also stayed, but he was impressed nonetheless. "I think you have to go and see it. On one side it is a feat of engineering that is quite fascinating. Only here could they build something like that. I wanted to react against it but everything was such good quality. They have incredible bed linen, not just your normal cotton sheets. I'm not sure that I need a mirror angled over the bed, either, but it changed my view. I don't think we need to have seven stars as a label for hospitality property but at the same time it was good."
Even his favourite Park Hyatt has room for improvement. "I think they could have a chill cycle in the pool because it's like swimming in monkey pee or something." In Monocle and in his column in the Financial Times he is preoccupied by the problems urban planners of the world's major cities have in establishing communities, something he believes that Dubai needs to address before it is too late. "We asked our readers to tell us what makes a good neighbourhood. There's no magic in it. People want to buy a loaf of bread locally. They want recognition in their neighbourhood. They want to know their neighbours, the postman, the man at the corner shop. They want a mix. The same areas come up again and again. They talk about the West Village in New York, Primrose Hill and Marylebone in London, Fitzroy in Melbourne. They are just little villages that are part of the fabric of a bigger city."
A traveller's expectations of a city begin at the airport and Brûlé feels that both Dubai Airport and London Heathrow's Terminal 5 make the same mistake, which is to make the passenger's journey through the terminals "too up and down". "When you arrive here at the airport there are no carts. So many people travel with carry-on bags (and I'm speaking as someone with an injured hand). I find that it's a long way to get across to immigration. You shouldn't have to go up and down. It should be like the landing or take off of an aircraft, a gradual slope towards the runway. We have been making airports for nearly a century. We should have been able to nail it by now," he says.
Shopping malls as meeting places are anathema to Brûlé, who thinks that a society is really in trouble if the spontaneity of small communities is missing. It's why he dislikes developments like The Palm Jumeirah. "We are pretty critical of things like The Palm. There's no sense of being able to go out and get some milk. Of course your Filipina housekeeper can do that for you but I think it's dangerous and society is challenged if we allow the staff to do everything for you and there isn't the chance for surprise or a casual encounter. There needs to be more glue to hold these places together and that comes from having communities at ground level.
"I would really address scale here. If you look at what was the old downtown, it did have an intimacy and a grid that was much cosier and inviting. Not everything needs to be 10 lanes," he says. "A lot of the architecture here is the architecture of engineers and not true architects. If you have a 50-story building you leave that to the engineer and if you want to stick a shark's fin on the top of it or make it look like 21st century art deco that's what you end up with. The sheer scale of things and the speed that it is going up is amazing, but you don't see the big names, the challenging thinkers, the 10 'starchitects' in the world, people like Kengo Kuma, Shigeru Ban, Piero Lissoni or Renzo Piano.
"Of course Nakheel has brought in Rem Koolhaas to design the city area of the waterfront Jebel Ali project. Rem is more than just an architect. I see him as a political force, which may not be to the taste of all clients. He's a new type of power in urbanism and I'm not sure every client realises that he delivers much more than just a building. "I think they need to be more critical in Dubai. I would shrink the scale of everything by 30 or 40 per cent. Emaar's got a real chance with the Burj project and the downtown area surrounding it," he says. "There are fundamental issues of community: whether you can jump in a car or not or having to penetrate this massive parking lot is an issue. With this city there could be more of a sense of the micro, of mini villages. I don't think it can be left to one developer. It has to become policy."
Yet he is in no doubt that Dubai is a global brand, admired from afar as such. "You've got the airport, and the DIFC and this extraordinary backlog of orders for aircraft. It's all happening here. The branding of Dubai is pretty faultless. You go to San Diego or Kyoto and people know about this place. Abu Dhabi, on the other hand, has more of an urban life about it and he is particularly impressed by the city's 2030 plan.
"It's quite impressive because of the range of rail options that are being put into the mix: light rail, trams, high speed trains connecting Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Also, what they want to do at street level as well, encouraging people to walk and use bicycles. "There is a very different spirit there and far less dust. I'm all for the slow movement. Monocle is slow journalism, so I fully endorse the Abu Dhabi approach to city state building."
One of his pet hates is the over use of air conditioning, something, he concedes, is a fact of life in this part of the world. Yet he recently visited Panteleria, Italy, where the climate is also very hot at times, and saw the way ideas used by the ancient Phoenicians have been incorporated into buildings, including thick walls and domes that keep houses "incredibly cool". "It's a nice thing that everything can be shut up and locked down during the day so that the light doesn't get in and you can do what they do in the Mediterranean but it's definitely a different set-up here. You have to face that you can't live without air-con."
His outspoken criticisms and the views of the writers in his magazine infuriate many, but that, he believes, is what Monocle is all about. At US$150 (Dh550) for 10 issues per year, it is top end as far as magazine pricing goes. But all that informed opinion from the top urban planners, architects, thinkers and writers costs money and Brûlé is happy to defend his magazine's cover price. "Monocle is expensive to produce. Our director of promotions was flying on Lufthansa the other day and as he was getting off the plane a gentleman asked him where he got his bag. He said he worked for the UN as a human rights officer and had subscribed to Monocle from the very beginning. He thought our reporters were brilliant and our report on the UN was absolutely spot on. He also said it ruffled a lot of feathers. Here's someone who is well travelled and international, who wants a bit of opinion and good reporting with a little bit of edge and sass as well. This is why we do it every month."
Currently 150,000 copies go out to the newsstands and there are 7,000 subscribers, although the magazine has not yet started to make a profit. "We had a board meeting three weeks ago where we reviewed the business plan and we are well ahead of that, which is great." It was not easy breaking into the American market with such a specialised product and public relations companies didn't understand it when they first saw Monocle 18 months ago. Brûlé tells an anecdote that he believes typifies the attitude.
"We went to the States to hire a PR company before we launched, with money burning a hole in our pockets. We were ready to go out to market and we wanted to tell our story to the US. They said, 'Loved the magazine, great concept but if you are bringing it to the US one thing you might want to consider is that it's a little too international and you might want to take some of the foreign stories out of it.' I'm not kidding, that is what they said. I said 'well then we would have a sketch book'."
His conviction that American business travellers were hungry for foreign news and opinion must have been correct, as Monocle currently tops the subscriber magazine charts. Brûlé has approached five of the richest families in the world and asked them to be shareholders to get his financial backing."We took a very different approach to raising money. We went to purely high net families - Swiss, Swedish, Spanish, Australian and Japanese, who hold 30 per cent of the magazine and my holding company owns 70 per cent."
Building Monocle into an influential brand will be the focus of Brûlé's attention for some time. Although his razor-sharp wit and perceptions about all things stylish are as sharp as ever, he believes, as he approaches his 40th birthday, that age has mellowed him. He says he feels kinder than when he was younger. He knows that people worry when they meet him that they might be found lacking in the style department but says these days he does his best not to be judgemental, although he can't help being observational.
"People do think that, but to be honest I don't give a s***. Of course you do it in an observational way like knowing that someone was a Latvian hooker. I don't think I'm making a judgement on them other than recognise them. You can't help processing the tribalism of the world, spot the Yanks and the Russians." He says it's probably worth throttling back a bit on the labels. "I saw someone two weeks ago. You can see it is the right denim and the right bag. Everything is done to perfection but it just goes over the edge by three per cent."
Had it not been for a life-changing event in 1994, Brûlé reckons he would have ended up as "quite a bitchy freelancer" rather than a magazine publisher. Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the only child of a Canadian football star and an artist, he trained as a journalist with the BBC and was carving out a living as a freelance writer when, on assignment in Kabul, Afghanistan, he was hit twice by a sniper's bullets.
"It really was such an incredible turning point. With the luxury of being able to look back, it thrust me into being a business person. I went to Afghanistan in 1994 to cover the activities of Médicins Sans Frontiéres and was in Kabul writing for several magazines, including German Focus. On the first day in Kabul we drove around in a Red Crescent and Red Cross Toyota Land Cruiser. We were able to zip round the city and feel very invisible. On our second day we had a UN car which had been sitting out in the sun for days and, although it had a red mark, it was very faded. We had a different driver, and we were trying to get to a makeshift cemetery. There were numerous Mujahadeen factions controlling parts of the city and we had been through two checkpoints. There was the crack of gunfire and we thought we were caught in crossfire but when the bullets started hitting the car we realised we were the target. As quickly as we realised we were under fire, we were trying to get the hell out of there.
"When the Red Cross investigators counted the bullet holes later, there were 39. Probably in the first three or four minutes of us being shot at I got hit twice. My left hand is slightly withered as a result. I have nerve damage and I lost the ulnar and radial nerve in the arm. As quickly as it happened, it was also over. All those weird somewhat spiritual things that people talk about are true. I did wake up the next day and thought 'wow'. Simple things like the sound of someone's boots on the gravel was deafening. Everything was so sharp. I really felt 'Wow I am alive'.
He spent five weeks recovering in St Mary's Hospital, London. "When I got out I realised I wasn't going to have the use of my left hand back and I felt incredibly sorry for myself. It takes a while to figure out if the nerves are going to take hold. I had a lot of time on my hands." During those weeks the concept for an entirely new style magazine was formulated and Wallpaper* was born. The asterisk signifies a clarification that the title doesn't just mean the stuff that goes on your apartment walls, but everything that surrounds you.
"My mom found a little house in Chelsea for me to rent. It needed to be tarted up a little bit. I would wander down to the newsstands to see what was out there and it was all so frilly and girlie. I was fascinated by cities both in the UK and Australia and there was this return to the city centre. Wasn't it better not to have to take that train but to walk or take the tube to work? There was the rise of Farringdon and Clerkenwell in London and there was nobody chronicling that. I thought there should be a journal and that became Wallpaper*. So I went out and started to raise money."
Under his guidance, the magazine became the style bible of the Nineties. It was bought by Time Warner in 1997 and Brûlé stayed on as editorial director until 2002. He left amid stories of rows over expenses and editorial differences, but now he brushes all that off, saying he wanted to concentrate on the design agency Winkreative. One of his first projects was the rebranding of Swiss International Air Lines as Swiss, after the collapse of Swissair. He has hosted several television programmes and still writes a weekly column for FT Weekend.
One of his favourite topics of the moment is the UK and its decline. A recent column bemoaned the fact that "Band Aids won't save Britain". Brûlé wrote about the depressing sight of arriving at London Heathrow "at a terminal that was heaving with annoyed, bewildered passengers and had the faint odour of failure - sweat, mildew, urine and a nasty scent attempting to cover up all of the former". He says: "My inbox was bursting with e-mails after that one, some agreeing and others angry."
His despair about his adopted country (he lives in London, where Monocle is based, but has homes in Sweden and Switzerland) covers everything from personal security, the health service, poor schools, feral youths and an underfunded defence force. Second rate urban planning is somewhere near the top of the list. "I think we need to look at the built environment. People need to give English Heritage a challenge. You've got a lot of mediocre buildings because there has been an incredible rate of construction in the UK and people don't want to sit in planning forever so they just go with the sure bet that they know local councils will approve and I think that's the wrong way. I think we should be building architecture that's right for today. That doesn't mean that everything should be built by Daniel Liebkind or Frank Gehry. It just means we should be able to move it along a little bit.
"We have to stop looking across the Atlantic for solutions to everything like bringing in a transport tsar or for the health service. The tonics are sitting in our back yard in Europe but it seems more interesting to bring in the highly paid Americans. We should be looking to Finland for outstanding education. If you are talking about kids who are thick around the waistline go to Finland where nutrition is part of the lunch programme at school, not to mention there is a different level of respect for teachers. In the UK, teachers spend so much time being policemen rather than proper teaching."
What Brûlé is trying to do now via Monocle is to scour the world for the best of everything, whether it be clothes, furniture, cities or even the "all spraying, all blowing" Japanese Toto lavatory he has installed in his London apartment. In the world of Tyler Brûlé, even loos have to have style.