The landscape for fashion media, like the industry itself, is fierce: The advent of fashion blogging chipped away at magazines’ once-loyal readership, by spreading thoughtful fashion coverage through the Internet. But those one-person fashion blogs still didn’t attract the kind of advertising money found in the pages of Vogue.
All of which helps explain the fast ascendency of Refinery29, an online-only news magazine that covers fashion, style, beauty, culture, and health, but also generates money through advertising and retail. For the past few years, it’s been nestled somewhere in between: Covering Alexander Wang and chit-chatting about the smartest juice cleanse. By now, the site that launched in 2005 (for $5,000) as a scarce city guide is looking at earning $25 million in 2013 and serves more than 10 million visitors each month.
With that kind of growth comes risk. Like a runaway train, the site was shuttling ahead, gaining momentum, but doing so without the kind of specific editorial control that has long-existed as the DNA of established magazines, like Vogue or Elle, or that is easily manifested in the mind of a single blogger, such as Man Repeller’s Leandra Medine. "As a fast-growing organism, we have people who have to make decisions on a daily basis without us four [founders] being involved on every single thing," says Piera Gelardi, Refinery29’s creative director.
So the founding team went into a self-described brand boot camp. With the help of Wolff Olins—the creative agency that redesigned a stagnant USA Today and has lent its consulting services to Spotify, AOL, and Target, to name just a few—Refinery29 has a new filter. It’s part site redesign, part company manifesto, and entirely focused on the long haul.
To best understand the business intent of Refinery29, consider the company’s origins: Co-founders Philippe von Borries and Justin Stefano launched the site in 2005 as a guide for local and independent shops. "Back then, people were still using dayrunners; the Palm was still big," Justin Stefano says. "There was no Yelp, no Foursquare. The only thing out there for local discovery was City Search, and it didn’t really provide any layers or sense of curation. It was kind of just like the Yellow Pages online."
The early days found the team going door to door, building relationships with the owners of New York City boutiques like Steven Alan and Oak (both were lesser known in the aughts but are now considered staples of New York’s modern apparel aesthetic) to build a devout pre-Facebook, pre-Instagram community.
Their efforts dovetailed neatly not just with the rise of daily mass consumption of online content but also with a burgeoning independent retail scene. "We were seeing so many amazing boutiques and designers, and it was the beginning of Brooklyn getting really big," Gelardi says. "There was this zeitgeist of focusing on independence. It felt really different from what a lot of other, what could have been seen as our competitors, were doing at the time."
Refinery29 began slowly, with three local listings and one newsletter a week. In 2006, they upped their daily quota to around ten stories a day, with longer feature-length stories crafted to appeal to both their New York and Los Angeles readerships. Those numbers continued to scale, so that today the site publishes over 3,000 articles a month, in ten cities. Which begs the question: How do you stay committed to independent content when your brand starts to go global?
The Refinery29 team has two very apt metaphors for its recent rebranding project. The first is marriage counseling, with the Wolff Olins team playing the therapist’s role: "The way that we work is this whirlwind of controlled chaos, and we hadn’t necessarily all aligned on our core tenets and goals for the future," Gelardi says. "So we talked about really broad-stroke ideas, like who is Refinery29 for? What do we see as making our brand special, where don’t we want to go, and what are our fears?"
At the instruction of Marissa Vosper, a senior strategist at Wolff Olins, they wrote those worries on a white board under the header, "What keeps you up at night?" The overarching concern? Losing their cool factor as their mass audience appeal began to scale.
The second metaphor is running a marathon. "Your core has to be really strong," Stefano says. "If you just have big legs or strong arms it won’t work. So in order for us to grow new limbs, like verticals, or products, the core had to really know what it was."
Part of the challenge with Refinery29’s path ahead is that it occupies territory both in the media world and in the e-commerce space. Labels like Ralph Lauren have pioneered brand-produced editorial content, but the news site-as-shopping destination model is nascent and unproven. Stefano says that while they know 30% of Refinery29’s content that gets read focuses on shopping topics, they don’t have metrics to explain whether clicks show up from readers or shoppers. It’s also a distinction the team isn’t interested in exploring.
When the Wolff Olins team presented the Refinery29 founders with two ideas for the future site, one was a design for a fashion site, the other was a digital news site. They refused to choose one. "We wouldn’t pick a lane because that was exactly what we didn’t want to do," Gelardi says. "We’ve always wanted to merge these things that previously might not have gone together."
In order to bridle their aspirations, and strengthen the metaphorical abdominal core, the Refinery29 team created a new filter through which, going forward, they will sift all their content, video, and events. The three-pronged identity is as follows:
- Style is more than fashion. It’s culture, and it’s a lifestyle. Food, travel, and attitude should be filtered, relevant, and useful.
- The Refinery29 wink: humor and warmth.
- An independent spirit.
"A lot of offices have values up on the wall," Stefano says. "You always come up with all these things like ‘bravery, innovation, and imagination,’ and no one really looks at them." Instead, the Refinery29 guiding principles are designed to shape company culture, all the way down to the condiments stocked in the kitchen. "We have either really ironic and hilarious condiments, or obscure hot sauces in the fridge," Gelardi says. "It’s so great, because people are actually thinking with this brand. It’s the most minute example, but it’s trickled down to that level."
But no brand identity can be embodied by Sriracha sauce alone. The exercises with Wolff Olins sought to answer a much more ambitious question: How do you redefine fashion, take the big books of the world, and do it differently? Vosper asks.
From a consumer-facing point of view, the solution is most manifested in a new graphic experience. The former site led with a few rotating features at the top, alongside a river of stories vying for the reader’s attention. When you enter the new site, you’re greeted with three feature stories, represented more as images than text. The daily feed of headlines isn’t even visible in the main frame until you scroll down. A legend on the left of the page highlights as you scroll downward, offering a cue for if you’re in the editor’s picks, shopping, or video section. Showcasing luscious photography in favor of text is popular for showing off quality and design sensibility—look no further than Airbnb’s site, or work created by the digital agency Huge—and it’s an appropriate treatment for Refinery29, where the content is visual and lust-worthy by nature. The resulting effect is that of having pages from a large, textural magazine (like W, for example) spread out on a desk in front of you.
The design details carefully honor the Refinery29 goal to be neither just a fashion magazine nor just a news site. Stories that trend on social networks live in a drop-down menu at the top of the page and get large thumbnail images instead of links. And while that speaks to the digital-savvy community that voraciously consumes Refinery29’s content, the site also gives ads prominent and uncluttered placement in the same way a paper periodical might. "We took a lot of reference from print," Vosper says. "The print magazines have it right, how many girls tear through advertisements and put them up on their wall? Online, you think of it as a nuisance. We thought about how to give it more presence so that it doesn’t feel like a piece of spam, but feels beautiful."
All of these ideas are distilled and encapsulated in the Refinery29 logo, created by Wolff Olins (in-house designers at Refinery29 developed everything else for the new site). Like Chanel, Louis Vuitton, or Yves Saint Laurent (all global fashion brands that have achieved the desired universality and scarcity) Refinery29 needed an emblem that would be instantly recognizable.
It took the Wolff Olins team a month to settle on the mark. "A big part of the brand is about going against the grain," Vosper says. "It’s a fashion brand with a masculine name, so we needed a design language to reflect that masculine-feminine balance." The logo also needed to reflect the sprightly Refinery29 wink (guiding principle #2).
Like a true monogram, the final seal boils down the magazine’s title into R29. But the intersection of straight lines and curves makes it more a symbol and less of a set of initials—a crucial step to creating a logo that can stand in for the entirety of the company. "If I came to it fresh, I wouldn’t notice at first the R-2-9, but I would a second later," says Sam Renwick, the Wolff Olins designer who created the mark. "It’s a healthy moment to have with an identity, you can then relate to it later and longer, it’s more enduring."
It’s impossible to overlook the logo’s subtle suggestion of wings. The circle that ensconces the mark gives it the heft to stamp onto any piece of online content, but the sense of flight speaks most intimately to the Refinery29 ambition. "It represents the connectivity with our audience, and all these pieces of content melding together," Stefano says. "It’s dynamic, and forward facing. After [the Wolff Olins team] chose it and positioned it, it felt right at home."