A Dutch humour is the most important part of making a successful magazine.
“I think rebellion is a good inspiration or it can be a good engine to do things,” says Gert Jonkers, editor of all things fantastic and men. Fantastic Man celebrates their twenty-fifth cover anniversary with West London film director, Steve McQueen. Since 2005, Fantastic Man has covered characters from all walks of life: actors, authors, designers and even footballer, David Beckham.
Finding humour within fashion is rare, especially for an industry that the public thinks is a running circus, but that is where Jonkers and co-founder, Jop van Bennekom came together - to “combine style and humour, the idea of having fun with clothes.” They don’t consider Fantastic Man a fashion magazine per say as Jonkers clarifies: “we’re not here to represent the current fashion trends on the catwalk — Fantastic Man is about dressing up with clothing or masculinity,” and, “we’re not going to tell people that they are going to be happier if they buy this Hugo Boss bag, because it is not true.”
A piece of truth — this is what you gain when reading a Fantastic Man interview, which is double or triple the word count of an average glossy style magazine. “We fetishise the idea of having a six-thousand-word profile on somebody, rather than a nineteen-hundred words or so,” Jonkers reveals.
The magic formula to the magazine lies behind Jonkers’ favourite moment of interviewing the subjects within: when they are not trying to sell something because “that is the moment for them to reflect on whatever they do or to talk about themselves,” and, “we love it if someone has character, that is one of the reasons why we started the magazine.”
Every fantastic man has a past and the history of this one starts with BUTT magazine, created by the magazine-making dream team in 2001. Based on sex and the duo’s obsession - humour: “a big part of BUTT was humour and sex which is not a very logical combination because most people are extremely serious about sex.” BUTT magazine managed to find the success it had because they didn’t “treat sex as this sort of idealised perfect world where people would have the most perfect sex forever, it was a quite realistic and a funny thing to talk about or write about or to show.”
BUTT magazine helped to embrace different body types within the gay community and reshape perceptions. Jonkers acknowledges that “it was fun to show men who were a little bit hairy and chubby, you think, actually that looks sexier than I thought.” He recalls the backlash they received the time they put a twink-like model on the cover of the magazine: “that was bad news for me because people really had expectations. It means the magazine has a really thick set of rules, I can’t step out of that, so we’re fucked basically.”
BUTT and Fantastic Man have always been consistent in “realities, the realness of things. They are both quite blunt and funny,” Jonkers says — a tie that has held strong the reputation of both. He compares the constant flow of the magazines to a ship, “you should always steer it back to where you want it to go and that is what we constantly have done in both magazines, they are quite consistent, if you look at the first issue and the most recent issue, there are similarities, but they are also completely different in a way.”
Jonkers grew up in a conservative environment, his “father was a reverend. It was not terribly restricted, but quite controlled. I would say my parents were intellectuals, but still strict with Christian traditions,” Jonkers says. The youngest of five brothers and sisters, he recalls the busy household and being inspired by his siblings who would listen to “the kind of music I didn’t get access to yet, it was a lot of music in the house.”
His mother was a linguistics teacher whom passed away when Jonkers was seventeen and doing his exams: “my mother was sick for a long time, we were sort of saying goodbye to her and it was a very emotional time, but this whole exam thing was a second thought. It was a bit of background noise,” he remembers. The idea of school is still “slightly traumatic” to him because he subconsciously feels like he never graduated. It took him quite a while to find the right path, admitting that he did not like school because he “was a little bit of an outcast. I was punk at the time, so I looked a little bit different from most other people. And I guess I was quite gay as a child.”
After graduating from school, he moved to Amsterdam to study Dutch grammar and literature, but ended up quitting after two years because of magazine making and being part of a band, which he refuses to disclose the name of. After a couple of years, he quit music too because of financial reasons and ended up “working for magazines as a photographer, but then I started writing more and photographing less.”
It is a sunny March morning with a spring breeze when I go to interview Jonkers at the shared Fantastic Man and The Gentlewoman office. He is running late by ten minutes because of a meeting. There is a piece of illustration hung on the vaguely white wall addressed to Penny Martin, editor of The Gentlewoman, from Alber Elbaz, and a black Chanel medicine ball in the corner of the room, which raises the question of, did Karl Lagerfeld send that over?
The room looks like it has been ripped out of the pages of the magazines Jonkers produces, there is no San Pellegrino on the desk or the latest issues of the magazine’s competitors. It feels humbling.
Jonkers walks in greeting me and apologising for the delay in his slightly international accent which sounds mostly like a hybrid of American and British with a hint of Dutch. He is wearing a midnight navy fitted jumper paired with grey chinos and Nike running shoes in maroon and orange. “I think you should base one’s outfit on the trousers, if you’re not wearing trousers that you don’t feel like for the day, then the outfit is not going to work,” Jonkers’ take on style. Alongside Fantastic Man and The Gentlewoman, he is also the editor of the COS zine.
When Jonkers is not in London, he can be found at his other Fantastic Man office in Amsterdam. Jonkers is a man of celebration from BUTT to Fantastic Man, but like most, he finds himself annoyed with “certain politics around the world.” He lets me know that today is election day in Holland and that “it’s a very important election because they are fearing we are going to have our Trump or Brexit moment, where the right wing populists might all of a sudden be the biggest party, but I hope not.”
The men who grace the covers of Fantastic Man have fantastic qualities. I asked Jonkers what Donald Trump could do to become a fantastic man; he suggested that he “commit suicide, but then we never feature people who are not alive anymore, not as a rule, but we don’t want to do nostalgic stories… We’re interested in people who have a future, it would be super brave if Donald Trump committed suicide, but then he still wouldn’t make it onto the cover of Fantastic Man, I’m sorry.”
Hikmat Mohammed: what makes a fantastic man? Is it something universal or is it different in every continent?
Gert Jonkers: I don’t think its different in parts of the world because in a way it is different in every person, it is cliché to talk about the uniqueness of people. It is hard to say what a fantastic man is, its a gut feeling. There are no set of rules, they should be interesting, but I can’t think of specific rules, I don’t even think they need to be a man — there might be women who are amazing fantastic men and I am sure there are. We want to make a magazine about grown up men because they have experienced more and they have more to say and have more character. A 17-year-old boy is often used in photography because their skin is beautiful or they photograph really well, but it is often not so easy to write an interesting story about them because there isn’t so much to report on, yet. We are always looking for a young fantastic man in a way because we don’t want to make a magazine with only fifty-year olds or older; the magazine also characterises by an interesting balance — a diversity of people. It’s not so easy to find someone who is twenty-one and fits our gut feeling. We have a French writer in the new issue, he’s twenty-four and very interesting, it’s a great story, it’s a very a long story also, but we like long stories.
We have always said we want to be an inclusive magazine rather than exclusive, we also have never wanted to be a lifestyle magazine because lifestyle suggests that you have a specific ideal lifestyle in mind or specific style in mind for your subjects and readers. When you go to an editorial lifestyle meeting it’s like, “our man is twenty-eight, he works in the city and he has a girlfriend who works in PR; they go on holiday three times a year,” you think, Jesus Christ, its so boring to think of a magazine full of those people with travel tips and interior design for them, that is the essence of lifestyle and it is our worst nightmare, imagine every Fantastic Man has to have the same length of hair and they need to have a certain income, the horror.
HM: What do you feel is the biggest risk you have taken with Fantastic Man?
GJ: Everything should be risky in a way. The opposite of risky is safe; it’s not nice to play it safe. Some things work out better than others, some covers look better than others, was it a big risk to put Boris Becker on the cover? Yes, I think so, did it work out? Maybe not, some people enjoyed it and some did not. What do you think is the biggest risk we have taken?
HM: I think David Beckham because looking through your covers, I think cool, cool then...
GJ: Not so cool?
HM: I never really expected that from Fantastic Man.
GJ: It’s a risk worth taking, I’d be very disappointed if we couldn’t take risks anymore because inevitably, that happens, you could sort of say this is a typical good Fantastic man cover, okay let’s do this for the rest of our lives, how boring is that?
Maybe, I shouldn’t say this, but I’ll say it anyway, I think we should have put a different picture of him on the cover, but his management was not very easy to work with. That was a big discussion at the time because we did what we wanted, but they were very strict about the cover.
HM: It’s a great cover though.
GJ: There is one picture that I love in that series that I thought would have been an amazing cover, a more amazing cover.
HM: What kind of books do you read? Do you have any favourite books or authors?
GJ: I don’t read a lot of books I must say because I lack the concentration for it. I only read books if I have to read them because one of the magazines we make is The Happy Reader for Penguin and I always read the book of the season which we base half of the magazine on. I’m not the editor of the magazine, so I don’t need to do it, but I love being involved. I am going on holiday next week and I’ve got Jonathan Franzen’s most recent book in my suitcase and that book, it’s considered as one of the most popular book of the moment, it’s by an American woman with an Asian name. I think it’s called A Little Day or something
HM: A Little Life?
GJ: Yes that one.
HM: It’s about three brothers.
GJ: I haven’t started it yet, I hope it’s good. Otherwise, I was talking about Michel Houellebecq, a French writer this morning, who I enjoy reading because it is so fucked up; it is always this weird mix of looking at society quite philosophically, but then also pornographically, which is an interesting reflection of the male psyche to be able to think about philosophy and sex. I wish I read more, as soon as I finished Treasure Island, I wanted another one, I read it on my phone, I also had the paper copy, but I thought it was handy to have it on my phone for when I’m sitting on the bus or waiting for someone at a restaurant, I haven’t decided what the next book will be on my phone.
HM: I always stop reading books half-way through like The Virgin Suicides, have you read it?
GJ: No, but I’ve seen the film.
HM: I have been trying to watch the film for about five years now because I’ve been reading the book and I seem to stop and start over again when I get to the last chapter.
GJ: Are you still enjoying it?
HM: It gets better and better every time I read it, probably because it is quite fucked up.
GJ: The film was pretty-errr. The soundtrack is really amazing, it’s by Air, I think, I’ve played the album absolutely to death.
HM: I’ve stayed away from anything to do with the film.
GJ: You should listen to the soundtrack