Print Is Not Dead: Manuscript’s Mitchell Oakley Smith On Independent Publishing And Fashion Fails

An expert voice in Australian fashion commentary and ‘best dressed’ list regular, Mitchell Oakley Smith, is celebrating the one year anniversary of what is possibly his most personal project to date: quarterly menswear journal Manuscript. As both editor and publisher of Manuscript Mr Oakley Smith and his soon-to-be husband, creative director Jolyon Mason, premiered the debut issue of the journal dedicated to a male perspective of visual culture across fashion, art, and design, and on Wednesday 12 December 2012 will cap off the year with the release of Issue 05. Pedestrian caught up with Mitchell Oakley Smith to discuss the inspiration for Manuscript, the current state of publishing, and advice to anyone dreaming of starting their own magazine (“Do it!”). You can also see an exclusive preview of the cover of Issue 05 which stars 14 up-and-coming Australian actors appearing in television, film and stage productions throughout 2013.

Pedestrian: Mitchell, congratulations on the first anniversary of Manuscript. Can you tell me a little about how the project started – what was the inspiration (obviously, a huge gap in the market for a quality men’s mag), and how you made it happen? Mitchell Oakley Smith: Thank you, Suz. A year in print publishing in this climate is indeed worth a celebration. Initially though I didn’t have a long term goal to launch a print title. I was lucky enough to spend some time in New York last year as part of the AINYFF [Australians in New York Fashion Foundation] – I lived in Manhattan for six months researching a book – and as a way of staying connected to the industry in Australia I started a menswear blog without much thought. But rather quickly it gained a bit of a following and I started putting more time into it and getting others involved with shoots, so it made sense to print that work so as to have something tangible. There was though, as you note, a very, very big gap in the market for something like this, particularly locally. I’d spent time at Australian GQ, and as a magazine it didn’t speak to me, and I guess in some ways I should be the target reader, so I figured there had to be others to wanted something similar out of a publication.

What’s been your favourite story or most proud moment with Manuscript? That first issue was pretty special because we had so much we wanted to say, and a particular way we wanted to say it. How crazy after years of working in commercial magazines to do anything we liked. There was no one to say ‘no’ to us. Beyond this though, it’s the collaborative spirit of it. We commission all of the content, but it’s always a discussion with the photographer, the hair and make-up team, the visual artists that come on board, and that energy, I think, spurs such great results. Jolyon [stylist Jolyon Mason] the magazine’s creative director, is also my fiance, so getting to work together on something we both feel so strongly about is a constant joy. I’m very thankful for his contribution.

It’s a very beautiful publication – the stock and photography and the type etc. I imagine you had a fairly major hand in developing the aesthetics of the magazine with Jolyon. What was the design brief you set for yourselves in the beginning? We’ve had two art directors – Nic Adamovich on our launch, and our current, Elliott Bryce Foulkes – and both have brought something really different but simultaneously very interesting to it in terms of layout, typesetting… I guess the look and feel of it from the beginning was defined by how we chose to publish it: that is on newsprint, originally unbound (it now has a harder cover). That gave us a clean palette to be rather inventive. In terms of the fashion shoots, which are such a big part of the magazine given we usually do four, five or six in every issue, it’s always been about re-imagining menswear so as to show it a new light. In Australia we don’t have access to all the clothes as magazines in New York or London do, and we’re restricted in how many models are in Sydney at any one time. We have to be creative.

You cover a mix of international and local talent in the mag. What is the criteria for who or what you cover in each issue? I’ve always been a huge advocate for Australian talent. We’ve only ever worked with Australian teams, even the times when we’ve shot overseas, and the focus has always international but with an Australian twist. I think our fashion shoots are of an international standard, but there’s such an Australianness too it – the sense of humour, even the light. But in terms of the guys we put on the cover, it’s rather selfish: who do I want to read about? Stephen Pavlovic, for example (who covered our third issue) is someone who’s been featured here in other papers here and there, but as an individual operating in Sydney, what he’s done and is doing is pretty spectacular. It’s the same with Jonathan Zawada (from our fouth issue). It’s about celebrating talent that we don’t always see in the limelight, because most often they’re working behind the scenes.

Although some of the major publishing companies have been taking significant hits in the past 1-2 years, it feels as though independent publishing is doing really well at the moment. Why do you think there is a growing audience for independent publications compared to major titles that have been struggling with circulation? You can get absolutely everything online, and that includes all of the things we might have read in a mainstream magazine a decade ago. As an independent title – like Frankie or Russh or Smith Journal – we’re all about ‘doing one thing well’, in this case we focus on visual culture: fashion, art, design, and everyone that works on Manuscript lives and breathes these subjects. We’re absolutely committed to creating a publication dedicated to this area of interest, that only do we not have time to also include cars and girls and health and sex and food and travel, we also don’t care about that in this context. There’s other forums for that.

I’ve heard several people bandy around the expression “print is dead” because of the growing online publishing world. What’s your take on it? Print is not dead, it’s just changing how it operates as an industry. Digital and print publishing can co-exist, it’s just that so few companies, beyond the New York Times for example, have understood how to make it work successfully that it seems unattainable. As for print publications, the ones as we said above doing well are the independent, niche titles. Perhaps the industry is moving towards that kind of model – but is that a bad thing? For the big publishing companies, maybe, but if ultimately benefits the reader…

What would be your advice for anyone with ambitions of starting their own indie magazine? Do it. There’s an audience for every subject, whether big or small, and at the very least it’s a way of communicating or creating a forum for it. Manuscript certainly doesn’t make as much money as the more commercial, mainstream titles in the men’s publishing sector do, but that’s not the point. From the beginning this was a personal project, and the heart and soul in the title is, I think, absolutely evident. The rewards otherwise are far greater: I think in some ways we have inspired a new energy in the local men’s fashion industry, as well as in creative circles. That’s exciting, and it generates other projects for all involved.

Tell me a little about the new issue. The cover [featuring the leading men of Australian film and theatre dressed exclusively in Prada] is EXTREMELY CHIC. Why did you choose to go all Prada? Thank you. We’ve never done a group cover like this, so we needed some element to tie all it all together visually, thus choosing a single designer collection. We wanted it to be a designer relevant to Australia in terms of availability, and within the context (there were a few laughs on the day about putting 14 competitive actors in the one room) it gave the vibe of a ’70s Russian gym team. We thought that was cool – it plays up the competitive angle of the story (all these actors, few roles in the country) but also the camaraderie in the industry. Also, it was a damn fine collection from the spring/summer shows.

Cover photo by Georges Antoni

What’s been the best and most heinous trends in men’s and women’s fashion you’ve noticed this year? People could/should point their finger at Manuscript for some of the things we’ve photographed. Birkinstocks, socks-and-sandals, pastel pink as a men’s fashion trend, denim-on-denim, so perhaps I shouldn’t talk. Well and truly over the peplum for girls, though.

What is your new year’s resolution for 2013? I’ve got a new book coming out in September this year (the one I was researching last year), so with that and Manuscript, there’s not much time for anything else. I am getting married this year though, law be damned, and we’ve got some exciting plans for the magazine, too.

The summer edition of Manuscript is out 12 December 2012. Head to for stockists.