The Magic Behind Fleur's 'Flair' 70 Years On

by Christina Donoghue on 29 January 2021

Seventy years ago this month, the production of Fleur Cowles' iconic Flair Magazine came to a halt. Christina Donoghue reflects upon the sheer beauty of Flair and its monumental impact on contemporary publications.

Seventy years ago this month, the production of Fleur Cowles' iconic Flair Magazine came to a halt. Christina Donoghue reflects upon the sheer beauty of Flair and its monumental impact on contemporary publications.

Portrait of Fleur Cowles by René Bouché, 2 May, 1959.

Adjectives to describe Fleur Cowles: Assertive, considerate, talented, knowledgeable, cultivated, loved, aristocratic.

Adjectives to describe Flair: Bold, dreamy, magical, beautiful, whimsical, charming, elegant.

I've been thinking about writing something on Flair for some time, but I never found the right moment. As we come to the end of January 2021 and - fingers crossed - look forward to a better year than the last, I'd like to note that this month doesn't just mark the month of Biden's presidency or the (significant) five-year mark since David Bowie died, but also Flair's 70th anniversary. For many young people (and some old too) the name doesn't ring quite as familiar as you'd think, which to be honest, slightly bewilders me when you consider that the publication exceeded Vogue in its fashion coverage (or at least matched it) and stood tall against The Studio Magazine, rivalling its mesmerising art content and trivia. In all fairness, I hadn't heard of Flair until last year when I was introduced to the magazine. (shout out to the special collections at the now temporarily closed Central Saint Martins library.) I started looking at Flair for my final major project while I was in my last year at university, putting together a magazine, which at the beginning, took heavy inspiration from Thomas Persson's Acne Paper, wishing to emulate his documentation of the arts and creativity in a similar heartfelt way. My aim was to create a piece of art that spoke about art, and that is when my tutor introduced me to Flair.

Flair was the first magazine that became an art form. It was the first magazine to include mini cutouts and fold-outs attached inside. It was also the first magazine to include scented editions, suffusing the paper included in the Rose issue with rose-scented perfume, (some four decades before scent strips became ubiquitous). It was the first magazine to do and be many things, and was, to put it lightly, completely ahead of its time in more ways than one. Practising innovative printing techniques that took hold in the form of double covers, popups and mini cutouts, the charming additions, coupled with the magazine's documentary style, is what made Flair so unique - and ultimately, the magazine woo its readers the same way its subjects wooed its editor. American writer Dominick Dunne wrote in his foreword for The Best of Flair, 'I had saved every issue, as if it were a treasured artwork, marvelling at the magic and fantasy of each, always experiencing feelings of longing, of the I-want-to-be-there, I-want-to-write-that, I-want-to-be-one-of-those-people variety of longings.' For decades both the fashion and art worlds have been considered desirable, almost majestic industries and Flair made sure of this. The magazine didn't just turn a dream into a paper-reality, the magazine created a living fantasy for all its readers to revel in and it was all because of one woman, Fleur Cowles.

Fashion illustration by René Gruau for 'Flair' magazine.
Fashion illustration and excerpt by René Gruau for 'Flair' magazine.

Fleur Cowles' lifestyle was just as glamorous and fashionable as her magazine was. For every Jean Cocteau illustration contributed to Flair, there was a Man Ray print hanging on her wall. For every piece of writing contributed by Colette, there would be a personalised letter from Nancy Mitford resting on her dresser. These artists were not just Flair contributors, but they were also 'Fleur friends', and good ones too. The socialite owned anything and everything there was to own from Dior hats to Picasso drawings (and that's only in her London home). Cowles mixed and mingled with anyone who was someone in the 20th century, cultivating friendships that lasted her a lifetime, and while she partied with royals she also dined them too.

Well known for hosting the most elaborate and fabulous dinner parties of the 20th century, marked in the calendar's of the most stylish and notable, Cowles' guests included American presidents, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and the Queen Mother - once described as her best friend. Considering parties were Cowles' strong point she didn't just socialise and dabble in the magazine industry for a year or two; Flair was actually her lifelong dream. 'Most women married to rich men hope for a yacht or racehorses or more jewels, but what I secretly longed for was the opportunity to create a "magazine-jewel" which would reflect the real me', Cowles wrote in her 1996 memoir She Made Friends and Kept Them. Wisely choosing to marry American publisher and owner of Look magazine, Gardner 'Mike' Cowles, the aristocrat decided to use Look as a springboard for her own magazine, creating Flair as a sister publication that explored her passionate interests rather than those of her husband. Self-aware and not in the least bit modest Cowles once famously declared that 'few women have lived more multiple lives than I have: as editor: as that anomaly, an American president's personal representative, decorated by six governments; as a writer of thirteen books and a contributor to six others; as a painter, with fifty-one one-man exhibitions throughout the world; patron of the arts and sciences, irrepressible traveller and, more importantly, friend-gatherer.' All in a day's work, right?

'Girl With Roses,' by Lucian Freud, 1947. Excerpt from 'Flair' magazine, 1950.

Above all, Flair was Cowles' baby, and she'd care for it like you would a child. She created what was, needless to say, an extraordinarily heartfelt and magnificently stylish magazine that existed to dazzle (and amuse) the extraordinary and the magnificent. We live in a world today where fashion is going at the pace of a rocket, and in doing so, it has become increasingly difficult to find good honest writing that reflects on the period of today and where fashion fits in our society. Fashion's slower pace then, pre a whopping six collections a year per fashion house, meant publications like Flair could dedicate time to curating beautiful pieces of writing, presented amongst beautifully curated pages. Not only did Flair write about the hip and the trendy, but the magazine also wrote about the artists who were lesser so, or yet to be. Using Flair as a platform to launch the careers of writers, artists and designers, before many of them were to find fame and success unknowingly, Flair gave just as much attention to the unrecognised as it did the established. The creatives that make up each of Flair's 12 issues are the same people who have influenced today's generation of talent in one way or another. The artist's included in its pages were Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Lucian Freud, Saul Steinberg and René Gruau. Writers and playwrights who wrote for the magazine or were involved during its short tenure were Tennessee Williams, Jean Cocteau, W.H. Auden, Simone de Beauvoir, John O'Hara and Colette. Other talents of note also included Winston Churchill Gloria Swanson Eleanor Roosevelt Gypsy Rose Lee and the Duchess of Windsor.

'All Brim or All Crown,' 'Flair' magazine, 1950.
'Letter to Americans by Jean Cocteau' excerpt in 'Flair.'

As someone whose heart has always been heavily attached to the arts and crafts, the hand made, and projects that are naturally intimate, nothing beats the little cutouts and fold-outs of Flair magazine. Flair's influence on fashion magazines was so stupendous that in 1996 HarperCollins published a 337-page A4 hardback book The Best of Flair edited by Flair's original editor Fleur Cowles with a foreword by writer, Dominick Dunne. Three thousand copies of it exist, and it's probably worth mentioning that each copy was sold for $250 back then, so you can only imagine what they go for now. When one considers all this, referring to the magazine as 'desirable' may even be shortchanging it, just a tad.

Flair was for men and women, boys and girls, the curious and the imaginative, the restless and the creative. The first page of The Best of Flair captures the essence of what Flair truly was to so many people: sentimental. The page includes a rather heartfelt message - a reprinted letter sent by an anonymous soldier who had been drafted to be sent to Vietnam. The letter reads as follows:

Dear Fleur Cowles,

I have been drafted to be sent to Vietnam.

I don't believe in war and I certainly don't believe in this one.

I shall probably be killed and if not, i shall probably just stand up and let it happen.

I have nothing in this world worth leaving to anyone but my twelve issues of your magazine, FLAIR.

They are on their way to you

Deciding to dedicate the rest of The Best of Flair to this anonymous soldier, underneath the letter Cowles wrote, 'the following pages have all been reproduced from the gift of this unknown soldier - to whom I now dedicate this book.' For me, nothing is as emotive as those few lines. From the act of sending the letter in the first place through to the act of including it as an introduction in the remaking of Flair - it represents love and intention in the most profound and touching of ways.

Portraits by cartoonist Saul Steinberg for 'Flair' magazine, 1950.

Art filled Flair's pages from the mystical to the magical to the unknown; from Steinbeck's illustrations to Dalí's page-filled writings to a young unknown 28 year old Lucian Freud. Cowles did everything she could to make the pages of Flair a dreamy illustrative adventure by not just giving way to the known and unknown to reach Flair's audience but also the unusual and downright unexpected too. While paving the way for a young Lucien Freud to take hold of the art world in Britain, Cowles, being the socialite that she was - socialising with everybody there was to socialise with - chose acclaimed art historian John Rothenstein to interview Churchill. Yes, that's Churchill as in Winston Churchill, but not about his politics, instead, about his artwork. You may be familiar with Churchill's love of painting if you tuned into the much loved British series on Netflix The Crown and if not, I'd strongly suggest you have a quick scour on Google. His paintings aren't great as such but are somewhat surprising, and certainly not terrible. Rothenstein began the feature by quoting the French artist Eugène Delacroix: 'to know a painter, you must see him in his studio,' before going onto exclaim that 'I was accorded this privilege in regard to Mr. Winston Churchill.' The piece is a rather charming interview that portrays Churchill in a rather different light as to how many media outlets would've done at the time writing, 'had the fairies stuck a paintbrush into his hands instead of a pen into one and a sword into the other, and had he learned while still a boy to draw and to paint, and had he dedicated an entire laborious lifetime to art, his powers would've been immeasurably greater.'

The All Male Issue by 'Flair' magazine, July 1950.

Remaining relevant in the 21st century is quite the feat for a magazine that only has 12 copies to its name, all produced within a year's frame, and yet Flair's legacy remains second to none for more reasons than worth counting. Some people's adoration for Flair lies in the magazine's exceptional writing and coverage of the arts; some are inspired by its sense of beauty and charming character. Others appreciate the intricacy and detail that belong to all 12 of its child-like interactive covers (not to mention the countless different types of paper used in the making). For me, the most extraordinary thing is the pages upon pages filled with various contributions by the best painters and writers from its day; all offering their world to be included in the pages of Flair. Rather than article after article, Flair is a box of souvenirs after souvenirs taking paper format, offered up by literature's 1950s greats. Cowles' choice to include mini excerpts in the form of mini zines snuck inside the pages for the reader to find is what adds such a personal touch that's hard to replicate in the publishing world of today. Hidden amongst the printed line drawings and sculptures of Steinberg, Cowles wrote about these self-contained booklets. 'This folio may serve, amuse, enlighten - even prophecy. It will be a permanent feature of every issue of Flair', and indeed they were, steadily waiting to be opened by the reader. Unfortunately, the fold-outs and cutouts that made Flair so great also gave way to many of the reasons as to why Flair's productions stopped too soon. The cost to insert all the mini additions included in each issue sometimes proved to be more costly than the magazine itself, meaning despite its commercial success and its mass newsstand circulation, Flair seldom made a profit. To put it mildly, Flair was simply too expensive to produce, and when the publication ceased, Cowles' husband who financed it, Gardner 'Mike' Cowles, estimated that it had lost a staggering $2.5 million.

Cowles knew the importance of passion, emotion and intimacy and applied all three to Flair. You may never have heard of it, but the editors of the magazines you read have and dare I say, have even been inspired by it. Flair was, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful magazines ever produced in the 20th century, and its sheer existence is the reason I still believe in the power of print today.

Saul Steinberg for 'Flair' magazine.



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