Hubert Burda Media

The Constant Reader

The world as we know is disappearing and social media's to blame. So how do we start living in the moment? By travelling, says Tyler Brûlé, but provided you ditch your device, and just sit and taste the curry.

The Constant Reader

If you noticed all the previous media coverage of Tyler Brûlé, his press portrait shots are all the same: Short pepper hair with no parting, a full stubble that joins his sideburns, thin-lipped face full-frontal, a Mona Lisa smidgin of a smile, jaw squared, eyes piercing straight ahead through black optical frames.
The gaze is either one of nonchalance, or intensity. Or even intensely indifferent, I cannot tell. There has never been a press picture in recent years that veers from this manicured stance. You have to agree, this is an extremely photogenic angle, as it shows off his chiselled Estonian-Canadian heritage to best effect. It is a pose that likely makes most people look erudite, no-nonsense, impenetrable and of course, mysterious.
For Brûlé, everything is orchestrated for a certain effect.
This might explain why he was aghast when asked to pose for smartphone cameras with admirers and media, outside the stipulated press protocol.
“No, no, no. Is this picture going up on any Instagram or Facebook? None of that please. If so, then no photos.” I've heard him deflecting informal photo requests at least twice during a press trip in Hong Kong to interview him.
We weren't warned that there will be a No Selfie rule.
Perhaps the man understands that once these images get uploaded onto social media, they proliferate beyond his own image control. As it stands, Brûlé is suspicious of social media. If you understand this, then you may begin to understand why the coolest man in journalism has no Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any of that social media drivel.
“I think being ‘on' all the time is a bit cheap,” he says, with disdain bordering on the vitriolic. “Like being available for a date all the time. Is that the kind of person you want to be with if they're always willing to lift their skirt or pull down their trousers?”
Well, for a man of his achievements, he may have no need to. Brûlé is highly visible even in today's densely saturated mediascape. He is the weekend columnist for The Financial Times (Fast Track), his brainchild of a magazine Monocle is published monthly and he is a regular guest speaker and collaborator with multiple disciplines. Such as today, he is appointed by Louis Vuitton — incidentally one of the advertisers in Monocle — to conceive its series of pop-up global travel shops, called L'Aventure, in Hong Kong, six months after it first launched in Paris.
For all these media appearances, the man has control.
His need for things to be done a certain way extends to his own office culture in Marylebone, London. He has infamously intoned that jackets and backs of chairs (among other rules of aesthetic conduct) never the twain shall meet. “People need to attend to details,” he explained previously.
“He's like a Tom Ford,” a local fashion executive once told me. “He has a very clear vision about how things should exactly be.”
Which has proven true. Everything about the man has been meditated upon. Our interview session, conducted in a small group, saw each country's representative journo enter a private salon (at Pacific Place's Louis Vuitton shop) individually and in three-minute intervals (I timed). Once in, you sit in a horseshoe configuration facing him. When all have arrived, Brûlé — not any public relations handler — immediately takes charge: “Okay, this is how it goes, we will start with you, then clockwise and we'll go maybe two rounds so each gets at least two questions in. Alright, yes — how are you?” He nods at a reporter to his immediate left.
When in command, the man is clearly in his element, superiorly comfortable in his multiple personae as journalist, publisher, entrepreneur and retailer. Two questions in, when asked by a Thai media what's a must-pack for his travels, he deadpans: “A sense of humour.”
To understand the man that is Tyler Brûlé, you must first understand his work. Which, in this case, really needs no introduction: The two very successful magazines, Wallpaper* and Monocle.
Wallpaper* was one of those magazines that defied convention. Launched in the mid-1990s, it was really the first of its ilk, the kind that makes the ordinary look extraordinary, the kind that makes you relook and most importantly, re-think about matters of style quite away from the conventional “stylish” things: A gardening spade, a cistern, a milk carton, books, factories, airport lounges, hangars and yes, even a sausage.
And then it will go on to educate you about other “stylish” things beyond your own indigenous culture: A baumkuchen (a traditional European layered cake) from Okinawa, CDs from Reykjavik or the outdoorsy Ljubljana cafe culture.
Interspersed are fashion elements in all the most unexpected places: Snake-hipped Brazilian boys in Tomas Maier trunks playing beach futbol within a travelogue on Rio; recipes for a potluck home dinner party with guests milling around in Helmut Lang (when it was still designed by Helmut Lang) using cutlery from Voss. Style, the magazine seems to say, can be envisioned everywhere.
In Wallpaper*, Brûlé has created a genre.
As he tells it, it was just meant to be. Then only 25, he was shot in Afghanistan Kabul as a reporter and was lying in his hospital bed, and all he could do while bedridden was to read the only magazines lying around: Gardening books, trade journals on tools and faucets and so on. They were absolutely hideous. In 1996, he launched Wallpaper*. Mind you, that's spelt with an asterisk, one of the few rare successful brands in the world to get away with a punctuation in its branding.
Wallpaper* has of course since been divested off to Time Inc in 1997 where he had remained as the editor until 2004. Because of a non-competing clause, he had to channel his ideas elsewhere. He opened Winkreative, a creative consultancy that scored solid corporate accounts, including those with the governments of Taiwan and Thailand to rebrand their image.
While London is still his base, over 60 percent of his agency revenue is in Asia now. When Winkreative was deciding whether to make Singapore or Hong Kong as its Southeast Asian base in 2011, the latter's government rang within days to sway his mind.
“Singapore is our third-biggest urban market in the world after London and New York,” he says matter-of-factly. “Thailand is growing at an extraordinary rate. The Phillippines is not.”
Once the non-competing clause exhausted itself, he immediately launched Monocle in 2007. Perhaps culling from his governmental accounts, Monocle goes beyond conventional publishing models courting advertising groups (whether LVMH, Compagnie Financière Richemont, or Kering) to pursue deals with governments as advertisers. After all, why go after listed conglomerates when you can harvest the GDP of entire countries? An exaggeration maybe, but the public sector is practically under-exploited virgin territory when it comes to lifestyle advertising and Brûlé knows this only too well.
The latest issue of Monocle at press time was the Speciale Italia for March, devoted to all things Italian. While the editorial line-up includes personality profiles on Italy's elite power-players, chock-a-block each signature were ads from the Made-in-Italy likes of Prada, Tod's, Kiton, Gucci, to the lesser-known ones such as Herno, Piquadro, Golden Goose, Depadova, Bagutta. Also in are government or government-linked ads urging you to visit Puglia (“#WeAreInPuglia”), Spain, Barcelona or Tokyo. Business-to-business industry ads (ie Vitale Barberis Canonica, the Albini textile group) more or less make up the rest of the healthily sized, 246-page tome.
No wonder The Guardian once called him “The Man Who Sold The World”.
While his ambition is global, there is an almost maddening geek-like focus in every editorial page on even the smallest details. A story on indigenous home-grown brands has the editorial fawning over its logo font type, while another one on the Swedish airline Air Südtirol gives column inches to the design of the check-in luggage tags and boarding passes.
Redeeming these indulgent columns is something insightful in the way they are edited to tug at the heartstrings. You might just want to run away from all your worldly duties to join a travelling circus troupe to see the world — “Pasta is an art form”; or “The childhood pleasure of collecting stickers...”; or “If Mexican boys don't join gangs, they'll get killed” — Well, almost.
As you listen to Brûlé talk, you realise that such good travel writing can only come from a place within that's acutely aware which, in our connected world, also means a certain disdain for technology.
“We did an event in Singapore and I was stunned: No one was living in the moment. It was the same in Bangkok. You need to be there; 12 people have flown in from overseas and all you're doing is this (demonstrates twiddling on an invisible smartphone) the whole time. I was amazed. Everyone was just somewhere else. I thought that was sad. I think Southeast Asia is like that. Japan and Taiwan are not like that.”
“I'd hope that people were able to look out the train window or to sit down at a nice meal and just absorb the experience. Because there is something about just absorbing that amazing curry you had in Kyoto — just remembering that hunched-over woman who served it to you, recalling the table, cutlery and everything.”
“People need to learn to sit down and taste the curry, instead of trying to live it digitally,” he says.
“Develop emotional intelligence, read the room, always be out there, observe and try to analyse — not always have the right answers all the time, but always query what you see; that's really important.”
In short? “Get off your stupid phone and open your eyes.”
With his strong views on things, Brûlé expectedly has his fair-share of detractors.
“He sounds like a rich prick,” one editor tells me. “One of those who has assistants to take care of every little thing for him so he only knows the fun stuff.”
“No one travels like that,” says another, scoffing at the expensive leather luggages expounded in his magazine. “How do they withstand rough-handling at check-ins?”
To those, Brûlé brushes them off.
“I don't think we're guilty of romanticising the travel sector,” he says. “Someone has to keep the industry honest. You can either remind them how good it can be, or you can say “it's a really dreadful experience to fly from Tuscany to New York — if you can even get there direct.”
Which would anyone rather? “There're always pockets around the world where there are great travel experiences, so it's our job as journalists to go out and find those — Brazil, Australia — so we need to up our game as a result.”
Those expensive luggages? Avoid check-ins, he says. “God created housekeeping at hotels for a reason. I'm a very big supporter of travelling light and spending a lot of money on laundry on the road.” Laundry, for him, means blazers, jumpers and his Salvatore Piccolo shirts, he tells us.
As for assisted travel? Surprisingly, Brûlé actually agrees with them. Technology, you see, is overrated. Specifically, those bespoke concierge experiences being managed off a mobile device, say, an iPad. “There's this sense this device can manage the whole experience. But just because I stayed or flew with them the last time and I ordered a hot chocolate doesn't mean that that's necessarily what I want this time,” he says.
Instead of investing in technology, companies should look into investing in human capital, he suggests. “Maybe we need to put in a little bit more towards our pension fund. Have more flight attendants that are above 50 with experience. A bunch of 21-year-old stewardesses may look nicer, but...”
He recalls being on board Japan Airlines recently. “I had the most extraordinary air stewardess. She was about 60, been flying a long time. She instinctively knows if you want to be disturbed or not. Or if you're in a hot chocolate mood or not. That's emotional intelligence.”
The problem is, he says: “No one is interested in investing in manpower in that way anymore.”
The human-ness of it all and all its accompanying physicality is disappearing and Brûlé is duly concerned.
In tandem, digital social media, as ubiquitous as it is, has the danger of making brands invisible. The digital platform, as Brûlé views it, is one that excludes more than it includes.
“If it's only Volvo or Singapore Airlines that's talking to you in that channel, you don't see the Bentley, or Bottega Veneta around them. There's no adjacency,” he says. “You don't have that as if you're walking around a physical mall. Nor will you have that as if you're opening up the first ten pages of, say, Esquire.”
“If you look in advertising right now, putting so much money in social media isn't paying off for a lot of big brands, which thought it would. A big US sports company told me: ‘Yeah, we realise that it's great putting money in Facebook — but we're now invisible. You might see us on people's devices, but you don't see the creative, the big billboards anymore.' They said that it was a huge mistake, because you're not out there anymore.”
“You're everywhere, but no one sees you,” he says.
“Which is fascinating.”