At 3:55 p.m. on Valentine’s Day, Cecilia Dean arrived at the Diane von Furstenberg show at the tents in Bryant Park and took a front-row seat. Ms. Dean, the tall, slender editor of the longtime avant-garde magazine Visionaire, was seated back-to-back with Vanity Fair fashion director Michael Roberts; near New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn; and across the runway from a trifecta of editors in chief: Elle’s Robbie Myers, Harper’s Bazaar’s Glenda Bailey and Marie Claire’s Joanna Coles. Ms. Dean wore a black-and-white Yves Saint Laurent dress, thigh-high leather boots, a Givenchy purse and a gray fur jacket by Ohne Titel for Saga. Unlike the magazine personages around her, for whom the lull before a runway show is for idle chatter and posing for pictures and each other, she sat quietly, keeping her eyes lowered to some nondescript reading material, ignoring the commotion of photographers and TV starlets around her.
Ms. Dean is sort of a mystery. She is always around—in front rows, on downtown rooftops, gliding through stark gallery spaces, draping her long, wiry arms around Francisco Costa or Marc Jacobs or Michael Stipe or whomever else might be in town. Her dark hair is almost always pulled tightly back into a bun, and her fair face, which, with her feline eyes and high cheekbones, has a sort of monastic beauty to it, is usually bare. Ask someone who that striking woman is that everyone seems to know and you’ll like get something like: “Oh, that’s Ce-cee-lia. She does Visionaire.”
‘In this industry, we’re actually very secure because we only answer to ourselves. We don’t have financial backers that might pull the plug.’ —Cecilia Dean
Among the fashion titles trying to stay afloat, Visionaire has retained a kind of dignity and heft. It’s published only three or four times a year, and an annual subscription costs a whopping $675. The magazine, which covers fashion and art, is decidedly not of the mainstream (circulation is estimated between 1,500 and 4,000), and yet the city’s editors and designers know it well. Unlike Ms. Coles and Ms. Bailey, Ms. Dean won’t be seen on the morning shows or as a judge on various fashioned-themed reality shows. She is the reigning princess of a kind of parallel high-concept universe whose inhabitants include Olivier Zahm at Purple; Dasha Zhukova, wife of Roman Abramovich, at Pop; Jefferson Hack at Dazed and Confused; and Terry Jones at i-D. They share hard-to-get photographers, models and designers with Condé Nast and Hearst heavyweights, but their aesthetic is less compromised, less commercial. Within the pages of her magazine, Ms. Dean asks designers to act as editors and photographers as conceptual artists.
“I THINK WE’RE we’re a bit like the Switzerland of publishing; we’re small and independent,” Ms. Dean, who recently turned 41, said at her magazine’s offices on Mercer Street, fighting bronchitis a week before the shows. She greeted The Observer in a long, black skirt, white turtleneck, a silver spike ring and tall boots, in which she sprinted across the office to grab a couple of old issues of Visionaire. “In this industry, we’re actually very secure because we only answer to ourselves. We don’t have financial backers that might pull the plug.”
It was in 1991 that former Details fashion editor Stephen Gan asked his friends, makeup artist James Kaliardos and Ms. Dean—then in her last semester studying English and French at Barnard—to start a magazine with him. The trio had met when Mr. Kaliardos and Mr. Gan were still at Parsons School of Design and a young Ms. Dean came over to Mr. Kaliardos’ dorm at Union Square West for some test shots.
“The moment I met Cecilia is seared in my brain,” Mr. Kaliardos said by phone. “She was 16 or something. I was running late and I came out of the shower, and she was already there waiting in my living room. She was pure white and she had this floating Louise Brooks bob with bangs cut on top of long hair. She was super-skinny, and she was sitting on this white vinyl chair. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful.”
The three began going out together, first in New York and later in Paris, to where they all moved at the same time. They liked dressing up and taking pictures, mostly of Ms. Dean.
“Apparently, James, Stephen and Cecilia were like these wild club kids,” said Christopher Bollen, who worked at V, Visionaire’s more accessible offshoot, for seven years. “In a weird way, I’ve always thought there was some affinity between them and the three Misshapes kids because there is this beautiful girl who’s too cool for school and then these two wonderful guys next to her.”
Mr. Gan decided to start Visionaire after being laid off from Details, then the leading downtown publication, after it was bought by Condé Nast. “The landscape for publishing was really different 20 years ago,” Ms. Dean said. “Obviously, the Internet didn’t exist yet and we knew so many photographers and illustrators who did incredible work, but it was never published. Fashion photographers weren’t considered artists, and they didn’t really have books of their work. They certainly weren’t given gallery shows. Stephen was determined to be that outlet.”
The first issue of Visionaire was called “Spring” and featured insect illustrations by Ruben Toledo and a fashion report by Times photographer Bill Cunningham. Though most everyone contributed for free, it took $7,000 to put together—the entirety of Mr. Gan’s savings, including his severance from Details. One thousand unbound issues (binding was too expensive) were printed and sold for $10 each.
“People think you have to have a business plan, you have to have a staff, you need a plan, but it was so much more organic,” Ms. Dean said. “We were like, ‘Let’s talk to Mats Gustafsson, or wouldn’t it be great if Bruce Weber gave us an image? Oh, let’s just call him. Grab the Yellow Pages!’” The first issue paid for the second, but everyone continued to work for free, and Ms. Dean supplemented her income with a monthly Saks Fifth Avenue shoot.
THESE DAYS, the Visionaire office has some 25 people sitting at rows of minimalist desks. Also housed there are V and Vman (founded in 1999 and 2003, with cover prices around $6 and circulations of 75,000 and 60,000, respectively, and edited by Mr. Gan). It was V that recently published the much-discussed size issue featuring plus-size models in its fashion spreads and Precious’ Gabourey Sidibe on the cover.