Hard News by Russell Brown

Maximum Respect

Des Dubbelt died this week, aged 82, after a short illness. Friends of mine knew Des far better than I did. Indeed, I only actually met him once, in 1994, at his home in West Auckland. I interviewed him for a story in Planet magazine, which I was editing at the time, and had a great afternoon in the company of this kind and clever man.

Whether they know it or not, many people in publishing here owe a debt to Des. For 13 years he was the editor of Playdate magazine, New Zealand's first - and for a long time, only - pop culture magazine. At a time when the national culture was tweedy and conservative, Playdate was smart and sexy. Among those who passed through it were Roger Donaldson, Bob Harvey, Kim Goldwater and The Listener's venerable chief sub-editor, Tom McWilliams.

The first time I recall seeing a copy of Playdate was in 1989, when I was back from London for the summer. Yoh, the old drummer from the Screaming Mee Mees, was working for Rip It Up, and went to dump a load of paper for recycling. He noticed a pile of interesting old magazines and brought them back to the office, where Murray Cammick was delighted.

I borrowed an issue from Murray for one of the ads in it: a brilliant op-art idea for Clearasil, featuring a model in a skin-tight white hood with big black dots, against a background of white dots on black. Stuart Page, Grant Fell and I swapped out the black and white for flouro orange and green and turned it into a giant poster for Housequake II, the second of the big dance parties we put on that summer. It should have won an award, that poster. It was incredible.

It was also an example of how stylish and enduring much of what Des did in Playdate was.

I've always been fascinated by the legacy of magazine publishing in New Zealand, especially where it touched on the fringe. I tried to put it in some context in the 1994 Planet story below (big thanks to Fiona for retyping it), part of a special feature on the history of New Zealand fashion, which contains some familiar names. (It's probably safe now to reveal that I was Wayne Washington - and Steven Spencer too.)

Des will no doubt receive tributes from those who knew him well, but I'm grateful for the opportunity to remember him too. He was one cool cat.

Des, as we used to say in London: maximum respect.


The Rag Trade
[Planet magazine, summer 1994]

RUSSELL BROWN digs up the ancestors of today's indigenous street press and finds out that some things haven't changed.

We tend to think of "street style" as the property of today's fashion culture - or, at least, the creation of the style press with which it's so closely linked. History, in this view of things, means last month's issue.

But that's not the way it was. The first New Zealand publication which addressed style as lifestyle, as a matter of week-to-week observance and, crucially, as the property of youth was called Playdate - and it ran the length of the 1960s and into the 70s.

Let's get this straight - Playdate was not a fashion magazine. But the way it chucked fashion in the same cultural sack as pop music, movies, art and simply being young and alive represented a major break with the past. It had a lot in common with today's "street press" - a symbiotic relationship with the boutique sector, acres of fashion industry advertising and even - especially, perhaps - any old excuse for a bit of semi-nudity.

The magazine began unprepossessingly in 1960 as a puff sheet for Kerridge Odeon films called Cinema. Des Dubbelt, who would edit the magazine for the rest of its days, arrived in 1961, just before it became Playdate. Founding editor Sid Bevan left shortly after and Dubbelt approached the imperious RJ Kerridge about broadening the mag's scope.

"We had to include the Amalgamated cinema releases for one thing. RJ was much more far-sighted than, say, the accountants in the firm, who thought, 'oh God, we're not going to publicise the opposition'. He agreed immediately and we moved into fashion, showbiz and feature articles about people doing things that were of interest to kids in general.

"By the time the Beatles thing arrived we were very well established as the magazine for that generation. In its heyday, Playdate sold about 120,000 copies a month.

"Up to that point, the successful magazines like Woman's Weekly had been so fuddy-duddy it was unbelievable. One interesting thing was the response we got from tradesmen at the Auckland Star, where Playdate and the Weekly were printed - they said 'this is so much more interesting than what they're doing at the Woman's Weekly'."

Dubbelt is sixtysomething and retired now - but he remains strikingly interested in the new.

"I remember the first copy of The Face that I saw - I thought, well, this is the revolution. Overnight it made, say, Vanity Fair, look fuddy-duddy. What was his name? Brodie? He was a real pioneer."

He admits to knowing nothing of the computer technology which makes the youth press possible now. The technological leap in his era was the advent of photo-offset printing.

"That was great. Being able to bleed all around and through the gutter and overprint with different tones. It was a big breakthrough from the old letterpress days - and from the very conventional sort of layouts that the local magazines had then. As big a breakthrough as what you've made at Planet, say, from The Listener."

Indeed, some of Dubbelt's "layouts" wouldn't look out of place today, 30 years on. He was also the first to start drawing photographers for his fashion shoots from Elam's fledgling photography course, rather than trusting in the establishment.

"I was taught that you've got to hit people visually. A good fashion spread, especially out on location, not like the formal shots you'll see in Fashion Quarterly, is very visually effective. Formal fashion photographers weren't good at it. I think we used Des Williams once and that was enough."

Instead, Dubbelt gave a start to young photographers like Max Thomson, Roger Donaldson and Kim Goldwater. Thomson has since become a fashion photographer of note, Donaldson is on our honour roll of film directors and Goldwater now makes fine expensive wine on Waiheke Island.

"The likes of Roger, rather than looking back and saying 'my God, you exploited me', seem to be very appreciative to this day that they had that opportunity and that elbow room to work for peanuts as they did," Dubbelt muses, a note of wonder in his voice.

As it is today, all the fine editorial ideas could be wrecked if the paid advertising didn't measure up. The prime mover back then was a young ad man called Bob Harvey, now the mayor of Waitakere City. Harvey's "hot shop" handled accounts like Maggy Knitwear, which introduced the miniskirt to New Zealand girls. His groovy campaigns paid the bills while Dubbeslt ran four-page features on tiny boutiques like Chaos and Annie Bonza.

Maggy was pretty much a mainstream line. So, certainly, were other regular Playdate advertisers like Summit and Lane, Walker Rudkin.

"Those firms had youngish marketing people and were shrewd enough to throw their hats in the ring too. I don't know if that happens today."

Eventually, the Playdate profits began to wane. With "RJ" at the top, Dubbelt couldn't follow the zeitgeist into drugs and Woodstock - and no amount of daring nipple shots could bridge the gap. Kerridge sold Playdate to the Star in 1972, putting it in the same bed as the newly-ascendant Eve and assuring its rapid demise.

Eve and its competitor Thursday took magazine fashion in another direction, hitching it to the newfound freedoms of women. They were racy - too racy to last under establishment publishers in the end.

Street style had to wait until 1983 to get another run in the media - and it was perhaps no coincidence that the new venture was independently published and partly inspired by Max Thomson, who had cut his teeth on Playdate. It was ChaCha -- and it's regarded as the grandma of today's street press.

Ngila Dickson was, back then, running a boutique in the decaying Corner complex on Queen Street. It was a struggle, even though she was paying dead-cheap rent to share a room with Murray Cammick's Rip It Up magazine. So when Thomson suggested they approach Cammick about publishing a new magazine, Dickson jumped. Cammick also was looking for something which would give him a few more visual kicks than the crammed-up RIU.

So ChaCha began as a spacious newsprint tabloid. And suddenly, things were happening. A new kind of fashion photography emerged, fully-formed. The bizarre lens dreams of Philip Peacocke spilled over the pages and the work of Thomson's assistant, a skateboard dropout called Kerry Brown, started to attract attention. New Models like Rosanna Raymond, Megan Douglas and Maree Jephson were everywhere. Bold designers like Soo Kim had exposure.

ChaCha's distance from the mainstream was emphasised in a sneering story about the "attic press" by Robyn Langwell for More magazine. Langwell sniggered into her sleeve about the strangeness of the fashion, about the grassroots nature of the publication - were these people serious? It wasn't long, of course, before More was falling over itself to follow ChaCha.

ChaCha had words, too. It addressed that crucial issue, coffee, and endorsed only the strongest the town had to offer. It noted the emergence of Pacific-inspired fashion, featuring a tapa-clad cover model a decade before Pasifika took the stage. Fledgling style hack Wayne Washington interviewed the new mayor of Waitakere City, Tim Shadbolt. (Politics! In a fashion magazine!) As it went to an A4 glossy format, a young man called Chad Taylor exercised his well-sharpened pen.

Eventually, the strains of independent publishing told and ChaCha, lacking advertising support and with Cammick distracted by his new record label, folded. But the careers, fashion businesses and the inner-city identity it helped to foster have lasted longer. In an era when Fashion Quarterly sources almost all its material from offshore, we should be thankful for that.