A picturesque but semi-toxic September sunset, all hazy oranges and pinks, hangs over an industrial block near the Brooklyn waterfront. Beneath it two men approach a clutch of scruffy, T-shirted early-twentysomethings, who slouch and smoke cigarettes in front of an unmarked warehouse.
"We are trying to say: 'We are going to take over the world,"' says one of the men, who sports glasses with improbable white frames. "And these are the guys who are going to do it," finishes his long-haired friend, gesturing at the smokers. Both squint slightly, as if they've just emerged from a tavern's artificial darkness. Which they have.
The guy with the glasses is Suroosh Alvi. The long-hair is Shane Smith. In 1994, along with their pal Gavin McInnes, they founded a free publication in Canada called Vice. Since then, Vice has gone from tabloid to glossy monthly magazine to international mini-empire. The smokers are some of Vice's 120 employees. All this adds up to an unlikely tale, encompassing gargantuan amounts of drugs and alcohol, all manner of bad behavior, and a disastrous dot-com-era alliance with a failed Web media company. Vice, which reliably regards the world with unbridled ridicule, is often so far and away the funniest print publication in the world that it's sort of embarrassing to compare anything else with it. And unlike former claimants to that title -- such as Spy or Might -- Vice is comfortable enough with modern media and marketing to leverage its cachet into a multi-tentacled business play.
I WON'T BE THE FIRST TO POINT OUT that the phrase "the Martha Stewart of..." is the ultimate media clich?. But embodying it remains the ultimate media fantasy: Your content resonates so well with consumers that it flourishes commercially across all media, and maybe even retail, channels. This is harder than it seems, which is why you don't subscribe to 60 Minutes magazine or watch US Weekly Tonight. But Vice, now based in Brooklyn, honed a sensibility that works in multiple forms. It's published in 13 countries. (The U.S. edition, with an unaudited circulation of 175,000, is the largest.) Vice stores hawk clothes and accessories in Los Angeles, New York, and Toronto. There's a deal for a Vice record label with Atlantic Records, which, thanks to one band of the moment (The Bloc Party), was just renewed.
Last year, VH1 made an offer to air a show based on Vice's scathing "Dos and Don'ts" fashion column, the apotheosis of the Vice voice that, regrettably, can't be quoted herein. (Vice turned down VH1 and is discussing a Vice-branded show with Spike TV ().) There is addVice, a street-marketing arm that counts Virgin Mobile among its clients. In 2006, Vice plans to launch Virtue, a marketing company offering traditional ad agency services. This year the privately held Vice will post profits of around $4 million on revenues of about $14 million, says Smith.
Like pornography, the Vice zeitgeist is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. It blends hip-hop and white postcollegiate hipsterism. (In all twentysomething lifestyle plays, music is lingua franca and lifeblood.) It's overlaid with frank sexuality and familiarity with intoxicants, and suffused with the grotty-chic of a Vice-owned London pub. "Stars go there, and we're like: 'Why are you here? [This place is] terrible,"' says Smith.
Vice mores may not fit with the mainstream, but Nike Skateboarding, Levi's, and Absolut advertise in it. "I'm not saying everyone who buys [Nike Skateboarding] is [expletive] up and subscribes" to what Vice does, says a Nike spokesman, "but the general sensibilities line up pretty nicely."
Of course, a magazine that blithely dismisses baby boomers with "almost everything bad about today can be traced back to them" isn't too concerned with finding a broad audience. Cracking the mainstream was never Vice's point. Big media players practically split themselves in two trying to turn one success into many, but three Canadians with dubious pasts look as if they've figured it out. They've made Vice the Martha Stewart of the cheap drugs and sex set.
By Jon Fine