Tyler Brûlé is a journalist, a publisher, a businessman and a great divider of opinion. He’s the man who founded both Wallpaper* and Monocle magazines. Many people, however, know him best from the back-page column he writes in the Life&Arts section of the weekend Financial Times – a weekly account of his hectic travels and purchases called The Fast Lane that readers love to hate.
A typical Tyler week might include trips to Stockholm, Bangkok and Tokyo. It could focus on the quest for a variant of some supremely mundane item (socks, paper, pencils) that’s available only in a hand-spun version in an unmarked back street known to approximately three people, none of whom speaks English. While the various tortoises who’ve written the slower columns on the same page potter about inhaling the daisies, Brûlé hares across the globe accruing both impressive air miles and underwear that’s been crocheted by Faroe Islanders from the throat whiskers of baby reindeer.
Actually, the whole thing’s almost impossible to send up. In 2005, one reader wrote to the FT to congratulate it on such a brilliant parody of the design and marketing world: “Everything from his hilariously unlikely name to his pointless whirl from one business-class lounge to another makes for the most perfect take-off of this vapid world.” The letter’s slightly plaintive tone – it is a joke, isn’t it? – was prompted by a mention in the previous week’s column of a desirable carpet sweeper. (The FT ’s heading for this letter – Brûlé is crème de la crème of parody – makes one wonder if the paper itself is conducting a long-running reader, and possibly writer, tease.)
When I asked people in advance of this interview what they thought of him, a few made gentle gagging noises. Others rolled their eyes dismissively. A friend e-mailed to say he thought that Brûlé’s real name is Anthony. (In fact, it’s even better than that: it’s Jayson.) But here’s the thing: everyone knew who he was and, between retches, they were reading his opinions, often avidly.
A decade ago, it was already being claimed – by the International Speakers’ Bureau, which was organising his appearances on the talk circuit – that “almost everything you see, read, wear and do” is Brûlé influenced. Although that’s a bit of a stretch, it does bring to mind the Meryl Streep/Miranda Priestly speech in The Devil Wears Prada (2006) in which the trickle-down effect of a particular shade of blue is brilliantly tracked.
Brûlé’s reach goes back to Wallpaper*, which he founded in 1996. It immediately influenced bigger influencers (advertisers, retailers, other media), he sold a major stake in it to Time-Warner and although he no longer has anything to do with the magazine, the ripples from his legacy continue; and so, even if you’ve never heard of him, he has probably tweaked your taste in ways you may not have fully appreciated while eyeing that HK$5 sushi dish in Pricerite.
As the peg for this piece is the 10th anniversary of Monocle, we arrange to meet in the tiny Monocle shop in Wan Chai. Although Monocle began life as a stern slab of a magazine – matt not glossy, masculine not feminine, metropolitan not rural (it has an annual best-of ranking for the world’s most liveable cities, in which readers can be assured that lovely countryside is nearby but not rampantly intrusive) – it has since expanded into retail, both bricks-and-mortar and online, selling carefully curated bags, clothing, accessories and fragrances.
Selecting an outfit for our encounter is mildly nerve-wracking. Slobbiness is clearly out but so is trying too hard. In 2001, when The New York Times took Brûlé to lunch at the Four Seasons, he wasn’t wearing a jacket, wouldn’t wear the one offered by the restaurant and wouldn’t borrow one from Bergdorf Goodman. Only after some phone calls (while the Times wondered if the rules would be bent for a “publishing upstart”) did the maitre d’ agree to let him in.
Having arrived early to inspect the Monocle products, I see Brûlé finishing another meeting with a young man in the open-plan office at the back. Observers have occasionally used the word “cult” in relation to his world. He has strict opinions about, for example, jackets dangling on chairs and lunch at desks; and there was that occasion in 2010 when The Guardian newspaper had compiled a media power list of 100 people – not, it turned out, including Brûlé. The paper then invited readers to nominate who should be number 101. In the end, Brûlé had surged from behind to receive 160 votes in 30 minutes, all from the same IP address in London, which happened to be that of his branding agency, Winkreative.
At the time, he was, of course, travelling (Geneva). “I have a very loyal staff,” he’d told the paper. “I am sure that if someone saw we were in fifth place they would rally the troops.” This comes to mind when the young man walks out of the meeting and straight into the shop’s glass window. (No damage to either.) Brûléland, believe me, can be dazzling; when a pleasant young woman offers various types of liquid, you half expect the choice to include Kool-Aid.
Without wishing to objectify him – although making a fetish of objects is surely the entire point of his business – he is exceedingly easy on the eye. Also highly courteous, although I’m slightly surprised by the casual manner in which he passes over his business card using one hand (hasn’t he been around this region long enough to know the drill?). He’s flown in on a red-eye from Bangkok and has, he said in an earlier e-mail, “airplane head”. As he sometimes gives the impression that jet lag is for wimps, the crack in the facade is a little cheering.
We talk, at first, about Monocle. Why the name?
“Because we couldn’t get the name we originally wanted,” he replies. “The real name was The Edit, we built the whole identity round it, went to purchase the domain name and it belonged to a Sydney gynaecologist ... His wife was running a lingerie business, the idea was they would launch it under that name. I’ve yet to see that website.”
Very quickly, therefore, he had to come up with something “established, slightly forgotten but in a sense familiar”. No subconscious reference to Eustace Tilley, waving his weekly monocle on The New Yorker’s masthead?
“No. Maybe he lodged back there but no.” He says – classic Brûlé – he wanted it to sound good to a junior on the press desk “at the Foreign Affairs Ministry in KL”. It had to convey something “from the same world as The Spectator or The Economist so they’d think, OK, and put the call through”.
The code name for the magazine all along, however, had been Project Europa, which suggests an initially smaller – and now more problematic – continent of reference. Early advertisers were told that Monocle consumers would be “the Polish banker in London, the Finnish architect in Zurich, the Spanish management consultant in Dublin”.
Where was he last October, when Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, said: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere”?
“I was probably sitting in Zurich that day. I just thought ... you silly people. This is the way of the modern world. It’s not just nationalism, it’s petty. What she said addresses the heart of most of our readers.”
And so Monocle’s April issue is a little bearish on the future: the prime minister of Malta talks about a “tough Brexit” and the magazine goes on patrol with a “more vigilant” Swedish army. Still, there are also cheerful men in shorts on the cover and advice both on how to start a fashion brand and how to look hot (“in a considered way” – the tone is deliberately parodic), so all is not yet lost.
Brûlé, who’s Canadian, had an itinerant childhood. His father, Paul, was a Canadian Football League player who moved around the country. FT readers are familiar with references to Virge, his Estonian mother, and Mats Klingberg, his Swedish partner, who often accompany him on the wanderings of his adulthood; Brule senior (who doesn’t go in for the family name’s diacritical marks) is nowhere to be seen. The son has said his father disapproves of him being gay.
Between kindergarten and university, from where he dropped out after two years, Brûlé estimates he went to 10 schools. (Anyone call him Jayson? “No one ever knew that.”) He says he realised from a young age that having to adapt to new environments was great training for life: “There was a realisation that you had to be confident enough to speak your mind on day two even if everyone else had been in the class for 10 years.”
Such self-belief, plus his itchy feet, took him to London, where he based himself as a freelance journalist doing the global rounds (including visiting the office of this esteemed magazine) to pitch story ideas. It was when he was on assignment in Afghanistan in 1994, aged 25, that he was shot twice, caught in crossfire while sitting in a car. His left arm was paralysed. And that, of course – I suddenly remember, with forehead-slapping shame – is why his business-card presentation is one-handed.
Would he do it again?
“If we could rewind,” he begins, and pauses. “Is it 23 years? It was the 5th of March … If we were, let’s say, back in January of 1994 and the same assignment came up ...” He stops once more, rapidly tapping his pen on his sleeve, his left hand resting, utterly still, on his thigh. “I realised early on, by the time I was in St Mary’s hospital in London, after the transplants” – of? – “nerves, arteries, skin grafts ... I felt this was an extraordinary experience.”
But I’m curious about the longer-lasting consequences.
“You should always go with your gut instincts,” he says. “My gut instinct was we shouldn’t have been where we were. I didn’t speak up enough to the driver, the translator, they were Afghans. There was something nagging ... Self-recognition of these cues becomes valuable.” He came up with the concept for Wallpaper* while recuperating. That little asterisk was a pointer to an explanatory footnote: the stuff that surrounds you. I didn’t understand how trauma could give him a yearning for stuff; usually, it has the opposite effect.
“It was a desire to do my own project,” he replies. “It was a control issue. It wasn’t about acquiring things. I wanted to have a forum for young journalists in an international arena.”
He got his wish. By September 10, 2001, Wallpaper* was celebrating its fifth anniversary in New York at the British consul general’s residence. “And the next day, everything went to hell. This was a situation where there were a lot of young journalists whose parents were completely distraught, we had to get out of New York, who knew what was going to happen?”
He organised a convoy up to Toronto, then bagged a seat on one of the first planes out – an Air Canada flight to Frankfurt, Germany. After he’d boarded, but while the plane was still at the gate, he suddenly knew he had to get off.
“There was a new set of rules for everyone, they were on their first shift, you can imagine, total chaos, shoes off. And these people are not processing what’s going on, it’s not working ... I just thought, ‘I don’t want to be on this plane.’”
Gut instinct? “Yes.” The airline wasn’t happy. For years he was banned “for flight disruption” although I did happen to notice, while flicking through the November 2016 issue of Monocle – which is entirely devoted to Canada (Rebuilding Brand Canada states the cover) – that Air Canada had placed a handsome, and presumably mighty expensive, insert.
“All is forgiven,” he agrees, casting his eyes down modestly. Indeed. If you click on Winkreative’s website, the current front page announces that it’s proud to reveal the agency’s redesign of Air Canada’s livery. The opportunities for fruitful synergy between Winkreative, Monocle and the FT do rather make you think. Funny how these things work out, eh?
On March 24, 2015, the day of the Germanwings airplane crash, Brûlé was flying from Zurich to London on Swiss. (The airline was his first redesign client, while it was still called Swissair, after he left Wallpaper* in 2002.) He was at the gate, the news was still coming through, no one knew what had happened.
“I thought, ‘This is odd’ ... and I said, ‘I’m not boarding.’” Gut instinct.
He went for a coffee in the transit area. A man came up to him. “He said, ‘Sorry to disturb you but I’m a huge fan of the magazine, I read your column, and I wanted to thank you.’” The man, who was French, had relocated to Zurich with his fiancée as a result of one of Monocle’s fairly frequent eulogies about the city.
“He was quite awkward,” Brûlé continues. “He said, ‘I’ve got something to tell you. You fly all the time, don’t you? I was supposed to be flying to Paris and I chose not to go on the plane today.’ He was looking for affirmation. He didn’t know I didn’t get on a flight.”
Did he tell the man? “Yes, I told him.”
Reassurance within the tribe is what Brûlé provides. The stuff that surrounds you is a bulwark: you’re safely on the inside, you’re one of us. In 2013, long after he’d left it, Wallpaper* had a redesign; the asterisk is now yoked to a rather peculiar motto – the stuff that refines you – as if the magazine is aimed at Neanderthals upgrading from cave to house. Brûlé, however, addressed readers not as wannabes but as if they already belonged. The point was to make everyone feel complicit together. No wonder his original company was called Wink Media.
The flip side to them-and-us, however, is that you may not like your privileged bedfellows. In February, he wrote in The Fast Lane about a badly behaved couple – in business class, obviously – on a KLM flight to Amsterdam. One of the flight attendants accidentally spilt milk on the man’s jacket. Screams about lawsuits ensued. Brûlé offered the attendant his card. (“‘If you need a witness when you’re taken to court over spilled milk on a blazer,’” I said, with a wink, “‘please let me know.’”)
The wink link on that occasion was with the crew. Quite often, however, it’s Brûlé who’s writing about poor service and making demands; he sees it as his job, but there must be a ripple effect from that, too. In fact, he says, he’s just had a reader complaining to him that the Wi-fi didn’t work in a Monocle-recommended hotel.
“He said, ‘If it was you, you’d have written five Fast Lane columns about it.’ These people exist and they consume all kinds of titles, not just ours.” But does he feel guilty that, somewhere along the chain, he’s feeding others’ sense of entitlement?
“No,” he says briskly. “Our friends on the plane were beastly South Africans.” In the following week’s column, he’d corrected the “many” readers who’d assumed the couple were American. He says he’s had “big fights” with the FT when he’s mentioned nationalities and they’ve pulled the reference: “I’ve rung up and said, ‘That’s the whole point, that they’re Chinese or Russian, and now it’s neutered.’ It’s entertainment.”
So he doesn’t mind the mocking letters?
“God, no. I can read, and write, the column on many multiple levels as well.” He laughs, pleasantly. He is a very pleasant – and very, very media-savvy – person with whom to pass a professional hour. The next morning, he’ll be on his way again, heading to Tokyo for meetings; in 2014, he sold an undisclosed minority stake in Monocle, then valued at US$115 million overall, to the Japanese media corporation Nikkei Inc.
“We just did our first-ever media summit in London,” he says. That was last month and he’s planning one for Hong Kong later this year. “We wanted to mark the decade by saying that things are moving quickly but to look at what hasn’t changed – being a witness, being there first hand, the luxury of perspective.”
The summit lasted two hours, cost £125 (HK$1,220) and no one was allowed to sit down.
“Curiously, people said, ‘We love standing,’” he explains. “They said that something happens when people slouch in an armchair – you feel you’re going to be held prisoner. I think people feel more protected when they’re standing.” Now why should that be?
“Maybe they can cut and run.”