Here comes the Supernova

Shortly due to relaunch, Nova blazed a trail for style magazines from 1965 to 1975, running stories that are provocative even by today’s standards, with a style and wit that few titles would ever match.

Nova, one of the brightest stars in magazine publishing, shone for most of its ten years, until it burned out, its editorial freedom reined in and bold format sadly diminished.

Nova first appeared in March 1965, subtitled “A new kind of magazine for the new kind of woman”. It cost 3 shillings (15p).

The 1960s, as we know them, didn’t really get started until at least 1963, but when they did the explosion of radical attitudes became a tidal wave that swept into the 1970s. Nowhere was this more apparent than in women’s lives – a journey from the anarchical Angry Young Men of the 1950s to the full flowering of feminism and women’s lib in the late 1960s and 1970s. Women of that era were going out to work, giving up knitting, exploring their own sexuality, and realising their potential and intelligence.

In 1964, the publisher George Newnes decided that a new kind of magazine was needed, but it didn’t know exactly what it should be. It called on Harry Fieldhouse and Harri Peccinotti. The former became the new magazine’s editor and Peccinotti the first of its two legendary art directors. According to Peccinotti, “It started as just an idea, there was no research, just the feeling that there was room for a magazine that treated women as intelligent human beings – but no one really knew [how we would do it], so it was like putting a toe in the water. There was a change in magazines generally at the time. We were given a free hand; no one was expecting instant success.”

Despite its brave launch, Nova didn’t quite work, and Dennis Hackett (then deputy editor of Queen) was appointed editor in September 1965. If ever there was a person in the right place at the right time, with a complete and intuitive grasp of what Nova should be, it was him. Hackett assembled a team of highly talented people and offered them the editorial freedom to be as daring and different as they liked.

Brilliant writers were given unaccustomed space, their work edited as little as possible, covering subjects that had never before been mentioned or even acknowledged by women’s magazines – abortion, contraception, orgasm, childbirth, homosexuality, racism – all issues were explored seriously and in depth.

Nova’s place in the firmament was assisted by Hackett’s inspired choice of the highly individual Molly Parkin as fashion editor. Trained in “high art”, she had no previous experience in fashion and didn’t know if she should be working for a magazine in the commercial art world. “The tension of that triangle of Dennis, Harri and myself was what made it great,” Molly says today. “The combined input was brilliant.”

The combination of Peccinotti’s bold graphic style, Hackett’s talent as an organisational bully and Parkin’s extraordinary eye for what was new and outstanding, plus her artist’s eye for the unusually beautiful, was a powerful mix.

Jane Reed, now director of corporate affairs at News International, was Fashion Editor of Woman’s Own at the time of Nova’s launch. She remembers vividly being asked to take Parkin under her wing, who had never been to the couture fashion shows. “Molly was wearing a pink rabbit coat, and after a day and a half I knew I wasn’t needed – Molly and Harri were ensconced in the front row along with Vogue.”

Parkin’s favourite Nova stories include her first “couture” pages, where she eschewed established designers to feature Paco Rabanne, and her first pages featuring a black model (then a rarity), posing with legs apart, hair styled by Vidal Sassoon.

In the takeover of George Newnes that followed, the main board, in the shape of Cecil King, supported Nova as a flagship title of the publishing group. The circulation increased to around 160 000, and it stayed at around that figure – the limit at that time for a magazine with Nova’s unusual, oversized format.

Peccinotti left as a full-time art director towards the end of 1966, but others successfully stepped in – Derek Birdsall, John Blackburn, Felicity Innes (who was Peccinotti’s assistant) and Bill Falloner with Susan Wade. David Hillman’s definitive reign as art director lasted from 1969 until its closure in 1975.

Hillman was brought in by the new editor Peter Croockston when Hackett left to join Mirror newspapers. Croockston presided during a time when the magazine adopted a style that Esquire had started, featuring more text and yet more distinguished writers, such as John Mortimer, Susan Hill and Kenneth Allsop.

December 1970 saw the first issue by the new – and last – editor, Gillian Cooke.

Meanwhile, Parkin had quit the fashion editor’s post. In September 1967 Caroline Baker, previously Parkin’s assistant, took over as fashion editor. Hackett said to Baker: “We’re looking for a new fashion editor – we noticed you seem to be a bit obsessed with fashion, do you want to give it a try?” Caroline remained fashion and, ultimately, fashion and beauty editor until the final issue. Currently fashion director of You Magazine, she is a stylist with a deep understanding of fashion’s relationship with politics and psychology, a talent which reached its zenith in the creative climate at Nova.

Nova’s fashion stories throughout were outstanding. Many were memorable, such as Parkin’s black and white lingerie or Jean Loup Sieff’s photographs of the creations of Ungaro and Paco Rabanne. Baker’s stories also left a lasting impression – girls in suits, photographed by Sarah Moon in 1971 or Helmut Newton’s underwear pictures, in all of which he appeared himself. Other features were just as influential, such as a shoot entitled, “Get off your bike and do what you like”, with wool sweaters and minuscule shorts photographed on bicycles by Peccinotti.

Food and cookery writers – the first of whom was the revered Elizabeth David – included Caroline Conran, and later Prue Leith. Conran remembers her work with both pride and pleasure. “The glass onion, containing pickles, constructed and photographed by Tony Evans… It was a thrill to do work that looked so graphic – photography by Tony Evans, illustrations by fantastic graphic artists like Allan Cracknell. It was unbelievable having the freedom to do things like the tiny little book with Arabella Boxer and Robert Carrier,” she says.

So what made Nova great (most of the time)? First, an abundance of talent – editors and art directors possessed incredible skills and creative ability that they recognised and promoted in others. This, combined with a degree of editorial freedom which none of us had known before or would ever know again, made Nova something special in the publishing world.

Peccinotti felt free to challenge all the rules, to invent typefaces, to use white space, to bleed borders, to take risks. As Irma Kurtz says, “There were so many talents working on Nova. It was adventurous and undertook risky projects. Hackett was a stubborn North Country toughie, with organisational skills and an ability to persuade the suits that he and Peccinotti should have their way, and he was open to strange ideas. We were lucky too, to be able to profile people like John Lennon or Rudolf Nureyev and be there before the days of powerful PR and advertising.”

The management by and large let the editorial staff get on with it. Hillman did the flat plan, determined where the ads would go. Good ideas were not blocked, at least not until the later years, when editorial power waned. Says Hillman: “We worked closely with photographers. They didn’t just take the pictures, their input was total, like the collaborations with Peccinotti as photographer. I always said I would not change the time I was born – it was the right time for that job. We were among the first to do fashion pages as blocks of colour. We used subtly erotic pictures, like Helmut Newton’s, but they were always tasteful.” And, visual as Nova was, Hillman always read all the copy.

Illustrators like Adrian George, Roger Law, John Holmes, Edda Kochl, Celestrino Valenti, Alan Aldridge and Peter Blake made intelligent contributions – witness Mike McInerney’s stylistic and thoughtful illustration for “Impotence is a cry for help” by Catherine Storr.

Nova was able to use colour in a “throwaway” fashion. If you wanted to make flick books (how to undress in front of your husband) or assemble Hans Feurer’s full-length picture of a model in three consecutive spreads, you had to buy two copies of the magazine. The May 1974 issue was, memorably, all blue.

Nova’s strength showed too in its political attitudes. It was left wing and irreverent, questioning the establishment, and took a courageous stand on issues of the day like Vietnam or racism. All the issues of women’s life were explored. This was exemplified by Irma Kurtz, who wrote “The new spinster” and “Do women like each other?”; other landmark stories were “If you want to work and breed, what do you do with the children” by Carolyn Faulder or “The man who sugared the Pill”, by Paul Flattery.

Fashion stories could be political as well. Baker featured army combat clothes, indicative of her belief that women no longer needed to dress to emphasise their femininity, but should be comfortable and at ease with themselves.

Real furs were still around then. Hans Feurer photographed a fur-clad model dressed as a tramp, the fine furs tied around with string, with carrier bags and a dog on a lead.

The element of risk meant occasional failure too: some issues were dull, the 4000 to 5000 word features sometimes could have been cut, some subjects were too controversial (like Hans Feurer’s picture of a girl on the lavatory, which nearly caused an editorial head to roll). Never again has any magazine had such a free hand.

Nova’s style was influenced, in particular, by Twen, a German magazine started by Christa Peters, when she was a student with art director Max Bill and then Willy Flekhaus. Tom Wolsey successfully art directed Town and Max Maxwell transformed Queen magazine. Flair was also respected and, in the early 1960s, Elle flourished with Peter Knapp as art director.

And the legacy of Nova? It is still revered by those in the fashion and graphics industries. Martin Raymond, who teaches at London College of Fashion and Oxford Institute of Retail Management, says: “Nova was risque, multicultural, intelligent, radical and irascible. In the same way that Saul Bass’s titles made you aware of film titles, Nova makes you aware of presenting lifestyles and fashions graphically.

“Nova’s graphic style was educational as well as entertaining. The product then was stronger and more eccentric. Now editorial is often a case of filling in the spots between ads.”

Raymond looks to magazines like Sleaze Nation to break the bland mould that magazines have fallen into, following trends rather than making them, as Nova did. Peter York sees Nova as one of the great magazines, along with Queen and the Sunday Times colour supplement. “Nova and Queen had a high proportion of men readers as well. Many huge changes in the past 30 years have been engineered by magazines. They bring things into our lives that television can’t cover and they last. Magazines have opened people’s eyes,” he says.

We have a new Nova to look forward to, sometime this spring. As Irma Kurtz wryly put it: “Perhaps they should call it Renova”. IPC decided to pursue the idea of launching a new upmarket fashion magazine. Deborah Bee, formerly with the Daily Telegraph, Cosmopolitan and Scene, was asked to do the dummy – which looks, she says, “Elegant, clean and modern.”

Unlike the old Nova, much research has gone into this idea and, yes, they have pored over old copies of Nova. It’s up to Bee and Gerard Saint, as art director, to make a new star as provocative and full of spirit as the old one.

Janet Fitch was Home Editor of Nova from May 1971 to August 1974.

Photography taken from Nova, the style bible of the 60s and 70s, by David Hillman & Harry Peccinotti, edited by David Gibbs. It is priced at £29.95 and published by Pavilion.

“DW200001210054”

“DW200001210055”

“DW200001210056”

Latest articles