Interview with an Editor: Serena Guen of SUITCASE Magazine

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I’ve always thought that with the decreasing readership of print it wasn’t that it needed to keep up with the times but rather retarget itself. It seemed to me that print could be kept alive not by dumbing down but by smartening up and aiming itself at a new audience. You only need to take a look at some of the most recent additions to the magazine world to see I might not be far off. Editors and Designers are putting far more emphasis on creating something that will be read rather than skimmed. Filling a niche for a quality travel magazine aimed at women is SUITCASE, run by 23 year old Editor-in-Chief Serena Guen. With its feet in culture and fashion, SUITCASE has received much accolade and without sounding superfluous looks on track to perhaps become the feminine Monocle.

I spoke to the adventurous and ambitious Serena on the origins of SUITCASE and her outlook on learning and work.

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Firstly, can you explain your role within SUITCASE and how you came to start the magazine?

Due to a very international family and therefore a very international group of friends, I was lucky enough to spend a lot of the holidays in my childhood away. I loved travelling and was a total bookworm. I made lists of the best places of everywhere that I visited that I shared with friends and attempted a blog when I was about twenty called ‘Culture and Cocktails’, which was about the best places to have drinks around the world and then about museums and local culture (although I think I only did about once post on about mojitos in Barcelona…) I’d wanted to start a travel magazine but that was something that I thought I would do much later, as I suppose is more normal.

A few years ago a girl called Charlotte Summers asked me to write a few travel pieces with a fashion focus for her final year project at London College of Fashion (at the time I was in my third year at NYU in Paris). Then I thought, you know what, why wait? I can do this now and so we basically dove into the world of magazines, learning absolutely everything from scratch juggling school, a career and a broken foot, which was really annoying. We launched last year in May to a unanimous wave of support from the press and industry leaders and within six months I’d been nominated as one of the 25 most influential Londoners Under 25 by the Evening Standard, the newspaper with the largest circulation in the UK. Also on the list that year were Nick D’Alolsio, who just sold his app for £30 million, Charlie XCX, Cara Delevingne and some pretty amazing other youngsters.

Anyway the summer after we launched, I went back to New York to finish my final year at university. I had a lot to think about and decided that the future of SUITCASE was, as I’d always imagined, more in the world of travel than fashion (although the fashion was obviously more important). Charlotte, who was very creative and preferred the fashion-side of things, left the magazine in December (six months post launch).

I’m not going to lie my final year at NYU was very hard. I had a very strange double-life thing going on, running from Fashion Week to class or sitting a final then attending a conference on National Women’s Day for influential women in fashion at the UN. That’s not to mention the 5am wake-up everyday to tell the office what to do in London.

But, I graduated and now I’m back in London with the most amazing team of people and daily excitements. My official title is Founding Editor-in-Chief.

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And what was your experience with formal education was this something you studied in some respect or was it an idea that you learnt as you went along?

Of course, everyone benefits from an education to some extent but I do not believe that university at age 18 is right for everyone. I’ve had friend after creative friend drop out of London College of Fashion or Central Saint Martin’s, and seen too many of my friends go to university just for the sake of it.  I’ve also witnessed my grandmother go back to school to do a neuroscience pHD at the age of 75 and her second pHD at Harvard now four years later. So, basically it’s important to learn at some point and it is certainly never too late! Anyone can be knowledgeable, but hardly anyone can be wise.

On a personal level, formal education and I had a love, hate thing going on. I was a goodie-two-shoes, straight ‘A’ kind of student and did a lot more AS Levels than was the normal, but the English school system definitely stressed me out. While I loved learning, I never really liked being told what to do and definitely did not enjoy being moulded for an Oxbridge or Ivy League education.

Going to NYU was probably one of the best things I could have ever done, as it was the most informal formal education that I could receive. I was the first class in a new school at NYU called “Global Liberal Studies”. The degree basically taught you the foundations of global culture from literature to philosophy and how to think simultaneously on a local level as well as a global scale. It requires you to spend one or two years on one of their sites abroad (although arguably New York was abroad for me already), so I did two years in Paris and had the most incredible experiences. For example my history of art teacher, who was highly involved in the art world in France, became my mentor and organized some amazing things like a private night-time tour of the Louvre, to an internship at a French street art company called Le MUR.

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Do you think SUITCASE would be the magazine it is now if it weren’t for that degree – it seems like it’s is the perfect vehicle to continue exploring that subject, in a way.

To be honest probably not. NYU was a huge catalyst in the way I think now. It was amazing to go from an extremely formal English system to having one of the most liberal educations in the United States. While a degree at NYU certainly did build up my knowledge in every area (and I wish I had read a few more of the books, imagine how much I would know now!), it taught me to ask two questions: “Why?” and “How does this apply on a global scale?”

I suppose when I was starting the magazine, was the first time I really tested that way of thinking; I had to consider whether I could do it at the same time as studying and I thought: “You know what, why not?”

When doing things with the magazine now, I always think: “Why is this done this way? What am I trying to achieve? Is this the most intelligent way of reaching my goal?”

Can you take us through the process of an issue from idea to print?

Hhmm- I’m not sure I can tell you that! Next thing I know there’ll be another SUITCASE popping up on the shelf.

Hah fair enough! I guess a lot of people, myself included, will be wondering how you managed to start a magazine from scratch, where do you begin and how do you get those involved in the industry to take you seriously being young as you are?

Wow, a lot of questions there. As I’ve said before, you know that thing you’ve also wanted to do but have never done it. You’ve thought about it, you’ve talked about it and then you’ve put it aside. Well, I had the same thing with a travel magazine, SUITCASE. To be honest, in some ways, I have no idea how it started but I realise that is not very helpful for someone trying to do their own thing!

So, if I had any advice it would be to start online – play with your ideas on a WordPress before doing anything ‘serious’ with them – there are so many great tools for gauging how your market is responding to it and whether there is any future in it (the stats are also a great thing to show to potential investors or advertisers to demonstrate demand!) If it is not working then adapt it so that it does work. The worst thing you can do is throw a product out there without testing it – I think of any new business like a building, an architect spends a while planning, then mapping out different scenarios, (s)he has different people come in and check that the building is sound, then they test the design out with little models before eventually going to build the entire structure in real life (that was highly simplistic- sincere apologies to any architects who are reading this!) However, most importantly (which architects can never do) listen to your instinct, at the end of the day only you truly know what you are trying to achieve.

How do I get those involved in the industry to take me seriously? Well, the truth is no one in ‘the industry’ really takes each other seriously because a lot of them don’t know much about each other. The number of times I’ve seen editors not recognise designers and vice versa, just made me realise, who cares? I decided that I will be taken seriously because I have a good product- no one has done this before and I believe in what I am doing. I think that enthusiasm is contagious – if I don’t believe in my project, then who will?

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I think you touched on an important trick there, I feel like people often have these mental obstacles that stop them from doing things for no reason. With that in mind is there anything you haven’t done yet with SUITCASE that you’d like to?

EVERYTHING. I feel like if you want a magazine to be successful, it can never be just a magazine — it is a vehicle for something and for me SUITCASE is a gateway to travel that young people haven’t necessarily had access to before. With that in mind, we are constantly coming up with ways of how to make travel and local cultures exciting, understandable and, of course, accessible. A print magazine was a fantastic starting point but we have so much potential to expand in different ways that it is simultaneously extremely exciting and slightly daunting.

Finally, I always finish with this question – what has been the most surprising thing you’ve learnt running a magazine (or a business for that matter)?

That boundaries in life are self-inflicted – if you push them a little, it’s crazy how much they can give. It’s like walking up to a gate that’s locked, stopping, questioning whether it’s ok to go through because it must be locked for a reason, right? Not always, who knows why it’s locked, someone may have lost the key. Then once you hop over it, you realise how easy it is to skip over many of them. After not being able to spend more than about four hours in a row studying, I can now work three days straight if I need to, although I do not choose to do that very often! Think about how much I could’ve learned at school if I’d been able to do that!

Issue 6 of SUITCASE is out on the 6th March.