In early 2010, photographer Steve Shaw had grown fed up with the internal politics of his day job for much of the last dozen years—shooting glamour photos of scantily clad and naked women for magazines such as Maxim, FHM, Playboy, and British Esquire. “Playboy spends all this money on getting celebrities, but you can only show three quarters of one side of a boob,” Shaw explained. “You can only show one inch down from the bum crack. When you’ve got such restrictions on a shoot, it’s much harder to get anything cool or interesting.”
The British, Los Angeles–based photographer continued: “Maxim had become the place where an aspiring actress will wear a cheesy bikini, ‘Get your boobs out and bend over’—and they don’t even want to do that. A lot of magazines feature nudity for shock value. And it’s disposable. I thought, ‘Who am I going to shoot for? Fuck it! I’m going to start my own magazine.’”
Emerging fully realized from Shaw’s imagination on high-quality newsprint a little less than a year later is Treats! magazine, one of the splashiest independently published debuts in recent years. The new title has grabbed the attention of influential tastemakers and industry icons around the world for its tasteful displays of female full-frontal nudity, luxe-y aesthetic, and underpinning of fashion-world credibility. And now subscriptions are flooding in for the L.A.-based magazine from as far away as the Netherlands, Russia, Brazil, and Malaysia, as well as such entrenched style hubs as London and Tokyo.
Last month, the erotically charged quarterly (which costs a steep $20 per issue) was given a MIN Award by the Media Industry Newsletter, recognizing it as one of the Hottest Launches of 2011. Hollywood’s high-flying party-boy director Brett Ratner (who knows his way around supermodels and photography) became so excited by Treats! that he contacted Shaw and volunteered to photograph a pictorial. “You are officially my favorite magazine...can’t wait to shoot for u,” Ratner tweeted at the magazine in October. And Playboy founder/editor emeritus Hugh Hefner was so blown away by Treats! that he summoned Shaw to the Playboy mansion to personally congratulate him and discuss having the photographer help reboot Playboy with a similar burst of artily erogenous energy. “For once, somebody is doing a beautiful, classy magazine,” Shaw recalled Hefner saying (the Playboy doyen declined to be interviewed).
Samir “Mr. Magazine” Husni, head of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism and New Media, selected Treats! from among the nearly 800 new magazines launched last year for inclusion in MIN’s Hottest Launches—the first time in his 25 years of vetting and honoring magazines with such awards that Husni has selected a title featuring erotic content. “A lot of men’s magazines are trashy and vulgar,” he said. “This one has food for the eye and the brain. Given the quality of the print and high cover price, it feels like a collector’s item, not a disposable thing. You can display it on a coffee table. It has an artistic, European feel.”
The mag’s monicker comes from Shaw’s nickname for the choice outtakes from his photo shoots—“treats”—the sexy stuff that magazines such as Vogue, Elle, and InStyle considered too racy to include in their pages, but that exerted strong appeal to the photographer’s non-fashionista “mates” back in England. “You have this model-photographer trust, and you want to create something beautiful. But those things don’t get published,” Shaw, 45, explained over lunch at West Hollywood’s Soho House. “My thought was, let’s do a magazine that shows women tastefully. Let’s take these beautiful models, take all the things that they are selling off, and do something creative.”
You could always, as the cliché goes, read the magazine for the articles. Treats! features some smart, left-of-mainstream journalism, including an article about the Garden of Allah Hotel (a debauched Hollywood hotel/orgy and drug den that functioned as a kind of proto-Chateau Marmont from the 1920s to the ‘50s), “drip collagist” Sky Farrell, and a microscope inventor who may have cured cancer. The magazine’s editor, Rob Hill, likes to use one early reader’s description of Treats!: “It’s Helmut Newton meets Hunter S. Thompson on Agent Provocateur stationery.”
But pictorials featuring nude women (and a couple of unclothed guys thrown in for good measure) make up the lion’s share of the two issues of Treats! that have been released (a third issue hits the stands in February). It’s a freewheeling mix of different aesthetics and photographers that adds up to pack a visual punch. Some of the pictorials display shades of Helmut Newton’s hard-edged, black-and-white sexual smolder, some pack the cartoonish wit of David LaChappelle, while others sparkle with a kind of Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue’s girl-next-door exuberance. Tellingly, the cover model for issue No. 2 is shown outdoors, not airbrushed or photographically retouched. You can see a minute halo of body hair on her legs and breasts—something almost unheard of in the world of fashion photography, or even porn.
According to Shaw (who also photographs for Treats!), a naked supermodel wearing a pair of $4,000 stiletto heels can make a powerful statement. “I like to think of us as a fashion magazine in a way,” he said. “But it’s not like Vogue, where she’s got this whole outfit on and it’s selling a product. She could just be wearing a pair of knickers and $50,000 worth of jewelry. It’s about luxury.”
Treats! has been flying off the shelves at the few outlets that have been stocking it, including Marc Jacobs’s Bookmarc stores in New York and Los Angeles and the Kiki de Montparnasse lingerie boutiques in L.A., Las Vegas, and New York. At West Hollywood’s influential Book Soup, newsstand buyer Melissa Reekers called it “one of the bestselling magazines the store has ever had.”
“Everyone I show it to thinks the photography is phenomenal,” she said. “It has an underground following. People hear about it through word of mouth.”
The magazine’s initial print run could hardly be classified as blockbuster, though, with a release of just 5,000 issues that Shaw self-financed (despite several offers of venture capital) out of a desire to keep the operation independent. The second Treats! print run was double the first—with a thoroughly respectable sell-through for an independently published title—although Shaw says the magazine is still, for now, operating in the red.
He points to an online video produced during a Treats! photo shoot to explain the direction in which the business is going. Fashion photographer Ben Watts was filmed shooting a quartet of leggy naked supermodels on fixed-gear bikes that managed to generate more than 1.6 million YouTube views in a week. It demonstrated to the neophyte publisher the importance a strong broadband presence can have for a burgeoning brand. “That’s going to be a big part of our business—a TV channel,” he said.
In February, the Treats! website will add an online art gallery where prints of the magazine’s photographs can be purchased for between $395 and $3,995 (depending on size and framing). For the time being, the plan is simply to continue putting out a magazine of enduring worth. “It’s going back to what Playboy did in the ‘60s when people used to collect Playboy,” Shaw said. “It’s an expensive magazine to produce and buy. But this is something you’ll never throw away.”