By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Loft, the Latin-flavored glossy magazine that features a bubblicious babe on its cover each month and is distributed at restaurants, nightclubs, and bars in Miami, is two years old this month. And it feels two. It's soft to the touch and easy to look at: the cover model squirming around a studio, a car, or a vacant lot; a sleek display of the latest gadgets; profiles of Hispanic artists, sports stories, adventure tales, and interviews with actors and writers.
But like most two-year-olds, the magazine is beginning to realize that life isn't going to be just sweet applesauce and soft green peas. A few months ago it sought the advice of a prominent pollster in an effort to gain traction in the quirky, multicultural Miami market. The result: It switched in June from Spanish to English for its local edition. Five issues later Loft is still trying to work out the lenguaje. So far the English version is more clumsy than cool. Run-on sentences and odd punctuation are not uncommon. There are also embarrassing mistakes: "Ferrara Oikos has been Latin America's leading kitchen distributors [sic] for over 10 years," begins one story in the September issue. "We were told the comfort of their design was causing th [sic] Southern American continent [sic] rethink the concept of culinary space... LOFT decided to check out what the fuzz [???] was all about."
Perhaps language problems should be expected from a toddler still struggling with its identity. Indeed Loft's staff may as well be children. The founder and editor-in-chief is the 32-year-old wunderkind journalist Isaac Lee. The editor is a rustic Latino named Juan Rendón, who just turned 27. And Adrian Saravia, the head of design, is a fashionable 24. All three are Colombian, as is a good portion of the staff. "We decided we wanted to do what would really make us happy, because if not, we wouldn't be here," says Lee, who likes to frame his wisdom in punchy, emphatic bursts. "This is not Hearst. This is a group of people trying to do what they want with their lives."
It was Lee's charisma that brought it all together, although he's not what you might expect. He has a paunch and is frequently unshaven. He likes to wear polos, chinos, and shout to his minions as they scamper around the magazine's expansive offices on 23rd Street in Miami Beach, across from that city's burgeoning "cultural campus" -- a new regional library, the Miami City Ballet, and the Bass Museum. In Colombia Lee was a prodigy. At age 24 he was named editor-in-chief of the weekly news and gossip magazine Cromos, and shortly thereafter became editor of the country's most respected news magazine, Semana, the flagship publication of the financially and politically connected Semana Group (owned by the Lopez family, which has produced two Colombian presidents and a legion of influential media moguls).
At the tender age of 29 Lee pulled in old colleagues and new investors to form Zoom Media Group (ZMG) in Miami. ZMG has four major backers, including Citibank and Andrés Mata, owner of El Universal newspaper in Venezuela. (Lee is mum on how much money he gathered; insiders say it was close to ten million dollars.) The company's first venture was Punto.com, an Internet business mag that went the way of the "new economic theory" about no recessions and endless growth. Punto.com morphed into the tangible monthly business magazine Poder.
Not satisfied with salvaging something where most saw nothing but a black hole, ZMG introduced Loft in October 2001 -- just when dozens of publishing ventures were tanking. Loftpublisher Jorge Enrique Vélez says ZMG printed 60,000 inaugural copies in Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. Today, he says, the press run is 100,000, of which 30,000 are circulated in Miami. (Neither figure could be independently verified, however, since the operation is not yet audited by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the industry standard.)
Lee got the idea for Loft when he visited London in the late Nineties and beheld the glut of men's lifestyle magazines -- Stuff, Maxim, British GQ, and more -- on sale at British newsstands. "It was a no-brainer," he says. "It's the only model that's working." He returned to Colombia and, under the Semana Group banner, started SoHo, a Maxim knockoff distributed throughout Latin America. Then he came to Miami to launch Loft. "The first thing we decided was that it wasn't going to be like Maxim," Lee explains. "When I thought of Loft, I thought of the old Esquire, the one that knew who it was, what it was doing."
He may have wanted to avoid the classic lad mag, but from the beginning Loft's visual personality was marked by its cover, which features female models who seem to shed one more piece of clothing each issue. The titillation continues inside with photo spreads in which virtually nothing is off limits: a brunette reaching into the bra of her blonde partner (and the blonde returning the favor); two girls and a boy "stranded" on a deserted beach and making the best of the situation; a woman wearing sexy lingerie spread-eagled with a take-out box of Chinese food sitting neatly in front of her crotch. Yet Lee insists his product is about more than just making grown men say, Thank You, God. And despite several pages of party photos in its Miami edition and fashion layouts, Lee claims he's not just another Ocean Drive wannabe. "We have a different kind of reader, a different level," he asserts. "We're a men's lifestyle magazine -- but we're not stupid people!"