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. Loft publisher 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!"
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Arturo Villar, a veteran South Florida publisher who now heads Hispanic Market Weekly, has been impressed by Loft's efforts to distinguish itself. "I think they're more ambitious than some of the other ones, especially more than Ocean Drive en español," Villar says. "They're trying to give something more than the dolce vita in South Beach." Villar adds that ZMG has made alliances with the likes of AOL and The Economist, which make it a formidable competitor.
While Ocean Drive in English, Loft's natural rival in Miami, is still way ahead -- claiming annual revenues of more than ten million dollars -- Lee's magazine has been holding its own against the Spanish-language edition of Ocean Drive. Verifiable numbers are not available yet for the English-language Loft. But according to the online Hispanic Magazine Monitor, an independent advertising tracker of Spanish-language publications in the U.S., between January and August of this year Ocean Drive en español sold $941,000 in advertising while Loft (in Spanish) sold $628,100 -- up from $505,200 during the same period last year. "We've been very lucky, very fortunate that the Hispanic market is so hot right now," says Lee. "Businesses in the U.S. are realizing that it's in their best interest to pay attention to the Hispanic market. It's clear to them that they aren't just their maids and gardeners anymore. They can be their bosses, their surgeons."
Meanwhile Loft tries to live on the cheap, using freelance writers and photographers, and forgoing the kind of lavish parties that have become an Ocean Drive trademark. (Punto.com's notoriously extravagant Miami launch party featured renowned author Tom Wolfe as a guest speaker, but the rowdy crowd simply ignored him.) It's also saving money by printing the magazine in Colombia, where production costs are lower.
But the cheap has also gotten the magazine in trouble. Already it's been sued twice over payment and contract disputes (both settled out of court), and several Miami freelancers say they've been waiting months for their fees. What's more, Lee is still trying to prove that Loft has long-term viability. "It's not only important to meet the numbers," he says. "You must also have a curve that's going to the right place. I don't believe this is a house of cards, but I also wouldn't tell my grandmother to invest."