Seven Questions with Ali Ghanbarian: From SoMa to SOMA and the man behind the “sought-after” arts, culture and fashion magazineJune 4, 2009
There is no question on who came first, Ali Ghanbarian or SOMA magazine. It was Ali who saw the need in the San Francisco marketplace 20 years ago. He quickly moved to create a magazine that filled that need and beyond. His cup overflowed and the magazine spread its wings from the west coast to the east coast, and for that matter to the international marketplace too. The legacy that SOMA is leaving, and will continue to leave, on the arts, culture and fashion category will ensure a place for Ali among those visionnaires who followed their gut-feeling analysis rather than their statistical spread-sheets analysis. Who can blame him and he is the one that opted in all of his business ventures to be in the two riskiest types of business: launching a magazine and opening a restaurant. Well, Ali did both and in both he continues to beat the odds.
I had the opportunity to ask Ali seven questions regarding SOMA’s past, present and future. However you will not find any questions about his other successful ventures, i.e., the restaurants. This is, after all, the Mr. Magazine Interview™.
Samir Husni: As you look back at the first issue of SOMA, what are the differences and similarities of the first issue and the most current issue?
Ali Ghanbarian: The first issue was totally in your face, edgy-magazine, with a sole purpose of supporting the creative community and the artsy-warehouse district of San Francisco, which was similar to SoHo in the ’60s. Now, 20 years later, the magazine does not have much to do with SoMa or San Francisco for that matter. It has evolved to a respected, high-visual, sought-after arts, culture, and fashion magazine with extensive followers in every metropolitan area and beyond, all over the world. Its unique content, innovative design, creative subjects is sought-after, respected, and looked for by 18-38 year olds throughout the world, with special emphasis and appeal to the creative community.
SH: How would you explain SOMA to a prospective reader and to a prospective advertiser?
AG: SOMA is the longest running, independent, avant-guard, arts and culture magazine, with an organic bond and appeal to the most sought-after demographics in the world, 18-38 year old, who are creative, innovative, trend-setting, social warriors, at the forefront of every trend in music, film, fashion, electronics, etc. all over the world.
SH: SOMA has been a breeding ground to editors, designers and other staffers in other major magazines…do you feel that SOMA is stuck in its role as a candle that burns to light other publications?
AG: As for SOMA being a breeding ground for editors, designers, and staffers for other magazines, I can easily add that it has also launched the careers of PR directors for some of the biggest fashion houses, fashion editors, art directors of numerous high-end magazines, good number of creative directors and photographers as well. This is one of the three main pillars of the existence of SOMA Magazine, and not contradictory to our purpose, as we try to accomplish three things with the magazine.
(A) Identify the most talented creative young people all over the world and offer them a platform to launch their careers. Hundreds of iconic talents (fashion photographers, writers, stylists, architects, designers, i.e. Alexander Wang, Alek Wek, etc.) have had their careers launched by SOMA.
(B) Covering the best of emerging arts, cultural trends, fashion, music, design, and providing our readers with refreshingly new ideas and perspectives.
(C) Last but not least, SOMA’s most important mission, which also keeps myself energized, is providing kids out of school a great training ground to learn every aspect of the magazine and help them to find their niche with different aspects of the creative world, and in a short time they move to bigger environments and continue their endeavors to reach the pinnacle of their careers.
SH: With the media pundits focusing more on digital and anything electronic, what are the plans at SOMA and what role do you think the PRINT edition of the magazine can play?
AG: Because SOMA is primarily a visual magazine, it is more like an art book that people collect, keep on their coffee table, and go through it for enjoyment, relaxation, and appreciation of great arts and cultural ideas with simple, gracious, and elegant presentation. Unlike newspapers and trade publications or mainstream magazine, the digital revolution will not necessarily impact SOMA’s appeal. However, we are not naïve and most our readers being technology-savvy themselves, we have a very innovative website that provides our readers with access to our magazine online. Millions of SOMA fans all over the world would not possibly have access to a hard copy, but they can go online and check out the issue and enjoy it. Furthermore, because we run numerous competitions among young graphic designers, fashion designers, architects, etc. we continuously improve our website to be able to accommodate these campaigns and utilize the latest technology to make it as extensive and efficient as possible. In fact, we are in the middle of drastically expanding our online presence.
SH: In a sentence or two, how do you define Ali Ghanbarian? Who are you? What makes you tick?
AG: For this, I leave the judgment to you. However, I will describe myself as hyperactive, visionary, luckily with an abundance of energy and determination to push boundaries of my imagination 18 hours a day, and at the end of the day looking back, being content with all that I have accomplished on a daily basis. My background has involved a range of different fields. I started as an engineer, to a marketer, to being credited with some of the most innovative concepts in restaurants, clubs, and lounges throughout the west coast, producing some of the most innovative cultural and consumer events, to launching more than half of the premiere spirits throughout the west coast, etc. But to summarize in one sentence what I am most proud of, it would simply be the mentor-ship.
SH: If you are to forecast the future, where will SOMA be five years from now?
AG: After all these years, I think of SOMA as not just a magazine but a brand. We are in the process of launching numerous SOMA-related ideas, i.e., apparel, products, beverages. We are also launching a series of specially-designed venues in major cities called SOMA Racks, to be an absolute destination point for the creative communities across the world. As you know, most arts and culture magazine like SOMA would not be able to get proper exposure in chain stores, i.e., Walgreen’s, Safeway, Wal-Mart, etc., so I have decided to create SOMA Racks to provide an exclusive and innovative place for hundreds of these titles from all over the world, with some additional concepts which would make it a compelling case for all the creative people throughout each city to frequent. This concept will be started in San Francisco very soon, then LA, New York, and so on.
SH: What is your favorite magazine (SOMA not included) and what is the magazine that you can’t stand to see or read? Why?
AG: This is a tough one as I have many favorite magazines. Numero, i-D, The New Yorker, Dazed, Purple, etc. As for the one magazine that I cannot stand. I absolutely hate all the trashy club throwaways and celebrity magazines.