The Last Mag Standing

August 11, 2015

While the content is inspired by the world’s churning creative class, Ali Ghanbarian of SF’s SOMA remains the supreme arbiter of the magazine’s aesthetic. Polarr sat down with him to learn more.

SOMA, an independent art magazine with global reach and few real peers, is the project of engineer-turned-restaurateur-turned-Editor-in-Chief Ali Ghanbarian. For nearly thirty years, SOMA has served as a vehicle for new talent and an extension of Ali’s style, embodied in a serial art mag unconcerned with reinvention. While the content is inspired by the world’s churning creative class, Ali remains the supreme arbiter of the magazine’s aesthetic, maintaining remarkable consistency over the years since its inception.

What’s exceptional about the publication, to hear him tell it, is that Ali got there first. This look, all bright whites and hooded eyes, is the thread running through three decades of SOMA. Despite upheavals in the city, in fashion, in media, and in the economy more broadly, Ali Ghanbarian’s rule over his empire of taste is unchanged

Every issue of SOMA is themed, pieced together from over one thousand pitches sent by subscribers, whom Ali affectionately describes as “the trendy, sophisticated, young people.” Fittingly, this issue’s Street Style portion centers on San Francisco: Thin, multiracial pedestrians fill the pages in black, white, and faded blue summer hues. Asked about their favorite films and musicians, the answers range from pat to weird. It’s an odd sidewalk whereHarold & Maude, The Hobbit 2, and Leon: the Professional converge.

Roughly twenty percent of every issue is devoted to fashion, SOMA’s deepest well for original content. Ali idolizes his readers, mostly urban women in their 20s and 30s, whose great taste is reflected in their subscription to his. Several longer features connect each issue: The recurring I-Pose feature shows the winners of a competition in which young luminaries pose as cultural giants of their choice.

Their choices, as one can imagine, range considerably. Musician Kaythan Golkar as Bill Murray’s Steve Zissou; artist Naomi Edmonson as Frida Kahlo. As always, Ali tells us, “The issue contains stunning visuals, minimal, never cheesy, sensual but never sexual.” These high-quality images of people posing as their favorite icons, legends, and mentors serve as a platform for people with a little talent and charisma to post better images world wide, and to compete, with the winners getting scholarships, internships, products, and more. All in all, Ali’s dictation of the magazine is more emotive than objective; he works to preserve a mood most obvious to himself.

When he first arrived in the San Francisco neighborhood south of Market Street in the 80s, Ali felt like an intruder: He opened several high-end clubs and restaurants in stretches dense with artist studios and live-work spaces. SoMa is populated with mixed-use warehouses that comprised the sexual center of the city for a certain leather-loving crowd in decades prior. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake devastated the area and drove out most locals, whose return was prevented by newly minted dot com workers moving into pricey developments. The city instated 21 affordable housing projects that slowly opened the area back up to displaced low-income residents, though they were suddenly a minority in the transfigured SoMa they inherited.

The sanctity of talent is vital to SOMA’s project.

Observing changes in the ecosystem of the place — particularly when his “yuppie disco friends” imported themselves — Ali resolved to make it a little easier for creative types to keep their perches. He launched SOMA, and joined the tradition of arts patronage in its purest form. It is clear that the will to enable others to create beautiful things still animates Ali now. He could not speak in great technical detail about what makes a compelling photograph, but exclaimed at the talent of a photographer who, for an upcoming feature, took sparse direction and interpreted it wildly beyond Ali’s concept. “His photos were in motion. A great photographer can take something ordinary and turn it into something with a soul.”

The sanctity of talent is vital to SOMA’s project: Ali insists that, despite the new ubiquity of devices that harbor images, real photographers are no less rare than when film was king. He’s unconvinced that study or practice have anything to do with it. He shrugs simply, “Not everyone has talent.” Despite the finality of the sentiment, Ali spends a great deal of time mentoring young people and providing space for them to grow creatively. He’s aware of how this approach costs him: “I find the best creative new people, they put SOMA on their resume and now within three or four weeks, they are gone. On to big publications, as creative directors, writers, or doing public relations for big fashion houses.” One of his greatest discoveries: Photographer Karen Collins. “I discovered Karen in a Kinkos, and now everything she works on becomes a collector’s piece,” he chuckles contentedly. “She’s my favorite artist.” When we asked about his regrets, he offered up the memory of a time when heroin chic was beginning to emerge as an aesthetic. Uninterested in anything so grungy, he says he turned away several early practitioners of the style who would become influential figures in the arts landscape.

SOMA’s website broadly covers fashion, design, music, and art, although it also has dedicated channels for nightlife, street style and horoscopes. You won’t find that last one in many other places — its exact origin story is unknown, but an eclectic bunch including David Bowie (Ali’s favorite musician), Wayne Coyne, Derek Lam, Gerd Ludwig, and SOMA alumnus Alexander Wang have taken high-def images of their hands and submitted them to the expert scrutiny of Lena, the magazine’s resident palm reader. “We even got Richard Branson to send us a scan,” Ali recalls.

The readings are performed anonymously, the identities of the scans’ donors revealed to Lena only after the fact. The blurb accompanying Jeff Koons’ horoscope, written before his release of the 17th BMW art car, described him as “one of the greatest contemporary artists of our generation, [whose every piece] whether perceived as kitsch or avant-garde [leaves] a lasting impression upon viewers.” In Jeff Koons’ palm Lena saw a sexually adventurous risk taker, one who is attracted to the eccentric in all forms, one who sets ambitious goals, and one who will retire early. Koons, now 60, may not fulfill her last prediction, but the others sound plausible to the casual Koons voyeur.

While the print magazine has always been Ali’s primary passion, his ambitions for SOMA include its maturation into a lifestyle brand. He has plans for SOMA wearables, including a headset for women who might prefer a listening device more akin to jewelry than the clunky variety on the market today. Despite these aspirations, Ali insists, “This magazine is not a business. It’s mine…my baby. It’s only a labor of love.” Given his appreciation of high art, we were surprised by his admission regarding the most common art of the age: “Selfies are okay,” he allows, “as long as they are executed with some personality, some attitude.” You can join the ranks of SOMA’s creative community here.

All images courtesy of SOMA Magazine & Ali Ghanbarian

This piece was written by Emily von Hoffmann and produced by Polarr — Pro Photo Editor Made for Everyone.

Ali Ghanbarian featured on KTVU Channel 2 News

October 6, 2009

SOMA Publisher Ali Ghanbarian was recently featured by KTVU Channel 2 News in regards to current state of magazine publishing. Why is it that SOMA blossoms while so many other magazines are in decline? Click the link and find out.

Tanya Irwin of Magazine Rack

May 21, 2009

You may have never heard of it (and neither had I), but SOMA has time on its side. The West Coast-based magazine first published 22 years ago claims to be the longest-running independent arts and culture magazine in the country.
The magazine is named for the South of Market area of San Francisco. In the early ’80s, the region was revitalized in part by publisher Ali Ghanbarian, who says he started several restaurants and clubs after falling in love with the arts community there. He launched the magazine to support that community, which housed hundreds of photography, indie music and film studios.

Today, the magazine is distributed nationwide as well as in Canada, Britain and Japan and has little to do with South of Market or San Francisco, but rather strives to be a cultural voice for 18- to 38-year-old creative industry types.

Besides a subscription base and distribution in most major cities, SOMA has a controlled circulation with placements of thousands of copies in boutique hotel rooms, cool spas, hair salons and boutiques in major cities. Thousands of copies are also placed in gift bags on a monthly basis and passed out to target guests at the numerous special events the magazine hosts.

One of the mag’s objectives is identifying talented people. Hundreds of iconic talents (fashion photographers, writers, stylists, architects and designers, like fashion designer Alexander Wang and model Alek Wek) have had their careers launched by the mag, according to SOMA Executive Editor Felicia McCrossin.

While SOMA targets the creative community, its readership extends beyond that community. As Ghanbarian says, “Artists are like pest control — they clean up, yuppies follow.”

Each issue has a theme; the current “The Street Issue” focuses on fashion and street culture. Besides fashion spreads (some of which I, with my conservative tastes, find downright bizarre), the magazine features profiles of people in film and music. I really enjoyed the piece on Wyatt Cenac, a correspondent on “The Daily Show.” The content page promises that in the piece Cenac “divines the humor in race, identity and ultra-weathy jackasses.” He does, and it’s a good read.

SOMA claims to have pioneered the “person on the street” picture page with Street Pulse. The subject’s name, age and occupation are listed along with answers to a few short questions like “Which city’s street fashion inspires you?” It’s fun to scope out the people and read their quick takes on things.

Another section, which I doubt you will see in any other magazine, is Hand Signals. It’s a palm reading of a creative type, who is also profiled. Past subjects have included David Bowie, Marc Jacobs, Vera Wang, Richard Branson and Rich Silverstein (“Got Milk?” creative director). The current issue features Band of Outsiders fashion designer Scott Sternberg.

The Urbanite section is very cool, with reviews of nightclubs and restaurants around the world and a recipe for a trendy cocktail. I’m going to test bartenders everywhere I go and see if any of them knows how to set me up with an “Andiamo.”

If I read this mag regularly, I think I could raise my hipster quotient considerably. I hadn’t heard of any of the bands featured in the music section, and I pride myself on being ahead of the curve in new music (at least for a 40-year-old.)

Mr. Magazine Interview by Samir Husni of Mr.

June 4, 2009

Searching for a little insight on the current magazine industry? Look no further. Get the view of our ever-changing magazine world through the minds of the editors and publishers themselves.

Ali Ghanbarian
Publisher and Editor in Chief, SOMA Magazine

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™. Enjoy.

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?
First issue_1

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.

How would you explain SOMA to a prospective reader and to a prospective advertiser?
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.

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?
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.

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?
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.

In a sentence or two, how do you define Ali Ghanbarian? Who are you? What makes you tick?
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.

If you are to forecast the future, where will SOMA be five years from now?
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.

What is your favorite magazine (SOMA not included) and what is the magazine that you can’t stand to see or read? Why?
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.