For Amy Zhang ’19 and Emmel El-Fiky ’19, traveling to London for the award ceremony of an international magazine distributor seemed like a pipe dream — until it happened.
It wasn’t until they were in the airport Nov. 16, 2018, about to fly to England, that it really sank in.
“We were in a daze,” Zhang said. “Like, ‘Is this really happening?’”
The trip was the result of ROCKET magazine, the College of William and Mary’s student art and fashion publication, being shortlisted for Stack’s “Student Magazine of the Year” award, along with 14 other student publications from across Europe and the United States.
Stack, according to its website, is an independent magazine distributor based at Somerset House in London, and it delivers around the world. The company has two options available for distribution: customers can either choose from the collection of magazines in the Stack shop or sign up for a subscription service to receive one pre-selected magazine per month delivered to their door.
“[It’s] kind of like BirchBox, but with magazines — but like, indie magazines,” Zhang said. “So like a ‘keeping print alive’ type of thing.”
The company also holds the annual Stack Awards, for which magazine staffs submit their own issues for consideration. This year’s awards were the fourth in the company’s history, and the event took place Nov. 19.
“Because they work with so many independent magazines, they opened it up to judging,” El-Fiky said. “And they were like, ‘We work with so many great publications, it would be great to honor some of them.’”
ROCKET, under the direction of Zhang, the editor-in-chief, and El-Fiky, the managing editor, submitted the spring/summer 2018 issue for consideration in three of the 10 categories in Stack award ceremony. The magazine was shortlisted for one.
For Zhang and El-Fiky, ROCKET’s shortlist status was an honor in and of itself.
“Some of the magazines that were up in the running for some of the other categories were huge,” Zhang said. “Big name recognition, like Kinfolk, AIGA Eye on Design — it’s a really big design organization; Harvard GSD — the Graduate School of Design; just like huge, different things.”
The honor was compounded by the fact that ROCKET was selected as one of 15 shortlist nominees for its category from a list of over 400 entrants.
“It was really interesting to see the scale of it too, in that these magazines were from all over the world,” El-Fiky said. “And there were a couple U.S. magazines, but a lot more from Europe, given that Stack is based out of Europe. To be included among so many really cool and really accomplished publications was really, really amazing.”
Being present at the awards also represented the culmination of all of the work that went into ROCKET’s spring/summer 2018 issue. The publication only prints once a semester, with the staff spending the entire semester leading up to publication working on the magazine.
An issue starts with a general, catch-all theme that gives the magazine structure and loose limits. For the spring/summer 2018 edition, the theme was “perspective.” However, this concept is kept purposefully vague to allow the different teams on staff to develop ideas for photoshoots, articles, styles and interviews as needed to build the magazine.
“The art and the photoshoots kind of take on a life of their own beyond just the theme,” El-Fiky said. “But for the features, we try to stick to it, just to keep it cohesive. ‘Stick to it’ [is used] loosely. That’s why we chose ‘perspective’ as our loose, catch-all theme, because it was so vague that you could spin everything to apply to it.”
The initial ideas for articles and photoshoots build on each other as they go and create new ideas that get added throughout the semester until the magazine is published.
The magazine is not based on top-down choices; in addition to the general theme, there are all-staff meetings and an all-staff Google Doc that allow members to contribute new ideas. ROCKET staff also draw on the media they consume to create their own publication. This collaborative atmosphere is how most decisions are made, including the one that decides the loose theme that starts everything.
“We have one idea, it develops either visually or in written form and then we work around that to create the whole piece,” El-Fiky said.
ROCKET’s goal with each issue is to make fashion and the arts accessible. The magazine tries to stretch its student and campus resources to become as avant-guarde as possible — without becoming insular to the arts community.
“We only use — for the most part — student models and clothes,” Zhang said. “So all the clothes that we do get are owned by people on staff, or people that they see … The only exception was actually our cover shoot last year, where we did have an actual [professional] stylist come. We used professional designer clothing and things.”
Zhang said that the balance between the high-fashion and artistic portrayals of regular students, clothes, makeup and photography helps ROCKET remain relatable to the College’s student body.
“We’re trying to foster a creative community on campus … because the fashion community here doesn’t really exist,” Zhang said. “I’m actually an art major … so I definitely care a lot about the art community here. For fine arts, I definitely feel like I do have my own community … but I think ROCKET is trying to encourage other people on campus who don’t necessarily have a creative outlet to be able to express themselves.”
The drive to reach this goal has involved a lot of growth and redesign for the ROCKET staff in recent years. Last year included a major aesthetic overhaul for the magazine’s design, resulting in a larger magazine with different fonts, more pages, different paper weight and a more defined identity overall.
The progress ROCKET has made in recent years is even clearer to other members of its staff, such as Digital Director Andrew Uhrig ’20.
“In my opinion, being shortlisted for the Stack Awards means that we’ve hit a new stage in our development as a magazine,” Uhrig said. “If you look at other fashion magazines that have established brands, ROCKET looks to be comparatively still very much in its infancy. This marker of achievement means that we have succeeded in growing and establishing our brand, and it makes me proud to be a part of this success.”
For both Zhang and El-Fiky, the Stack Awards shortlist position was symbolic of hard work, hard changes and hard decisions paying off, despite the fact that ROCKET did not win this year.
“Seeing all the content that was there and what they did with their pages … just bringing in new types of innovation that we hadn’t even considered before, or that we had done in the past, but not very well, so we dismissed it — we’re like, ‘let’s bring it back,’” El-Fiky said. “We could do so many things. I want to take all of this and like, grab it in my hands, and hold onto it really tight. [There are] such good ideas that we could apply to ROCKET in our own way. It’s awesome.”
To both editors, getting onto the shortlist for the Stack Awards said a lot about ROCKET’s progress toward fulfilling its goals on campus and as an arts publication more broadly, especially as both spend many hours a week — often on weekends during their limited free time — contributing to the publication.
“ROCKET is like our whole lives, both of us,” Zhang said.
The fact that there is so much still to do is exciting for the members of ROCKET rather than intimidating, because they are now reaching the point where they can really see what lies ahead.
“We have only just tapped the surface,” El-Fiky said. “That makes it — like, all the hours are worth it.”