At a Women's Wear Daily morning meeting in the spring, Ed Nardoza, the editor in chief, looks at a Thom Browne tweed ensemble that dominates the cover of the day’s issue. It has big Gerbera daisies provocatively positioned over the breasts and crotch.
“Is anyone offended by the strategically placed florals?” Nardoza asks.
“Not after Rihanna’s see-through dress at the CFDA awards,” someone replies.
None of the roundtable of editors, all of them serious and in no way subversively dressed, musters a laugh. They’ve seen it all before, and rather than looking back, they are keen to move on to tomorrow’s paper and website.
But Nardoza, uniformly liked as one of the kindest kingpins in the cutthroat fashion and media worlds, takes a moment to share some words of praise for a scoop on Maria Sharapova’s new deal with Avon; an interview with Clint Eastwood at a première; an item about John Galliano and a psychiatrist; a “murderers’ row” photograph of models at a Victoria Beckham dinner; and a tart headline about Maggie Gyllenhaal’s presence of late, “Ubiquity Becomes Her.” His day is packed, time is short. But he keeps looking around the table, in the seventh-floor Midtown Manhattan offices, to ask probing questions and praise good work. “I’m glad we put Thom Browne on the cover,” Nardoza says. “He’s talked about.”
The same could be said of WWD, which continues to shape the fashion dialogue and have a cultural currency far beyond what could be fairly expected of a trade publication. It’s part of its singular appeal that Hollywood and party coverage sits comfortably next to, say, inside-baseball reports on Neiman Marcus’s third-quarter earnings or the latest ebbs and flows in the no-parts-glamorous world of denim; hard-hitting reported pieces on bankruptcy filings and CEO firings are just as likely to appear on the same day as a spotlight on the latest celebutante.
While WWD may not be as feared for its harsh reviews or spanking of the absolutely fatuous as it once was, it still chases scoops and opines with authority. When, in 2013, Michelle Obama was undecided about what she would wear for her husband’s re-inauguration, it ran a column chastising her for behaving like a red-carpet diva. When Galliano was seen in a Hasidic-style frock coat in the wake of his anti-Semitic rant, he got it, too. And, tellingly, when Oscar de la Renta took umbrage at being called a “hot dog” in a 2012 New York Times review by Cathy Horyn, it was in WWD that he took a full-page ad calling her a “stale three-day-old hamburger.”
In an era in which every man and his blog add to the fashion fray, and companies are more tight-lipped than ever, the 104-year-old publication (owned by Advance Publications, Inc., the company that also owns Condé Nast, and run by Fairchild Fashion Media) maintains its place of authority and on guest lists for the most exclusive events. Although its paid circulation is a modest 60,000 (and revenues are not available because the company is privately held), its reach is undeniable, with a readership that includes retailers, designers, garmentos, marketers, financiers, and media and advertising wonks, as well as nonindustry types who are simply interested in the byzantine world of fashion and its players.
Meanwhile, the paper’s website, which was among the first to introduce a paywall for premium content, may be as busy-looking as a quinceañera dress, but it continues to feed the content aggregators that dominate the digital arena and, according to a company mouthpiece, page views are up 97 percent since it relaunched in August 2011.
“WWD is the heart, soul and spirit of the fashion world,” says designer Donna Karan. “And it moves every bit as fast as the fashion it covers.”
Adds veteran fashion insider Fern Mallis: “If you’re in the business, you must pay attention to Women’s Wear Daily and make it a priority. Kudos to them for continuing to get the story.” She chooses the rest of her words carefully, “And it’s really great that the editor in chief is now someone everyone likes.”
By praising Nardoza, who describes himself as a “drone of an editor,” she is expressing her relief that the two former and famously feared leaders of WWD and W, John Fairchild and Patrick McCarthy, are gone. Mallis felt the sting of the McCarthy era when she gave a quote to The Wall Street Journal in 1994 for a story about models. McCarthy didn’t take kindly to being scooped and ran a negative profile of her. The chill lasted for years. It was one of many feuds in the paper’s history, starting when Fairchild took the reins in 1960 and continuing with McCarthy from 1997 to 2010.
When Geoffrey Beene, then a fashion darling, refused to share Lynda Bird Johnson’s wedding dress design with WWD in 1967, it started a long-standing feud. It wasn’t helped when, in 1983, Beene declined to show his collection to a WWD reporter whom he deemed unimportant (and who happened to be Ben Brantley, now the chief theater critic at the Times). “He’s a despicable man,” Beene said of Fairchild in a 1998 interview with the New York Observer. Similar snarls occurred with Azzedine Alaïa, Pauline Trigère and, even briefly, Yves Saint Laurent, who was miffed by a WWD review. Pierre Bergé, the designer’s partner, called Fairchild a megalomaniac in the International Herald Tribune and kept him out of the next two shows. Giorgio Armani had it easier when he closed a show to the press one season at the request of Time, which was putting him on its cover. Fairchild coolly told him he’d been a Time cover, too.
That was in 1970, not long before W hit the stands. Originally a free lifestyle-focused broadsheet insert, printed in color and gleaned from WWD stories, W was a tarted-up attempt to sell ad pages and bring in nonindustry readers. It was also Fairchild’s way of aiming a two-pronged attack on the fashion- and status-obsessed.
In addition to coming up with terms like “HotPants” and the “midi,” epithets such as “Wobbly WASPs,” “Nouvelle Society” and “Fashion Victim” sprang from the pages of WWD and W. Princess Margaret was called “Her Drear,” Truman Capote was “The Tiny Terror,” and Jacqueline Onassis was dubbed “Jackie O.” Those gossipy men who escorted women? They were “walkers,” and Jerome Zipkin, who squired many a grande dame, including Nancy Reagan, was routinely lampooned for practically attending the opening of a fridge door with them.
“When my mother read the article calling him a social moth,” says Cornelia Guest, the ’80s-era debutante who now designs vegan handbags and whose mother was C.Z. Guest, a society swan, “she read it to him on the phone and he hung up on her.”
Says Carolyne Roehm, the ex-wife of master of the universe Henry Kravis, “I was the butt of some W jabs, branded as Nouvelle Society.” Although she survived on W’s “In” list, she was mocked for changing the color of her contact lenses. “But it was all innocent compared to the media today,” she continues. “Everyone loved W ?and WWD because it was about people we knew.”
Some went from “In” to “Out” faster than a Concorde ride. They kept reading.
“Being hard on people was part of the job,” says McCarthy, who inherited the helm from Fairchild and is now retired and living in New York, London and Miami. As he famously told New York magazine in a 1997 cover story: “Bite the hand that feeds you. Never stop biting it. And you know what? It will feed you more.” McCarthy was also quoted as saying, “WWD kicks everybody in the balls eventually.”
Fairchild, whose grandfather and great-uncle founded the company in 1910, doesn’t exactly see it that way. But along with his obsession with getting the story—“bringing home the bacon,” as he calls it—his lack of tolerance for pomposity has driven him for years, even today when he writes an occasional online column as the droll Countess Louise J. Esterhazy, who ruled W’s back page before the magazine became a Condé Nast title a few years ago.
“I’m not a moralist, but pomposity in the fashion business is ridiculous,” he says. “So I like playing with people who take themselves too seriously.” The key to the success of Fairchild, now 88 and living in New York, Nantucket and Switzerland, was his rigorous commitment to journalism, even if that meant getting scoops by occasionally asking reporters to disguise themselves as messengers. “I didn’t start anything new,” he says. “I just like to see everything.”
Not surprisingly, the omniscient “Eye” party pages became must-reads, especially among affluent readers who liked to see photos of themselves painting the town puce, as did other gossipy columns that spilled dish over the years on everything from Jackie O selling her clothes at a consignment store to Karl Lagerfeld ranting against unattractive women. Then there was the “Suzy” column, written by Aileen Mehle, a glamour-puss with a place at the table of the same Nouvelle Society that Fairchild razzed.
“She was the last of a breed of columnists who cared about socialites, and had the winking knowingness of an insider,” says George Rush, former Daily News gossip columnist and, with Joanna Molloy, coauthor of Scandal: A Manual (Skyhorse Publishing). “In her day it was always clear that WWD was the anointed one when it came to getting into parties.”
To some extent, it is today, too, even with Mehle and society as she saw it in retirement, and journalism ruled by celebrities, their publicists, red-carpet events and the traffic they drive to websites. These days, the paper still dishes (except about Condé Nast artistic director Anna Wintour) but mostly by letting subjects hang themselves. When the model Jessica Hart told an “Eye” reporter that Taylor Swift didn’t have the bona fides to be a Victoria’s Secret model, her put-down became grist for the digital mill. Same thing happened when Muffie Potter Aston, a socialite, trashed the tax-the-rich politics of then-incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio at a power party for Diana Taylor, Mayor Bloomberg’s girlfriend. “You have to be fair to everyone,” she sniffed.
Ed Nardoza would agree with that sentiment, although as WWD’s editor in chief, he has had to make difficult phone calls over the years to industry players verifying everything from cancer to getting fired in order to bring home the bacon.
“I’m proud of Ed—he’s a real gent,” says Fairchild, who is still universally referred to with a “Mr.” in front of his name. “I had to go to battle to make him editor in chief because people didn’t think he was ruthless enough. But he is.”
For his part, Nardoza says he loves the grit and glamour of the industry he covers—even when shoe designers would rather look down at his scuffed brown oxfords than into his eyes and his men’s accessories editor tells him his eyeglasses are “on trend,” meaning they’ll be out in a year or two. “It’s a business of instant obsolescence, and that can translate to people, too,” he says with a smile. “It’s an adrenaline-fueled job, intense, never boring. And it’s a seductive industry. But the minute I leave, I’ll be done with it all. I don’t kid myself about that. I will never be part of society.”
Having finished the editorial meeting, in which everything from news about a debut line of jeans from Spanx (“I’d like to see what that looks like,” he says) to Ansel Elgort, the son of Vogue photographer Arthur Elgort and a hot new actor (who would be getting a B- rating in the Man of the Week chart) to Target’s annual meeting (“That could be a live one!”) is discussed, Nardoza thanks everyone and retires to his office. He has a day of meetings, a news-hungry website to feed and a paper to close.
But first he has lunch. It’s at La Grenouille with Fairchild. Typically he doesn’t wear a tie with his Brooks Brothers suit. Today he’ll put one on.
“I always wear a tie for Mr. Fairchild,” he says. Then he’s out the door.
Galliano Implodes and Five Other Scandals and Scoops
1. A WWD photographer pursues the elusive Greta Garbo shopping on 57th Street in autumn of 1966. The following day the paper displays the whole chase, including one shot of Garbo hiding behind her copy of none other than the paper itself.
2. In 1968, WWD threatens to sue Cosmopolitan when Nora Ephron publishes an essay describing it as snoopy, catty, sophomoric and breathless, among other things.
3. Jane Muskie, the wife of 1972 presidential candidate Edmund Muskie, tells a WWD reporter that she likes two drinks before dinner and a crème de menthe after, then suggests they tell dirty jokes. It causes a stir, and not long after that Muskie drops out of the campaign.
4. In 1977, WWD reports on Seventh Avenue’s “silent partner,” the Mafia. As Nardoza says, “Loan-sharking, extortion, racketeering, conspiracy, money-laundering, they did it all.”
5. Calvin Klein is asked by a WWD reporter in 1983 if he has AIDS. He denies it, and is telling the truth. But later, in ’88, when he has substance-abuse issues, he comes to WWD with the news.
6. In March 2011, WWD breaks the news that John Galliano has been dismissed from Dior after his anti-Semitic rant in a Paris café and bar a few days earlier.