The Inside Story on Two Decades of Fashion Madness

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As the top editor of Women’s Wear Daily and W magazine, and CEO of Fairchild Publications, Michael Coady had a front row seat at the collections in Paris, Milan, Rome, London, and New York for 30 years and his book is filled with personal observations and edgy anecdotes.

The Robin Report is exclusively bringing you a series of five excerpts from Fashion Madness. Read on, and order Coady’s e-book to get the complete inside story.

Fashion Madness

Fashion was turned upside down and inside out in the 70s and 80s by the greatest collection of the most talented fashion designers. With genius bursting from their brains, they blurred the lines between men and women’s styles, creating a new metaphor for the times. They became major celebrities and stars transcending the fashion world. What was it that enabled them to capture this attention? Sure, they were creative and had terrific taste, but it took a lot more to change the landscape of fashion forever. Never before or since has there been such a happening.

High fashion designers lived in a most advanced visual world. I went to their collections mostly by day, had business luncheons and dinners and played with them at night. I was talking to an old friend, Harry Benson, one of the great Time and Life  photojournalists of the period who said, “there was not a greater time to be alive and you and I were in it right up to our eyeballs.”

Out of the Blue

In 1970, out of the blue, John Fairchild, chairman and CEO of Fairchild Publications, plucked me out of its Chicago bureau where I was covering nuts and bolts business news for all twelve company publications and made me Editor in Chief of Women’s Wear Daily, the company’s flagship. I didn’t have a clue about what its fashion, high society, and  café society coverage was all about.

Shortly after joining WWD, I was sent to cover a black tie ball in Newport, Rhode Island. A waiter spilled a carafe of wine over my trousers. He insisted I take my pants off and he would rush them into the kitchen to clean them up. As I sat at my table, Mrs. Janet Auchincloss, Jackie Kennedy’s mother, came over and asked me to dance. Having had a fair bit of wine, pants less as I was, I accepted!

I had just gotten to WWD and almost got fired.

The next day, John Fairchild asked me if I danced with Jackie Kennedy’s mother without my pants and I said I did. He said he got a call from Lee Radziwill, Jackie’s sister, telling him he had to fire me. John looked at me for a minute and then started laughing as he walked away. Well, I didn’t get fired.

This was me, and the time I lived in.

I was thirty-one years old, and for six years had been a business reporter for the Boston Herald and one year was bureau chief of Fairchild’s Chicago Bureau when I was named Editor in Chief of WWD. I had no idea what made the fashion business tick, let alone the powerful position it held in New York City. Fairchild, had a dozen publications but spent virtually all his time on WWD and W Magazine. He had already become a significant disruptive force in the media coverage of the fashion world by the time I arrived on the scene.

WWD under John didn’t pull any punches in its fashion coverage and in spotlighting fashion personalities. In person, he was incredibly amusing and loved to gossip. He always had a new story about someone in the industry. The problem was trying to determine if they were factual.

Once, John and I were being interviewed by Stuart Elliot, then the Media section reporter of The New York Times. He asked us how we worked together? I said we had a pilot–co-pilot relationship. John usually set the course, but sometimes I flew the plane and sometimes he did. John said, “Oh, that is so boring.” He then told the Times reporter, “We are two mad monks stirring up a witches’ brew!”

After the reporter left, he started laughing. He said his description was better. I said, “Yes, but I hope they use mine.” In fact, they didn’t use either.

It is this silly side of Fairchild that got written about. The power of WWD and W Magazine, its consumer counterpart, however, came from the fact he knew how clothes should be made. He understood fabrics, cut, and color and had impeccable taste. Designers feared him because they knew he knew. He knew what a well-cut dress or suit should be, what colors worked, and whether the result was the best collection of the season. Designers wanted, and even needed, his blessings. The worst thing John could say about someone was, “The poor thing just doesn’t have any taste.”

WWD was also the major herald of what was happening in café society. Major designers were integrated in the social fabric of New York City, Los Angeles, Paris, London, Rome, and Milan. John Fairchild, when he took the helm of Women’s Wear in the mid 1960s, started a daily gossip column in WWD and called it The Eye. The column wrote about the fashion industry, designers, and socialites. The Eye was the most-read section of the daily newspaper.

As if not knowing about the fashion industry weren’t enough, I had to also understand how it was integrated into New York City’s social world and beyond. All of a sudden, I was getting invited to major social events, getting some of the best tables in the best restaurants, and flying around the world first class. I was feted by world-famous designers in Paris, Rome, Milan, and Tokyo. I was invited to lunch at the United Nations by then-Israeli ambassador Benjamin Netanyahu, at City Hall by New York City’s mayor, Ed Koch, by Margaret Trudeau, then wife of the prime minister of Canada, and by Estee Lauder and many more, all looking for favourable coverage.

It was a bit overwhelming.

The Eye was also influential in publishing circles. A former publisher of WWD, James Brady, went to the New York Post and started Page Six based on The Eye. Henry Grunwald, editor in chief of Time Inc. told me, “The Eye had a lot to do with Time Inc. starting People Magazine. WWD, with a relatively small circulation of just less than 100,000, was read by all the important designers, retailers, and fashion press. Its reach and power was extended in its syndication to every major newspaper in the country. About 20,000 of the circulation went to non-industry society readers which provided the basis for a new consumer publication. That happened a year after I arrived and Fairchild christened it W.

While remaining editor of WWD, I was also named to the same position at W, which came out every two weeks. We packaged all of the fashion and gossip coverage of WWD and inserted it into W. We added major features about designers’ luxurious lifestyles. W was meant to inform and amuse readers about the fashion world. It was the first publication to run In and Out lists of people, places, and things. Café society wanted to know what the fashions were going to be at the same time the retailers knew, and, of course, who was In or Out. W was an instant success, becoming profitable in its second year. Within three years, it had a paid circulation of just under 500,000.

To be continued!  To order Fashion Madness, click here.

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