WWD Gets Its Bite Back

When James Fallon, then the London bureau chief of Fairchild publications, interviewed John Fairchild, the legendary editor and publisher of Women’s Wear Daily , for the paper’s 90th anniversary issue, the man who spent the late 50′s boozing with Chanel, and the 60′s reinventing the American look and spatting with most designers, told him the secret of editing a fashion newspaper.

“Writing about people has to be amusing-it needs a little zap and zap,” Mr. Fairchild said then. “You’ve got to be controversial in fashion, because, basically, it’s a bunch of blah-blah.”

Nine months after the story, Mr. Fallon-a man without Mr. Fairchild’s dash, but with no patience for blah-blah-became the fashion paper’s editor and, as WWD itself would proclaim, “Zap and Zap Is Back.” How? So far the answer has been to get down, dirty and funny. If there were a WWD headline on the editor, it would read “Fallon Arch.”

“Glenda, this isn’t a copy of Women’s World that people are leafing through at the supermarket checkout aisle,” noted a review of fashion editors’ letters last March, taking Harper’s Bazaar ‘s Glenda Bailey to task. “You really can assume we know how fashion works; let’s move on to what’s au courant.”

Garnering attention during the last collections, when the paper was free in the Bryant Park tents and the only fun to be had was when the shows started late, WWD ran a vicious unsigned gossip column, “Fashion Scoops,” next to reviews of the shows. One item described InStyle fashion director Hal Rubenstein dozing off during two shows, suspected of sleeping short nights thanks to early visits at the tanning salon. The girls from Harper’s Bazaar were chastised for chewing gum that could be heard on the other side of the runway. And Vogue editors Wendy Hirschberg and Grace Coddington were reported pushing their way into the Diane Von Furstenberg show as Ms. Hirschberg snarled, “For some of us, this is actually a job.” The headline: ” You Bad, Bad Editors .”

Women’s Wear , it seemed, was getting back to being the naughty old rag that paparazzi’d parties, scorched designers, ratted on fashion victims. “It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision of, ‘Look what we did 90 years ago-let’s make it bitchy again,’” Mr. Fallon said. “It was just this idea of, ‘My God! We did have this kind of edge .’”

In Mr. Fallon’s six months as editor, the paper has retro-fitted for its old eight-inch editorial stiletto heels. It has upped its media column, “Memo Pad,” to twice a week, kept “Fashion Scoops” running everyday since the collections, has returned to a style that recalls the exuberance of the good old “Eye” and “Eye-on” Fairchild days, the days when Suzy was Suzy, when Jackie O. ruled the waves, when John Fairchild was a 1970 Time cover after he became notorious for trying to force-feed the midi-skirt. It was the place where James Brady worked (in line to inherit the Women’s Wear empire before a battle with Mr. Fairchild), as well as the great American sportswriter Red Smith, who worked at WWD before he went to The New York Times . It was the tabloid front page across which Twiggy, Cheryl Tiegs, Lauren Hutton, Happy Rockefeller and Mary Lindsay marched, when the Women’s Wear reporter parted the waves at every fashion show and WWD was a must-read on both Park and Seventh avenues.

Readers still find the usual balance of high-fashion news and business reporting that gives way to a front-page mix like the final bow at a Saint Laurent collection coupled with an acrid take on “Kmart goes Chap. 11.” The occasional fashion shoot directed toward retailers is still there, as well as personality interviews and society coverage. But the shaded blocks of text that signal fresh dish are what center the paper now.

“I would probably have to admit I read the ‘Fashion Scoops’ first,” said Fern Mallis, the director of 7th on Sixth, New York’s fashion week, “and read the features and the rest afterward, maybe at night when I get home.”

“The Newhouses wanted to have a very strong point of view across the board,” Mr. Fallon said of Women’s Wear ‘s new owners, who bought the paper in 1999 for $650 million, enticed by W magazine’s rapid growth and the power of WWD . (Mr. Fairchild is now editor-at-large of W and WWD and occasionally writes for the paper, as he did after Yves Saint Laurent’s retirement.) “They simply said, in a variety of discussions, ‘Oh, Women’s Wear has always had this point of view.’ So that’s what we’re trying to do.” Mr. Fallon also said that they have been instructed to cover the Newhouses’ other publications as objectively as they would, say, The New York Times or Hearst imprints.

Mr. Fallon isn’t running the paper alone: Ed Nardoza, Fairchild’s associate editorial director and a 21-year Fairchild veteran, is WWD ‘s editor in chief and divides his time between imprints like DNR , the men’s-wear counterpart to WWD ; W , the large glossy fashion monthly magazine; Children’s Business and the daily. At the top of the triumvirate sits Patrick McCarthy, Fairchild’s chairman and editorial director, who enjoys a reputation as a fair-minded newshound and has patched things up between his publication and designers.

“There was a time early on when Women’s Wear Daily did great fashion coverage but was as bitchy as it could be-totally bitchy,” said Bloomingdale’s fashion director Kal Ruttenstein, a pillar of the industry. “That stopped in the 90′s, I think because they didn’t want to be bitchy anymore-perhaps they wanted to get more advertisements, or maybe that was just a new point of view. They did mostly business and acquisition and fashion coverage.”

But times have changed, Mr. Fairchild pointed out in an interview, and a 1960′s version of the paper just isn’t possible today. Fashion is “sort of boring now,” he said; it has gone “all promo-Hollywood.” And personalities have often buried the fashions themselves. In a testament to how things have changed once more, the Gucci/LVMH fashion wars played out recently in the “Fashion Scoops” column, not in the news pages, thanks to the insults Bernard Arnault and Domenico De Sole hurled at each other this past collection season.

“There was a bottomless appetite about what Gucci was doing, what Mr. Arnault was doing,” said Patrick McCarthy. “They’re all into their second acts now, and it’s not quite as exciting as it was two years ago.”

Today, WWD ‘s circulation is about 43,000, which makes for a readership of probably 150,000 with pass-alongs. In the 1960′s, circulation had been as high as 80,000. In addition to battling tabloids, the paper faces the general-interest newspapers that have decided they’re interested in the beat. “What The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times are very good at doing is kind of taking three distinct things and connecting the dots, and putting them in a pretty package and putting it in front of the reader,” Mr. Fallon said. “Papers that can cover it only now and then can come along and say, ‘Oh, that’s kind of interesting.’”

At first sight, Mr. Fallon might seem miscast in the role of dashing fashion editor. Tall and slim with close-cropped, receding hair and conservative wire-rim glasses, he is, at 46, what you’d expect the high-school yearbook editor to have ended up like. He speaks in precise, clipped sentences, is affable and witty and, whenever he wants to thank the paper’s good fortune, knocks on wood.

Following in what one employee called the tradition of “unabashed nerdiness” at Fairchild, however, Mr. Fallon has been a “lifer.” He started at Fairchild’s Washington bureau 22 years ago, went to London two years later to write for WWD , later W. -but also Metalworking News and Supermarket News . “British supermarkets are among the best in the world,” he said, which leads you to believe him when he says fashion came as an accidental byproduct of his career.

He is a family man. At the end of the day, he goes home to Tarrytown-in Britain, it was Wimbledon-to his wife and two sons, 14 and 8, and doesn’t really play into the fashion machine.

In a very short while, though, he’s managed to implement changes. The “Scoops” column, especially-now run daily-has been a kind of information free-for-all that seems almost manic, since reporters are sent out to get news-any news-to fill it on top of their regular beats, like sportswear or denim. “The staff is under instruction: ‘Great, you have the financial results of the Gap-what’s your gossip?’” Mr. Fallon said.

The items so far have had less to do with the Gap than with New York media, designers and models. The staffers, Mr. Nardoza said, have been instructed to go for the jugular. “We told the reporters … ‘often we haven’t been quite as interested in what model is making out with what other model backstage at the shows,’” he said. But now, he continued, “we kind of stood back from that and said, ‘Well, let’s keep our eyes open to everything and play a little bit and have a little fun.’”

Because WWD ‘s turf has been invaded by hordes of newspapers, tabloids, Web sites and cable channels, some of the items in WWD seemed to have been influenced, perhaps unwittingly, by the nastiest stuff out there. Many of the scoops unearthed during the collection-Chelsea Clinton dirty-dancing with her boyfriend in Milan, the Vogue editors pushing through the crowds and an April Fool’s item, picked up straight by the Post , about Karl Lagerfeld starting a new diet line-have ended up in Page Six or elsewhere in the paper. Fashion reporting has proliferated to such an absurd degree that staking a claim on the industry sometimes means overstepping boundaries.

So the need to fill the daily “Scoops” column has led to WWD breaking news in a slew of fields not at all related to fashion, just like the old days. A recent item revealed that The New York Times ‘ Michiko Kakutani had stormed the office of her editors to complain about her colleague Ben Brantley’s review of The Sweet Smell of Success , something media reporters across the city would gladly have gone with.

But within its area, WWD also has authority in a field often peopled by newcomers. It takes down the industry’s sacred cows, something not many could get away with. A case in point was a feature on Visionaire magazine, an über -trendy publication heavy on design and photography that was co-founded by Harper’s Bazaar ‘s current creative director, Stephen Gan, and that depends on the willingness of designers and photographers to work for free. “How Visionaire built its cachet is a story of patronage, creative freedom, narcissism, a somewhat parasitic sleight-of-hand, and a kind of effervescent bricolage,” WWD wrote.

To those who have been regular readers of the paper for decades, this kind of judgment-passing is what WWD always did best, along with breaking fashion news. The paper has traditionally had, in the words of its editors, a “schizophrenic” nature in that way-part news and part attitude. But it’s fair to say the tone had mellowed recently from the good old tang of the Brady-Fairchild years.

The paper is walking a tightrope, not wanting to alienate old-time readers who look for trade stories-”J.C. Penney Begins to Brand Its Future,” “Textile States Seek Federal Help”-but at the same time wanting to project its insider status. “The insider tone is very much a product of the fact that there is so much concentrated media in the industry,” Mr. Nardoza said. “We are their pipeline.”

For now, Mr. Fallon spends an average of 10 hours a day in the newsroom and is mostly seen prowling the aisles and leaning over reporters’ desks-rarely at his own neat cubicle at the far end of the mammoth newsroom, by the window. Still, he’ll probably get used to a heightened sense of his own position in the New York media world if he goes out enough. At a dinner for the opening of a new Burberry store recently, he sat next to an investment banker who was a WWD reader.

“I’m used to having been in London, where people asked me, ‘What do you do?’” he said, “and I’m sitting there saying, ‘I’m the London bureau chief for … a newspaper called Women’s Wear Daily .’ Here, people will say, ‘Called? Of course it is-it’s Women’s Wear Daily !’”