Does W Have a Carine Roitfeld Problem?

stefanohint Does W Have a Carine Roitfeld Problem?When Stefano Tonchi named Alex Gonzalez creative director of W magazine, we were relieved that the expecting father and newlywed would be getting a helping hand. But a line at the end of the announcement gave us pause: “In addition to his role as Creative Director at W, Gonzalez will continue as Executive Creative Director at AR New York for a select group of the agency’s clients.”

Mr. Gonzalez’s ascent in the fashion magazine world will presumably give a lift to the company he co-founded as well, a branding agency with more than 50 fashion and luxury clients, many of which already appear in W‘s pages.

Whatever happened to church and state?

“Stylists have always done outside work for fashion companies while also giving them placements in editorial, but this is more extreme,” said one fashion insider of Gonzalez’s unusual arrangement.

The impact of the move will not be felt for some time. Gonzalez told The Observer that his first “signature issue” would be the September book–generally the most ad-heavy (and sharply scrutinized) issue of the year–which will introduce the collections being seen in New York this week to the masses.

Mr. Gonzalez first approached W‘s editor in chief, Stefano Tonchi, about the gig in October, after the previous creative director Jody Quon left the magazine after just three issues. Mr. Tonchi politely declined.

“You know, I don’t think he was ready,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “It’s a very big commitment to work with a creative director.”

But after playing creative director himself for two issues, an exhausted Mr. Tonchi relented.

“He seduced me,” the editor joked. “Alex has fantastic taste, incredible experience and knowledge of the fashion industry.

People often say that the whole fashion world is in bed with each other, but at W the saying is almost literal. Mr. Gonzalez and his partner Raul Martinez lived for years in the apartment below Mr. Tonchi and his partner, David Maupin, on West 12th Street. Mr. Tonchi and Mr. Gonzalez first met more than 20 years ago when Mr. Gonzalez was hired to help re-launch L’Uomo Vogue, where Mr. Tonchi was an editor.

“Conde Nast is our alma mater,” Mr. Gonzalez, whose first art direction job was at GQ, is fond of saying.

Pooling their CNP Rolodexes, Mr. Martinez and Mr. Gonzalez hung out their own  shingle in 1997. AR New York made its name consulting for famous European brands like Yves Saint Laurent, Versace, and Valentino (all of which regularly advertise and appear editorially in W). More recently they’ve done campaigns for Jimmy Choo and Jones New York.

Though AR New York has a staff of 50 to whom Mr. Gonzalez could assign clients with a potential conflict of interest, he will personally retain a select group of clients, including Brioni, the Italian menswear company specializing in bespoke suits, and Asprey, a British fashion house.

The separation of advertising and content has always been muddled in fashion magazines. Houses that buy the big, expensive spreads at the front of the book expect to see their pieces reappear in the artsy editorials in back; this symbiosis keeps the magazines as well as the apparel companies in business.

Thus consulting is a natural and lucrative move for editors leaving the magazine industry. The previous creative director, Dennis Freedman, left W when Tonchi arrived and quickly landed at Barney’s. But Mr. Gonzalez’s arrangement at W raises the question, can someone serve magazines and advertisers at once without raising a conflict of interest?

“In fashion magazines there’s a different interpretation of church and state than at the New York Times and the Washington Post,” a former high-level fashion editor for Conde Nast told The Observer. “But that kind of outside consulting was certainly not allowed when I was there. It definitely strikes me as unusual.”

Recently, a similar arrangement which allowed Carine Roitfeld, the former editor of French Vogue, to hold side consulting gig at Max Mara led Balenciaga to “blacklist” the Conde Nast title, according to Fashionista. The French fashion house is rumored to have loaned Ms. Roitfeld a coat for editorial purposes not long before a very similar one wound up on the shelves at Max Mara. Balenciaga pulled their advertisements, stopped loaning pieces to the magazine, and barred French Vogue‘s staffers from their fashion shows. When Ms. Roitfeld left the magazine earlier this year, one industry source told The Daily Beast that “if Conde Nast had any issue with her, it’s the consulting work.”

“The rules may be different in France,” Mr. Tonchi said. Admitting that Mr. Gonzaelz’s arrangement offers “a certain amount of freedom,” Mr. Tonchi said it also demands “loyalty to ethical values.”

Mr. Tonchi stressed the difference between Ms. Roitfeld’s role as editor in chief and Mr. Gonzalez’s as consulting creative director. He will be on photo shoots, creating the magazine’s images, but he won’t be deciding which brands get coverage, Mr. Tonchi said. As editor-in-chief, Mr. Tonchi said that he will be responsible for upholding the magazine’s ethical standards, adding that he has the utmost faith in Mr. Gonzalez.

“There is a very clear separation between what we do [at AR New York] in a branding capacity and what I do as creative director,” Mr. Gonzalez said.

But that doesn’t mean his clients aren’t excited about his new sphere of influence. “What they want in the agency is for us to be completely relevant,” he said. “This tenure of mine with W is complementary.”

Starved for ad revenue, even fashion magazines–once the de facto arbiters of brand relevancy–need to worry about their brands. They need to compete on multiple platforms–blogs, apps, reality TV cross-promotion and sponsored events–while maintaining a distinct and trustworthy voice.

And W is working overtime on its brand. The staff was filmed for a documentary about its September issue, a la The September Issue, for the magazine’s website. They’ve aimed for more general interest content, perhaps best exemplified by the nude Kim Kardashian cover. Ad pages are up but newsstand sales are down. Mr. Tonchi tapped Mr. Gonzalez in part for his experience with international branding.

Back when W was more closely tied to Women’s Wear Daily, the initial stood for “women.”

“Now that ‘w’ should stand for ‘world,’” Mr. Tonchi said.

W recently took a calculated branding risk by participating in a plot line on the middlebrow CW teen drama Gossip Girl. Mr. Tonchi said he only agreed to do it with the understanding that he would closely control the image of the magazine on-screen. He consulted on every script in the four-episode arc, he said. He insisted that both a female and a male character become interns, to reflect the dual-gender interests of his W. And he didn’t want the work they did as interns to be too lightweight.

“No people fighting over shoes,” he said.

Mr. Tonchi even gamely played himself, though his one line gave him some trouble.

“I hated it,” he said. “I think I was their worst extra ever. It took me seven takes.”

He needn’t worry too much about his performance–his image is in good hands.

“I consider W a client now,” Mr. Gonzalez said.

kstoeffel@observer.com :: @kstoeffel