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“Halston Sees Flying Saucers!”
This story first appeared in the November 1, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
With headlines like that (February 13, 1978), who needs context? Context would spoil everything. For the record, Halston was seeing a round bias cut that season—not Martian emissaries.
In 100 years, WWD has never been in the business of actually covering planetary invasions—although you wouldn’t know it by some of the designers we’ve featured. If the planet is ever attacked by invaders though, WWD will be there with a Page One review of their battle garb. We’ve covered everything else, from New Look to Nouvelle Society, Mod to The Mob, Eleanor Roosevelt to Michelle Obama, Ralph to Rei, labor abuse, politics, ding-a-ling celebrities to the Ladies Who Lunch. This miraculous little newspaper is one long 10-decade continuum that has and continues to illustrate the interdependence of past and present. The characters may change and the seasons may pass, but the plot plows on, a drama a day. Make that a melodrama a day—after all, this is the fashion business we cover, a business that coerces extremes and often takes a comic turn. Connections are everywhere between what was and what is.
What, for example, would Paul Poiret make of Lady Gaga? Plenty. Poiret was modern fashion’s first wild man, of free-form shapes and scandalous Turkish trousers. He was the first designer WWD treated as a star. He was high-minded, proclaiming to the paper in 1913: “I am not commercial. I am an artist.… Every woman must discover her own individuality. The majority of women follow a single thought in dress…and it is most extraordinary to find in women a desire to be original or distinct.”
Cue Lady Gaga, imploring WWD in 2007: “More sequins, more spandex, yes, please.” Poiret and Gaga would understand one another. Granted, Monsieur would need smelling salts after seeing Gaga’s hyper-sexualized smocks, derriere displays or cured-meat ensembles. She fits his bill for “distinct,” although Poiret probably didn’t contemplate the draping attributes of prosciutto.
These two make beautiful bookends in our package of 100 Remarkable Moments from WWD’s history—Poiret is number 3 and Gaga number 92. Poiret fell, the paper reported, as quickly as he ascended. He spent his later years “on the dole in England…or living in a madhouse.”
As for beginnings, WWD was first to the Lady Gaga party, putting a then-unknown popster parading around in her undies at the Lollapalooza festival on its front page. “I’m into theatrics,” she said. “Every morning I like to look fabulous. I like to pretend I’m famous.”
If it happened in fashion, WWD was there. In this issue we focus on 100 of the hundreds of thousands of stories and images reported over the years, dug out by a tenacious, creative staff that simply won’t quit. Some stories couldn’t be ignored: the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Jackie Kennedy, Capote’s Black and White Ball, Studio 54, Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, grunge, punk, Saint Laurent, supermodels, New Media. For these there were two core newsroom codes at work through the years: Get the story. Be first.
Each and every one of WWD’s illustrious alumni and current standard-bearers has that mantra drilled into their heads. I mean drilled, to the point of mania. As in, paranoid bolt-up-in-bed mania that the other guy’s got something you don’t. The best reporters are always harder on themselves than their editors are, and that competitive zeal has characterized this paper for its entire history.
WWD’s founders, L.E. and E.W. Fairchild, were on to something from the start. Hanging above the newsroom for years was a big blue banner: “Our salvation depends upon our printing the news.”
That mission statement hovered over generations of Fairchildren until an overzealous executive mistook an independent newsroom for journalistic arrogance, and removed the banner in what was a regrettable day for WWD’s newsroom. The executive has since disappeared, but the banner’s mission still resonates.
Over the years, our reporters have loved the glamour (hey, we’re human), but loved the grit, too. High-low, arcane-banal, beautiful-vulgar; for every inspiring runway statement, there’s an underbelly waiting to be turned over. Karl Lagerfeld articulated the dichotomy in a throwaway quip during a Fendi preview in Milan years ago, in a way that only he can. Karl was walking a group of fancy fashion editors through that season’s collection and came across a particularly exotic, luxurious fur. “Mutant ape,” he described it, then added, “But aren’t we all?”
One central tenet of WWD all these years is that fashion can’t be separated from the larger social and cultural fabric. As one of the most personal forms of self-expression, fashion can at times represent a political or cultural point of view as precisely and powerfully as a history book.
We had a reporter, Edith L. Rosenbaum, on the Titanic, returning from the Paris ateliers. She lived to write about the tragedy with a disturbing eyewitness account. Never off fashion duty, she managed to describe designer Lady Duff Gordon as making her escape from the sinking ship “in a very charming lavender bathrobe.”
In 1933, WWD’s B.J. Perkins reported from Berlin on bands of Nazis as “brown-shirted youths who need to be spanked.” Perkins described rising hostility toward Jewish merchants, reporting broken windows and bludgeonings. WWD headlined: “Hail Hitler Movement May Tickle His Vanity but It Is a Hell of a Thing for Germany as a Whole.”
In 1926, WWD reported on Benito Mussolini’s suggested mode of dress “to free Italian women from the dictatorship of the French dressmakers.” Il Duce’s prescription: togas. We took vigilant detours from WWI and WWII to the Cold War and beyond.
“What Will She Wear at Her Air-Raid Debut?” we wondered in 1941. And to those who got the jitters in 1950 when Dad began storing cling peaches in the basement: “You Can Survive an Atomic Attack!” You can always trust us for security reporting.
In 1977, the paper did a long series on Seventh Avenue’s “Silent Partner,” the mafia, then dominated by the Gambino and Lucchese crime families. Loan-sharking, extortion, racketeering, conspiracy, money laundering…they did it all with guys named “Vinny Hot,” “One Eye” and “Fat Richie.” Joey Gambino was a regular industry character, often seated in the front of Arno’s restaurant, a favorite lunch spot of the Seventh Avenue set, a friendly guy, always glad to see you. Eager to do business. When John Gotti took over the Gambino family, he was fronted by a family-owned supplier of zippers, buttons and linings and had an Albie Trimmings Inc. business card inscribed simply, “John Gotti, Salesman.”
On the evening of September 10, 2001, rough-and-tumble paparazzi tripped over themselves at the Marc Jacobs show to get a shot of two leggy newcomers named Paris and Nicky Hilton. The next day, on September 11, a different world emerged. A handful of staffers overcame their own fears amid a traumatized city and reported the story of the terrorist attack, its human impact and its impact on the industry, the city and the global economy. Our photographers immediately knew what to do without being asked, springing into action and coming back with some of the most harrowing pictures the paper has ever run.
Then there was Yves Saint Laurent, whose force was matched only by his fragility. We had been on red alert about his failing health and prepared a lengthy obituary with photo layouts to be spread across a minimum of eight pages. The only problem was that our imminent alert was on the early side, by years. A day didn’t go by when we didn’t think, “Are we ready? It could happen any day.” This went on for 10 years and, when we finally let our guard down, he died on a Sunday evening, when the paper had already gone to bed several hours before. Frantically, a small team made its way to the office and couldn’t find our advance obit. Nor the layouts. “You have them.” “No, you have them.…” We had been so far ahead in our preparations that we were in chaos. We had three hours. We began piecing together fragments, resurrecting parts of the news story from when the designer retired. We located Saint Laurent’s most compelling contributions to fashion. In three hours, to the minute, we produced some of the most dramatic, emotional and comprehensive coverage I’d seen in my years at the paper.
It’s not bedlam 24/7. There are rewards. I was introduced to Jeanne Moreau by Calvin Klein—who went crazy for the cinema legend and took her out in Paris four nights in a row. “I’m in LOVE with this woman,” Calvin declared. When introduced to her, I choked. Froze up completely, only to mumble something idiotic about her performance in Jules and Jim. Whatever I said, I’ve banished from my memory. I fear I might have even opened with “enchanté.” This beautiful, tiny, hypnotizing, mythic creature took pity on me and smiled. And I thought, Toto, we’re not on Flatbush Avenue anymore.
Two of the men responsible for this extended fantastic voyage are personal mentors, John B. Fairchild and Patrick McCarthy.
Patrick is a man of his own contrasts: a brilliant editor of aristocratic bearing complete with a level-headed, diplomatic reserve that’s punctuated every few minutes with an explosively hysterical laugh that every moose in Canada can hear. Most endearing: he can’t pass a beggar without giving him money. Even when we caution, “He’s a gypsy…a hustler,” Patrick always gives the poor soul the benefit of the doubt and hands over ample dollars or euros.
In 1998, we’d decided to do a spoof column of “scoops” on April Fool’s Day. We fabricated an angry Rudy Giuliani threatening to ship fashion week off to Flushing; Monica Lewinsky endorsing a DKNY baseball hat (cashmere); Helmut Lang’s Web site overrun by pantyhose fetishists confusing him with Helmut Newton; Joan Rivers angling to play Jocelyn Wildenstein in the TV movie “A Cut Above.” That kind of thing.
Patrick came up with his own.
Giorgio Armani had, in fact, planned an ambitious show a few weeks before in Paris in two elaborate tents, but was actually shut down by the gendarme “for security reasons.” An angry Armani vowed to take his show to New York. Patrick conjured up our fake item saying that Armani’s New York show might suffer a similar fate as that in Paris because the NYPD and firefighters were seriously concerned about his plans to feed 1,000: “A portly representative of the local precinct queried an anxious Armani representative, ‘Will you be serving rigatoni?’”
The morning the “item” broke, a furious Armani called Patrick, demanding to know why we were reporting such unverified, inaccurate information. Patrick, speaking in French, tried to explain to Giorgio that once a year, we have April Fool’s Day in the U.S. and on this particular April 1, Giorgio was playing the fool. The more Patrick tried to explain, the deeper he sank. For the rest of us in earshot, it just got better and better. And better. Eventually, the Maestro got the joke and all was well. His New York show went off without a hitch. Or rigatoni.
Then there’s Mr. Fairchild, the impresario, the tireless reporter, the genius architect of what we do and whose approval we all crave. If he ever invites you to lunch, go. It’s the most fun you’ll ever have. You’ll need to deflect all the queries about “who’s doing the boom-boom,” but hang in there and he just might open up about late nights with Coco Chanel and her magic blue hangover pill; Saint Laurent and his insecurities and abiding influence; how Christian Dior ate too much; how self-important fashion types are the worst.
How people are far more compelling than body coverings or cold business facts.
How a newspaper has to be unique to survive.
How reporters have to “bring home the bacon,” and how “fashion makes people feel good about themselves and needs no more defense than that.”
And how there’s one ingredient more essential to success than any other: fun.
That ingredient more than anything else has kept this extraordinary, beloved newspaper young for its remarkable century.