NEW YORK — John B. Fairchild, who transformed Women’s Wear Daily from a trusty but tedious trade publication into a provocative, powerful and whimsical international force — along the way pioneering the coverage that would become standard fixtures of modern-day fashion and celebrity journalism — died Friday morning at age 87 after a long illness.
This story first appeared in the March 2, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
As head of his family’s business, Fairchild Publications Inc., for more than 30 years until he retired in 1997, Fairchild was in charge of a company that produced daily and weekly trade newspapers and magazines in industries ranging from fashion to electronics to metals, as well as a handful of consumer titles, including W, M, Jane and Details.
His reign as head of WWD began in 1960, when he was summoned from his posting in Paris by his father, Louis W. Fairchild, then president of the company and approaching retirement.
Perhaps his most enduring legacy will be his integral role in shaping the modern fashion industry. Not the least of which accomplishment was to bring designers out from the anonymous toil of the ateliers’ back rooms and turn them into international celebrities and household brand names. Among the designers whose names he propelled to notoriety: Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and above all, a young Yves Saint Laurent, whose career paralleled the rise of WWD under Fairchild’s tenure.
His antics would become legendary, from dressing a reporter as a flower delivery person to sneak into a Balenciaga show in Paris to the wickedly witty In & Out lists (Spain was out “for all time”) to the reviews that would leave designers constantly on edge. One season the reviews would be simply stars (five star, four star, etc.), another time the weather (sunny, cloudy, stormy or gray) and another, letter grades, like in high school. Even years later, Donna Karan would complain that she got a “C.”
To Fairchild, it was a contest game — and competition. He would needle, prod and poke until the subject of his attention would squirm, or laugh with him. Practical jokes were part of the repertoire. Patrick McCarthy, then newly arrived as Paris bureau chief, went out to lunch with Fairchild and, to impress him, ordered duck. A bemused Fairchild later that day sent a live duck to the office.
As Nora Ephron wrote in her essay “Women’s Wear Daily Unclothed” in “Wallflower at the Orgy”: “[When John Fairchild returned to New York] the days of editorial nonparticipation were over. ‘Burn their asses,’ shouted Fairchild, as he stormed through the Greenwich Village city room in his three-piece suit. His face, which bears an oft-noted resemblance to Alvin the Chipmunk, sparkled with glee when his staff members treated fashion with the irreverence he himself felt. ‘We want the staff to be themselves,’ he said. ‘We don’t want them to be part of the Fashion Establishment, which is like an ingrown toenail. We want them to have a fresh eye on fashion and treat it with a sense of humor.”
Fairchild always denied he said “burn their asses,” while longtime staffers contended he said it all the time.
Fawned over and feared by an audience desperate for his approval but terrified and often resentful of his authority, Fairchild was one of the fashion industry’s most influential and powerful personalities, as well as a study in contrasts. He snubbed the perks of power, commuting to his office by subway. He had a conference room but not a private office. His desk was out on the newsroom floor, like everyone else’s. He avoided the glitzy galas and dinner parties that were fodder for his publications and he loathed social pretenders and those who flaunted new money, a group he dubbed Nouvelle Society. Despite a conservative wardrobe, he was named to the International Best Dressed List at least four times, a distinction he called “a bunch of rot.”
Driven by a streak of mischievousness, a pursuit of fun and a relentless desire to “get the story, get the juice,” he was essentially a private, surprisingly shy and at times insecure man who nonetheless took gleeful delight in exposing the foibles of others. Among his favorite words were “naughty” and “wicked,” attributes he perennially pushed to be part of his newspaper’s coverage. He would come up with story ideas on a whim — and just as often shrug if they didn’t work out. Even in his later years, Fairchild never lost a childlike curiosity about everything and everyone, from the latest fashion collections to a new waiter at his favorite restaurant, La Grenouille — where, in its early years, he would sit in the back and see which Ladies Who Lunch would arrive, then rush to the pay phone and call one of his photographers to come right away.
He rarely ranted — although his comments could be more cutting than a designer’s shears. He often giggled, never more so than over a juicy bit of gossip. He could praise one of his reporters or editors as a “genius” one moment and then in the next dismiss them with a wave for some unknown transgression — and not talk to them for weeks.
Tall and clean-shaven, with an unlined face, a dimpled chin and dirty blond hair that eventually turned white (and that would earn him the sobriquet “the Great White Shark” from fashion designers, who used it not affectionately), Fairchild was a restless figure in the newsroom, his distinctively high-pitched voice audible throughout. Addressing a reporter or an editor, he was always fidgeting, flapping his arms, hugging his elbows, twirling in one direction, whirling in the other — but he picked up every nuance in the conversation and he didn’t forget a thing. When something struck him as funny, he snickered like a schoolboy, and when he occasionally spoke French, it was in an accent more Princeton than Provence. He loved gossip, especially if it was scandalous, and if it concerned the sexual antics of well-known designers or members of “respectable” society, so much the better.
“I can’t stand the idea of missing something,” he told Bob Colacello in an interview in Vanity Fair in 1986. “I’ve got to know what’s going on — it’s like an animal instinct with me.”
As a young reporter in Paris, Fairchild was a gadfly, digging up scoops, developing sources and fighting for the right to publish sketches of new collections as soon as they appeared on the runway, rather than being made to wait a month like all the other fashion magazines, which had been the custom of the French couture for years. He didn’t want to wait a minute.
“The ruling was ridiculous, because more than a thousand different professionals, buyers and press, had seen the clothes,” he once wrote. “Fashion is news when it happens, that day, not a month after.”
It was a philosophy that echoed the words of his grandfather, E.W. Fairchild, who cofounded the company in 1891 and whose credo, “Our salvation depends upon our printing the news,” was displayed on signs in WWD’s newsroom — and still is.
Fairchild’s byline appeared only sporadically after he assumed command. He wrote a lengthy description of his 1972 trip to China, for example, but his prose became a recurring ingredient of WWD and W. Most of it was published under the nom de plume of Louise J. Esterhazy, a persona he created in the early Seventies. Louise, an Austro-Hungarian of dubious lineage, once described her family as “grand but impoverished” and said, “In my writing, I’m not mean, but I’m not nice either. I’m like a lemon tart, a bit acerbic at first bite, but then so delicious you must have more.”
As Louise, who sometimes sounded like the daughter of Dame Edna and W.C. Fields, Fairchild could poke fun at anyone whose taste — or behavior — he found offensive. He aimed his barbs at fashion designers, royalty, suburban housewives in jogging suits, self-aggrandizers and social climbers. His politics were democratic (with a small d). He was an equal-opportunity pricker of pretensions. In a single column written in 1995, he skewered Hillary Clinton’s “hairdo roulette,” Barbara Bush’s “WASPy righteousness,” “middle-aged men who always wear faded blue jeans” and “children on airplanes…[who] should be shipped like freight.”
His Louise columns continued to appear in W magazine until the spring of 2010, and then afterward in WWD, the last of which, on March 24, 2014, typically skewered designers’ pretension for continuing to dictate trends to the all-powerful consumer.
Author and columnist James W. Brady, who worked for Fairchild for almost 20 years and was his number-two man from 1964 to 1971, once profiled him in New York magazine: “A curious mélange of mischievous little boy, traveled sophisticate, Wasp snob, brilliantly innovative editor, competent if mechanical skier, compulsive yenta, political naif, muddled conversationalist and crisply incisive writer — a heterosexual who instinctively understands a business traditionally dominated by homosexuals and women — he is the most feared, respected, detested and flattered figure in the glamorously paranoid realm of world-class fashion.”
Fairchild was also known for his feuds with designers he felt had behaved badly toward the paper. Mollie Parnis wouldn’t release a sketch of a Lady Bird Johnson Easter outfit in the Sixties. She went unmentioned in the paper for the next five years. Geoffrey Beene wouldn’t allow W magazine to photograph his home, but asked Architectural Digest to do it. In addition, he once refused to be interviewed by a Fairchild reporter assigned to the job and demanded that a more senior person be sent. Those transgressions made him a non-person in WWD for more than a decade — although Fairchild forever after would insist he never knew the reason for the feud.
Even Giorgio Armani and Yves Saint Laurent — two designers whose coverage in Fairchild newspapers could fill several fat books — occasionally joined The Disappeared. For to him, there were no friends in fashion; even his friends like de la Renta or Blass were often as skewered as his enemies. Fairchild once insisted, for instance, that de la Renta had added the “de la” to his name, a rumor that followed the designer for years even as he vigorously denied it.
Fairchild created nicknames for people and places that became part of the industry’s lexicon: Jacqueline Kennedy was Her Elegance, and when she married Aristotle Onassis she became Jackie O, and he was Daddy O; Gloria Guinness was The Ultimate; Lady Bird Johnson (“definitely not a pace setter”) was Her Efficiency and Princess Margaret was Her Drear; Blass was Mr. Fashion Right, Karl Lagerfeld was Kaiser Karl, and Calvin Klein was Calvin Clean. La Grenouille, which might have been Fairchild’s favorite restaurant in New York, was the Frog Pond, then Restaurant X. The garment center was SA (for Seventh Avenue).
It was Fairchild who called a certain segment of society the BP (the Beautiful People) and a segment of that segment the Cat Pack. There was even a Cat Pack Kiss, in which the lips never touched flesh, only air. There were HotPants (short shorts), there were FVs (fashion victims) and then there was the Longuette.
The Longuette, a word Fairchild made infamous, referred to midcalf hemlines. That length made its appearance on the Paris runways in 1969, and Fairchild decided it was going to replace the much shorter minis as the length for fashion-conscious women. Beginning in January 1970, WWD — at Fairchild’s insistence — pushed the midi persistently, publishing photographs almost every day of whoever might be wearing it and running articles that implied it was certain to be a great success. It wasn’t. The industry backlash was fierce and the controversy landed Fairchild on the cover of Time magazine.
Time’s issue on Sept. 14, 1970, was headlined “The Man Behind the Midi Mania, John Fairchild of Women’s Wear Daily” and a likeness of Fairchild, a puckish grin stitched onto his face, was rendered in needlepoint. Appropriately enough, he is wielding a needle.
Fairchild was the author of two memoirs, “The Fashionable Savages” (1965) and “Chic Savages” (1989), and a novel, “The Moonflower Couple” (1967), a satire loosely based on Carter and Amanda Burden, then one of New York society’s high-profile couples.
Fairchild appeared as himself in several novels by former sidekick Brady. He also was the inspiration for Bingham “Bingo” Marsh III, the eccentric but brilliant editor of Fashion magazine, in Brady’s “Fashion Show.” And in “The Value of Nothing,” a novel by the late John Weitz, a designer with whom Fairchild was sometimes at odds, there is a character called Eric Marshall, a manipulating publisher of a fashion daily who takes pleasure in tweaking people “who get too high and mighty.”
For his achievements, Fairchild was honored here and in France. In 1975, he was named a chevalier de L’Ordre National du Mérite. Jacques Kosciusko-Morizet, then the French ambassador, said his understanding of fashion and of French couture was “beyond all boundaries” and “without chauvinism.”
In 1985, he received the Medal of the City of Paris from the French Women’s Ready-to-Wear Federation, and in 1987, he was named a chevalier in France’s Legion of Honor.
At home, he was honored by the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1984 for his conception of M, a magazine for men that tried to emulate W’s success as a luxury vehicle for women. It closed after nine years. In 1997, the year he retired, the CFDA gave Fairchild its Lifetime Recognition award.
Fairchild always had a fondness for Europe, above all was Paris where he created such havoc in the Fifties. At one time or another, he had a chalet in Klosters, Switzerland, a home in Provence, France, a townhouse in London and, in his later years, a house in Gstaad, Switzerland. He also owned and sold a house in the Hamptons on Long Island and a seaside home in Bermuda. When he returned to the U.S. in 1960, he first lived in Briarcliff in Westchester County, N.Y., then in New Canaan, Conn., an apartment in Gracie Square and, lastly, an apartment in Sutton Place. Following the publication of “Chic Savages,” he built a house in Nantucket, Mass.
John Burr Fairchild was born on March 6, 1927, in Newark (a fact he always admitted with immense glee), the son of Louis W. Fairchild and Margaret Day. Following the divorce of his parents while he was still a boy, he moved with his mother to St. Louis, but never lost his link with the business that had been launched by his grandfather, E.W. Fairchild, and his great-uncle, L.E. Fairchild.
He came back East and attended the prestigious Kent School in Connecticut, spending the summers doing errands at WWD. For a while, he thought about becoming a doctor or a scientist, but confessed to Time magazine that he was “simply hopeless in math, simply gross with figures.” He entered Princeton University in 1946, but dropped out a year later and enlisted in the U.S. Army. At Princeton, The Freshman Herald revealed that his nickname was “Juicy John” and that he was interested in “tennis, soccer and publications.”
While assigned to the Pentagon as a speech writer, Fairchild was asked to pose for a recruiting poster, something that is said to have greatly amused his father, who apparently had difficulty picturing his son as a soldier. Young Fairchild was discharged from the Army in 1948 as a staff sergeant — only because the Army’s rules required that as a speech writer he be a member of the band and to be a band member required for him to be promoted to sergeant. He returned to Princeton and graduated with a B.A. in general humanities in 1950.
In June of that year, Fairchild married the former Jill Lipsky, a fine-boned Vassar graduate of Russian and English descent whom he had met in Paris when they were both students. She survives him, as do their four children: John L. Fairchild of Shelter Island, N.Y.; James B. Fairchild of Long Island; and twins Jill Fairchild of New York, co-owner of the accessories company Fairchild Baldwin, and Stephen L. Fairchild of Brussels, senior vice president and chief creative officer of jewelry company Pandora, and eight grandchildren.
Shortly after they married, Fairchild took his wife to Detroit, where he joined the research staff of the J.L. Hudson department store, his only job outside the family business. He didn’t stay long.
In 1951, Fairchild was back in New York, as a reporter for WWD. Four years later, he was assigned to the Paris office and put in charge of all European coverage for all of the Fairchild publications — three dailies (WWD, Daily News Record and Home Furnishings Daily); four weeklies (Electronics News, Footwear News, Metalworking News and Supermarket News) and Men’s Wear, a monthly trade magazine.
Within three years, Time magazine called him “the most influential fashion reporter in Paris.” In Paris, he was called other things, “l’enfant terrible,” among the more charitable. Fairchild and his quest to learn what was taking place behind the well-guarded walls of the French couture quickly became an irritant to the Chambre Syndicale. He not only successfully fought the artificial embargo the couture placed upon press coverage of its collections, but he developed sources from within the ateliers and was able to send details of clothes to WWD in New York before they appeared on the runway.
He was first with the details of Hubert de Givenchy’s revolutionary sack dress. He scooped the world with Saint Laurent’s 1960 collection for Dior. Not even the notoriously cloistered Cristóbal Balenciaga, who never allowed interviews or photographs, was able to keep the secrets of his collection from Fairchild, although he tried. Fairchild’s drive was relentless and he would later pass that on to all his reporters, constantly pushing them to “bring home the bacon.”
Balenciaga always showed in his showroom and Fairchild once stationed a photographer across the way with a telephoto lens to shoot the collection through the windows. The plan worked flawlessly until Balenciaga’s directrice pulled down all the blinds.
In October 1960, Fairchild returned to New York and was anointed publisher of WWD and Daily News Record, which covered the men’s fashion industry. He immediately began instituting his reforms. He was 33 and the paper was 50, celebrating a half century of earnest but plodding journalism. It was a publication that was prominent within the fashion industry, but unknown in most other places and one that, in his words, was close to going out of business. Fairchild changed all that with a single concept: Instead of focusing only on the clothes, he would cast a light on the people who designed them and the women who wore them. It was a credo he would follow for the rest of his career: People mattered, not, in his words, “body coverings.”
Younger than half the reporters on the payroll, he nevertheless made it clear that things were going to be different. He called a meeting of the editorial staff, then still basking in the self-congratulatory afterglow of the paper’s milestone birthday, and shocked everyone by announcing that in his opinion, WWD was as boring as beans and had been for years.
“Women’s Wear should be fun,” he said. “It should be amusing. It should not be boring. It should be controversial, because fashion is controversial.”
He picked up that morning’s issue and began waving it wildly.
“What I want,” he said, “is for people to come into their office and pick up the paper and become so furious with what they read they just crumple it up and throw it out the window!”
From that day on, WWD was no longer his father’s paper.
Anything Fairchild deemed banal, or “merchy,” as he put it, was banned from the news columns. Photos of beaming garment executives accepting “man-of-the-year” plaques were too “merchy.” Items about salesmen switching jobs? Merchy. For a while, even the word “garment” was outlawed. Too déclassé. That part of Manhattan known to generations of New Yorkers as the Garment District became “the fashion district.”
The paper, which had been heavy with columns of gray type, put more of a focus on the visual, from drawings to photographs to bold graphics. Fashion, argued Fairchild, is a visual medium. WWD had to reflect that.
An early move was to change the style of fashion sketches. Until then, they were as detailed as a blueprint and looked like a mail-order catalogue. One could almost count the stitches around a buttonhole. In Paris, Fairchild said, designers illustrated their collections with “tendency sketches,” minimalist drawings that merely hinted at the shape and drape of a gown or a wrap. Tendency sketches not only became the norm at WWD, but were eventually adopted by dozens of other newspapers and magazines all over the country.
The influence of Paris upon the paper became evident in other ways. Market sections of WWD that had long been labeled with serviceable but mundane headings such as “Dresses,” “Hosiery” and “Sportswear,” acquired articles. They became “The Dresses,” “The Hosiery” and “The Sportswear.” Smoking jackets became “le smoking.” When the great sportswriter Red Smith was published in WWD for a brief period in the late Sixties, his column was called “Sportif,” an affectation that might well have baffled this most unpretentious of men.
The inclusion of a sports column, even though temporary, was just one indication of how Fairchild changed WWD by broadening the scope of the paper’s coverage. No longer would it be restricted to news of the trade. Now it would chronicle the doings of high and low society, with more news of “nontrade” events that could have an impact on the fashion industry. The primary vehicle through which this was accomplished was the Eye page, a Fairchild innovation that would be widely copied by countless other publications.
The Eye, written by various staff reporters and sometimes Fairchild himself, was an eclectic compendium of gossip, news, observations and sometimes outright peevishness. (Woe betide Macy’s, for example, if Fairchild went shopping there and couldn’t find what he was looking for.) Its pithy prose — “bitchy” was the word employed by its critics — was often embellished by tightly cropped photographs of the women WWD called The Ladies emerging from fashionable Midtown restaurants after picking at their luncheon salads. Guinness, Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, Pat Buckley, Nancy Kissinger, Slim Keith and more became regulars in WWD’s pages, as did stars from Judy Garland to Katharine Hepburn. Once asked why he devoted page after page to covering Hepburn’s every project, Fairchild replied simply, “I was obsessed with her.”
Fairchild defied tradition by hiring two people with no writing experience and turning them into columnists. One was Carol Bjorkman, whom he found working as a personal shopper in Paris and who had a great sense of style; the other was an innovative young milliner named Bill Cunningham, who went on to become a renowned photographer of street fashion for The New York Times.
“I hired Bill to work at Women’s Wear because he had pep and energy and lots of grace,” Fairchild told Cathy Horyn of The New York Times in 2002. “And he knew everybody. He didn’t sit in an office and talk. He went out and came back with the best stories. Everybody in the office was jealous of him.”
WWD would also expand its cultural coverage. Theater reviews, a staple of the paper for decades because garment manufacturers traditionally courted retailers by taking them to Broadway shows, became more important than ever. Under Fairchild, they achieved new levels of sophistication, spawning a trio of theater critics who went on to wider renown in mainstream media: Martin Gottfried, Howard Kissel and Ben Brantley.
In addition, the paper added reviews of movies (one of Fairchild’s great passions), television, books, museums, dance, opera, music from pop to rock to classical…all written by WWD staffers on their own time and for only a smidgen of extra pay, since their primary responsibility was to report on the fashion industry.
In 1964, Fairchild became editor in chief executive of corporate publishing, and he named Brady to succeed him as publisher of WWD and DNR. Brady had joined the company in 1953 as a reporter in New York and followed Fairchild in Paris as European director. For the next seven years, he and Fairchild formed a strong tandem that continued to lead the paper in new directions.
As WWD became more widely known, Brady, a more outgoing personality than Fairchild, became its public face, granting interviews to writers and appearing on television talk shows, events that Fairchild shunned.
In 1965, Fairchild’s title changed again, this time to publishing director, and in 1966 there were two significant events. On March 31, Fairchild’s father, Louis W. Fairchild, retired. He was succeeded as chairman by his cousin, Edgar W.B. Fairchild, who had been with the company since 1923 and whose father, L.E. Fairchild, was one of the founders. John Fairchild succeeded Edgar as president of the company.
Less than three months later, WWD made national headlines, all because of a wedding dress.
The bride was Luci Baines Johnson and the father of the bride was Lyndon Baines Johnson, then president of the United States. As was the custom for all major weddings, the mission at WWD was to publish the details of the wedding dress as quickly as possible. In mid-July 1966, some three weeks before the Aug. 6 nuptials, Liz Carpenter, Lady Bird Johnson’s press secretary, conducted a press conference at which a sketch of the dress was distributed, but with the understanding it was not to be made public until the vows had been taken. WWD opted not to attend, refusing to sit on restricted material for weeks. Instead, it continued to pursue the story. On July 14, it published a front-page sketch with the headline “Luci’s Wedding — First Report.” Not everything in the sketch was accurate, but it was close enough for a furious White House to bar the paper from the wedding. Carpenter issued a blistering statement slamming “the unethical conduct of one small publication.”
What ensued was a flood of newspaper editorials, columns and cartoons in cities all over the U.S., supporting WWD for refusing to accept embargoed material and for upholding the highest traditions of good journalism by going after the story on its own.
Fairchild, who had presided over a similar scoop regarding Princess Margaret’s wedding dress in 1960, was interviewed by Barbara Walters, who called WWD “the most deliciously gossipy newspaper in the country.”
“I may be the most cursed man in the fashion business,” Fairchild told Life magazine some months later. “But if you tell the truth about the fashion world — put on the screws, refuse to bow down and rave about it — then automatically you are branded a controversial bastard.”
By 1967, the Fairchild family had been running the company for more than 75 years. The total daily and weekend circulation for all the Fairchild publications was 430,000. WWD’s circulation was up to 70,000. Sales in 1967 came to $29 million. Confronted by inheritance taxes and eager to get their money out of the company, the family put the business up for sale.
The buyer was Capital Cities Broadcasting Corp., a company that owned radio and television stations, and the price was $10.5 million in cash and 600,000 shares of a new stock issue then valued at $26.7 million, making the deal worth about $37.2 million. The acquisition was jointly announced on Jan. 8, 1968, by Fairchild and Thomas S. Murphy, president of Cap Cities. Fairchild became an executive vice president and a director of Cap Cities and would later be named chairman of its specialized publications group.
In November 1970, Fairchild’s cousin Edgar retired. Fairchild succeeded him as chairman and ceo of corporate publishing.
By then, WWD’s circulation had reached an all-time high of more than 82,000. Most of the added readership came from outside the trade, “civilians” lured by the daily’s fashion coverage, gossip and feature material. They were the genesis of Fairchild’s next major venture.
In 1971, Brady — unhappy because he had been passed over for the presidency of Fairchild — left the company to direct the editorial staff of Harper’s Bazaar. Prior to that, plans were already in motion for something entirely different at Fairchild: a publication not for the trade, but for a general audience. It was something Fairchild had wanted for years. Now, with the resources of Cap Cities behind him, his vision could become a reality.
W magazine was launched in April 1972 — although his family initially objected to the concept. A broadsheet published on heavy newsprint with lots of color photography, it looked nothing like the tabloid-size, mostly black-and-white WWD — but its contents were all WWD. Fairchild’s concept was to pluck the best of the fashion coverage and nontrade feature material from WWD and repackage it on a larger canvas every two weeks. It would speak to a much wider audience than WWD could reach, and Fairchild would not have to hire a single extra reporter or editor to produce it. The W staff was the WWD staff.
At a meeting of that staff, many of whom were not thrilled about now working for two publications instead of one with no raise in pay, Fairchild was asked whether W would eventually get people of its own.
“As soon as it becomes viable,” he said.
It took more than 15 years for W to become “viable” enough to add its own editorial personnel. In 1993, it changed its format to become a perfect-bound magazine printed on glossy paper and its frequency was reduced from the original 26 issues a year to 12. The cost-saving in having an editorial staff already in place enabled W to begin making money much earlier than most new magazines. Fairchild told The New York Times in April 1974 — W’s third birthday — the publication lost about $700,000 in 1972 and $300,000 in 1973, but would make money in its third year.
W was a reflection of Fairchild’s passions. Its original broadsheet format and biweekly frequency enabled the magazine to get stories in long before any of its competitors, from advances on the upcoming designer shows in New York, Paris and Milan to parties. W was a mix of whatever piqued his interest, in one section featuring an interview with then-Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker or then-National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and in another a story on an interior decorator or designer at home. He summed up his philosophy for both WWD and W in one simple sentence: “You have to have something no one else has.” And he drove his reporters to dig that out.
Fairchild took WWD global in 1978, when a Japanese-language version was launched in a joint venture with Hanae Mori Co. of Tokyo, which was involved not only in fashion but in publishing.
In 1986, Capital Cities surprised the business world when it acquired the American Broadcasting Co. for $3.4 billion. Although Cap Cities was already a sizable media conglomerate listed on the New York Stock Exchange, most people in the general public had never heard of it. They were, however, familiar with WWD. Consequently, many newspaper accounts of the ABC deal identified Cap Cities as the owner of numerous radio, TV and print outlets, “including that feisty little trade publication Women’s Wear Daily.”
Ten years later, WWD got a new owner, when Cap Cities/ABC was acquired by the Walt Disney Co. for some $19 billion. A year after that, on March 6, 1997 — his 70th birthday — Fairchild retired, becoming the final Fairchild to head the company founded by his family. He was succeeded as chairman and editorial director by Patrick McCarthy, who retired in December 2010.
Two years after Fairchild stepped away, WWD was sold again — this time to Advance Publications, a privately held company owned by the Newhouse family. Unlike Disney, Advance had a long tradition of covering fashion. Its Condé Nast division includes magazines such as Vogue, Glamour, GQ, Allure and Modern Bride, in addition to general interest publications like Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. For many years, S.I. Newhouse Jr., chairman of Advance, had wanted Fairchild to work for him. There was even speculation that at one point Fairchild had considered leaving his family’s business to do just that. In the fall of 1999, Newhouse got what he wanted — and he paid handsomely for it.
The price reflected how well Fairchild had taken care of his family’s business. Twenty-nine years earlier, it had been sold to Capital Cities for $37.2 million. This time it fetched $650 million.
Last fall, Condé Nast, feeling pressures in many of its core fashion magazines, would sell WWD again, to Penske Media Corp., owned by Jay Penske. Fairchild remained a contributing editor, making barbed and insightful comments about fashion and everything else.
There will be a private family funeral on Tuesday with a memorial service being planned for a later date. The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made in his name to Doctors Without Borders.