THE NAUGHTY MR. FAIRCHILD
THE WILD WORLD OF FASHION, AS SEEN BY THE MAN WHO REINVENTED WWD.
Byline: James Fallon
John B. Fairchild created and epitomized the modern Women’s Wear Daily.
Fairchild started at his family’s company at age 13 as an intern in the Washington bureau. After Princeton and military service, he was sent to the Paris bureau, where his scoops and reviews forced designers to alter their view of Women’s Wear Daily as unimportant. He became the paper’s publisher in 1960 upon his return from the Paris bureau and immediately set about recasting its image. It was Fairchild who abbreviated the title Women’s Wear Daily to the more modern WWD.
In his view, fashion was being created everywhere, and WWD had to be there to report on it. So the paper introduced coverage of the women who wore the clothes and began reporting on designers as personalities rather than simply names on labels. In Fairchild’s view, designers were as much celebrities as their customers.
WWD also broadened its reporting on the arts to include movies, books, television, museums and even opera.
Fairchild retired as chairman and editorial director of Fairchild Publications in March 1997 on his 70th birthday. He continues as editor at large of WWD and W. Here, he reflects on the WWD of the past and the state of fashion in the present.
WWD: Was Women’s Wear Daily always the company’s flagship?
JBF: No! At first it was the Daily Trade Record, which became Daily News Record. That was the newspaper my grandfather Edmund bought in Chicago in 1890 to start the company. It was the most extraordinary thing in history: The company started with my grandfather selling gray goods from a horse and buggy in Chicago and it grew from there. At one time, Fairchild even had an aviation paper because they were making airplanes out of cloth.
So WWD really started out as a paper interested in fabrics and textiles and then became a fashion thing. My grandfather and my father, Louis, were always interested in fashion and even then traveled to Europe because they believed, correctly, that the most interesting fashion was in Paris. So they would go to Paris by ship every season to see the collections.
WWD: What impact did each of them have on the paper?
JBF: Well, my grandfather was a creative genius. My uncle Edgar was interested in the mechanical aspects; i.e., printing presses, which he was strongly attached to. My father was the one who really believed that the key for WWD was to focus on fashion and business news. He had a true head for business news and was fascinated with personnel changes in the stores and the buying and selling of stores. He also believed strongly in fashion. In his view, the key to women’s wear was what was going on in the stores.
WWD: When you first arrived in Paris, WWD was barely known there and was allocated a seat in the back rows of the shows. How did you make the leap to the front row?
JBF: By persistence and nastiness.
WWD: What convinced the designers to move you?
JBF: We started writing reviews of the collections and about the designers as personalities. At the same time, we became fascinated with the personalities of the business executives and the social world. We were looking for people who made the world tick. That’s what it has to be about. All the other coverage then was just endless descriptions of clothes. Nothing to me is more boring than that! After all, they’re just body coverings.
WWD: During your time in Paris, you met all the leading designers of the day. Were they part of the social world then as well?
JBF: Not in the case of Balenciaga or Dior. Balenciaga was like a monk and never left his monastery. Dior was shy and led a quiet life and enjoyed food. Then there was Madame Gres, who was like Balenciaga. She was a nun in her nunnery. The leader of the pack in that regard was Coco Chanel. She not only was a great, great designer and dressmaker, but led the way out of that dressmaking world into the artistic and social scene of Paris. As a woman, she understood what a woman wanted to wear and a woman’s body.
WWD: Any anecdotes?
JBF: I remember Chanel standing before me in Paris while I sat staring up at her. When she got furious she removed her hand from her hip and beat her skirt between her legs. She came over and yanked my jacket. “Bad tailoring! Look at those armholes,” she yelled. She had an obsession about armholes; she thought they should be nailed tight in the pit of the arm. I’d sit there for two hours watching her do a fitting. Sometimes, she’d cut so close she’d draw the blood of the model. She was a perfectionist.
She’d walk over to a table, reach into a drawer and pull out a small silver box, out of which she’d take a tiny blue pill. She’d tell me to swallow it as she handed me a glass of whiskey. We’d then spend the night drinking more whiskey, champagne, Chateau Lafite. I always thought I’d wake up with a major hangover, but never did because of that magic blue pill. I never did find out what was in it. We’d fall asleep together on her suede couch or I’d walk her back to her room at the Ritz across the street. In later years, she had a nurse there who had to strap her into her bed because of bad dreams or something.
WWD: What about Christian Dior?
JBF: I finally met Dior through Suzanne Lulling, the directrice of his couture salon. We were invited to lunch at Dior’s residence in the 16th arrondissement with Dior; my wife, Jill; Madame Lulling; the Dior director Jacques Rouet, and me. Dior was an unassuming, kind man who seemed weighed down by his position as a celebrity and probably would have preferred to be back in Normandy alone or at the spa in Montecatini, where he’d go to lose weight. Anyway, he hardly spoke, and all I remember from the lunch was the dessert — a Dior bombe glace. I was impressed with how he managed to get the hot chocolate sauce inside the vanilla ice cream.
But that bombe glace was important — word spread fast that I’d had lunch with Dior and from then on, my relations with the other designers in Paris improved.
WWD: Except for Balenciaga. You never did manage to see one of his shows, did you?
JBF: No, no one did, except for the buyers and Carmel Snow, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar. I’d have to stand outside and ask the buyers to describe the clothes. It was maddening. So I decided to ask one of them to draw me pictures of all the clothes he could remember, which helped, but not much. So one time, we positioned a photographer with a long telephoto lens on the roof across the street from the Balenciaga salon. We practiced by getting some photos of a fitting, which were blurry, but were at least something. On the day of the show, we did it again and watched as all the buyers filed in to take their gilt seats. The photographer was all ready not to miss anything — and just then the directrice of the salon walked over, stared right into the lens of the camera and drew the curtains!
We finally got our photo of Balenciaga himself, though. We shot him when he was walking out of his favorite restaurant in Paris. We only got about three frames, but were so excited that I had them cut all the photos up. It ended up looking like a Picasso portrait. We ran a photo of his eyes, his arm, his feet — even his ears. It made it look like we’d taken tons of photos rather than only three.
WWD: Were there American designers then on a par with the French ones?
JBF: Certainly. The whole power of American sportswear influenced the world. People like Norman Norell, Bonnie Cashin, Clare McCardell. They were interesting designers, but they weren’t really part of social life, except for Mainbocher and perhaps Charles James. James Galanos came a bit later, but he wasn’t that good, really. The other designers didn’t mix in society. It took Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta to become social fashion butterflies and to be adored by the socialites.
WWD: Was fashion a quieter world then?
JBF: It was completely different. The individual designers counted, not the merchandisers, the accountants or the advertising departments. It was a craft. Craftmanship was the key, and all the gimmicks of advertising and merchandising really hadn’t started. It was quieter because you could really dissect the clothes. You could turn them inside out and see the perfection of the craft. Try turning some of today’s clothes inside out and see what you find. Today, craftsmanship is considered a fuddy-duddy word.
WWD: Were the designers as catty and ruthless toward each other as they can be today?
JBF: Designers never like each other. It hasn’t changed. They are always quick to criticize each other’s clothes. Chanel loved to criticize Balenciaga’s and Givenchy’s clothes. She used to say Balenciaga didn’t know how to cut a blouse. It’s the same now — except today they criticize each other’s ads and say their clothes don’t sell.
WWD: Are there any collections you consider particularly memorable? And how could you tell a good collection from a bad one?
JBF: Well, when I saw a good collection I’d get a tingle in my big toe, like with most of the Saint Laurent collections. There wasn’t a particular one, but it was his use of color, the unusual combinations and the cut of his clothes that made them exciting. It was the craft. There are certain designers today, who shall remain nameless, who are color-blind.
I suppose one of the other most exciting collections was Balenciaga’s collection of the chemise, which we called the Sack Dress. Unfortunately, no one from the press saw the show, but all the buyers said it was exciting. So I guess that since I didn’t see it, it had to be! Later, Givenchy would copy it lock, stock and barrel.
WWD: Were the designers the icons then that they are today?
JBF: Yes, a few. Balenciaga, Dior, Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent were respected and worshiped. Women were clamoring to wear their clothes because they made them look beautiful and they felt good when they wore them.
Chanel was the greatest icon of them all because she was in society and in the artistic world. She lived with rich people like the Duke of Westminster and understood their lives. She was an icon in the fashion sense because you could travel anywhere in the world and most people who knew fashion would recognize a Chanel suit. It’s like Ralph Lauren’s man on a pony: It’s instantly recognizable.
WWD: Who was the first designer celebrity?
JBF: That came later. We became interested in what these people were really like. Some of them, like Chanel and Saint Laurent, lived beautifully, and we wanted to show that. Then, of course, there were advertising campaigns like the one in the Seventies with the naked Saint Laurent in black and white. That made him instantly recognizable to almost everyone, even if they weren’t interested in fashion.
WWD: How did you first meet Saint Laurent?
JBF: We met at a Dior lunch at a restaurant in Paris called Berkeleys. He reminded me of a fawn in the fashion forest with those penetrating eyes that still never missed a trick. He was the first modern couturier. He had grown out of the traditions of the past, with its pure perfection of technique, but he was moving it into the future. He knew how to make clothes for today’s living — pants, the peajackets and the alligator motorcycle jacket.
WWD: How did your friendship with him develop?
JBF: Because from an intellectual point of view he is civilized, educated and a gentleman. He is like Chanel because he’s highly educated and likes paintings, music, art.+As a matter of fact, he rarely talks about fashion, except he groans and moans about the hedonistic fashions of others.
WWD: What makes a great designer?
JBF: Clothes that are perfectly made, and clothes that are worn by normal women, not just models. In short, the great designers make clothes that sell. Clothes can’t be isolated in a vacuum; that’s not what great design is about.
WWD: Does longevity matter?
JBF: Dior used to say that the life of a designer is only 10 years, but I don’t think that is the case. Good designers go on and on. Chanel was timeless and continued forever. What is most important is the craft and technique. Let’s be realistic: Fashion is definitely not an art, it’s a craft. I feel very strongly about that. The idea to me is that fashion is just like a good, juicy steak: It needs to be devoured, but it shouldn’t be too rare.
WWD: In your 1989 book, “Chic Savages,” you listed the world’s six greatest designers as Yves Saint Laurent, Giorgio Armani, Karl Lagerfeld, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Lacroix and Vivienne Westwood. Who do you think would be the greatest designers today, and who among the younger designers have the potential for greatness?
JBF: Well, Saint Laurent today is still enormously influential, as are Armani and Lagerfeld at Chanel. And you’d have to say Ralph Lauren.
As for others, I’d say Miuccia Prada, Jean Paul Gaultier, Helmut Lang, Dolce & Gabbana and Martin Margiela are certainly designers others look to. And Tom Ford is definitely influential. Among the younger ones, you’d have to say Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan are the ones who seem to be leading the pack.
WWD: During your time in Paris and when you returned to New York, what gave you the idea to treat designers as celebrities?
JBF: Because I had to have something to write about. Clothes don’t speak, after all. It wasn’t a plan. I was just trying to do my job.
WWD: WWD coined the term Ladies Who Lunch and you are famous for initiating coverage of them. Did this start in Paris?
JBF: No. Ladies Who Lunch didn’t exist in Paris. Women who are smart in Paris don’t spend their time at charity parties and eating lunch at restaurants. If they are interesting, they will have a quiet lunch party at home.
WWD: Then why did you start covering these women in New York?
JBF: Because I like to go to good restaurants and eat!
WWD: What did these women bring to the paper?
JBF: Well, to me it was a challenge because in the beginning they didn’t want to be photographed. When I’d go to a restaurant and see them, I used to sneak to the pay phone and call Tony Palmieri to come and stand outside to take their picture when they left. But after a while, they began to stop and pose, and it wasn’t as much fun. The sport was gone.
WWD: How did you pick the women you photographed? Were women like Babe Paley and Slim Keith icons?
JBF: Oh, they were already known in the fashion and social establishment. They were stylish women in that time. But again, it’s totally changed now. The ones who lunch are a bit tired, and the young ones aren’t chic.
WWD: You were writing about Jackie Kennedy even when you were in Paris. What did you see in her, and who do you think were the other fashion icons?
JBF: Oh, I wasn’t the only one. It was obvious to everyone the impact she was having. There are icons and icons. We didn’t really have the icon movie stars then, except for Audrey Hepburn, who’d been homogenized in clothes by Givenchy via Balenciaga. There were really slim pickings.
We hadn’t gotten into icon-itis in those days, like now. We started to think of the designers as icons — which I suppose in the long run was a mistake.
WWD: How did the Eye page come about?
JBF: We already had an Eye page, but we created a new one. Then Hearst, which is known as a great copycat, did a magazine called Eye. It didn’t work. But our Eye pages did inspire W.
It was about covering the people who wore the clothes. Fashion can’t be separated from the women who wear it. It’s not about that. I sometimes think the stylists for fashion magazines would like to wear the clothes themselves, which is why they photograph them.
WWD: How did Countess Louise J. Esterhazy happen?
JBF: We invented her and did her for a while and then killed her off. I wanted to keep it that way, but Michael Coady insisted we bring her back and make her a regular. The name came about because I was skiing in Klosters with a Hungarian friend and asked him what was a good, aristocratic Hungarian name. He said Esterhazy. So I got the idea on the ski slopes.
My favorite story about Louise is that she once “went” to the opening of a resort in Mexico, Las Hadas, which was owned by the Patino family of Brazil. But I didn’t actually go, I just wrote about it. The trip was organized by this PR man named Earl Blackwell, but we disguised it and said it was led by Mr. Negrobien. We said someone down there was bitten by an iguana. Well, Time magazine picked up the story and reported that the Countess Esterhazy had written a story that someone was bitten by an iguana at this resort. Time kept calling the office and asking to speak with the Countess Esterhazy. It took it totally seriously, but it was just a joke. The poor resort lost all its customers and threatened to sue us.
I went out to lunch with Baron Arnaud de Rosnay, who was married to Isabel Goldsmith, a member of the Patinos, to talk about the lawsuit. We went to Maxim’s and I was surprised to see him bring out his own plate and silverware. We had a lovely lunch and drank lots and lots of wines and never heard about the lawsuit again.
WWD: You introduced the witty catch phrases that would become aWWD hallmark, such as Ladies Who Lunch, Jackie O, Walkers, the Midi and so forth. How did these develop?
JBF: It was easy — we had to make the paper more amusing. Writing about people has to be amusing; it needs a little zip and zap!
WWD: But it can also get you in trouble. You are renowned for the feuds you had with such designers as Geoffrey Beene, Giorgio Armani, Pauline Trigere and even Saint Laurent. What was the background to these disagreements?
JBF: There is no background. I never had a feud with Geoffrey Beene because I was never invited to his collection and I’ve never seen one, except in magazines. But I have to believe it when a publication like the New York Times says Geoffrey Beene is above fashion. I have to think that one out because, in my opinion, EVERYTHING is above fashion.
It’s the same with Pauline Trigere — I never saw one of her collections. But I think she’s a grand old lady.
With Giorgio Armani it was simple: One season he closed his show to all the press except for Time magazine, which offered him the cover if he would do it. I told him, “Look, Giorgio, I’ve been on the cover of Time, too.” It was a matter of survival. After that one season, things went back to normal.
The argument with Saint Laurent was because one season, he didn’t get a good review and he didn’t like it. Pierre Berge called me a megalomaniac and threw me out the next season. So we sent him a book with all the coverage WWD had given Saint Laurent since the beginning. I don’t know whether they even looked at it, but we were allowed back in the next season.
WWD: What has been the impact of Seventh Avenue?
JBF: The part of Seventh Avenue that is good is that it makes good-looking clothes available to everybody, not just the wealthy. But for the creative spirit, it’s a killer. It kills the creative spirit of designers. Seventh Avenue has always underestimated the intelligence and power of the consumer, and that goes for buyers, too. They’ve always done that. But we had to cover it, so we did.
WWD: In the Seventies and Eighties, you were one of the champions of American design. How did you choose which ones to feature?
JBF: American designers know how to dress the world and how to dress people with little money, not only lots of it. Their fashion contribution has been that fashion should be for everyone. We highlighted the ones that we thought were creative and did the most impressive collections.
But that applies to any designer. Look at Giorgio Armani, who revolutionized fashion for the modern woman, especially the woman who worked. He still designs clothes that a woman can wear to work in the morning and still go out in in the evening. He is all about relaxed fashion so that a woman can look super-smart and chic all day long. He Armani-ized the world by designing simple fashion in beautiful fabrics. He certainly is one of the century’s most important designers.
Ralph Lauren is another example. If you say who is the designer most recognized in the entire world, it would be Ralph Lauren and his man on the polo pony. He merchandised fashion to the nth degree and made a name. His store on Madison Avenue is one of perfection, and he has always stuck to that quality and image. He isn’t all over the place like a lot of other designers. He is focused, like Halston was focused. Halston did more to make American sportswear chic than anyone. He and Bill Blass.
WWD: What about American designers like Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis?
JBF: Calvin Klein to me is the epitome of the business designer machine. Perry Ellis had no real impact, in my opinion. We discovered Perry Ellis because we were looking for a new designer to write about. They were hard to find, and he stood out like a star.
WWD: How has fashion changed since the Sixties and Seventies?
JBF: The sad thing for fashion is that unless you have the backing of a big business machine, it is very, very difficult for a talented young designer to get started. And after they get started, they are never given enough time to prove themselves. With what it costs in merchandising and hype, it’s extremely difficult for a designer to make a name for himself. Saint Laurent started with practically nothing and had to borrow money from an American used-car dealer to set up his house. That would be impossible today.
The other thing is that these huge business machines don’t get the message of fashion. The most outstanding concepts are Prada and Gucci, because when you walk into one of their stores, they are of the same standard everywhere. They have Prada-ized and Guccified the world.
WWD: What about the growth of the huge fashion conglomerates?
JBF: They are both good and bad. They limit the game to only a few big names, and the danger is the public will get bored. Fashion needs new names and excitement. It needs for the underdogs to bark.
WWD: Could you do today what you did at WWD in the Sixties?
JBF: No, times have changed. The sad thing is that the openness and fair play in writing about fashion have changed enormously. The fair play is gone. It’s all advertising-driven now or about these crazily forced fashion pictures in magazines that don’t mean anything to the general public. What I’m fearful of is that the general public has lost interest in fashion. It’s become so extreme and the fashion world is more interested in itself than what the consumer wants.
The fashion world has forgotten that the ultimate thing is the consumer. Designers are more concerned with what other designers think about their advertising than what the consumer thinks. That’s a sad thing for fashion, because fashion is about titillation and should be fun. It shouldn’t be played like some deadly serious game.
Now, fashion is very parochial and very predictable. It’s sort of boring. It’s all gone promo-Hollywood and MTV. The rule in publishing is that the big problem is to get people to read. In fashion, the big problem is to get them to wear clothes. Women need to be tempted into the beauty of fashion, not its ugly side.
When I was in Paris, Mr. Dior invited me to go to Russia for a fashion show he was giving there. It was at the height of the Cold War, and Americans were rarely allowed to go. I went to write a story. We had a rather attractive young lady as our interpreter and guide, and she asked me what I liked about Russia. I told her the books and Shostokovich. So a few days later, she got me some Russian books in English translation and some 78-records of Shostokovich. But the whole time, she kept pooh-poohing fashion and saying how could it be interesting because it was decadent and a waste of money.
Well, Dior showed his collection at the arena where the Moscow Circus performed, and she sat next to me. I looked over at one point and tears were streaming down her face. I asked her if she was OK, and she said, “It looks just like it must have in the time of the Tsar!”
That’s the magic of fashion.
WWD: Looking back, what do you think was your biggest accomplishment?
JBF: It wasn’t about that. I had a job to do because the paper then wasn’t making any money and I had to make it profitable. I was fortunate that I had around me wonderful people who encouraged me, mainly the women, and who kept prodding me to do something different. All they needed in turn was someone to encourage them. People like Tibbe Taylor, Etta Froio, Rudy Millendorf — they were the ones who kept pushing me to do something. We saw how fashion was at the time and reacted to it. It is an entirely different story now. Now there are so many conflicting forces working on fashion; it was far and away an easier task then.
WWD: What makes a good journalist?
JBF: A good journalist or editor has to always have something no one else has. That’s what I always tried to do. It’s unlike today, when you can pick up the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and they have exactly the same story. My rule was to never have anything on the front page anyone else had. To survive, you have to be unique. It’s a matter of survival.
WWD: Do you need controversy?
JBF: You’ve got to be controversial in fashion because, basically, it’s a bunch of blah blah. Controversy makes it lively. Luckily, the egocentricity of the business makes for very interesting pickings!
WWD: What do you consider your great interviews?
JBF: Bernadine Morris — who later went to the New York Times — and I went to interview Diana Vreeland. I was so honored and flattered that she wanted to speak to me. When we got there I was enthralled with all her fashion speak. But when we got back to the office, we found out she hadn’t really said ANYTHING — but she’d acted beautifully. So we ran a picture of her that made her look like an Indian under the headline “The Chief.”
WWD: What do you consider your biggest scoops?
JBF: Oh, I don’t know! I suppose the greatest scoops we had was to have the Saint Laurent collections when he was the hottest designer around and no one else was allowed to see them. We were the only ones who had it.
We started writing real opinions about the clothes, rather than just describing them. The first time we did it was with the couture, and we based the reviews on weather forecasts…Dior: sunshine; Givenchy: stormy; Balenciaga: fair and sunny; Saint Laurent: hot and sunny, and so on. For bad collections, we’d say snow, rain or sleet. It was silly, but it got us noticed. Even Paris Match wrote about it and gave us full credit. Of course, at the end of the story, they called me a blouson noir, which, loosely translated, means “juvenile delinquent.”
But the biggest triumph was breaking the release date of the couture when I was in Paris. At that time, the Chambre Syndicale insisted magazines and newspapers couldn’t print sketches or photographs of the current collections until at least a month after the shows. I used to really resent how all the grandes dames of the magazines could paw and examine the clothes, take them off to be photographed and show them to the Seventh Avenue manufacturers while we couldn’t do anything. So Women’s Wear broke the release date.
The first time we did it was with Saint Laurent’s first collection for Dior. All through the show, I kept thinking how we could illustrate it with pictures, not just words, until it struck me that the silhouette looked just like a toothpaste tube sitting on a brioche. So I rushed back to the office right after the show and had our artist Alex Rakoff sketch it. We wired it to New York and the next day it was on the front page.
Jacques Rouet called immediately and said I’d insulted the House of Dior and Saint Laurent by breaking the release date and showing a Vaseline tube! I kept trying to tell him it was a toothpaste tube, but he wouldn’t listen. The French always do find other connotations in everything.
WWD: Were there scoops you wished you’d had?
JBF: Well, I wished we’d had the correct wedding dress for Princess Diana (in the frenzy of the buildup to the royal wedding, someone slipped a sketch of Diana’s alleged wedding dress underneath the door of the London office. The paper printed it on its front page the next day under the headline “Is This THE DRESS?” It wasn’t.)
WWD: Do you regret any of the reviews or stories you wrote?
JBF: Many — but I don’t think I should go into that.
WWD: What are you proudest of?
JBF: The alumni of WWD are everywhere, and it’s nice to think we started them off. Some of them are extraordinarily successful, and they deserve it. WWD was their training ground. After all, it was for me, too. The great Eugenia Sheppard worked at WWD and she started ME off. I copied every great idea she produced.
So it would be the people I worked with — and the fun. We always had fun.