Collective denial.

That’s a new disorder afflicting us at WWD.

This story first appeared in the March 28, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

We’re trying hard not to confront the fact that Etta Froio is retiring at the end of this week.

We faced down this prospect once before. Back in 1999, Etta expressed her plan to retire after 30-odd years of brilliance, poise, hilarity — and a body of work that defined this wonderfully quirky publication as much as anyone has in its 102-year history.

Our response to Etta’s plan? Unacceptable. Didn’t compute. Negative that, Etta. (Tears helped.) We simply refused to let the woman retire.

We snookered her into a deal that gave her summers off (to work on her ruthless, unkind tennis game) and a generally reduced schedule that would enable her to work when she felt so inclined. It wasn’t long before we abused the agreement; her languid summers were not to be. July Couture in Paris beckoned. Ready-to-wear’s marathon season loomed right after Labor Day. Special sections needed her scrutiny and fine hand, as did a little thing called the daily paper. The dilettante life would have to wait. We were selfish. Still are.

This time, though, Etta can’t be hustled. Friday is it. Then she moves on full-time to her rich life of art, tennis, travel, Southampton (she could get elected mayor…), Puccini the Wonder Cat, Bentley the Dog, gardening, food, a vodka or two and more real, true friends than anyone else I know.

Etta’s tenure at WWD parallels the history of the paper’s modern transformation, right up to its current iteration. Working at first under legendary fashion editor June Weir, Etta soon served as a co-conspirator in John B. Fairchild’s radical vision to breathe life, smarts, sass and rhythm into a tired trade paper and, incidentally, invent modern fashion journalism along the way. To this day, Mr. Fairchild cites Etta as one of the key people who gave him the courage “to do something different.”

Her own stories are far too many to tell. A few: Freezing up as a young reporter when Jackie Kennedy cut through a crowd and extended her hand to say hello; witnessing Yves Saint Laurent’s historic Ballet Russes collection, which she described as “a once-in-a-lifetime fashion moment”; speeding along just outside Palm Beach with Gloria Guinness in a Buick Riviera as Guinness wistfully noted “There’s so little today that’s beautiful…even the Venus de Milo is too fat”; kibitzing with a 21-year-old Barbra Streisand about the up-and-coming singer’s thrift-shop clothes, in particular an old cut-velvet gown that caused Liberace to “flip out” in Lake Tahoe; interviewing the Duchess of Windsor in her Waldorf-Astoria suite, an astute Froio spotting a needlepoint pillow resting on a satin sofa that said it all: “You can’t be too rich or too thin”; the countless meetings, trips, conversations with Oscar, Giorgio, Ralph, Karl, Hubert, Calvin, Bill, Donna, Marc, Michael, Alber…and on and on.

Newspaper veterans, in particular, are a cranky species, set in their ways. But even though she’s seen it all, good times and bad, Etta’s never been one to blow on about the past at the expense of the present. In fact, she’s the best kind of journalist: always curious; never bored; looking forward; keeping an open mind, finding today every bit as challenging and exciting as yesterday. As current and knowledgeable about today’s young designers as she was about the young Saint Laurent. It’s no wonder reporters and editors are still drawn to her immediately.

As I was, when I first joined WWD as editor in 1991, picking up some of her responsibilities at the time, as she was spread too thin between the daily and then-sister publication W. I was out of my depth and eager to gain her favor but wary of overstepping. Etta’s advice: “Do what you have to do. I have no ego.” A few months later, doing “what I had to do,” we blew the editorial financial budget for the month, in a big way. Etta and I were summoned to be admonished. Or, in other words, screamed at by the budgetary authorities. Remember when people screamed in the workplace? We do. Etta got the brunt of it. I was the new guy. The appropriate and fair thing to do would have been for Etta to turn to me and say, “Yeah, you idiot. What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Instead, she took the bullet for me. Quietly and in the most dignified fashion.  

I knew I had a friend — and a mentor. After advertising myself as one of the uninitiated by voicing out loud, in the middle of the fashion department, such queries as, “What’s a twinset?” — I clearly confirmed the department’s suspicions of my misguided appointment. But I learned a valuable lesson. I had a life preserver when the water got too choppy: Etta. From then on, my ignoramus questions were directed to her quietly, and she always answered patiently. I was educated by the best teacher in the business.

Back in the Sixties and Seventies, the cheeky WWD referred to the industry and its denizens as “The Fashion Forest.” Unsurprisingly, Paris was “The Exotic” and Seventh Avenue was “The Primeval.” The two perfectly capture Etta’s all-embracing nature. This is the most elegant, refined woman you’ll ever meet, who, if properly encouraged, can bellow a hog call — “soooooweeee” — that can drive the chicest fashionista right to the slop pail.

Such exotic and primeval skills come in very handy in the newsroom, a place where anarchy always bubbles just beneath the surface. Borderline bedlam. Each day at the daily begins with all kinds of promising information: rumors, innuendo, conflicting agendas, deals, manipulations, upheavals, falsities, triumphs. As the day wears on, chaos, by necessity, sharpens into a focused semblance of control. At some point, the news needs to get out. You need some people who are unfazed by pressure. Capable of separating good from bad. Informed. Tough. Unthreatened. Calm. Decisive. Uncomplaining. Smart. Funny. Cool. That’s Etta.

A telling, electrifying moment occurred during the recent Paris collections. One of the most anticipated shows was Alber Elbaz’s 10th anniversary extravaganza at Lanvin. Alber didn’t disappoint. Beautiful clothes, for sure, in a Felliniesque party setting with live music; foie gras lollipops; giant cakes; candy; Champagne everywhere; massive, glittering chandeliers…even a serenade by Elbaz himself, “Que sera, sera.” At the end of the show, walking the long runway past 1,600 wildly cheering guests, a triumphant Elbaz suddenly stopped, turned to Etta in the front row, stroked her face and motioned to his heart. He then turned and headed in the direction of backstage and its ensuing abandon.

Alber’s gesture spoke for us all.

How can you really repay someone who makes bedlam bearable? Whose wisdom, poise and wit make life richer, more interesting, more fun?

True affection exists in a state of ambivalence between the selfish and the selfless. We’re miserable for ourselves; we’re excited and happy for her new freedom.

Etta is ours for three more days. They’ll go quickly.

No doubt we’ll be working late.

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