"Our Secret Is Our History": Stefano Tonchi On 40 Years of W Magazine

"Our Secret Is Our History": Stefano Tonchi On 40 Years of W Magazine
Editor of W Magazine Stefano Tonchi
(Benjamin Lozovsky/BFAnyc.com)

Among the world’s preeminent fashion magazines, W began humbly — if you can believe it, given its enormous size, weight, and scope today. At first an unassuming society page, it evolved and grew over the next 40 years to occupy a unique, enviable place in fashion and lifestyle publishing. Fully formed, W is now an opulent mix of the high brow and the avant-garde.

W is where photographers take the biggest risks of their careers and where writers pen their most erudite stories on celebrity, art, design — and of course fashion. It’s a constantly reconstituted swirl of glamour, where editors look like cover stars and cover stars hang out with photogs. Take, for instance, the magazine’s anniversary party at Gramercy Park Hotel last week, where the likes of Iman, Miranda Kerr, Patrick Demarchelier, Vanessa Traina, and Alan Cumming milled and swilled.


Solidifying, literally, W’s place in the pantheon of fashion glossies, “W: The First 40 Years” (Abrams) is an ambitious new anthology of its spectacular four-decade run. Which, in many ways, is only just beginning, as Stefano Tonchi, the magazine and book’s made-in-Italy editor, explains…

Lee Carter: Congratulations on the book. It’s phenomenal.

Stefano Tonchi: I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s not easy to condense 40 years into one book.

What’s the first thing you think about when you embark on a book like this?

Well, I think photography. I think about our heritage in fashion photography, making news and being there first. That means selecting photographers before anybody else, giving them a big chance, a place to express themselves and put out some of their most memorable work. That’s the tradition of this magazine. It was interesting because if you go to the archives and look at 40 years, you kind of measure yourself against it.

I’m sure. Forty years is a long time and you’ve been there for two of those, right?

Yes, I’ve been here for two years exactly. Actually I was kind of surprised myself to see how much of what we had done in the last two years is in the book. I didn’t plan it.

How do you see yourself fitting into the magazine’s arc, long and illustrious as it is?

I think we’ve been trying these last two years to fit in with the history of the magazine, to express a modern, updated version of its mission. In the book’s introduction and foreword that [the magazine’s publisher] Mr. Fairchild did for us, he really talks about the mission, this kind of look into the life of the rich and famous, and the nightlife of people that we admire. That is what we are still doing. And trying to get there first. That was one of his obsessions. If we look at just the people we put on our covers, for example Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain — two people who are now in use everywhere, but we were the first to put them on our covers. It is the same with Rooney Mara, who we put in our anniversary issue. Again, we were probably the first American publication to put her on the cover. That was in February two years ago. I think being first is an important part of this magazine, trying to discover and enter in the house and the mind of people that are very significant today. People who are significant today are not the same people who were significant 40 years ago!

No, of course not.

At the time of Mr. Fairchild in 1972, he featured the ladies who lunch, like Jackie O., and those were the people who were in the news everyday. Today it’s very much about Hollywood, the social chronicles. We are there, and we are there first. We are trying to make images that are memorable, and kind of scoop things. I mean, think about Kristen Stewart. We were the first to present her as a seductive kind of woman, not as a tomboy, and you know what followed!

Who could forget?

The same with Tilda Swinton, somebody who was featured many times before my time. But we followed that tradition and we put her on the August cover one year ago. We still work with a lot of the photographers who are part of the history of the magazine — Steven Klein, Mert and Marcus, Paolo Roversi, Craig McDean, Mario Sorrenti. Craig McDean and Mario Sorrenti had their start in the magazine and continue to be part of the family. What is interesting is that the magazine is still in line with what was the mission of it 40 years ago. If you go through the book you can see the merging of yesterday and today.

One thing that I love about the magazine is its focus on art. I feel that’s something you brought to the table.

I think it’s something that the last two years we really carried on again, collaborating with artists and covering the art scene. We are coming out with a collaboration with four artists for the January issue. It’s really something special because we try to connect art with celebrities and so on.

So the people you cover really are three-dimensional, it’s not so much society anymore, it’s not even just celebrity…

In a certain way, at the time of Mr. Fairchild, they would cover the society of the time. They were going into those houses of people like Jackie O. Those houses had a lot of antiques, I would say, and a lot of decoration. Today we still go in the houses of people who are very significant, like [arts supporter] Maja Hoffmann. Art has become the currency of social status. So, we follow art not only because it’s interesting, not only because I love it, not only because I come from an art background, but also because art is part of the social scene. We cover art because we follow society. We follow what is relevant to our readers, to the life of our readers.

It’s important and it’s there, more than ever.

It was, maybe in the Renaissance, too. The popes and the princes and the monarchs were showing off the art they owned and collected. Today it’s the same thing.

I noticed the book has kept all of the text in the fashion stories — all the titles and credits and things, which I think a nice historical element.

Yes, I really wanted it to be a book about the history of the magazine, not a book about the photographers. One of my favorite books is Helmut Newton’s “Pages from the Glossies.” Helmut Newton really believed that photography is not just photography. It exists in the context of the magazine it was taken for. It exists the way it was published, with the text and the headlines and the typography. Every good fashion story has a narrative, and that goes hand in hand with our journalism. 

What do you say to people who disparage fashion as an art form, who trivialize it and claim it’s not really an art?

I would say that fashion is not an art, it is a business. But, fashion has also become a very strong part of the contemporary culture, because fashion designers and fashion companies are investing so much in owning part of contemporary culture, sponsoring it. And they create shops that are much more than shops. They have great architecture, they hire great architects. They put in incredible art and collaborate with artists. So, fashion is such a cultural obsession of our times. And that is something that you can see in the history of W. You know how, year by year, just reflecting what was happening in society, fashion became more and more important in the magazine. And not just fashion as clothes that you can buy, but fashion as the power of imagination, photography, all these ways to express creativity. For a whole generation through the ’80s and the ’90s, it was all about fashion in the way maybe in the ’70s it was all about filmmaking, and in the ’60s it was music-making. The younger generation of the last 20 years, they all want to be involved in fashion because it is very immediate and it moves very fast.

And it’s a language that everybody can understand and be a part of.

It is a great visual language and we are in a culture that is very visual, more than ever. It is also a language that collaborates with movies, with the language of movies. You have all these collaborations now between actors and fashion houses.

What I also like about W is that it will sometimes court controversy, but in a very clever way. What’s your take on some of the controversial stories that W has done, whether intentional or not?

The vantage point of W is that it is the kind of publication where we can take more risks than others, especially inside the big family of Condè Nast. So it’s a magazine than can do very strong imagery with Madonna…

Yes, the Steven Klein series.

And push the envelope there with great photography. We could show naked men, we could show more provocative images because we have, I would say, an audience that is more mature. I don’t mean age. It’s more upscale, and more informed, more direct in a certain way. And that’s why we became very often a place where photographers can push the envelope.

Also I think it’s a result of a European attitude, which you bring. So I think, to some degree, there’s a level of educating an American audience…

Yeah, but W has always taken chances. It’s more because of our audience, our distribution, our position in the market. It’s less mass than, say, Vogue or Bazaar, or other publications. So that gives us the chance to be more European, in terms of having a more selected audience. For some reason we are more similar to French Vogue or Italian Vogue than to American Vogue, but that’s due to the size, I would say. I mean, many of the Condè Nast publications in Europe are much smaller, and they can take more risks, like we do.

I think European magazines make it their mission to take risks. American magazines a little less so.

Well, there are a lot of very boring magazines in Europe [laughs], magazines that don’t take a lot of risks. In America we only see certain aspects of European culture. I think that the U.S. is still creating incredible contemporary art and incredible movies.

In your young tenure, what have been the high points and what has been the most challenging aspect?

I think it’s been very challenging, and also rewarding, to become a more important player in the entertainment industry. Our coverage of Hollywood has been much stronger in the last two years than ever before. That is because I brought with me a very, very talented entertainment editor, Lynn Hirschberg. So that gave us not only credibility but also incredible access to a lot of movie people. It also gave us, I think, the possibility to be there first, like featuring David Fincher, director of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” before anybody else. I feel those were incredible, successful stories and they added something that W didn’t have. The high point has been to keep the kind of fashion photography that the magazine is famous for, and today is much more difficult than 10 or 20 years ago because there is much more competition.

More competition among magazines?

It’s much more difficult today because Steven Klein, Steven Meisel, Mert and Marcus have many more outlets, considering also all the digital outlets out there. So those are two of the things that I feel very proud about, to be able to maintain the level of photography and creativity in the fashion arena. Also to improve and reinforce our presence in Hollywood and in the world of entertainment — where there is no society, there is only Hollywood. [Laughs.]

So true.

And surely to still be relevant in the art arena with our projects. There, too, the competition is much larger. We keep running out of art stories. [Laughs.] But I think that we have been able to get stories that nobody else had. I think about, again, the story of Maja Hoffmann. Everybody wanted that story, but we were the first and only one to get it. We have a great story, again, in January, and you will appreciate it, on [author, professor, queer theorist] Michael Warner, who is also kind of a legend. He is somebody who doesn’t give interviews, never lets anybody into his house, but we were able to get there.

How do you do that? What’s your secret?

Our secret is our history. We’ve done great journalism. We show what we have done and we show that we have great quality, we don’t compromise.

Lee Carter is editor-in-chief of Hint Fashion Magazine.

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