John B. Fairchild, who for decades exercised unprecedented power over style and fashion around the world as the creative, autocratic and opinionated publisher and editor of Women’s Wear Daily, died Feb. 27 at his home in Manhattan. He was 87.
A spokeswoman for Women’s Wear Daily confirmed the death but did not cite a specific cause.
Under Mr. Fairchild, WWD as it was known, won recognition as the bible of the fashion industry, treating designers as the occupants of some Olympus, whose daily doings were chronicled with high seriousness, gobs of gossip and a substantial degree of swagger. If others created modern fashion, his creation, it was said, was modern fashion coverage.
Aggressive, lively, and perhaps tinged with resentment of the glossy periodicals that seemed ensconced in the bosom of the fashion establishment, WWD embodied Mr. Fairchild’s contrarian personality and the mischievous delight he took in sowing discord among designers.
It was personal journalism of a type that recalled the 19th- and early 20th-century giants of the industry, as if the Hearsts and the Pulitzers had devoted their prodigious interests and energies to dominating the news about glamour, glitz and the garment world.
In his desire to be first, Mr. Fairchild was not above breaking embargoes or dispatching spies into the workrooms of those he covered to seek out their secrets. What he wanted, in his words was “the bacon” and a staff that would bring it home. The bacon, he told Vanity Fair magazine, was “all that counts.”
Over the years, WWD indulged Mr. Fairchild’s personal idiosyncrasies, preferences and tastes. Favor was bestowed upon some already in the fashion pantheon, or striving to get there. By the same token, banishment was meted out to others, with whom he famously feuded. He was a pioneer of “In and Out” lists.
It was not merely the height of hemlines, the length of sleeves, the cut of necklines or the choice of fabrics that he emphasized. WWD also was famous for the breadth of its interest in the entire milieu of the chic and the social, the consumers of high style, the wearers of costly gowns and well-sewn skirts.
Referring to former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the paper once wrote that “Jackie O is now Tacky O” for a presumed slump in tasteful jewelry and clothes. As much as his pages promoted socialites such as Nan Kempner, Mercedes Bass, Gloria Vanderbilt, C.Z. Guest and Pat Buckley, Mr. Fairchild could also savage them for what he perceived as their excesses or shortcomings in fashion or behavior.
His coverage was not a matter of mere whim or the fostering of myth. As editor, he constantly pressed for the facts, for what was going on behind the scenes, pursuing and rewarding scoops and exclusives that made the once stodgy-seeming WWD essential to the producers and creators of high fashion.
Although WWD in its best years was said to circulate only 80,000 or 90,000 copies, its voice could not be ignored in the ateliers of the world’s top clothing creators.
As designer Mary McFadden attested in Vanity Fair, Mr. Fairchild “loved being mischievous in his younger years, playing people off to spice up the paper.” To get a good review, she added, “made your life.”
John Burr Fairchild was in born in Newark on March 6, 1927, and grew up in Glen Ridge, N.J. At the time, the family business consisted of a stable of drab, workmanlike, decidedly unglamorous trade publications, including Footwear News and Supermarket News.
Women’s Wear Daily was founded in 1910 by his grandfather Edmund Fairchild as an appendage to the family’s older menswear publication and was widely regarding in keeping the dull tone of the family’s other holdings. Edmund’s son Louis took over the business, and it was widely expected for Louis’s son John to continue the tradition.
Mr. Fairchild attended the private Kent School in Connecticut and then Princeton University, where his education was interrupted by stateside service in the Army. In 1949, his father sent him to the Paris office of the chain to study fashion at its source.
“Our idea was to go see things in advance even when they were working on the collections and publish it before the magazines,” Mr. Fairchild told the New York Observer. “I’m a very competitive animal. I got arrested by the French economic police for breaking the release date. But it’s a sport, you know.”
He told Vanity Fair that he used female staffers to enter fashion houses under the pretense of buying couture and to ferret out gossip and information from seamstresses about fashion lines and their creators. In an effort to make a name for himself, he criticized Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy and Cristóbal Balenciaga and championed rival designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and befriended others in their dotage, such as Coco Chanel.
His ruthlessness once led to banishment from a fashion show, and he responded by stationing a photographer with a telephoto lens in a building across the street.
Mr. Fairchild’s father handed control to him in 1960. The company was later purchased by other enterprises, but his reign ran through 1997, when he formally retired as chairman and editorial director of Fairchild Publications.
For several more years, he was editor-at-large at Women’s Wear Daily and kept a column on the back page of W magazine, a lifestyle and culture magazine he founded in the early 1970s. He wrote for W under the nom de plume of Countess Louise J. Esterhazy in an astringent voice that went after social climbers, fashion designers and even political figures whose manner and appearance irked him. He called out Hillary Clinton when she was first lady for “hairdo roulette” and former first lady Barbara Bush for her “WASPy righteousness.”
Besides his apartment in Manhattan’s Sutton Place neighborhood, he and his wife, the former Jill Lipsky, had houses on Nantucket and in Switzerland. Besides his wife, survivors include four children and eight grandchildren, according to Women’s Wear Daily.
Mr. Fairchild was the author of two memoirs, “The Fashionable Savages” and “Chic Savages.”