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So What Do You Do, Stefano Tonchi?

The New York Times' style editor on the creation of T, how to make the paper's style and culture writers play nice together, and why Fashion Week isn't what it used to be.

By Greg Lindsay - September 7, 2004

It's been almost a year since Stefano Tonchi made the leap from the fashion creative director post at Esquire to the style editor post at The New York Times. In that year, his predecessor, Amy Spindler, tragically died of cancer, the man who hired him, Adam Moss, bolted for New York magazine, and Tonchi has still managed to consolidate the Sunday Times myriad fashion, design, and travel supplements into what will eventually become a monthly style bible by the name of T. Tonchi spoke to last Friday from Venice, where the Times was hosting a party for T's first cover subject, Kate Winslet. He'll be back in New York on Wednesday for the start of Fashion Week, at which he's been a regular front-row presence since his days at Esquire, Self, and L'Uomo Vogue. But it's his belief that these days, Fashion Week is about anything but the clothes.

Birthdate: October 10, 1959
Hometown: Florence, Italy
First section of the Sunday Times: The front page.

You've had an unusual career path for an editor at The New York Times. How did you come to be there?
I've been interested in magazines all my life. I started writing for a university newspaper, and I had a small magazine in my 20s in Florence. From there, I was hired as a reporter/journalist writing for Italian Vogue, and then from there, I became one of the fashion directors at L'Uomo Vogue. Then I moved to the States and became creative director for Self magazine, and from there became the creative director for J. Crew. When I moved to the States, I wanted to learn the business of "America"—the business of the mass market, the business of research. It was a very interesting experience at J. Crew and Self, because they are two of the most American institutions. And Esquire was another of those institutions, although Esquire is much more of an elite, and much more close to my heart. And I've come to a place now that has some of the elitism that I like. It's an elitism of education, more than anything else. It's an elitism of choice, not an elitism dictated by focus groups.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the birth of T was how you were able to quickly subsume four different magazines into one new one with its own style and visual identity—and one that stars a lineup of Times' heavy-hitters like Lynn Hirschberg, Suzy Menkes, Cathy Horyn, and Herbert Muschamp. Were you given a mandate to merge the magazines when you came in, or did it happen organically?
I was hired to look at the style pages of the magazine, and that's what we started to do in the first month of my tenure. In the weekly magazine, we're trying to renovate it to have more surprises, to have a variety of subjects—not only fashion stories and photography portfolios, but also to have someone like Herbert Muschamp talk about the new Prada collection and Miuccia Prada and contemporary art. We also recruited Amanda Hesser, and next week she will debut a completely new way of doing food for the magazine. So there is also a lot of things changing in The New York Times Magazine that incorporate style and fashion and food. That was actually the first part of my responsibilities.

Then I was asked to look at the supplements, the eight "Part Twos," that come out every year—Fashions of the Times, two Men's Fashions of the Times, two Style & Entertaining, and two Home Design. And talking to Adam [Moss] and then with [NYT Magazine editor] Gerry [Marzorati], I thought the reader didn't understand the continuity between them, that we should create a stronger identity.

I think it's a very important time in publishing for newspaper supplements all over the world. If you think about the supplements of the London Telegraph or Sunday Times or with the Financial Times—which has a new monthly supplement called "How To Spend It"—they're all very successful, not to mention Germany and France, where they have created very, very powerful weekly style publications that are free with the newspaper. So, from this perspective, I thought: "Why not create something stronger that takes advantage of the authority of The New York Times?" The first step was creating a logo that was recognizable to the reader, so: T.

And then we created something those supplements never had—a front of the book. I think the front of the book is where you define the identity of a magazine. We created some departments that will be consistent through all the different publications. One will be fast news and short stories with attitude; one will be very product oriented; one will be words and opinion. We asked a number of journalists to be columnists in every issue—we created a column for Suzy Menkes, the style editor for the International Herald Tribune, which is also owned by The New York Times Co. Then we asked Tyler Brule to write a column named "Perfect Bound," about the pursuit of perfection, and then we asked Lynn Hirschberg, who is writing about Hollywood and style. Lynn Hirschberg is another very strong presence in the magazine—she is an editor-at-large in the regular magazine, and we're using her a lot in T, too.

Isn't that what T is also about? Bringing together these talents under one roof? I noticed that in T, Suzy Menkes isn't listed as an International Herald Tribune writer; she just happens to be in the Times stable and writing a column. Is knocking down departmental walls part of your job description, too?
Well, the idea was to create something more consistent to help the reader. We have these great editorial pages, and we can really deliver something more than just something that comes between advertising pages. This has a strong identity, which is what I really wanted.

T is a mirror of what has been happening in society at large. Ten years ago, or 60 years ago, when Fashions of the Times was created, fashion was very much a business, sure, but it was something very marginal in society. Today, designers are some of the most influential people we have to live with. They not only dictate what we wear, but they also influence the way we look at things—even geography. They have the power to make areas become expensive because of the presence of certain stores. Look at the changes in Soho, or in the Meatpacking District. And that's just New York.

It was time to look at fashion as a strong component of contemporary culture. It really is a complex world—fashion designers are opening restaurants and hotels, and you have film directors designing collections while architects are getting into the business of retail (think of Rem Koolhaas and Prada). Fashions of the Times was just so much about the clothes. And the clothes are not even what the designers are there to sell—they're much more into the idea of "lifestyle."

Speaking of blurring job descriptions, how do you approach the position of style editor? While you've co-written several books, your reputation is that of a stylist. Do you approach the job as a creative director? Are you hands-on with the copy there?
I have an overview and a vision, which is what I think an editor should have—the way things should look and sound like. I assign, with the people I work with, all of the stories. Sure, I have fantastic people to work with because the Times has a fantastic stable of great writers and editors. If you look at even the short stories in the front of the book, you find opinions, and that is what I ask of them. We try to have humor, we try to put things in a larger perspective. My interests are very much in contemporary art and design, and those are forces we always have to keep in the picture.

Sure, I will never be known as a writer. That's not what I am. I'm much more about defining and telling a story through images and through a structure—I think this is also what, more and more, the next generation is doing. People respond so much to images, and who said that you cannot tell interesting, meaningful stories through images?

Will you be able to be more experimental with T than most fashion and style magazines? Does the fact that you don't have to worry about selling on the newsstand —that more than one million readers will see and read T regardless of who's on the cover—liberate you as an editor?
It's not so much about experimenting. This is the first issue we put out. We're going to add new things. I want to create new features that can only be in T, and can only come from the Times. But at the same time, I want to be useful to the reader. The readership of The New York Times is probably the most educated and the one with the highest income, but it is not a specialized readership in terms of style.

I'm not here to compete or play the games of W or Visionaire or Vogue or that kind of magazine, because they speak to a specific woman, a woman who is more or less obsessed with clothes and shopping. I think our readers have a knowledge of fashion and they like fashion, but they are not the same readers. They buy the paper every day to find out what's happening in the world, not only politically, but in film, in sports, in the arts, and in fashion. We are empowering fashion, recognizing that fashion is not a chronicle of one designer or the other selling or not selling anymore, but forces that are mingling and mixing with contemporary culture.

Does the supremacy of visuals explain why the Times—the "Gray Lady"—has invested so much time, money, and energy in a primarily visual magazine? And does this explain why Fashion Week has become the spectacle that it is now?
Well, think about New York Fashion Week—it's owned by IMG, a giant communications firm. There you have the picture. We live in a society of total entertainment, I would say, and fashion is a big part of it, because there is a lot of money involved, and it is easy for fashion to talk louder than other disciplines. When you think about contemporary art or architecture, they are much more marginal somehow. But fashion makes them more accessible sometimes. Think again of Rem Koolhaas. Certain kinds of architecture and design can, through the eyes of fashion, become much more mainstream.

Fashion Week is very much about entertainment. What is happening—which on the one hand is sad, but it is a little difficult to stop—is that many shows have become more show business than the clothes business.

But won't we eventually start to burn out? Don't we ultimately just want something that's wearable?
I think there is an interest in the younger generation to go back to the product. It also comes from the fact that the readership, the consumers, are much more aware about quality. There is an interest right now in going back to the boards and looking for new fabrics, new techniques, new ways of dressing. I think the younger generation is trying to go back to its roots. We went so far that so many designers now are doing everything else but fashion.

Greg Lindsay, a freelance writer in Brooklyn, has covered media for and Women's Wear Daily.

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