In her hotly anticipated new book, Hijacking the Runway, veteran Wall Street Journal scoopmistress Teri Agins tackles the celebrity onslaught and what it means for fashion. Be very afraid.
BY CHRISTOPHER TENNANT
Without giving away too much, what’s the premise of Hijacking the Runway?
It all started with my last book, The End of Fashion, which came out in 1999. I had a chapter in there called “What Becomes a Legend Most? When Giorgio Armani Takes Hollywood,” where I started to document and explain the whole phenomenon of the red carpet, and how Armani was using movie stars and pop singers as billboards. He was the real game changer, starting back in 1991. Then, in 2005, I did a big page one story for the Journal about Jessica Simpson, who was doing her first jeans collection with Tarrant Apparel Group, and had just left her TV show. My story ended with the launch of Jessica’s jeans in big chains like Fashion Bug and Macy’s. I used her story as a way of showing where things were going and sort of went from there.
It’s a big topic. Where did you start?
Every time you do a complex story like this you just need to follow the money. At the Journal, we’re always trying to see who’s making the money, who’s gaining the market share, who’s cutting deals with whom. I didn’t just want to observe and describe the phenomenon; I wanted to explain in detail how the celebrity invasion has changed the industry. I interviewed over 125 people for this book, mostly on the record, and used my own institutional knowledge from my years covering fashion. I started at the Journal in 1984, and developed the fashion beat basically from scratch starting in 1989.
I gather there wasn’t a lot of serious business coverage of fashion outside of the trades back then.
There really wasn’t. But I had covered all sorts of other beats to prepare me for it, like the airline industry. When we first started the fashion beat, the question really was: How do we make this interesting to our readers, most of whom are men, who aren’t really interested in clothes? Fashion was playing an increasingly large role in the culture, and in finance, and we thought it needed to be covered in a serious way. So I started going to the shows and meeting people. Back then I was way in the back row along with Newsweek and Time, and I used to ask my colleagues, “What’s the deal? Why aren’t we up front? We have much bigger circulations then those other guys!” And they’d say, “The fashion designers think we’re not serious about this. They think we just parachute in to do a fashion story every once in a while.” At that point, it was mostly true. So that definitely stuck with me. Of course, it took a while for me to figure out how to engage the different designers. In general, I tried to come up with stories that were counterintuitive and provocative, and that we could prove. You know, everyone thinks this brand is big, but it really isn’t, or, everyone thinks it’s failing, but it’s a smash. I didn’t report gossip, and kept the focus on the money and the people, because people and their money is probably the sexiest thing you can write about. It helped that the Journal has a lot of impact. You write anything and it’s like, BOOM! I could compel people to talk to me. People would say, “Oh God, here comes Teri Agins again!”
The subtitle of your book is “How Celebrities Are Stealing the Spotlight From Fashion Designers.” Safe to say that’s a bad thing?
It’s not about being good or bad, it just is. This is how things have evolved, which was bound to happen because celebrities are such a major part of our culture now. It’s mutually beneficial in a lot of cases, too. Fashion is an emotional purchase, and brands need things to get people excited. It was the designers themselves in the ’80s and ’90s, and now it’s celebrities. My book shows how that evolution came to pass. It’s going to give people a lot of things to talk about, that’s for sure.
Fashion people often complain that the mainstream press doesn’t “get” the industry—that it covers fashion like a freakshow. Did you make a conscious effort to change that perception?
It’s true, and that disconnect is why we didn’t get any respect initially. The designers used to think most journalists were only there to make fun of them. But fashion deserves the same level of scrutiny as the auto or the food industry. It needs to be covered with seriousness. It helped that I was a serious fashion consumer as well. I was a fashionista before it was a word! In 9th grade my journalism teacher at Northwest Junior High School in Kansas City knew that I liked clothes so she had me do a fashion column. I called it “Teri’s Tips for Fashion Flair.” This was back in 1968.
You did some less serious stories at the Journal, too.
I did, and those were some of my favorites. “Big Boobs are Back,” when Cindy Crawford had just become a model, comes to mind, but even that was through the prism of business. My first big story, in 1990, which I actually won an award for, was about the designer Gordon Henderson and Ricky Sasaki, who now is deceased, but who was his financial backer. He wanted to turn Gordon into a big star, and it was about the tension between Ricky, who wanted to make money, and Gordon, who wanted to be an artist. I ended up interviewing them and Ricky told me how much money he paid Gordon, which was basically unheard of. It was a real behind-the-scenes look at the relationship between a moneyman and a creative. That was the story that put me on the map. Oh, and remember the whole $10,000-a-day supermodel thing? That was another one. After Linda Evangelista said those famous words, the designers decided they didn’t really want to spend that much after all and a number of them agreed they would all start paying runway models less, which is basically price-fixing. I was at a cocktail party at Bergdorf’s when I heard somebody talking about it, so I went home thinking there might be a story there. On a whim, I called down to the Washington bureau and they couldn’t help me, so I called the Justice Department. I said, “Hi, I’m Teri Agins from The Wall Street Journal and I’m calling about the Calvin Klein investigation.” I didn’t know anything—I just picked a random brand! And they said, “Oh, that’s in the criminal division. Let me connect you.” Suddenly, I had a story! It was one of those dumb luck things that happen when you’re a hungry reporter. Of course, as soon as my editors found out they said, “We’re running it tomorrow!” I was so scared. It was a huge deal.
Your experience covering the Pan Am bankruptcy paid off!
It helped immensely. Unlike most fashion reporters, I could actually read an income statement, I could read an earnings table—really basic journalism, but really important stuff when you’re doing these kinds of stories. Because I had the tools, I was able to put all the pieces together and write a smart piece. I was lucky enough to have great editors, too.
Fashion ads pay the bills now more than ever. Do you think there’s a disincentive to hire real reporters to cover the fashion beat?
I think we’re going through a funny time in journalism. It used to be that the career track for a young reporter was to work for a small paper and then climb your way up. In my case, I went to Wellesley undergrad because I decided I wanted to be a reporter after doing that little fashion column in the school paper. Then I was a summer intern at The Kansas City Star my sophomore year, and at The Boston Globe my junior year. After that I went to the University of Missouri journalism school for my master’s. That’s when I got some Ford Foundation money to do my master’s thesis on the government controlled press in Lima, Peru, where I lived for a few months. I ended up going to Brazil and took a little detour. If I hadn’t, I would have gone to a small paper in someplace like Minneapolis or Louisville and covered the courthouse and the school board, stuff like that, while earning my stripes and waiting for the big call. I’m not sure what kind of training kids get now.
Do you remember when you got the big call?
My call was different because I had been living in Brazil. I got married right after grad school and my former husband, who was a banker, and I went to Brazil for five years when I was 25. I was a stringer for TheNew York Times and Fairchild News Service in Brazil and worked for a Brazilian supermarket magazine, and when I came back to the U.S. in’84 Norm Pearlstine, who was managing editor at the Journal at the time, hired me as a staff reporter. My first Journal beat was writing for the small business column. If you were out in the field and something happened you’d have to call in on a pay phone and dictate a seven-word headline! It was real shoe-leather reporting. I hate the fact that kids don’t get that type of exposure today. It’s so fundamental, and it gives you so much confidence because you know you can be dropped into any story. I mean, some of my stories took weeks! I’d do nothing else but straight reporting for six weeks, working night and day. We’d end up with these 2,500 word stories that were just packed full of information and details and really sophisticated analysis, of the sort that’s missing in fashion journalism these days. The stories I wrote weren’t necessarily about the artistry of fashion, because I wasn’t a fashion critic. I went to the shows more to find sources and stories. The good clothes to me were the clothes that made money. That was the way we evaluated things. I think it would be nice if the young reporters would use more of that sort of rigor. They’d find they end up with much sexier stories, too!
Do you think we’ve reached peak celebrity? Can a celeb build a lasting brand?
I think they probably could, but it depends. There are so many factors, and the fashion industry is hard. I mean, there are so many people perceived by the fashion industry to be successful that really aren’t, because of all the hype surrounding everything, whether it’s a big show, or a CFDA award, or they open a lot of stores, or a show like Project Runway. People look at certain designers and think they must be selling tons, but that does not necessarily mean they are. All you have to do is look at Marc Jacobs or Michael Kors and what it took, and how long it took, for them to really take off. It’s much harder even than it was back in the ’90s. It’s a global market. The U.S. is so crowded with brands and everything so to try to break in can seem impossible. It’s a fun industry, though, and I have loved writing about it. It’s filled with creative, quirky personalities, and a lot of funny things can happen!