At 40, ‘W’ Is Just Getting Started

Tonchi's bet that fashionistas will read about more than clothes and jewelry is beginning to pay off

This fall, W magazine, Condé Nast’s oversized luxury title, will turn 40. And contrary to what most fashion magazines would have you believe, W’s recent journey from identity crisis to branding victory proves that some things do improve with age.

In the spring of 2010, when Stefano Tonchi, the editor of T: The New York Times Style Magazine, left for the same title at W, the magazine had hit a rough patch. While respected for its fashion coverage and photography under the direction of predecessor Patrick McCarthy, it lacked a distinctive voice to set it apart from the rest of the luxury pack. Bouncing between Condé Nast and then-corporate sibling, the less-influential Fairchild Fashion Group, it had no digital presence to speak of. Ad pages had fallen nearly 50 percent in 2009, making it one of Condé Nast’s hardest-hit titles.

“When Stefano arrived here, we had a very beautiful magazine and a very successful magazine,” W publisher Nina Lawrence said. “But that’s all we were. We were one of the most underdeveloped brands in the industry.”

Tonchi overhauled the site and added more entertainment—especially Hollywood—and art coverage. He put up-and-comers on the cover (W was the first fashion title to feature The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo star Rooney Mara), collaborated with artists like Steven Klein and hosted Golden Globes parties.

W’s readers still wanted luxury, but not in a traditional sense, Tonchi said. “We’re talking about somebody who is much more modern, young and adventurous. They want surprise, not to be bored. That’s what many magazines appealing to a rich audience often are—boring and predictable.”

Today, W has a lot to celebrate beyond its anniversary. Riding the return of luxury advertising, ad pages jumped 17 percent to 310 in first-quarter 2012. It was just nominated by the American Society of Magazine Editors for a National Magazine Award in the prestigious General Excellence category—for the second year in a row, no less—and for Feature Photography.

W “definitely has positive momentum,” said Dennis Santos, vp, group media director at PGR Media. “I think it took a bit for people to grasp what Stefano wanted to do, and some of the new editorial team additions seem to have paid off.”

For its 40th, W struck a yearlong partnership with Saks Fifth Avenue. It includes W-inspired window displays at Saks, a coffee-table book and events. A shoppable fashion gallery with links to Saks will live on W’s site, a preview of e-boutiques that W has planned for December. The actual anniversary issue, November’s, will have a 25 percent bigger trim size.

Lawrence said W’s past weak identity gives it a chance to really stand out now. “There aren’t that many brands that are so asleep at the wheel that you get to jump out and dive in,” she said.

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