The Famously Candid Stefano Tonchi Talks About the Changing Nature of Luxury

W magazine's editor in chief also offers his views on digital media

In his more than 30 years in the notoriously fickle world of fashion magazines, Stefano Tonchi has amassed an impressive résumé: editor of L’Uomo Vogue, fashion creative director at Esquire, founding editor of T: The New York Times Style Magazine. (Then, there’s his brief departure from publishing as J. Crew creative director.) In 2010, Tonchi took over as editor in chief of Condé Nast’s then-struggling W magazine and four years later has successfully transformed the oversized glossy into a National Magazine Award-winning must-read for fashion and culture devotees. The famously candid Tonchi (who recently added member of the inaugural Clio Image Awards jury to his bona fides) opened up to Adweek about his time at W, his views on digital media and the changing nature of luxury.

Photo: Joshua Scott

Adweek: What do you think makes a successful fashion ad campaign?

Tonchi: Well, great photography and a certain sense of continuity—a strong, direct brand signature. When I think about campaigns that are very on-message, they always have a great quality. Armani is always a great campaign—I mean, the consistency of it. They may not be all perfect 10s, but I think there is a level of quality in the photography, in the casting and in the way things are presented that is very consistent with the brand. The same you could say of Gucci … they are very consistent, strong campaigns. Do they have the strength of the campaigns that Tom Ford did? Those are memorable in a certain way. But that was a certain moment in time. It was a different time, it was much less conservative somehow. Also, Tom has a very strong communication quality—he can really communicate, and he created more of a lifestyle than just the clothes, which I always appreciate.

Why do you think campaigns have become more conservative?

I think brands are being controlled by larger corporations, and also these corporations are pushing to sell a product in so many different markets and they need to have one image for every market. You need an ad campaign that makes people happy in China and in New York and Los Angeles and Europe and in the Arab countries—so you get a lot of opinions. You have to lower it to a middle common denominator, so it happens that the most edgy things don’t go worldwide.

W just received another three National Magazine Award nominations, two for photography and one for general excellence. (Update: W won this year for feature photography.)

The magazine has been continuously nominated for fashion photography. But the big thing that was special, for the second time in my four years here, we got nominated for general excellence as a magazine, not just for photography. General excellence is a very competitive category like the one we are in because it’s women’s magazines, fashion magazines, lifestyle magazines, food magazines, design magazines. It’s an area where it’s difficult to stand out.

Obviously, W has always been known for photography, but in the past few years the content of the magazine has become so elevated.

Well, I think what I brought to the magazine that was not really here [before] is a certain kind of journalistic approach and putting fashion in the context of contemporary culture. Fashion is the center and focus of the magazine, but also Hollywood and cinema, which was never really something so present. I brought with me Lynn Hirschberg [from The New York Times Magazine], who is probably one of the best entertainment journalists in America. Before, W didn’t have an issue called The Movie Issue, which is the February issue. We created this association with the Golden Globes, which is the first big awards event of the season, and it’s where you scout for who will win the Oscars. This year, we decided to do five covers—four [of the cover stars] walked to the podium to get a Golden Globe and three of them got an Oscar.

You were one of the first magazines to give Kim Kardashian a high-fashion cover.

I think we were one of the first major magazines to look at her in a different way. It was very specific of that moment. She was the biggest star on TV; she was not just a socialite. … I don’t know what she is now. I mean, she’s the wife of a very successful musician. I don’t know if she is anymore a brand on her own.

How have you had to change your print strategy to attract readers whose attention spans are now about two seconds long?

You have to deliver the content in a different way, but good content is still good content. A great picture will get attention on paper as on the Web … so you kind of have to deliver the magazine in little bites [on the Web], and that’s what we do. And also, you need to continuously update it. We have a lot of features that are exclusively for the Web, like parties, street style, the mood board, the videos, slideshows. They are made for the Web.

You’re in a very special position at W. You’re not just a regular monthly magazine—you have this beautiful, oversized format. It’s almost like a coffee table book.

Yes. I mean, that’s a very lucky position in terms of creating something that is more of an object, more of a collectible, with the size, the photography. So we are not in the same position as magazines that are all about quick information or lists, or like the shopping guide. Because you know, for those magazines I think their days are counted. I think you don’t need them anymore.

As a fashion magazine, how do you elevate that idea of luxury?

One of the things that we do is that we photograph these clothes in a way that is different from anybody else. We try to recontextualize them, give them new life and try to be very inspirational, try to create a dream around them. It goes beyond just showing them for what they are. It’s about creating desire and creating an atmosphere and not being so literal—like, “This story is about the white bag, this story is about the return of the gold chain.” We don’t have those kinds of stories. Our readers, they come to us to know what is the mood, what is the trend, what should I have, who do I want to be? There is a certain kind of dream that we sell, and it’s never just about the clothes. And we put those clothes, that desire, that trend, whatever it is, in a context. So we show movies that are endorsing that trend somehow, or architects or designers or … we try to create a context for those clothes—so they don’t live in a shop window.