Tonchi’s W Has The Smarts, But Will It Sell?

After a week of sitting with Stefano Tonchi‘s new W (I live in Brooklyn, magazines come late) I can say with assurance I am impressed. Tonchi, who was hired away from T, the New York Times style magazine last March, has concocted what on first pass feels like a combination of the the New Yorker meets Vanity Fair meets French Vogue. What a relief.

Traditionally speaking, W has been the most adventurous of the mainstream American magazines, with edgy and often lengthy photo editorials (Bruce Weber‘s Welcome to the Motor City featuring Kate Moss being one of the best examples of this) that pushed the boundaries and entire issues devoted to art, it often had a much-welcomed and more European sensibility. Whether this edginess contributed to its slide in sales is hard to tell, but earlier this year W all but disappeared; each issue subsequently more anemic than the last until earlier this summer editorial pages started featuring icons encouraging readers to visit the website so they could shop the look. Oof. It was a ignominious finish for a magazine that the more urbane fashion types used to flock to.

So it was with especially great relief that I greeted the thick September issue, with the new glossy cover, that landed in my mailbox last week. The insides did not disappoint either.

Broadly speaking, Tonchi has kept the striking visuals that seasoned W readers expect from the magazine, and added to that more text. A lot more. In face, one might say he’s add enough to give you reading material to last the month. Instead of one or two lengthy features there are five, on topics ranging from (on the predictable end) Hollywood’s new ‘It Girls’ (also the cover story, and penned by NYT veteran Lynn Hirschberg who gives the a tad more heft than the normal paeans to young things on the verge of fame); Givenchy’s Ricardo Tisci; artist Alessandro Mendini; and (my personal favorite) a photo essay on recently deceased artist Louise Bourgeois. When was the last time you can recall a major fashion magazine devoting five full pages to photos of a 98 year-old woman? It is strangely a very welcome change.

That’s not to say the issue is lacking in beauty, not by a long shot. W may well be able to take credit (should they ever want to) for making Georgia Jagger a viable candidate for serious modeling, and the Mert and Marcus spread provides a nice bridge between the old W and new. That said, I think my favorite parts are the inbetweens.

It used to be, before the Internet, that a fashion lover would wait with bated breath for the new issues to hit newsstands (in NYC this meant the newsstand at Spring and Lafayette, which always managed to snag copies a day ahead of everyone else) before devouring its parts for news, and views, and who was where with whom and wearing what (back to the w’s!). Subsequently, the best parts (in an icing-on-the-cake sort of way) were always the candid picture-heavy roundups that contained tidbits of info and names packed into a few pages. In Vogue this meant the style photo round-ups at the front of the mag (which have since been expanded) and the Index at the back. They were also the first features to be gutted made irrelevant by the Internet.

And yet this is exactly the sort of thing Tonchi has managed to seemingly successfully bring back to the new W. The magazine, which is roughly divided into five sections: Who, What, Where, When, and Why (the five W’s of W, as it were) all slip in fun little listicles, many with hand-drawn visuals, packed with tidbits like Big Bird gets his feathers from the same source as Bob Mackie. The When section is a multi-page calendar of events denoted by the date of the month they happen on, each accompanied by a healthy write up so that in a few pages you’ve can managed to consume enough cocktail conversation anecdotes to last you through to the next issue. The strongest addition in this department however, and the most servicey — who says servicey can’t be smart and stylish? — is the Backstory: a visual index of the “stories behind our stories” letting readers in on how certain editorials were inspired and where various pieces can be purchased. It is as if Tonchi decided to publish the editorial staff’s visual inspiration board and it provides a welcome window into the varied thinking behind the final product.

It remains to be seen whether this combination of smarts, style, and visuals will be a hit with readers. On the plus side, Tonchi appears to be attempting to fill a smarts gap in the American offering of magazines. (And also in the wallet: European style mags are far away superior to ours, but — oof — they are also expensive!). On the minus side most American magazines have been forced to go further and further into the celebrity mainstream in order to sell enough copies to stay afloat (certain recent issues of Vogue could have passed for Glamour with very little tweaking). One can only hope the gap W is attempting to fill is big enough to sustain it since based on the offerings of this one issue I think it’s the most encouraging thing I’ve seen come out of the national magazine industry in a long time.

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