Stefano Tonchi is the new editor of the venerated style glossy 'W'. He talks about his controversial revamp of the magazine and what motivates his critics

Sport may not be Stefano Tonchi's forte, so you can forgive his coyness when asked about his mildly humiliating experience a few summers ago at a tennis camp in New York's Catskill Mountains. So spiffing was his kit that he was put in the top group of players. But appearances can be deceptive: his game, it turned out, was not quite as impressive as the cut of his shorts.

The Italian-born Tonchi, who turns 51 later this year, is considerably more comfortable in his professional terrain, namely the turning out of fashion and lifestyle magazines. Since arriving in New York in 1994, he has occupied positions on the editorial mastheads of Casa Vogue, Esquire and Self. Most recently he ran T, the style glossy that accompanies The New York Times 15 times a year.

But this autumn Tonchi finds himself under the spotlight as never before as he settles in as the new editor-in-chief of another magazine with a letter for a title, W. He moved to the Condé Nast monthly in April, after a reshuffle that saw his predecessor and other top editors take to the exits for good, but it is with the September issue that he reveals his vision for the magazine, with a top-to-bottom revamp.

It didn't go unnoticed that the front-cover headline, beneath a photo spread over three folding panels of rising but little-known Hollywood starlets, reads "Great Expectations" – an endearing attempt at self-irony. But Tonchi also set himself a trap. While his relaunch has left the magazine looking decidedly more energetic – in its new font, even the W itself now seems to sprint rather than dawdle – the question that was bound to arise was: would his revamp turn out to be all dressing and no substance?

As arguably the most venerated chronicler of all things fashion and taste, W has a loyal – if, of late, dwindling – following. Any rehashing of its editorial priorities was bound to cause a ruckus of gossip and second-guessing. It's been all the louder – and sometimes shriller – because fashion and gossip are hardly strangers. While Tonchi professes to be pleased with most of the reaction, he cannot help but be hurt by at least one review written by a former colleague and friend at the Times, a paper whose opinion always matters. (Maybe it is what you should expect when you defect to the competition.)

Aside from the font change, there are other clues on the new cover to the changes Tonchi has wrought. Next to the W of the title, he has added a tagline that offers a new raison d'être for all that follows: "Who, What, Where, When, and Why in the World of Style". For the first time, writers' names appear beneath the titles trailing articles inside. Surely he is also making a point by choosing eight up-and-coming cinema actresses – who include Yaya DaCosta, a recent winner of America's Next Top Model – for his cover, rather than established stars like Julia, Angelina or Lindsay.

Few major magazines are more concerned than W with the visual showcasing of fashion and female beauty and Tonchi is not about to let that tradition wither. Full-page visuals in this issue include a zoomed-in image of a pair of female lips coloured with blood-red lipstick so arresting that it will surely stall even the most impatient of page-flippers. Most will linger also on the pages at the end of the issue with the last-known photographs of the artist Louise Bourgeois, taken before her death in May at the age of 98.

But Tonchi is signalling something else in the September issue, which is always the most important – and most advert-bloated – on any fashion magazine's calendar. He wants W to tell more stories. Hence the flagging of authors' names. More than that, the magazine's focus will rest not only on fashion per se. In fact, sitting in his office on Manhattan's east side recently, old editions of W dating back as far as the late-1970s strewn on a low coffee table (and scores of T magazines squeezed into cardboard boxes), he promises that "fashion reporting is not going to be more than 20 per cent of the content of the magazine". (That is not to say, of course, that fashion images will not remain dominant across its pages.)

"I was very clear with them," he says of the day he was first approached by Condé Nast about leaving T, which he helped create for the Times, and crossing the island to take the helm at W. "I was interested so long as W was not just for women's wear and fashion and all of that, but more about the world of style. I wanted to be able to look at fashion in the context of contemporary culture and talk about many other things. I said we would talk about everything that is fashionable but not just in terms of clothes."

Of course, some stories can be told mainly through pictures. Thus the September issue includes a powerful series of portraits by the British photographer Tim Walker called The East Enders, in which young kids from east London show off their street style – much of it distinctly reminiscent of 1980s Boy George. But in the same issue, Tonchi has given full rein to writer Diane Solway to profile the young, Paris-based Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci (who counts Courtney Love and Marina Abramovic among his muses), and to Lynn Hirschberg to talk with the eight indie actresses about how it felt doing their first on-screen sex scenes. There is a lengthy travel feature about Montenegro, a cautionary article about women who opt for plastic surgery at crazily young ages, and a lengthy encounter with "design maestro" Alessandro Messini by Alice Rawsthorn, the British journalist and former Financial Times fashion commentator who was for five years the director of London's Design Museum.

Though raised in Italy, Tonchi's earliest exposure to modern magazine culture came via Britain and its burgeoning publishing scene, especially the music journals of the late Seventies and early Eighties. By coincidence, during our interview, I mention a friend who had told me the night before that, while growing up in London, he had considered just two magazines essential reading – W and The Face. Tonchi's well-groomed features light up, identifying at once with my friend, whom he has never met.

"The Face was the most important magazine in my upbringing," he offers. "I still have issue number one! I have hundreds of issues, in fact, and I brought all of them with me from Italy." And he wants me to know that buying them wasn't so easy. In those pre-internet days, he depended on being at the main newsagents in the Florence railway station to snaffle one of only two copies of each issue that was delivered there. "You had to be there very early," he says, which meant about 4am. "Or rather, very late."

As he started to freelance as a fashion writer, Tonchi found himself travelling to London almost every two weeks. A magazine editor back in Italy mistakenly got the impression that he lived there and assigned him what turned out to be his first serious commission, an interview with the then director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, Sir Roy Strong. Saying nothing to spoil said editor's misapprehension, he agreed, if with the natural trepidation of a beginner. "I said sure; I wasn't really lying since I was there so often. I did the interview and I went home, I was 25 or something like that."

Obviously a globe-trotter at a tender age, Tonchi was fitting in regular trips to New York in those days too (and stuffing his suitcase with magazines for friends back home). It was his first taste of the city that not so many years later would catapult him to the top of the fashion-magazine industry.

The question is what Tonchi's elegant eye can do for W, which was perhaps more vulnerable than most magazines to the economic downturn because of its heavy reliance on designer fashion advertising. Between 2008 and 2009, W lost almost half of its ad pages, a sharper drop than almost any of its competitors. The trick will be to maintain the W flavour that keeps it distinct, while trying at the same time to broaden its constituency. Tonchi speaks of W having occupied the very top of the publishing pyramid in terms of the spending power of the readers. With purses shrinking, his job will be to broaden its base somewhat.

"I think we can be relevant to a younger audience – a young woman or a young man who is interested in photography, in fashion, in culture and design and giving them a lot of interesting content and ideas. In that sense we can talk to them in a different way." At some point Tonchi uses the word "edgy", but in a mumbled way that suggests caution, either because it sounds clichéd or because too much edge would risk driving away some of the readers W has held on to.

Before Tonchi's arrival, the brass at Condé Nast decided to separate W from its old home among the old Fairchild group of magazines, which includes the daily fashion newspaper Women's Wear Daily, and fold it into its main family of titles with Vogue and Vanity Fair. (The process isn't quite complete, it seems, since Tonchi's office is an island among WWD bodies in a building far away from Condé Nast's chest-beating Times Square headquarters.) Ironically, this realigning of the titles only emphasises another problem that Tonchi faces: making sure that as he remakes W he does not tack too closely into the waters of either of those magazines edited by Anna Wintour and Graydon Carter.

That its circulation is built more on subscriptions than on newsagent sales gives him some advantage, he claims; he can take more risks than they can – like putting relative unknowns on the all-important September cover and having them chat about sex. "When you sell so many copies on the newsstand, and you have distribution that is a million or a million and a half, you really have to follow a different set of rules," he says, referring to Vanity Fair in particular. W sells roughly 500,000 a month, of which on average only about one-fifth will be sold over the counter.

Some of the early omens have been good for Tonchi, not least the fact that the September issue has 249 ad pages, up from 192 for the same month last year. So, yes, it definitely meets all September obesity expectations. But there is a problem with which every editor – especially of fashion magazines –wrestles. How do you hone the editorial content, including the pictorial content, so that it stands out sufficiently from all those glossy Dior and DKNY spreads? This reader would surely wish, moreover, that there weren't 174 pages of advertisements to wade through before you even find a contents page.

Tonchi vows to tackle this, but he surely is not the first editor to do so. "Bringing more content to the front of the magazine – that is a project that I will try to execute in the next months," he says, speaking his special brand of English that remains mildly, and rather charmingly, inflected by Italian syntax. "I want also to bring more spreads of content to the front of the book." But there are plenty of consumers of his magazine, he points out, who enjoy the advertising spreads as much as everything else that's in it.

But if he is to make way for more writing in W, it needs to be decent stuff. And that isn't always easy. You have to choose the right topics and pay the right writers. And writing well about fashion might be especially challenging, he suggests. "I think it's more difficult to write a good fashion profile than it is to write a political profile," he says, adding rather daringly: "To report from the fashion world sometimes is more difficult than to report from a war." He explains: "If you are a war reporter, everything is under your eyes. Sure you are risking your life, but everything is right there. With fashion, you have to select and go a little bit deeper and to have access to what matters and what's interesting."

In the Style pages of The New York Times, Cathy Horyn, who for years worked for Tonchi at T magazine, argued that in picking the topics at least, he was falling short. "With a number of articles in the new W, I wondered: Why am I reading this? What's the big picture? The Tisci profile, for one, covered all the bases, but ultimately it's another story about a young design maverick at an old Paris house. Why does he matter and what's changed, if anything, because of his fashion? Over all, the perspective of the magazine was small-frame. W doesn't need more stuff to read. Rather, it needs a clearer, more authoritative reason to read it."

"I was surprised, I was really surprised, she knows me very, very well," Tonchi responds a little peevishly. "She wrote basically the designer profile in every issue of T. And if she didn't like W at all, I don't know why she worked with T; maybe just for the money." He also doesn't want to let it pass that Ms Horyn wrote her assault in the Style section, the closest that the Grey Lady comes to printed frippery. "I am sorry! I mean hello! It's ironic. Look at the page you are writing in if you are really playing that game."

Does Tonchi have the thickness of skin necessary to be playing alongside Wintour and Carter? Let's return to the question of tennis and that rumour that his kit on court is a good deal slicker than his serve. He passes the test by making no effort to pretend.

"My tennis is OK," he says, while allowing a slightly comical look of despair to shade his face.

Genesis of a glossy magazine

1971

'W', a large, glossy magazine, is created by John Fairchild, the publisher and editorial director of its sister title, the trade newspaper 'Women's Wear Daily' ('WWD').

1985

Patrick McCarthy is appointed editor of 'W' and 'WWD', becoming executive editor three years later. He remakes what began life as a society magazine as a glossy.

1997

Fairchild retires, and McCarthy takes over.

August 1999

Condé Nast Publications purchase Fairchild Publications.

September 2004

Steven Meisel's shoot 'A Sexual Revolution' prompts 'The New York Times' to report breathlessly: "Although 'W' has long been the most adventurous of mainstream American fashion magazines, it has never published anything so sexually candid."

July 2005

Steven Klein's 'Domestic Bliss' shoot fans the flames of the 'Brangelina' furore.

August 2007

The Beckhams arrive in the US and do a sexy photoshoot, for 'W', again shot by Klein.

March 2010

Stefano Tonchi, creator of 'T: The New York Times Style Magazine', is named editor-in-chief, in place of McCarthy.

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