The most powerful figure in American fashion is about to retire. Here, a former employee recalls the life and times of the man they call Mister Fairchild
I Remember the moment that my life began to intrude on my love affair with John Fairchild, the newspaper publisher who made fashion and society succumb to his irreverent scrutiny, to his wicked sense of fun. He was my employer at the time.

It was the mid-Eighties, and I was on assignment - staying, as usual, in a luxury hotel in order to get the story on the beautiful things that the beautiful people were giving each other that Christmas - when "JBF" phoned, very early in the morning, from New York. "Hello, Mr Fairchild!" I said in the most alert voice possible. The boyfriend lying next to me began to spit, "MISTER Fairchild! MISTER Fairchild!" as if the address were affectation and I knew then he would have to go - the boyfriend, that is.

Mr Fairchild - the man who transformed WWD, the US rag-trade journal, into a pop-culture phenomenon - was more than my boss: he was my benefactor. He was in the business of sending young journalists out among the fashion world's decadent denizens, and commanding them to get the story: the cheeky, witty story - with the aid of his personal address book. It was an education. By giving cub reporters the licence to pass judgement on the most intimidating people on earth - social Titans, political and business tycoons, even as they served you lunch in their country house - he was handing them a diploma in professional confidence. He gave me eyes with which to see the grand comedy of personality behind the signatures of style.

Next month, on 6 March, his 70th birthday, Mr Fairchild steps down as chairman and publisher of Fairchild Publications. He leaves behind two journals - WWD and W, the magazine he created for the American general public - which, in their own capricious ways, have changed the nature of news. He told the story of the personalities behind the big names and in so doing, he made designers into stars. In his newspapers he chronicled the most elite strata of society with rare irreverence. Mr Fairchild always credits the fashion journalist Eugenia Sheppard, of the old New York Herald Tribune, for being the first to see that fashion was a great human-interest story.

Nothing about John Fairchild's story follows a straight line. As a young man who wanted to be a doctor, he went to Paris in 1955 to run the news bureau of his family's trade paper, Women's Wear Daily. It was part of a group of newspapers aimed at a rag-trade readership, with inglorious titles such as Footwear News and Daily News Record, which his grandfather had founded at the turn of the century.

When he got there, at the height of haute couture, when Paris and London were swinging, he found to his horror that the paper's reporters were seated in fashion Siberia - the back row of the couture shows. This wouldn't do. In no time, he was curling up on Coco Chanel's sofa for the night, as her guest and confidante, to get the inside story that would make his name.

"One paper, above all, has gained prestige unexpectedly," observed a startled chronicler in 1965, unused to such vitality in the genteel world of fashion journalism. "It is a trade paper named Women's Wear Daily... Its publisher, John Fairchild, looks like a handsome owl with a crew cut, has a fanatic interest in fashion and an almost mystical understanding of it. He likes his fashion news spiced with gossip which his readers find appalling, aggravating or riveting (often all at once). Promoting fashion in America and Europe with knowledge, prejudice and hoopla, he leaks advance news from Givenchy or Balenciaga and his stories are distractingly accurate. His readers feel they are looking at fashion through all the important keyholes and indeed they are, for Fairchild's stories, for the most part, are not begged, borrowed or stolen, but given to him by the designers themselves."

To someone who worked for him, Fairchild's vitality was in his dual nature. "He's an aesthete, but he has the killer instinct of a garmento [New York slang for someone in the rag trade]," the former employee observed. In his hands, WWD became the only rag-trade journal, published five days a week and sold by subscription, to have a glamorous readership of socialites, media executives, Washington politicians and First Ladies. With street- wise, newsy energy, it became a social gazette. The terms "Jackie O", "Hot Pants", "Nouvelle Society" and "Fashion Victim" were launched there. A combination of lively society coverage, arts reviews and street fashion, together with WWD's brass-tacks business news somehow energised the fluff of fashion. The garmento and the grand dame met on its pages and the ink came off on our hands. It was news.

At its height, WWF was essential reading for anyone who considered themselves in any way up-to-date. Lisa Andersen, another Fairchild graduate, and now the New York bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune, remembers: "WWD was read in every embassy in Washington that had any kind of social clout. Writers and novelists were interviewed first in WWD. It had clout far beyond its size. And that was due to John Fairchild."

In 1972, he launched W, a consumer magazine. With W Fairchild went further in developing his media hybrid - the laying of glamour and froth on a bed of hard newspaper reporting. On quality colour newsprint, in a large unbound format, it had a rough-hewn feel, despite the dazzling privilege it depicted inside. It went deep into people's private lives at a time when it was still impertinent.

W was the original light read. It put Nancy Reagan on the cover, got interviews with ambassadors before anyone else did. Yet it was still very much a fashion magazine, borrowing the photographs and copy of WWD's coverage of the collections. Published every two weeks, and originally also sold mainly by subscription, it chronicled high society with an irreverence unheard of in America. For all its silliness, it got seriously powerful and stylish people to succumb to a scrutiny that was not always kind. The much-copied "In" and "Out" column damned restaurants, foods, dances, people and places to fashion oblivion in a single swipe.

"He was amazing at generating excitement," says Ben Brantley, a former WWF Paris bureau chief, and now drama critic of the New York Times. "We were covering a world that could have been deadly - high society - but he had you look at it as if it were a comic novel by Evelyn Waugh. He gave the characters epithets, you played up their eccentricities, and they became like mythological creatures. He's a genius."

Among Fairchild's picaresque cast were "Her Drear" (Princess Margaret); "Messy and Chica" (the decorating team of Mica Ertegun and Chessy Rayner); "the Chic" (Valentino); and "the Kaiser" (Karl Lagerfeld). "It was like working on a high- school newspaper," says Ben Brantley. "You got to say, 'You're in. You're out.' It was liberating."

Out of the school of Fairchild have come leading members of the US press corps: the editors-in-chief, currently, of French Vogue (Joan Juliet Buck), Cosmopolitan (Bonnie Fuller) and Elle Decor (Marian McEvoy); the chief drama critic (Brantley) and fashion critic (Amy Spindler) of the New York Times; and reporters on the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune. Steven Meisel was an illustrator at WWD in New York before he became a fashion photographer. "After working for Mr Fairchild, I can do anything and work for anyone," says Marian McEvoy, editor of Elle Decor.

Lisa Andersen, who has since covered the peace talks in Israel, describes his impact. "In my next job, if they'd said move the Empire State Building, I would have said, 'Sure'."

Fairchild reporters knew all the rooms in all the designers' houses, and their pugs and butlers by name. Katherine Betts of American Vogue, who worked in Fairchild's Paris bureau from 1989 to 1991, says, "You were always on 24-hour call. You had to be ready with a backpack to go anywhere at any time; it was never so straightforward as go and interview so and so in Switzerland. I learned from him: ask the strange question and you'll get the weird story. Go ask Jeane Kirkpatrick [former US delegate to the UN] how to make the best salad dressing!"

During my time at WWF, I once had to persuade the authorities to stop a plane from leaving the runway because he asked me to send some film for a particularly tight deadline. Another time, I had to extract sketches of Princess Caroline of Monaco's wedding dress secretly and get them across the Atlantic before competitors could print them.

What fuelled Fairchild's publications were very much the qualities - and less positive traits - that drove the man. He combines civility with puerility. He manages to charm while making his unsophisticated jokes with "boom-boom" punchlines. He flirts harmlessly with designers - but at the same time he could be cruel. "We used to rate the ladies," says Ben Brantley with a shiver. "Imagine, you would spend all day in the salon, and pour yourself into a dress and end up in WWD as 'FV' ('Fashion Victim')." Worst of all was "the blackout" - when a W lady used to being pictured in the paper was screened out. To be "grand" - to think that you were of his world - was a capital offence.

Still today Fairchild creates fashion pronouncements unconsciously every time he opens his mouth; creates snobbery as he debunks it, announcing his preference for mashed potatoes over caviar. "The words 'cutting edge' are the ones I hate most in our vernacular," he said recently. He also hates the word "trendy". The shape of the fashion industry has changed. Media competition for fashion stories is fierce, as supermodels and Hollywood stars have co-opted fashion's limelight. WWD is less dictatorial but its appeal is still in the mix. Only in WWD can you find out that Chelsea Clinton's inaugural suit cost $281, what the Duchess of York said at the couture collections, and the price of diamond buttons at Chanel ($35,000).

The fanfare as John Fairchild bows out is muted by anxiety over the future of his creations. Disney Inc, which incorporated Fairchild Publications in the recent merger with Capital Cities/ABC, has announced a public sale of its publications. To whom Fairchild's legacy will be sold is uncertain. "We're at sea, with one oar," says Mr Fairchild, sounding most unlike himself. "I hope we can keep everybody together. There's no secret to any business. There's no formula. It's all people." !