A Brit with attitude takes on New York

Glenda Bailey, ex-editor of Marie Claire, has replaced Kate Betts at the fashion bible Harper's Bazaar. Competitors say it means a shift downmarket for fashion magazines. By Edward Helmore
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When the axe fell, it fell with unexpected swiftness and a surprising lack of tact and grace common to the refined world of high fashion publishing. Last Thursday morning, Glenda Bailey, the British editor of Marie Claire in New York, called her staff into a meeting to announce that she had been named editor of Harper's Bazaar, effective immediately.

Over at Bazaar, editor Kate Betts knew nothing of her imminent fate. Not until that afternoon, as word of her ousting was already spreading like a fever through Manhattan's fashion and magazine publishing houses, was she called into the management of Hearst publications to be told that she would shortly be escorted from the building with barely enough time to tell her staff she had been forced to resign and clean her desk out.

This is often the way with New York fashion publishing: when you're in, you're in ­ cars, the best hotels, fabulous frocks, the power to influence the latest direction of fashion that millions of women will spend millions to follow. And then, suddenly, you're out again, stripped of influence.

Betts, reportedly taken completely by surprise, wept at the news. "I have absolutely no idea why they did this and I think Kate was shocked," said Lynn Hirschberg, a Bazaar contributor and friend of Betts. "She spoke to people in the morning and didn't mention it. She didn't say 'I have a scary meeting today' or anything."

At 37, Betts was the rising star of American fashion magazines. She had been Anna Wintour's protégée and trusty lieutenant at American Vogue until two years ago, when she was given the task of reinvigorating the dowager queen of the fashion magazine world after the death of British editor Liz Tilberis.

Over at a rival publication W, the editorial director Patrick McCarthy was jubilant to hear that the editor who had pinched valuable staff members had been shown the door. Across town at Vogue, a sense of schadenfreude reigned at the dismissal of one of their own who had abandoned the Condé Nast title and established a direct challenge to Vogue's (and Wintour's) predominance.

"Tumultuous is too mild a word to describe the end of May at the women's and fashion magazines," wrote the New York Times. "The buzz was downright ugly, the tears were real, and the Jimmy Choo stiletto heels were sharp."

The latest move in the high-octane world of fashion publishing has sent shockwaves through the whole fashion industry, not so much because Betts was retired but because her replacement, Glenda Bailey, does not fit the profile of a high-fashion editor. "On the continuum from Diana Vreeland to Felix Dennis, Bailey clearly tends to the latter," sniped the online media publication Inside.com.

In the intensely competitive ­ if not to say internecine ­ world of fashion, Bailey's appointment surprised many precisely because she is not a perfectly chic, manicured and coiffured emissary of style, or considered an editor with a special flair for covering the couture industry or courting major designers. Her vehicle to success, after all, is Marie Claire, one of a handful of middlebrow women's magazines more preoccupied with orgasms, personal interest stories, and serious articles about women's political issues than frocks.

As Bazaar's sales have gently declined over the last few years to around 700,000, Marie Claire's have risen quickly. Bailey, along with her lieutenant Michelle Lavery, founded the American edition of Marie Claire in 1997, and circulation has grown each year to 950,000. A veteran of two ill-fated British mags Honey and Folio, Bailey, who hails from Derby, found success with the British edition of Marie Claire before being plucked to run its American counterpart. She is about as far from the size zero, couture-clad presence of her fellow ex-pat Brit editors (Wintour, Tina Brown) as it's possible to get. Her bluff, woman-of-the-people persona, believed to be the inspiration for the cor blimey editor in Absolutely Fabulous, may not play in the rarefied world of $300 face creams and sheared mink jackets, but she makes up for it with a keen sensibility for a story ­ "Babies in Prison", sending celebrities up the Amazon, what happens when a woman goes into a bar wearing a T-shirt that reads "Wanted: a Rich Man" ­ that mirrors magazines such as In Style and O: The Oprah Magazine.

Only four days into the job, Bailey, 41, has yet to outline her plans for Harper's Bazaar and the remaining staff are awaiting direction. In an interview last week she said she would not transform the 134-year-old Bazaar into a version of Marie Claire. "I have a passion for fashion, and that is what Harper's Bazaar will reflect," she said. Still, many in the business say Bailey's appointment may point to a profound shift for fashion magazines. Not only will American Vogue, the heavyweight of the cluster with a readership of 1 million, lack a viable competitor beyond W, but some say that if Bazaar does not pursue the high-fashion line, it will symbolise a cultural trend that has been gestating for years ­ that fashion and style alone can no longer sustain a high-circulation magazine.

"Life has really changed, especially for women in the last 20 years," Ingrid Sischy, the editor of Interview, told the New York Times. "Magazines whose largest purpose is fashion, like Vogue, will need to really think about what their place is at the beginning of the 21st century. They need to look at the world today, at women today."

One only has to look at page three of Marie Claire to sense the change. Instead of placing the table of contents pages after dozens of pages of advertisements for make-up and beauty products as Bazaar and Vogue do, it is placed up front for speed and clarity. "She is the only editor who had the nerve to put the reader first, and it is not on page 42 so that the beauty and cosmetics advertisers can be in front of the contents," says David Verklin of Carat North America, a media services company.

Still, there is no doubting the sense of alarm now coursing the veins of fashion elitists. A magazine entirely devoted to fashion may have become an anachronism in an age when every newspaper and magazine devotes acres to the subject, but Bazaar was the leader of high-style under Diana Vreeland and later, Liz Tilberis. "Bazaar has a history of being a sophisticated, tasteful and beautifully-crafted magazine," says one rival New York editor. "It's going to lose some of that. It's going to go more for the bottom line and its core, traditional readership is going to flee."

But that may be what they were doing anyway, as Bazaar's efforts to marry $3,000 dresses with pop culture and serious topics floundered. Despite the naysayers, Bailey's appointment may come as a breath of fresh air to American fashion. From a patriotic viewpoint, her ascension marks the return of British editors to the top slots of American fashion publishing, a trend that only two years ago seemed to be on the wane. Moreover, Bailey's direct manner and less than prim-and-perfect approach to sartorial matters may reinvigorate a world that is often claustrophobically self-revering and serious.

"Glenda is not a fashion person necessarily, but sometimes that is a good thing," says W's McCarthy, who suggests Bailey's appointment will send a loud wake-up call to fashion editors. "She comes with fresh eyes. Sometimes we all forget who is reading our magazines."