Monica Alcalde
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A Serious Makeover

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Leanne Delap has brought hard-hitting journalism to the pages of Fashion. But can she maintain her editorial credibility while accepting free trips to Europe?

A spring day in 1989 and the leggy, blonde, 21-year-old Leanne Delap, fresh out of journalism school, dressed in an all-black ensemble, is climbing up the stairs in a converted industrial space to begin her six-month internship at Toronto Life. It was an exciting time at the magazine, a publication that some accused of being too elitist, too voguish, too materialistic, but one that others applauded for featuring good writing and strong journalism on the city’s gritty issues, historic neighbourhoods, vibrant citizens and diverse cultures. And that day, as she ascended to the third-floor reception, Delap was terrified: “I was hoping to just get through the day.”

There was certainly a lot going on in the editorial offices where she would soon become an integral part. The magazine was in the midst of preparations for its fat November issue, the centrepiece of which was a 35,000-word report on the nuclear power industry by David Lees, the magazine’s environment columnist, who spent 12 months on the project. And Delap was chosen to fact check the article. “Everybody thought he would be against nuclear power,” she recalls. “So it was quite a surprise when he came out and said, ‘Hey, this nuclear power isn’t so bad.'” Delap says doing the piece was a “funny coincidence,” since she grew up in nearby Pickering, where one of the four-unit nuclear stations that Lees focused on was located. The assignment was the highlight of her internship. “I did whatever they would let me do,” she recalls.

But Delap was also drawn to the lighter side-or “the dark side,” according to a few critics-of Toronto Life’s editorial mix: fashion, food and lifestyle. “I would have done anything that had to do with fashion,” says Delap, as she ogles an old issue of Toronto Life in which she edited a piece called “Face Off,” a portrait of the local modelling scene. In fact, she had such a flair for these subjects that six months after her internship ended in October 1990, she returned to the magazine following a period of fact checking and copyediting at Canadian Business. This time, Delap was to be an assistant editor, a junior position, with responsibilities for Toronto Life’s Homes, Epicure, Man, Great Escapes and No?l supplements. She remembers her interview for the job with Toronto Life editor Marq de Villiers: “When I first met with Marq, I said to him, ‘Oh, I want to write.’ And he’s looking at me and says, ‘You know, work on the home guides and if you want, write about fridges. When you can really write beautifully about fridges, when you can sell me a fridge, then come back and ask me for something else.”

Writing about fridges never did play a big part in her future, but writing about fashion did. After seven years at Toronto Life, where she became the “resident expert on the city’s best stores and services” and made a reputation for herself as a sassy writer with an eye for telling detail, Delap jumped to The Globe and Mail. Globe features editor Cathrin Bradbury “saw my piece on J.D. Roberts,” says Delap, of the former MuchMusic VJ who had become an anchor for CBS News in New York and the man many believed would replace Dan Rather. In “Never Let Them See You Sweat: Remember J.D. Roberts?” Delap wrote: “He comes to find me, red-faced but still gracious. ‘I know I’m not too far removed from Citytv,’ he says, quite endearingly, ‘when all it takes is a visitor from the hometown to make me screw up.'”

At first, Delap didn’t see herself as a fashion reporter. “She was a little surprised,” says her friend and current Toronto Life managing editor Angie Gardos, when the Globe called for an interview. Still, Delap felt confident and agreed to go in and talk. A week and a half after her interview, she got the job and was soon sent to Europe to cover the London shows. Though being thrust into the global glamour scene was tremendously exciting, there was a price to pay. “You still have to go back to your hotel room and cry all the time,” says Delap of the exhaustion that sets in. She was responsible for faxing “zillions of requests” to attend shows and she had to deal with snooty European PR people. “She’s awesome at that,” says friend Dick Snyder, a former Globe fashion editor.

Once back in Canada, there was even more legwork. This meant hitting the stores and meeting with designers and advertisers like Holt Renfrew and Chez Catherine. “If we weren’t in the office, people would ask us where we were,” says Snyder, currently an editor at Redwood Custom Communications. “And we would say, ‘We were shopping, for God’s sake. It’s what we have to do.’ I don’t think the Globe really understood.” At the time, the Globe’s newsroom was a big open space with pods of aging, grey-haired editors and layout people. Next door was the fashion department. “When Leanne would walk through the newsroom-tall, thin, and beautiful and in some kind of great-looking outfit-it was a breath of fresh air,” he says.

After three years at the paper, Delap got a call from Giorgina Bigioni, the publisher of Fashion, the eight-times-a-year sister publication of Toronto Life. The magazine needed a change, would Delap be interested in talking further? She was, though years earlier she wouldn’t have been at all enthusiastic. Says Snyder: “When we worked together, she never considered Fashion to be a good magazine. I even asked her, ‘Would you work for these guys?’ And she said no.”

This time she said yes and so, 10 years and seven months after she first entered the converted industrial space that is home to Toronto Life, Delap ascended those stairs once more. Though more confident in her abilities, she was still nervous and apprehensive. After all, the challenges before her were large. The magazine, which had 110,000 subscriptions to Flare’s 170,000, needed remodelling. Many viewed it as tired and lacklustre, and too focused on the aging boomers. As well, she had to prepare for battle with a powerful, wealthy new competitor, Elle Canada, which just launched an English Canada edition.

Delap also had another challenge, a more personal one: to prove that someone trained in journalism school, a writer and editor who wants to bring higher journalistic standards to a fashion publication, can hold up the ad-editorial wall in an industry filled with advertisers, designers and others who scheme to poke holes in it. In 1995, for example, Time magazine reported on what can happen to editorial credibility when an advertiser increases its ad budget: Escada’s advertising jump of US $1.5 million could be measured in the number of Escada appearances in editorial pages, which tripled from about 30 to 90 in Women’s Wear Daily. In the article, Time quoted an industry insider: “If you are holding out a $3-million ad budget, it would not be surprising if there were an explicit or implicit understanding that editorial credits would be forthcoming.”
“She’s very to the point,” recalls Bigioni of the impression she formed of Delap while reading her stories in the Globe. Among other things, Delap was known for sometimes pointing out that the emperor had no clothes. During the 1999 Oscars, for instance, while most fans and those in the media went gaga over the full-length, pink, spaghetti-strap gown Gwyneth Paltrow wore to the awards ceremony, Delap pointed out that “…the construction of the [star’s Ralph Lauren] dress left her to squirm in her seat, trying to keep her assets covered.”

“Delap,” says Snyder, “also has the knack of finding the meaning behind what most would consider frivolous information.” Instead of writing on how the gift-with-purchase products were all over the cosmetic counters of the major department stores, she plays up the “Omigod-I-want-this” attitude of teenage girls and writes a business-marketing piece on how these miniature, and at times useless, products boost cosmetic sales by 30 to 40 percent.

Delap’s Globe stories built on the strengths she had developed at Toronto Life, first under de Villiers’ tutelage, then under his successor, John Macfarlane. Her first cover feature for the magazine was “Love Games,” a voyeuristic journey through some of the city’s raunchier nightspots. It appeared “around the time of her divorce, or just before the breakup with her first husband,” says Gardos. “It sort of suggests a life change, right?”

“Yes, absolutely,” says Delap, who, at the age of 27, stripped down to a “black bra, short-shorts, thigh-high stay-up stockings and boots,” learned the value of vibrant writing, as this passage from “Love Games” illustrates: “A well-cut man in a G-string undulates on a roll-out podium while squeezing a tube of hot fudge sauce onto a naked brunette…. People toss sprinkles and dollops of aerosol whipped cream at her; some approach in slow motion to stroke her…; a few lean in and lick her.”

“She’s very confident, brash,” says Macfarlane. “But she can be difficult. Let’s just say that we had our moments in the years that we worked together.” Still, that didn’t stop him from recommending Delap to Bigioni.

Fashion was at a crossroads. Under the eight-year editorship of Joan Barham, who once worked for Glamour in New York, the magazine “was current, but it was geared toward a woman that was more mature,” says John MacKay, who edited Fashion from 1980 to 1986. Like U.S. fashion magazine editors at the time, Barham introduced a home-style section to complement the beauty, fitness and mental health issues. But as the ’90s ended, Fashion’s focus on its core readers, women between 25 and 49 years old, made it look decidedly unhip and unappealing to the next generation of readers, whom advertisers covet.

Despite Macfarlane’s recommendation and those of editors at some major U.S. and U.K. publications, Bigioni was concerned about Delap’s lack of managing experience. “She flat out said it,” says Delap of the get-acquainted breakfast at the Studio Cafe in Yorkville’s Four Seasons Hotel. The subject had also been on the prospective editor’s mind: “I said, ‘I would probably approach it the way I go about running my household. I have tremendous respect for both my boyfriend/husband and my children. So I would have respect as my priority.”

“It was [over breakfast] that I knew that she was the one,” says Bigioni.

“That was probably about the time I spilled the coffee all over the table,” Delap recalls. “And all over my nice outfit, that I was happy to fit into,” after recently giving birth to her second child.
Last winter, just as Delap moved into the editor’s chair at Fashion, office renovations on her floor were completed. The facelift wasn’t a dramatic change. Rather, it built on the strengths of what was already there-a terrific loft-like space with undressed windows that overlook the historic, shiplike Flat Iron Building. Delap is attempting to do similarly with her revamp of the magazine.

Fashion “is not about determining trends anymore,” she says, moments after sashaying into the magazine’s conference room dressed in black with three-inch-heeled boots that add to her five-foot, 10-inch height. “I’m not running around saying, ‘Think Pink,'” she says, referring to a character based on legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland in the 1950s musical Funny Face. Delap uses beauty and fashion, which are appealing subjects, to get more important ideas across. “For instance,” she says, “in the fall, the push that we made was to talk about how there is a reversion to conservatism among young women: the rise of the thank-you note, women taking their husbands’ names again. Now those are all small things, but you add them up over time and it becomes a larger cultural shift.”

Since the mid-’90s, there has been much talk from New York editors about applying journalistic standards to their publications. It began when Linda Wells, a former New York Times beauty editor, was named editor of Allure. The list now includes Marie Claire’s Glenda Bailey, Elle’s Roberta Myers and Harper’s Bazaar’s Kate Betts, of whom Delap says, “She started as a serious journalist at WWD and has added reporting that didn’t exist before.”

Is this the new way to engage a modern woman? Delap says yes. To imply that intelligent, fashion-conscious women are only interested in fashion and beauty is ridiculous, she adds, and for stories on society and culture to have credibility, thorough reporting is needed. Others aren’t so sure this approach is really workable. “Leanne is an excellent journalist,” says one industry veteran. “But I don’t think fashion magazines ever have rigorous journalistic standards applied to them.”

Two features that Delap published in her first months represent this direction: “Membership Privileges,” the story on the return to conservatism among young women; and “All in the Family,” an article about how a single mother and her pregnant nanny set up a novel way to look after their kids. To help get more in-depth stories like these, Delap has gone after writers not usually associated with fashion magazines. “The bar has not been high enough,” she says. “And it’s my personal mission in life to get rid of all those hacks.” Recent issues have featured such bylines as Maryam Sanati, deputy editor of R.O.B. magazine, Stephanie Nolen, a Globe reporter, and Lynn Crosbie, author of the 1997 book Paul’s Case, a controversial work about convicted murderer Paul Bernardo that mixed truth and fiction. For Fashion, Crosbie has written about the futility of the diary (“Diary Dearest”) and serves up an advice column with a you-go-girl type of attitude. She’s written on anything from sex to what to wear.

Sanati’s “Club Next” piece, which was featured in the redesigned September 2000 issue, is a good example of Delap’s willingness to take chances. Other editors might have worried about offending Joe Mimran, co-founder of Caban, the new clothes-and-housewares chain, as well as Alfred Sung and Club Monaco; she did not, even though it could have cost her magazine the chance at snaring some ad pages. “He [Joe Mimran] would like you, please, not to try to sneak through any doors,” writes Sanati. “He would like you, if you don’t mind, to speak to him alone regarding matters of Club Monaco.” So when Sanati started talking to staff past and present, and it got back to Mimran, he was not happy. “I think he was expecting the Fashion story to go a certain way because he’s used to a certain style of treatment by a fashion journalist,” says Sanati. In order to protect the identity of the staffers who had cooperated, Sanati uses several unnamed sources throughout the piece. She writes: “‘It’s the only company I’ve worked for,'” this person continues, “‘with appearance as a category on a salesperson’s performance evaluations.'” The source, a former manager, told Sanati about meetings conducted with all the “seriousness of an economic summit” about who was going to police the staff usage of thong underwear when wearing cigarette pants.

Another notable piece was “She Used to Be Robin Kay,” which ran in the Summer 2000 issue. “Robin was a big Canadian brand at one time, and when we started to do the research and interviews, things just started coming out of the woodwork,” says Fashion news director Ceri Marsh. The article chronicled the tale of Robin Kay, a sweater designer and environmental entrepreneur, and her conviction for trafficking cocaine. “We were so excited that we got to send a story to the lawyer,” says Delap. “We thought, We are doing something right.”
For all of Delap’s bravado about journalistic credibility, however, there are times when the perks of the fashion and beauty industry simply get in the way-stories of editors, like Vogue’s Anna Wintour, accepting gifts from designers, for instance. In 1995, Wintour told Time magazine, “If a designer gives me something, I absolutely have no problem with that. It’s not going to influence what you put in your pages. It’s a fuss about nothing.” Despite Fashion’s lax policy on gifts, Delap takes the issue very seriously. “I’m not going to tell [staffers that they] can’t take [a gift, a trip, et cetera], just tell me about it so I know how exposed we are.” Delap goes on to say that she’ll even “tell the advertiser, or the client, or the distributor that we are more likely not to run you if you send us the free stuff.”

Gifts are the little stuff. But what about the bigger stuff: those stories of deals cut between publishers and advertisers like Escada? After all, a large portion of Fashion is made up of where and what to buy sections, which many see as out-and-out sops to advertisers, because they leave out the products of companies that don’t buy ad pages. Does this happen at Fashion, which runs ads by such companies as cosmetic giant Cosmair, which owns mass brands like L’Oreal, Maybelline and Lancome and fragrances like Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani and Drakkar Noir, and which has been known to spend $9 million annually on magazines in Canada? Delap says no, insisting that Fashion’s advertisers have nothing to do with the magazine’s editorial. Even though she realizes many see Fashion’s Beauty World pages as “something like advertising,” she points out that when companies complain about not being mentioned, her response is to “say you’ve considered them,” but that “nobody gets in because they’re advertisers.”

For instance, the Winter 2001 issue, which contained 61 beauty advertisers, only contained two editorial mentions for advertisers like Cerruti Image and Bvlgari. And the Little Black Book, a guide to Toronto’s beautifying locales that came attached to each winter issue, was paid for by U.S. conglomerate Proctor & Gamble. “We wouldn’t want it advertised by a salon or a beauty advertiser,” says Delap, shuffling her four-inch black heels, which reveal her chipped red polish (a “pitfall,” according to associate editor, beauty, Juliette Lie). “There’s no conflict between soap and hair colouring.”

“The feeling of church and state is very real here in Canada,” says beauty editor Laura Keogh, who spent the last eight years working in New York’s beauty industry. “In the States, they don’t come out and say it, but you know there’s communication between the advertising and editorial side,” she says, then adds: “It’s my job to pay attention to our advertisers and give them their fair share, but it’s also my job to pay attention to those who don’t advertise.”

Delap would like Fashion to follow a British model, where you wink at your reader and say, “‘We stayed at this fabulous hotel. Thank you.'” And these thank yous are expressed in Fashion’s page called Back Story, where editors thank those who have let them use their hotel or allowed them to fly for free. “We have to accept some things to get access; we have to accept some things to stay in business,” says Delap, “and that makes some sections of the book muddier, but at least we are clear.” Another example: “Chanel flew me to the haute couture shows last week, and that’s something I could have never accepted at the Globe,” she says. “And, yes, it ties your hands and in some ways you pay for it. And, yes, I was Chanel’s guest and it puts you in a different position, but you have to make the best out of it.” And for Fashion, this meant an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the haute couture show and the atelier for a one-on-one interview with Karl Lagerfeld, a piece that will interest most of her readers in the May issue.

“I would say to critics [of this practice] that nobody operates in a perfectly sealed vacuum anymore. Anywhere that I’ve worked, The Globe and Mail, Toronto Life, you make compromises for the people that support you,” says the mother of two, Simone, 18 months, and Max, three, coughing from what she calls “a small children infection.” Instead, Delap, who lives with National Post writer Jacob Richler, advocates openness, another example of which is a page called Junket, which mentions the free trips that advertisers give to Fashion’s editors. In September 2000, for example, the column read, “…Jane Lauder, marketing director of New Concepts for Clinique, invited me to New York City. She flew me down to try the new Simple Hair Care collection….” However, not all the Junket columns are that clear-cut about the relationship with advertisers. In the October issue, Junket ran an interview with Aerin Lauder, executive director of creative marketing for Estee Lauder, and Keogh failed to mention being the advertiser’s guest. “We only had so much space to talk about her,” says Keogh in response.

Ever since last October, when Transcontinental Publications announced it would publish an English-language edition of Elle, Fashion has also been planning on how to increase its own circulation and perhaps grab readers from Flare. One way is by being edgier than it already has become. For their October issues, for instance, both Flare and Fashion had to decide whether to run an Yves Saint Laurent Opium ad featuring a nude image of size-12 British model Sophie Dahl. Flare’s publisher David Hamilton decided to forego the revenue so as not to offend readers. Delap and Bigioni did not. And in her column for that month, Delap stressed the difficulty fashion magazines face in order to please everybody: “No matter how careful you are, you’re always going to offend someone. Take a look at the new ad campaign…as the lush Opium girl, she pleases people who want to see more realistic dimensions of female beauty, but offends those who object to nudity.”

Delap’s redirection of the magazine seems to be working. Ad pages, for instance, increased almost 25 percent between 1999 and 2000, from 692 to 848 pages. So have single-copy sales. The April 2000 “Girl, You Rock” issue sold 6,127, while the “Steamy Toronto Summer” 2000 issue, which featured a topless model, sold 13,873 copies. Still, Flare, which tries to appeal to both urban and rural readers, remains the more popular magazine in terms of single-copy sales, ad revenues and circulation figures. In 1999, to boost its readership and advertising revenue by focusing on the urban woman, Fashion created its first Vancouver edition, which is distributed through the Post in B.C. This September, a Montreal edition will be launched. Spreading its reach across Canada is an important part of Fashion’s competitive strategy, though publicly Delap welcomes Elle Canada. “I think it’s a terrific magazine,” she says. “The more we can build a strong Canadian fashion magazine industry, the less Canadians will need to read the American books.”

In a tight-fitting camel-coloured suit and black four-inch pumps, Delap stands on the third floor of the Toronto Life offices chatting with colleagues. After the conversation concludes, she carefully makes her way down the metal staircase, occasionally grasping for the railing. “One of these days I’m going to fall,” she jokes.

Next to the foyer, a life-size poster of the September 2000 redesign issue greets Fashion’s visitors. “We set a new map in September, set new sections, priorities and tone, but finessing is something that will take place over time,” says Delap. “Here’s a copy of the Vancouver edition,” she says digging through a cardboard box. “Vancouver is a different world from Toronto and Montreal,” she says. “The tone has to be right and it has to feel authentic to those readers or else they would just buy a national magazine,” she adds. “You are fulfilling that sense in a reader for proximity to their lives and so everything that’s in there has to be something you could really buy, even if you are not going to. That belief is really important.”

“I think the more copies you can sell, the more indulgence you have to do what you want. And I believe in selling as many bloody copies as I can.”

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