Just about the first thing you saw, walking into the air-conditioned tent of the annual Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards at Lincoln Center last month was Glenda Bailey's hair. Bailey, of course, is the newest editor in the 134-year history of the august fashion bible Harper's Bazaar. And her hair -- an extravagant mop of copper-colored frizz -- is one of the unlikeliest coiffures in the history of fashion magazines. It was as if, in a universe where so many of her peers seem to aspire to be Lady Macbeth, Bailey had chosen, tonsorially, to model herself after one of the play's Weird Sisters.
"I have my own style, and other people have their own style," Bailey, daughter of a Derbyshire farm laborer, said later in her broad, nasal East Midlands accent. "That's what's great about fashion now: There's no right or wrong."
That is a near-sacrilegious thought in the fashion world, which is about exclusion. One of the major functions of magazines like Vogue and Bazaar has been to separate those who know from those who don't. But what Bailey's hair, and her whole attitude, really said was Fuck the code. She was going to be just who she was, and do her new job without trying to pass.
Fashionistas found this posture risible and deeply scary in equal measure. Bailey is a woman who launched her ascent in the business more than a decade ago by being the first -- but certainly not the last -- editor of a British women's magazine to run a story featuring moody shots of penises. The word sex appears no less than three times on the cover of her last issue of Marie Claire. She brought real women with all their imperfections (and, frequently, their luggish boyfriends) into the pages of her magazine when upscale women's books were supposed to be about idealized fantasy. "I have a passion for fashion," she liked to say -- and by saying it seemed to prove an opposite proposition. She lacked almost totally the iconic mystique the fashion world demands of a major editor.
But here was Bailey, the talk of the tent, with Chanel eminence Karl Lagerfeld suddenly approaching. Lagerfeld extended a warm embrace, and Bailey murmured thanks for a quote he'd given to the Times. "She's very enthusiastic, lively, and not pretentious," Lagerfeld had told the reporter, in praise that was faint indeed. "Those are all good qualities. But we do not know the rest. The question is open."
Writer Lynn Hirschberg on Kate Betts:
"She has a trait that I think is very rare: She doesn't care if people like her or not."
Then a petite blonde in a little black dress sidled up to Bailey, quietly asking her how it felt to stand, at last, in the full glare of Seventh Avenue.
"I'm always up for a good fight," Bailey said with a delicious smile.
Bailey's graduation was a moment of remarkable drama in the fashion world. First of all, the woman Bailey had replaced, Kate Betts, was her polar opposite: tall, blonde, Princeton-educated, and a protégée of both John Fairchild and Anna Wintour herself. And second, it was an article of faith -- table talk hardening into gospel -- that Glamour editor Bonnie Fuller was a lock for the job. But only eight days before Betts was fired, Fuller was ignominiously dismissed from her post, having apparently displeased owner Si Newhouse.
As a backdrop to these royal conflicts, a class war was escalating in the magazine world, with Vogue, Bazaar, Elle, and W increasingly challenged by rising middlebrow powers, from Martha Nelson's InStyle to Oprah's new O to, yes, Bailey's hard-charging Marie Claire. The pragmatic, service-oriented, workaday magazines always had the readers (Glamour's circulation is over 2 million, versus Vogue's 1 million), but fashion books traditionally had an exclusive on the high-end advertisers like Gucci and Chanel. InStyle, the most imitated magazine of the nineties, changed that equation. "There's definitely pressure on the high-end magazines to move lower," says one Condé Nast editor. "The problem is, there is a growing gap between what readers want and what advertisers want. Advertisers want their products displayed with big beautiful pictures and long stories to match. But no one wants to read about the guy in Venice who made these beautiful silver earrings. They want to read about where they can get the earrings."
Patrick McCarthy, editorial director of Fairchild, actually hopes that his new competitor Bailey will produce a strong new -- and high-end -- Bazaar: "It will mean the category is alive and well and kicking. There's nothing worse than high-end magazines' going out of business, or getting lowbrowed."
Vogue's Anna Wintour is quick to downplay any writing to be read on the wall. "I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who buy Volkswagens," she says. "That doesn't mean there isn't a market for a Mercedes."
Bailey's ascension, along with the industry's circulation and advertising problems, made it seem as if everything was up for grabs. Rumors were suddenly flying that Kim France's Lucky, the smart new magalog from Condé Nast, is about to swallow up Mademoiselle, killing two birds (Lucky's young-skewing readership, Mademoiselle's search for an identity going forward) with one stone.
Just about the only person in the fashion world who seems unconflicted about Bailey's ascension is the woman who hired her, Hearst president Cathie Black. "She's the American dream," Black insists, mindful of the irony that Bailey, 42, is a very British creation. "Glenda's quirky. She is who she is; she's from where she's from. But she hopped on an airplane five years ago and took America by storm, and she's never looked back."
Black, like most good ad-sales people, is brassy, electric, and perpetually upbeat, but her armor of enthusiasm can't hide the fact that she's largely the architect of all this turmoil. "Black needs a success at Harper's," says one former Hearst editor familiar with Black's thinking. "Of course, she can retire now, because she started O, which is going to make money for the company forever. But her manifold failure with Kate Betts haunts her. Not only did she hire the wrong person, she fired her in a very awful way."
While Betts's firing was not as ghastly as certain legendary Condé Nast dismissals -- Grace Mirabella's, for instance -- and Betts is not one to play the martyr, it certainly wasn't Hearst's finest hour. Black told some people a full 24 hours before sharing the news with Betts, creating a kind of final torture-by-gossip. The steely Betts broke down briefly when she told her staff in a meeting that afternoon, but she quickly regained her equilibrium. A few nights later -- shades of Al Gore's defeat -- she was bobbing and shimmying with the bouncers to Destiny's Child at a farewell party at Puffy's in TriBeCa. "It was a little bit of the old Kate," says a Betts loyalist. "Before she was forced to become corporate."
Daughter of noted architect Hobart Betts, Kate, a lifelong Francophile, studied European history at Princeton and after graduating moved to Paris, where she ran the Paris bureau of Fairchild. Ambitious enough to have accepted the Harper's job on the day she was due to give birth to her first child (son Oliver Betts Brown was born three days later), she started at Harper's in August 1999. Editor Liz Tilberis had died the previous April.