Teri Agins's Advice for Aspiring Fashion Journalists

The 'Wall Street Journal' vet gives us the backstories on some of her biggest scoops, peppered with advice on sourcing, fact-checking and playing straight.
Avatar:
Lauren Indvik
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
523
The 'Wall Street Journal' vet gives us the backstories on some of her biggest scoops, peppered with advice on sourcing, fact-checking and playing straight.
Teri Agins at Mercedez-Benz Fashion Week in New York in September. Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Teri Agins at Mercedez-Benz Fashion Week in New York in September. Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

Teri Agins is one of the best-sourced journalists in fashion. In her 25-year-career at the Wall Street Journal, she broke some of the biggest stories in the industry: The dispute between designer Gordon Henderson and his backer, former Theory CEO Ricky Sasaki, in 1990; Calvin Klein's near-bankruptcy in 1991; that LVMH was paying Marc Jacobs less than $1 million a year as recently  as 2004.

On Thursday, Agins is releasing her second book, "Hijacking the Runway: How Celebrities Are Stealing the Spotlight from Fashion Designers" -- a fascinating chronicle on the confluence of fashion and celebrity, spanning pay-for-play on the red carpet, the rise of hundred-million-dollar celebrity fragrances and the later rise of billion-dollar celebrity fashion brands, like Jessica Simpson's. It also contains one of Agins's juiciest stories yet: a series of conversations between a desperate Kanye West and designer Ralph Rucci when the former was putting together his first (and ultimately disastrous) eponymous collection for Paris Fashion Week in October 2011. But you'll have to read the book to find out the details.

We spoke to Agins about her career and her advice for aspiring fashion journalists. Here's what she had to say.

"I started at the Journal July 9, 1984. I covered small business. Norm Pearlstine, he hired me, he was a managing editor then. They were expanding the staff at that time, they were hiring a lot of women, a lot of people who were doing things that were normally not [done], because I wasn't a business reporter or anything. Before that, I was in Brazil for five years with my ex-husband who was with Citibank. Then I covered airlines for about three years, which was really good because we had all of those bankruptcies. And then I covered the courthouse when [Rudy] Giuliani was prosecutor in 1987. We only covered white collar crime. A lot of that was just fetching documents for other reporters, but the point is, if you want to be a good journalist, you need to know how to use a courthouse, know how to read a docket sheet, know how to talk to judges and read through a lawsuit and see what you need to see. These are really good skills.

And then, in [1984], Norm hired Joan Kron, who now writes about plastic surgery for Allure, to actually write about fashion, she did it for about a year [ed note: until 1986], did some great stories, but they didn't conceive this type of role well, they just kind of said, oh we just kind of want you to do stuff, and she'd write stories and it would take them forever to run the stories because they weren't topical. She left to be the editor of Avenue magazine. Norm then decided to cover fashion in a big way. We saw all these public companies, Liz Claiborne was like the best-performing IPO stock in the 1980s next to Microsoft, I mean it did really well. [Norm] could see this was going to become a big part of pop culture even then. Of course, none of the women wanted to do this. All of the women wanted to cover M&A, banking. Everybody knew I was a big shopper and I liked clothes, so they said it might be something I'd be interested in doing. At that time it was a two-section newspaper, there was no color, we had dot drawings and charts. Plus we didn't have a dedicated section, I was competing with every other reporter to get real estate in the paper. It was fine because it was challenging and I had to figure out how to make this beat. And also there was a natural prejudice as far as male editors are concerned about 'women's news' and clothes. They're like, 'ew, that's fluff.' So I probably had a higher bar to cross than most people. The stories had to be provocative, hard-hitting business stories.

The first big story I did was in 1990 about this designer named Gordon Henderson, who was fighting with his financial backer, this guy named Ricky Sasaki. Ricky was this Japanese financier who was interested in fashion. And he wanted to turn Gordon into another Donna Karan. Gordon was, you know, like a lot of designers, a creative guy, very kind of impulsive, wouldn't take direction, so they just fought all the time. So I did a page one story about the tension between the designer and his backer. I won an award for this story, because I found out his salary, I got some really inside stuff on them, and that story kind of put me on the map. It wasn't like he was a big time designer, but it was a nice kind of inside look. So I always tell young journalists, when you're trying to do a story, go for a story that's doable. Yeah, it would have been nice to do that story on Karl Lagerfeld, or Oscar [de la Renta], or Calvin Klein and Barry Schwartz. But you know that story's ungettable. But this story with Gordon was gettable, because he had just enough notoriety. Of course nowadays, it's harder to do that because everyone is wary of talking to reporters, but back then you could sneak in that way and get to somebody who was not that press savvy.

I'm really well respected because people say I'm a very straight shooter, I tell people what's up, I don't try to suggest I'm going to do what I'm not going to do. I'm just not pals-y walsy with [my subjects]. You know if you write about business, and I always tell reporters this, when you cover the business aspect you will always get a better story because it's not opinion, you don't have to write about if something was good or bad, all that's subjective. [In my reporting] the good dress is the dress that sold. Period. It doesn't matter why people bought it, it sold, somebody bought it. So that makes it a lot easier. Public companies are a lot easier because you can have access to balance sheets and stuff, but if you don't, you find other ways to -- you look at the real estate a designer has in his store, that helps a lot, you see that Elie Tahari has a huge department at Saks Fifth Avenue, you know he's making money, because that's valuable space. If you see somebody's department shrink you know they're not doing it as well. I still [observe] that when I'm out shopping. I can't help it. It's an occupational hazard.

I did this story on Marc Jacobs renegotiating his contract with LVMH [in 2004]. And I just happened to be in London and this was totally serendipity. I'm really good friends with Silas Chou and Lawrence Stroll, the two guys who are behind Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors -- money guys -- and they said, when you're in London let us know. And I wrote in this book about how we had this wonderful lunch, it was Dover sole and a butler and morning coat and everything in London in their office. So they started talking about Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors and Silas Chou told me that the only two companies worth investing in were those two, because they were looking for some place new to invest. I said, well you can't get Marc Jacobs because he's at LVMH, and they said, 'Well you know he's having problems over there, he's trying to negotiate his contract.' So after that, I called Robert Duffy at Marc Jacobs and said, 'Robert, can I come over?' He said, 'Yeah, Marc's in town.' So you know we were shooting the shit so I said, well Silas Chou and them are talking about this, and I said, 'How can you do business with them when you're with LVMH?' And they're like, well, you know, Silas is offering to do this that and the other, and I'm in this negotiation for my contract, and Gucci treats Tom Ford better than they treat me at LVMH, and they started bitching like crazy. I said, 'Oh stop bitching to me, you and your multi-million dollar salary,' and [Marc] said, 'I don't make a million dollars.' And I said, 'Yes you do.' And he said, 'No I don't.' But I said, 'Yeah but you get stock options and bonuses and benefits and stuff,' and he said, 'No I don't.' And then Robert Duffy immediately stopped him and said, 'Don't answer that.' And I said, 'You don't make a million dollars, you add everything together?' And he said no. And that was all he needed to say. Because I knew people would be freaked out. This was after the Murakami bag, and he was not making a million dollars in salary and bonus. Everybody who read that story, that was the one thing they remembered. So I feel personally responsible for him getting a raise [laughs]. It's funny, because I'd never ask my friends what they would make, but when you're a reporter, it's not you asking. It's the paper asking. The paper wants to know. And I said, ok you know what this is a delicious story and I want this story and it was in December, and that story had to hold until [New York] Fashion Week. Nowadays, you couldn't do that. I mean let me tell you, it ruined my entire month of January. I had everybody on lockdown. The PR woman [from Marc Jacobs], I said, 'I'm not coming over here anymore. I don't want anybody to see me because I'm never over here and people will start to wonder.' The story ran the day of [Jacobs's] fashion show and the day before the [LMVH store at] 57th Street opened. It was delicious. That's what I'm known for doing, that was my thing, the investigative story. 

This is what I always tell people when you're interviewing folks: People love to talk, they won't stop talking, they'll tell you more than you're asking.

I won this Accessories Council Award in [2005]. And so the publicist of the award said, 'We need somebody to present this award, which designer could you choose?' I said I'm not that pals-y walsy with designers, and I said, 'I don't know.' They said, 'How about Tom [Ford]? I said, I know Tom, but not that well. So they asked him, because he was in between jobs, and they asked him if he'd do it and he said, yeah, he'd love to. It was so funny. We sat at Oscar [de la Renta]'s table. I said, 'You are the best date, I love sitting with you,' because we didn't have to get up or do anything, everybody came to us. It was really a fun evening. I've interviewed him a million times for stories, I just love to talk to him, he's smart, he speaks up, has an opinion, is not scared, has a point of view. Same thing with Michael Kors. Michael Kors is a really charming guy.

Teri Agins with Tom Ford in 2005. Photo: Evan Agostini/Getty Images

Teri Agins with Tom Ford in 2005. Photo: Evan Agostini/Getty Images

Just source at all levels with designers. Source designers, source owners, source people in the back office, pattern-makers, all that kind of stuff. If I want to do a story on somebody, I ask around. You also [need to] go to a lot of industry events -- I was going out three, four times a week. And I was married, too, so it wasn't like I just didn't have anything to do. I'm a social person, I like going, and I always come back with story ideas, some fodder, some little nugget or something that I should work into something else, I just do. I would say to writers, look for the unobvious story -- you find that by talking to people. Go to a lot of B and C events. The A events, you might not get invited anyways. But the B and C events, there might be more time to stand around and talk to people.

When I'm with sources, they might tell me, don't write about this Teri, and I'll say, okay, cone of silence, but don't say anymore, don't dangle it in front of me.

I say this all the time, you can't make these people up. They're so colorful. This is what I've loved about this beat, when you do these hanging around stories. They say chance favors a prepared mind. If you are out there reporting, it's not that they did it, you liked it, you're friends with this designer or they gave you some clothes or something. What you're good at is being there, being the kind of witness to history.

Everybody gears up for the collections. No. That is not the way I cover the industry. I did not cover the industry from fashion show to fashion show. Fashion shows often did not figure in my stories at all. Often the way the clothes looked did not figure into my stories at all. You want to get the story that everybody else doesn't have. If you're staring at the same fashion show at the same time, you'll have the same story that everybody else has. You want to find the counterintuitive story that is going to resonate with people.

No, you're not going to get the interview with Michael Kors. He used to be able to talk to you, but he is busy now. He doesn't have time to talk to you. You're not going to get access to Tom Ford. Karl Lagerfeld. But, you could talk to Altuzarra, or Jason Wu or Alexander Wang or Phillip Lim, and you could probably get some really good stories from some of these guys, or maybe the next tier. Or you could talk to the people at Anthropologie, or talk to Jenna Lyons at J.Crew. Carmen Marc Valvo. Elie Tahari. A lot of good stories to be told. I just think reporters are lazy, some of it is laziness, some of it is not knowing how to be a reporter. If you're covering a beat, you're looking at the beat in the round, and you're covering it from those areas. That's what I'm doing with this book. Everybody knows celebrities are wearing clothes, but they don't know the background.

I try to be fair. I tell people, okay, we're doing a story about this that and this. I always try to establish with a source that I am not here to sell your clothes, I am here to tell a story. A lot of people say, oh my editors took this out. I don't hide behind that. You're the reporter, you own up to the story. The story belongs to the reporter. If you have a mistake… At the Journal, the reporter is responsible for the correction, and they keep it in your files. You have two, three corrections a year, you get fired. Because trust is such a big deal. If I do make a mistake, I own up to it immediately and fix it. Because you do want to establish trust. I also feel like, in the course of reporting sometimes, you'll find something incendiary about somebody. At the Journal we had something called the no surprise rule. A subject or a source is not supposed to read a story and be surprised by it. If they wouldn't come to the phone, we would fax them questions, if they wouldn't take questions, we'd send them to their attorney. We would give them a chance. A lot of times, they're going to be mad at it, and it's just too bad.

I did a big story in the early '90s on Calvin Klein's business, and this is when his company had a lot of junk bond debt, and the company had these balloon payments they had to pay at certain points. There was a balloon payment that was due. The company did not have enough cash flow, it was clear on the balance sheet. Even though the company was private, they had to report publicly because they had junk bond debt. But back then, you didn't have 10-K wizard, the reporter had to go with a stack of quarters to the SEC and you had to print out those documents. Most people didn't know where to look for it, and if they got it they didn't know what they were looking at. We get this balance sheet information, and we read it, and it's very clear that they're not going to make this payment, and they may have to liquidate or something. So I did this story with Jeff Trachtenberg, who covered retail, and we had to go interview Barry Schwartz and Calvin Klein. WWD had run the same story, but they just kind of ran the numbers, so if you read it, unless you read this really carefully, you didn't know what was going on. They left it alone. No, we went there. Then I found out that Barry Schwartz had a horse named after Barry Diller who was friends with him and we went to the Racing Association and found out how much this horse won and it was really a meticulous story, they had a private plane and everything, we talked all about their lifestyles. This story was explosive. And after we ran this story, they were really upset about it. So David Geffen ended up bailing him out, he ended up lending Calvin $60 million to pay off the junk bond debt so we could never see those numbers again, and all of that was a result of that Journal story.

I remember the PR guy calling at that time, and they basically said, leave us alone. They stopped inviting me to the fashion shows, they did not send me press releases. I could still get them, but I had to get them from somebody else. And we told them, as we told everybody, we would continue to cover the company, we will do the best we can. And this went on for almost two years. David Geffen, who actually got in touch with me and wanted me to know that Calvin and those guys had dug out of their hole, he said probably Calvin and Barry will want to talk to you, and I said I don't know, and he said, 'Well call them,' and I did. It was a very tense interview, because I was scared to death, but they wanted the Journal to write the story after they dug out of this hole, because they did recover, and it was fine. And I'm very friendly with them. And that was a very hard story to do. I didn't have an agenda, I was just telling the truth. I had the reputation as a bad ass as a reporter, people were saying, 'I can't believe you did that.' But we knew it was going to be a big story that was going to be a big deal. As a reporter, you live for these moments."

This interview has been edited and condensed.