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The most influential, ornery, talented, quot-able, powerful, exasperating and, let's be fair, important fashion editor of our time says he will retire in March when he turns 70, hanging on only to authorship of an occasional column and modest title of editor at large.

Rubbish! John Fairchild will never just walk away, regardless of who ends up owning his little company.

For about 40 years through his great daily trade paper, Women's Wear Daily, familiarly known as WWD, and later, its successful consumer spinoff, W, John has terrorized fashion designers, made and broken fashion careers and, more to the point, influenced how women everywhere dress.

For the record, for most of those 40 years he has also headed the family company, Fairchild Publications, continuing to do so after the Fairchilds sold out to Tom Murphy and Capital Cities in the late '60s and into the period when Cap Cities, ABC and the lot were swallowed whole by Michael Eisner's Disney, which is now about to unload.

The company always has consisted of a number of publications and information services beyond WWD. Not that John cared. For him, fashion was what obsessed him; WWD the Fairchild paper over which he fussed and nattered.

I worked with or for John for 17 years and actually succeeded him in three jobs: as retail news reporter, as European director in Paris and as publisher of WWD. When I quit to go elsewhere after seven years running WWD, I recommended Editor Mike Coady succeed me. Nope, said John, I'll become publisher again. But you're CEO and chairman, I protested. No, said John, I'll name myself. And so he did.

When the Fairchilds sold to Cap Cities, John and his father Louis and their side of the family got about a quarter of the dough and stock. Cousin Edgar's side of the family got rich. Cousin Edgar was notable as the only person in the building who had a private shower. He also went to lunch every day at the Union League Club; John and Louis worked.

From 1960 on, Louis let John begin to change WWD from the staid, solid trade paper it had been since 1910 into the chic, bitchy, trend-setting, readable powerhouse it became.

We feuded with Buckingham Palace and the White House. Reduced famous Paris designers to nervous breakdowns. Twitted Vogue and Bazaar and even the great New York Times for being a day late and a dollar short on fashion news and trends and looks our little tabloid ran yesterday. If not last month.

We discovered new designers and hung out with Chanel and Saint Laurent and turned fashion inside out. And, God! it was fun.

WWD, with its crack European reporters, discovered the miniskirt. And when the mini had run its course, WWD declared it dead. Retailers went nuts and ate their inventories, feminists picketed the building, John went on the cover of Time and I went on the "Today" show, and daily bomb threats were phoned in. And WWD was right; within a year, skirts had fallen to the knee or below.

John Fairchild had this uncanny instinct of knowing what the designers were going to do before they did. He understood the cultural and subcultural forces working on this handful of brilliant and sensitive folk-more than a few of them neurotics-who created world fashion and made women look the way they do. But he was also a pretty good writer and a great reporter, always pushing, always knowing his way up the back stairs, flattering and cajoling and, when necessary, harassing, threatening.

If Cardin showed him one sketch in advance so we could scoop the other papers, John wanted to see six. When six were trotted out, he demanded 10. If Givenchy banned our reporters, we sneaked in and got the sketches anyway. If a new Ungaro came on the scene, we were there before he signed the lease on the new atelier. With his instinct to sniff the air, he had the ability always to say which dress out of 90 in a new collection was the one that would sell, be copied, be ripped off, the one we called "the ford."

The company published other Fairchild papers, many of them powerful in their own fields. If John read them, that became an occasion. He may have been pressed to tell you who was the editor. As for being CEO and chairman, he held the titles. Others did the work. He hated confrontation and submitted to a "real" executive being put in place by the "grown-ups" at Cap Cities. John made few decisions of bottom-line significance; he ran a great newspaper and did so superbly. And that was sufficient unto the day. He had his fashion shows to attend, his lunches with designers at French restaurants, his lists to compile as to who was "in" and who "out."

But retire? Sometime well into the next millennium in an empty Dior salon in Paris from which the last model wearing the last wedding dress has just have gone off to the last applause, when the cleaning woman comes to vacuum, she may find John still sitting there on a little gold chair with the program on his lap, and on it in his left-handed scrawl, the circled number of a certain dress.

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