Posts about history

Capturing the history of our early web: &

The design studio four32c posted a tribute/obit for recently and though it was good to see recognition for its pioneering work, for the sake of digital history, it’s also important to get on the record some corrections about the story. It´s also important given the impact the pioneering work at Style and — more to the point — had on digital coverage of fashion that has followed.

My friend and frequent collaborator Joan Feeney — the genius who led so much of the innovation of the early web at Condé Nast — sent the four32c a note with some clarification and edification; they didn’t run it and so I volunteered to. Joan writes:

The obituary of the site that either missed or misrepresented some significant facts and circumstances about the origins and early days of the site. There was no place to comment, so Jeff offered to post this note I wrote to get the record straight, in case anyone cares someday. I likely wouldn’t have written it except that my recollections about the start of Epicurious have been in demand of late, in celebration of that site’s 20th anniversary, and so many of these Condé Net memories and details are front of mind as is the lack of reliable histories and records about those days.

Contrary to what was posted on four32c, we launched the year before we started Style. And, not Style, was the site that shot and posted every single look from every runway show on the day of the show from the major fashion cities — which, as noted, was revolutionary in many ways.

Until then, designers had restricted the number of looks that could be published to fewer than half a dozen, and even that small sample could be published only during a brief window for a specified period after the show (runway shows typically featured about 60 or 70 looks). No one but Vogue, meaning Anna Wintour, could have done that — it was Anna, and her proxy at, Anne Buford, who persuaded the designers to let us in, despite the fashion houses enormous general misgivings and specific fear of piracy.

If Anna hadn’t decided it was right and timely to open up fashion shop on the Internet, I believe it might not have happened to this day, so resistant, reluctant, and occasionally hostile were the designers and their businesses to the idea. But because Anna blessed it, it came to pass. A startup would have had no sway with the designers, let alone enough yank to get almost every one of them to agree to something so alien and that they couldn’t see as offering any benefit to themselves.

(Even with Anna’s tremendous support and Anne’s tremendous efforts, a few French designers blocked us from attending their shows; and even after we got the designers’ permission, the models’ union, which was very strong in France, forbade us to use the models’ images. It was a vastly complicated enterprise, and it all happened on Vogue’s watch and because Anna decreed it. Fiona da Rin, the Paris editor for American Vogue was a huge help with the diplomacy effort. She would take me from fashion house to fashion house with my laptop to demonstrate not only the website and prototypes of the coverage, but often showing them the Internet for the first time, assuming they had a connection, which they often did not; I had a canned presentation to show in that case.)

One of the other extraordinary things did with the show coverage was to tag the photos so that users could search/sort by collection or piece (all Italian skirts from Fall 2000, for example, or all Ralph Lauren sweaters from every season). One of the selling points we made to designers was what a great resource it created for their own use and historical archives, which it did. It was effectively instantaneous coverage — something completely foreign to fashion at that time.

Melissa Weiner was the genius who made all those amazing tools back at the office. We took the Voguemobile RV to the European shows, and transmitted photos back to the US, where Melissa did her magic getting them tagged, labeled, and online within an hour or so, no matter what time of night it was. The first shows we did were in New York, September of 1999, in the tents at Bryant Park, and we briefly went dark when a hurricane flooded the tents.

“Cams” were a big thing back then — it was considered cool to aim a web cam at the office coffee pot so you could check to see if there was fresh coffee, I guess you had to be there — and we had a camera with a live feed posted at the models’ entrance to the tents, which unfortunately ended up trained on the portable toilets. Inevitably this became the Can Cam and was very popular. Those, as we say, were the days.

Part of why we insisted that the runway coverage be the comprehensive and that their be nifty tools to manipulate the data (searching, sorting, saving) was because we were very vigilant in those days not to compete or reproduce what the magazine did. So we always began the development process by figuring out what magazines were unable to do, and making those things as our creative brief. We had infinite space, data bases, and no time delay, and committed to defining our products by the use of these attributes unique to the web. If something could appear in print, we didn’t need to put it on a screen. I believe that zero “repurposed” material appeared on the site.

I was editorial director (or editor in chief, I forget) of and later came up with the notion for, using the model Rochelle Udell had come up with for a new online brand (Epicurious) to host Gourmet, BA, and other branded and original content., of which I was editorial director (or whatever) would be home to Vogue and the Fairchild brands (WWD, W), as well as other CNP and original fashion content, and moved into that tent. ( was also intended to help centralize the many various foreign editions of the magazine brands at one location.)

The original and brilliant designer for both and was Lesley Marker. I bought the name/url from the Limited. I don’t recall how or even if they had used it, but once we owned it, it was never a gossip site (as the obituary states). Many of the other tools, approaches, and systems we used for and also came from the work we were doing on other Condé Net sites, which then included Epicurious, Swoon, Phys, and Concierge. For example, the Neiman-Marcus e-commerce arrangement was based on one we had done for Epicurious with Williams-Sonoma.

In the spring of 2000, did an online event with Chanel, where we hosted the resort collection live and let invited users pre-order looks based on detail shots we took of every item the second it came off the runway. Chanel was interested not just in selling outfits but in finding out what looks/colors/fabrics shoppers were interested in before the company even began the manufacturing process; fifteen years ago, they were aware of how valuable that data was to making their business more efficient and effective. Chanel was always one of our most enthusiastic partners. It was dissonant and thrilling that the Chanel executives brought our team up to Coco Chanel’s preserved apartment to discuss our Internet partnership. became the larger home for the runway coverage; I think we still branded it as Vogue, though I am not sure.

There are several other key contributors who deserve credit for inventing fashion coverage online back in the late ‘90s; if anyone is interested, I can send more information. The early photographers did extraordinary work when the equipment and the support were unreliable and unwieldy. While Anna Wintour is given some credit in the Fourc32 telling of the story, it isn’t made clear the kind of coverage we were able to do would never, ever have happened if it hadn’t been for Anna’s decision and commitment to make it happen. I believe no other person or group could have persuaded the fashion industry to participate. Then or now.

I’m glad to have this bit of history not only because I go to watch all this magic as it transpired but because I think it’s important that we not lose the memory of how the web began. It amazes me that Epicurious is 20 years old. I started my first site for the parent company, Advance (a weather site called, just to get our feet wet) 20 years ago. The memories fade.

So I recommend reading Eric Gillin’s wonderful oral history of Epicurious. I was delighted that XOXO brought together the founders of for their 20th anniversary; I wish I could have watched. I hope that other pioneers have the courage to show their gray hairs and dredge up their memories before they are lost. We were there at the start of it all.

The progression of the public

I’m editing the manuscript for Public Parts now and so I’ll be throwing out some thoughts from the book to get your thoughts in return. Here, from my introduction, are what I see as the four stages in our conception of “public”:

1. From ancient times to the Renaissance, “public” was synonymous with the state and the state was synonymous not with its people (that’s our modern notion) but with its rulers. Leaders were not merely public figures; they embodied the public. The people had little political standing. They had little independent identity. “Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category,” writes historian Jacob Burkhardt in Civilization of the Renaissance (via Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change).

2. In the so-called early modern period of the 16th and 17th centuries (also known as the Renaissance), Gutenberg’s printing press as well as the theater, music, art, maps, and markets enabled some people to create their own publics, as the Making Publics project at McGill University argues (I’ll explore their ideas further in a later chapter). These were voluntary publics formed among strangers sharing similar interests—which could mean simply that they read the same book and then contemplated and discussed the same ideas. Now it was possible for private individuals to take on and share a public identity independent of the state.

3. In the 18th century, German philosopher Jürgen Habermas argues, the public sphere—and public opinion—first appeared as a political force and a counterweight to the state. Finally, the public began to mean the people. Habermas believes that a brief, golden age of rational, critical debate in society, carried out in the coffee houses of England and salons of Europe, was soon corrupted by mass media. I’ll argue differently, suggesting that the real corruption of the ideal of the public was to throw us all into a single public sphere, a mass—the lumpenpublic. To this day, the assumption that we are one public—which is the basis of mass production, mass distribution, mass marketing, and mass media—has enabled government, companies, and media to avoid dealing with us as distinct individuals and groups and instead to see us as faceless poll numbers and anonymous demographics.

4. Today, with the internet, we are just beginning to create a new notion of what public and the public mean. Like our early-modern ancestors, we—but all of us now—have the tools (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube…) to create and join publics, establishing our own identities and societies. I see that as a purer form of the public, built not around the interests of the powerful but instead around our own interests, desires, and needs. Rather than being forced into a public not of our own making, we now define ourselves and our publics. The new vision of the public may look chaotic, but then change always does. The critical difference today—the next step in the evolution of the idea—is that a public is no longer a one-way entity, flowing from the powerful—king, politician, publisher, or performer—to an audience. Now through our conversation and collaboration, ignoring old boundaries, we define our publics.

In this progression, we are continuing—but accelerating—a timeless dance of balancing the individual and society: our rights, privileges, powers, responsibilities, concerns, and prospects; our privacy and publicness. That describes nothing so much as the process of modernization. In ancient times, Richard Sennett says in The Fall of Public Man, “public experience was connected to the formation of social order”—that is, the end of anarchy; while in recent centuries publicness “came to be connected with the formation of personality”—that is, individuality and freedom. Ancient and authoritarian regimes told people what they must think and do; modern societies enable and ennoble citizens to do what they want to do, together.

So today are atomizing because we have the freedom to be independent. Then we can reform into new molecules because we are social; we need each other and can accomplish more together than apart. We find the publics we wish to join based not merely on gross labels, generalizations, and borders drawn about us—red v. blue, black v. white, nation v. nation—but instead on our ideas, interests, and needs: cancer survivors, libertarians, Deadheads, vegetarians, single moms, geeks, even privacy advocates. We finally tear down the elite of the public few and each become public people in our own right. . . .