“It’s literally the most insane fashion week ever,” said Sara Moonves, standing outside her Chinatown apartment one evening during New York Fashion Week waiting for an Uber.
Complaints about shuttling from shows in abandoned subway stations on the Lower East Side and former weapons facilities on Park Avenue is basically a prerequisite for working in fashion (particularly when having a town car driver is no longer standard operating procedure). But in Ms. Moonves’s case, there was justification.
On June 25, Condé Nast sold W magazine to Future Media Group, the publisher of Surface, an independent fashion magazine, for less than $10 million. Stefano Tonchi, the editor of W for the last 9 years, was fired, and Ms. Moonves, its style director since 2017, ascended to the top role.
It so happens that Ms. Moonves didn’t sound whiny talking about the insanity presently surrounding her. It was more gee golly wow. She was closing her first issue, wooing advertisers, flying to Los Angeles for a cover shoot, and then heading straight to London, Milan and Paris for three more weeks of fashion shows.
Although she is the daughter of Les Moonves — the former head of CBS who was forced out after allegations of sexual harassment, about whom she has nothing to say besides “I love my dad” — a woman who spent her childhood surrounded by celebrities, there is nothing jaded about her.
The shoots Ms. Moonves does with photographers like Tim Walker have an Alice in Wonderland-without-the-hangover quality. “Epic” and “amazing” are her two favorite adjectives.
Ms. Moonves, 34, also has a pack of best friends second only to Derek Blasberg, along with a can-do attitude that helps explain how she managed to become the youngest editor in chief of a major American fashion magazine by about a decade.
Still, this might not have happened but for the fact that things went terribly wrong between Marc Lotenberg, who bought the magazine, and its former editor, Mr. Tonchi.
The story, according to two sources briefed on the sale process, is that in the fall of 2018, when Condé Nast decided to sell the magazine, Mr. Tonchi was given a role in helping to find a buyer, for which he was paid a fee on top of his salary. This was an unusual arrangement. (Among those who were interested in acquiring the title was Mr. Moonves, according to an article in WWD, though a spokesman for Mr. Moonves told WWD that he “did not at any time make an offer to buy or invest in W.”)
As the deal with Mr. Lotenberg began to close, disagreements arose over the size of what amounted to a signing bonus that Mr. Tonchi asked for, a sizable severance agreement, were he to be fired, and a noncompete clause that the buyer was asking for.
During the second week of June, Mr. Lotenberg met individually with senior staffers, one of whom was Ms. Moonves. Talks progressed from “what do you like and what do you want to change about the magazine?” to “what would you do as editor in chief?”
On Friday, June 20, as a lawyer worked on Ms. Moonves’s deal, she flew to London for a scheduled cover shoot the following Monday with the singer Frank Ocean.
Then came a wrench. Frank Ocean behaved like Frank Ocean and ran several hours late for the shoot.
Ms. Moonves was torn. If she stayed on set, she would miss her flight back and the Tuesday announcement of her promotion. She wanted the chance to talk to staff members whom she valued and wanted to retain. If she told people at the magazine that she couldn’t stay in London, they would be suspicious.
Returning to New York seemed like the better option.
The same day, Mr. Tonchi received a phone call from Condé Nast, asking him to come to a meeting at its World Trade Center headquarters. He realized he was going to be fired.
At 8 a.m. on Tuesday, June 25, he sat in an office with Anna Wintour, the company’s artistic director, and a member of the human resources department, who proceeded to do just that.
On Wednesday, June 26, he sued Advance, the parent company of Condé Nast, for breach of contract, and people at W went back to work.
On Thursday, Advance countersued him.
“IT HAPPENED VERY QUICKLY,” was all Ms. Moonves cared to say about her hiring as she stepped into a black Escalade bound for a Chelsea gallery, site of the spring Proenza Schouler show. She had on black pants from the Row, which is designed by two of her best friends, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. On top she wore a leopardy, zebra-ish coat designed by Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler, who are also two of her “best friends.”
“Proenza for the Proenza show,” Ms. Moonves said.
When the car arrived at the gallery, Ms. Moonves walked into the fashion equivalent of a college reunion, chatting with the model Karen Elson, the British Vogue editor Edward Enninful and the photographer Theo Wenner (all of whom she has worked with).
Ms. Moonves was seated in the front row next to W’s editor at large, Lynn Hirschberg, who books the magazine’s covers and is something of a legend in the business. Ms. Hirschberg started at Rolling Stone, after which she did long stints at Vanity Fair and The New York Times Magazine, where she wrote big stories about the business of Hollywood and wrangled celebrities for T: The New York Times Style Magazine. (Mr. Tonchi was the editor of T from 2004 to 2010.)
She left The Times in 2010 to go to W with Mr. Tonchi, but she grew increasingly exasperated with his behavior during the sale. So when Mr. Tonchi walked into the Proenza show and took his seat across the room, Ms. Hirschberg floated the idea of going over to let him have it.
“Not worth it,” Ms. Moonves said. (Mr. Tonchi declined to comment for this article.)
The lights dimmed, house music blared, and models marched around the room in clothes that looked sort of Thierry Mugler as reimagined by Martin Margiela. It was a good collection, and Ms. Moonves headed backstage afterward for a quick kiss and hug with her boys. Rihanna’s show was next, but a number of her staffers were going home.
Not Ms. Moonves. This was partly because she and RiRi share a publicist, Amanda Silverman. Ms. Moonves also has a fear of missing out that has been with her ever since she was a student at Harvard-Westlake school in Los Angeles, talking about Nicolas Ghesquière as if he were a god.
This was sometimes puzzling to Jonah Hill, the actor, who grew up with her. “The only things I knew about were skateboarding and hip-hop,” he said. (He also called Ms. Moonves his “best friend.”)
But she knew where she was headed.
In college, at New York University Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where she majored in journalism and photography, she interned at Vogue with Sally Singer, the magazine’s features czar. After college, she went to Vogue as the assistant to Phyllis Posnick (who styled Irving Penn shoots).
When Ms. Singer left the magazine in 2010 to become the editor of T, Ms. Moonves went with her and began styling her own shoots. In 2013, when Ms. Singer returned to Vogue, Ms. Moonves followed and became a contributing fashion editor, working with photographers like Annie Leibovitz, Anton Corbijn and Inez van Lamsweerde.
Like many people with famous parents, the attendant connections accelerated her ascent. She also would not have gotten where she did had she not been able to do the job, particularly at Vogue. When she complained to her father about her editor’s exacting standards, he said, “Well, they did make a movie about this.”
Anyway, Ms. Moonves mostly loved Vogue, and Vogue mostly loved her back. “They’re like my family,” she said.
In 2017, Mr. Enninful, the fashion director of W, was hired by British Vogue, and Ms. Moonves became W’s style director. One of the photographers she worked with most frequently was Tim Walker, who brings a quirky, Wes Anderson-like sensibility to fashion photography.
In an interview, he said that Ms. Moonves’s skills as a stylist include personableness and an understanding that fashion exists in a larger cultural context.
“She doesn’t have a pretentious bone in her body,” he said. “She’s very easy with people who are extraordinarily famous, but she’s the same with my photo assistant as she is with Margot Robbie, although she did have a crush on Timothée Chalamet.”
Ms. Moonves even helps call in clothes for civilians who need something great to wear on a big night. “My mom!” Mr. Hill said. “I was taking her to the Oscars. Sara didn’t even tell me.”
Don’t bother asking him what the dress was. “I don’t know,” he said.
THE DAY AFTER New York Fashion Week ended, Ms. Moonves stood in a conference room on the 38th floor of Condé Nast’s 1 World Trade Center headquarters. (The magazine will remain in the building until at least June 2020.)
The walls were papered with pages from the October issue, Ms. Moonves’s first as the editor in chief. The theme was “the new originals,” which Ms. Moonves — she had on Loewe sneakers and a chunky black sweater and skirt, both from the Row — thought was fitting, signaling a “new chapter” in the magazine’s history.
The issue didn’t look like a wholesale reinvention of Mr. Tonchi’s magazine, but it was earthier and more playful. There are two covers. One has the Spanish singer Rosalía; the other has Mr. Ocean, who was photographed by Mr. Walker and has no styling credit.
“Frank styled himself,” Ms. Moonves said.
In between were pictures of the fashion photographer, video director and illustrator Jean-Paul Goude; the West Coast style maven Lisa Eisner; the country singer Kacey Musgraves; and the artist Alex Katz, whose photograph was by taken by Ms. Moonves’s boyfriend, Jeff Henrikson. (“I know,” she said of their relationship. “A photographer and a stylist. What a cliché.”)
In one nod to the magazine’s past, Ms. Moonves removed the Tonchi-era W logo and replaced it with what she called a “new version of the old W,” the one run until 2010 by Patrick McCarthy and Dennis Freedman.
Their W, she said “was epic.”
Of course, Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Freedman’s magazine benefited greatly from Condé Nast’s lucrative arrangements with top photographers who could shoot their more commercial work for Vogue, Vanity Fair and Glamour while using W for provocative fashion spreads (Think: Brad Pitt facedown on the floor, butt exposed, and Tom Ford playing with sex toys.)
Ms. Moonves isn’t sure whether she will retain access to all of them, but she professed not to be worried about how the magazine will fare under a new owner whose main experience in publishing is an independent magazine with shoestring budgets and a faulty credit history.
A group of editors walked in to go over final proofs of the issue and a reporter raised an eyebrow about the likelihood that the meeting had been staged for a newspaper article. “This is very much a real meeting!” Ms. Moonves said. “Really not fake!”
But it didn’t last long. She was “literally” about to jump into a car and head the airport.
While she was away, I called Ms. Hirschberg, who told a story about how she had trailed Mr. Moonves to the network upfronts in 1995 for a New York Magazine article she wrote about him. Backstage, she spotted a 10-year-old girl running around talking to everyone.
“‘That’s Sara,’” Ms. Hirschberg recalled Mr. Moonves saying. “‘One day, we’ll all be working for her.’”