DFR: Daily Fashion Report for November 13, 2016
First Man Standing:
Ernest Schmatolla Looks Back at Lookonline.com
By C.S. Ledbetter III
The original Lookonline.com homepage circa 1996 done as an editorial cartoon of a model smoking.
When Lookonline.coms Ernest Schmatolla gets nostalgic his thoughts might easily wander to the time his father bought a one-way ticket to Germany in the wake of a divorce. The young Schmatolla had always assumed his father, a physician with an MD and a Ph.D. from Harvard by training, left to do research at the Max Planck Institute. It was at his grandmothers funeral that an uncle informed him of the real reason: Your grandmother put a contract out on his life because of the divorce. It seems his mother's Godfather was Johnny Torrio and his grandfather's other good friend was Lucky Luciano!
In the comfort of his elegant Upper East Side apartment, Schmatolla recently recalled this and other nuggets of family lore in the same dispassionate manner he uses when talking about the early years of his brainchild. On most days Schmatolla oversees his empire in the comfort of his bedroom slippers and his bath robe, but on this occasion he is dressed in a black sweat shirt and casual slacks. This is dressy by his standards. In person he resembles an uncanny mix between Alan Arkin and David Geffen. Not altogether inappropriate when you consider that apart from dispensing information to those who want to be in the know about fashion, his website also offers entertainment.
The consummate host, he hands me a glass of Macallan 18 year old and seems unbothered when I spill a portion of it on his immaculate carpet. A current announcement on the website reminds devotees and casual browsers that his little venture has now entered its twenty second year. He recalls the beginning in encyclopedic detail, but the recollection is bittersweet. Thats right, twenty two years online, we had a launch party at Sony Plaza on December 1, 1994, we had 850 people, we had 11 chefs, we had a jazz orchestra, we had a designer auction; our major sponsor was American Express and FOOD AND WINE MAGAZINE. We had 850 goody bags that my family stuffed in our living room. Tourneau was another one of our sponsors. All these people came, they all went to the eventactually, it was a charity event for SHARE OUR STRENGTH, and we charged $85 a ticket. His friend and one of his current writers Rhonda Erb organized the whole affair for less than $400! Everybody came, it was a big party, and nobody had a clue [about] what we were doing... He quicklyat his wifes urging from a nearby roomoffers a clarification. This was 1994, most people in fashion thought the Internet was something you wore on your head. So, you know, it was only a few years later that the Internet began to become so important to the fashion industry.
By then Lookonline.com was perfectly positioned to ride the crest of the wave. Schmatolla is not at all shy about pointing this out. [We] are pioneers of the industry. I been called by some "The Godfather of fashion on the Internet". We were the first and longest running fashion site on the internet. The one that was closest to us was Stig Harder's Fashion.net, which actually was our first name choice, but I thought Fashion.net sounded too much like a hairdresser, so I figured we wouldnt use that name.
Headquarters for his operations has remained the same since its inception. From a small corner of his living room the founder presides over his creation as though it was an operation infinitely larger. Indeed, like a handful of other online ventures (and a few print publications), its influence far outweighs its size. Who reads him? According to Mr. Schmatolla, just about everyone (although some won't admit it) of any importance in the New York fashion industry. Almost 2000 of these "fashion influencers" receive everything that we post directly to their email box; in other words its a list server and anything that we write about is sent to their mailboxes. In addition, via social media the site has over 4200 Facebook friends and 1200 LinkedIn friends.
As he reminisces about what came before, its easy to get the feeling that Schmatolla sometimes yearns for the good old days. I remember doing a Malia Mills swimwear show in 94, where I covered the show, photographed it, ran home and put it up on my bulletin board service so the pictures would be on the same day. This was 1993. We did the first regular video report on fashion in 98 with Marilyn Kirschner, who is my Editor-in-Chief, who comes from HARPERS BAZAAR, who for 25 years was a Senior Market Editor at BAZAAR, and we did pretty much everything at first. And the Lookonlines main news page, DFR: DAILY FASHION REPORT, has been set up as a blog since 2002, and which, by the way, makes us the first blog devoted to fashion with over 2000 posts & articles archived.
Schmatolla was never one to rest on his laurels. In the years of its infancy, he was able to attract such names as Grace Mirabella, who did a number of video interviews for the site. Bernadine Morris, former senior fashion writer for the NEW YORK TIMES for over 30 years, was a major contributor for over five years. So Ive worked with some very good people, and we have tried always to maintain a high level of quality in what we write about. We never reuse, repurpose or redirect other sites editorial."
But it has not always been smooth sailing. He seems most proud of his no holds-barred editorials and editorial cartoons, yet theseat least in the early yearshave caused him problems. From his famous run in with the late Amy Spindler of the NEW YORK TIMES over her "Babes in Couture Land" editorial to gettting banned by Calvin Klein. He talks candidly of that episode that resulted in a temporary ostracism. "I wrote an editorial about Kelly Klein, how Kelly was saying in an interview with Bernadine Morris that she was such a great "natural" photographer. It almost made me vomit. I said she was a second-rate no-talent photographer and the only reason why magazine would hire her was because Calvin [Klein] would pull his ads if they didn't. And here she was bragging about doing the covers of BRITISH VOGUE, when in fact she was sheltered in closed sets where Calvin would hire the best assistants and everybody else for her. Meanwhile, there were others who were so much more worthy of doing covers of magazines that would never get a chance. So that got me banned for like a year." But the bath robed rebel was not easily daunted. Big dealnot going to his shows - whatever."
Then there is the ongoing feud with powerhouse fashion PR firm KCD. "For over 7 years no writer from Lookonline is invited to any event KCD handles. Why? Because I had the unmitigated gall to suggest in an editorial that KCD thought themselves bigger than who their clients were. Being criticized for their arrogance fueled by their continual confusion of who they are with who they worked for was just too much for their fragile egos to endure. Talk about thin skinned, this agency gives new meaning to the word transparency! Few others are were willing to speak up for fear of losing access to their client's events."
"But they soon forget about me, Im forgettable I learned one thing in fashion If you try to get along with everybody, you get ignored. If you speak out on issues that strike or pick on particular people then you run the risk of being uninvited to those peoples events. So its always a balance between things and then trying to work together.
When the publisher is called away by his wife, Deborah, who was also in the fashion biz (shes worked as editor of the Fashion Calendar the past three decades), I get a chance to examine the surroundings. The apartment is filled with paintings, photography, sculpture, and antiques. The immediate environment reveals an aesthetic not very dissimilar from that which informs website. There is the same elegance, the same attention to detail. I can only hope that the figurine I have just tipped over in his absence is not costly andmore importantlythat he does not notice the new small imperfection on its side. The host returns while I am still lost in my thoughts. I inquire about his beginnings in the business.
[I was] primarily at first a runway photographer. I was one of the worker ants of fashion, and runway photographers are one step above or below paparazzi. But it was a way in, and I was really a very good grade B photographer. I started shooting lookbooks, press kits and some editorial. I was good, I was talented, but I didnt have the connections or cache or whatever it was, and frankly after working with so many well-known designers, I lost interest. I had such great respect for them, and when I was finally able to able to work with some of the really big names and thought that they had such great knowledge or wisdom or whatever it was, as naïve as I was nah, I mean, some of them were like nah I could go into stories about some of them. We dont want to do that.
Actually, we do, but not here.
Before cyberspace there was the word. More specifically, print. Schmatolla would not have us forget that he started out before the Internet was gleam in its inventors eye. He mentions that he worked with the late Clay Felker at EASTSIDE EXPRESS. That was a weekly Manhattan newspaper that had a four-month lifespan in 1994, which was edited by Clay, and who brought in many of his followers from his days at NEW YORK MAGAZINE, people who were very well known in the industry then some who still are. Milton Glaser was the graphic designer, and Walter Bernard, Michael Gross was the fashion writer; Cindy Stivers was one of the writers, Patricia Lee Brown Taki was the gossip columnist. It was quite a group.
I ask what happened.
Leonard Stern bought it and closed it as a favor to Rupert Murdoch because we were making such inroads against NEW YORK MAGAZINE that Murdoch was afraid that we were going to take a lot of business away from NEW YORK MAGAZINEwhich we were! So what Stern did was actually it was Philip Merrill publisher of THE WASHINGTONIAN who started the newspaper and hired Clay. then, after about three or four months of publishing in Manhattan realized he was going to lose a couple of millions he just chickened out. So he turned around and sold it to Leonard Stern, the Hartz Mountain kitty litter king. We had this big meeting right after Stern bought with him saying how he were going to make paper into a great weekly city wide publication and how it was going to be all this and that and then, a month later, all the security was there waiting to tell us to clear out. I ran into Clay about six months later on the bus and I said, Clay, I think you were done in, and he said, Yeah, I was. We were fuckingexcuse mewe were screwing NEW YORK MAGAZINE."
"As the Marketing Director, the day before we were closed I was able to get the movies in to advertise. Paramount agree[d] to place a full advertising schedule, and Warner Brothers was sure to follow. And. in fact that very same day, Taki was able to get someone to buy THE EASTSIDE EXPRESS but Stern would not sell it; he bought it to close it as a favor to Rupert Murdoch. And what did Leonard Stern do afterward? He turned around and bought THE VILLAGE VOICE for $53 million, and he screwed that magazine, turned it into a freebie, okay. And he started 7 DAYS A WEEK which was Sterns answer to THE EASTSIDE EXPRESS, which was actually very popular but it only lasted, I guess, four or five years before they closed that. But you know, Stern was another one of these nobodies. Philip Merrill was a very impressive guy, his meetings were really cool. The guy was really good, he had it all together. Then what did he do? He shot himself on a boat, killed himself, committed suicide about ten years later. [ Mr Schmatollas cat has just sunk his teeth into the reporters ankle and the sound he makes is mistaken for a reaction to what the speaker is saying] But Ive been very much into publishing. Actually, years ago I was working in a printing company. I worked as a pressman.
Surprisingly, despite its premature end, Schmatolla considers his time with EASTSIDE EXPRESS the most rewarding period of his life. "In my youth, I was a world class athlete (fencing) and competed in both National and World Championship competition - it was a great experience. But Yeah, working on this start-up publicationi really was somesthing else. Because I was surrounded by so many talented people, I mean they were such great talents. And like, being part of it was like And I had a real problems with people at that company, especially the Advertising Director who thought I was not corporate enough looking and was constantly mocked the way I dressed."
Heres a funny story. "I was the Marketing Director only because I had worked for a group of newspapers which was EASTSIDE EXPRESS before they brought me in because I knew all the local retailers and all of that, so I had the title "Marketing Director" but it was primarily just a title. I was out there selling space. In one week I made over 120 retail sales calls cold canvassing. But the guy that was the Ad Director, I dont want to use his name, but lets just say that he didnt go for me because I was different, I wore funny looking blue blazers and funny pants and I wasnt cool. And he was very corporateWashington tonian magazine, they call it big-time and all this bullshit. So were out there selling space, you know we had to sell for this newspaperfor the first issue of it, and he was very nasty to me."
"He insulted me in front of everybody, called me all kinds of He was just you know like youre nothing. Well, he didnt know who he was dealing with. So, when the first issue came out, there were 36 ads sold. I sold 28 ads and close to 7 pages of advertising, and he sold one ad. And you know what he sold? The caterer for Clay Felker I sold him over and under the table. And you know what I got for it? I got treated even worse! He was unbelievably nasty. He was a sonofabitch. However, years later, he essentially apologized to me, which is kind of funny."
But this survivor insists he is not the bitter sortnot even when he looks back on missed opportunities. Take the time he was approached by Wit Capital to do an IPO and refused. This while watching contemporaries clean up just prior to the dot.com bubble. I have a friend who made $17 million on a site that never made any money while most of his shareholders lost everything. There is no detectable regret when he recounts such stories. Actually, my site has never done as well as its doing now. I mean very well in my terms, not in terms of Vogue.com, The Business of Fashion or Refinery 29 or something. But in my terms.
Prior article: Remembering Tony Mazzola