It's so chic it goes only by one initial - M. That stands for (what else?) The Civilized Man. Created by Fairchild Publications, the producers of that bible of the fashion trade, Women's Wear Daily, M is the latest, and unabashedly elitest, entry in that slim-to-none category of men's fashion publishing. The industry until now has been dominated by, or consisted almost solely of, Conde Nast's Gentlemen's Quarterly, better known as GQ.
M is actually a reborn Men's Wear, an 88-year-old Fairchild publication. M's October debut means the so-called ''alphabet wars'' in men's fashion publishing have begun in earnest.
Many observers are already hailing the fat and swanky-looking M as the perfect hybrid of other, equally toney publications, such as Architectural Digest, Vanity Fair, and Forbes. Its 300 pages, more than 60 percent ads, were graced in October with Prince Philip on the cover. President Reagan is on the November cover. ''This a magazine unabashedly aimed at millionaires,'' one industry expert says.
A quick thumbing through the expensive-looking $3 magazine reveals such highbrow advertisers as Yves Saint Laurent, Oscar de la Renta, Giorgio Armani, and Pierre Cardin - all punctuating not-for-the-masses articles on the Duke of Edinburgh, Sony Corporation chairman Akio Morita, and Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency founder David Ogilvy.
Other tidbits include advice on ''The Perfect Blazer,'' the ''Civilized Safari,'' and ''English Country Life'' - upscale stuff by nearly anyone's definition. And that, observers say, may indeed be the magazine's key to a long life.
''It's a very impressive start,'' says Adweek editor Geoffrey Precourt. ''They've had the foresight to get the kind of articles that their [affluent] readers presumably want to see.''
While some within the industry charge that aiming for the upscale audience market has become so common as to be almost a cliche, others insist it is the only way a new magazine can survive.
''That's what magazines do,'' says magazine critic Gail Pool. ''They target their market very, very closely. And you don't need a large circulation if you have an affluent one.''
Other observers question whether a market of the really fashion-conscious male, upscale or not, truly exists. Indeed, several industry experts maintain that M's debut is meant to createm a new market rather than cater to an already-existing one. In that sense, M may be the glossiest cart ever put before a horse.
''What's going on now is more of a business matter than a sociological phenomenon,'' said one ad agency vice-president, in response to the new publication.
''Men's fashion in this country? There is no such thing, says Gerald Lukeman, director of ASI Market Research. ''That's a very good reason not to have lots of men's fashion magazines.''
But M's staff says their new magazine will consist of ''life-style articles'' rather than just sartorial or skin-care features. ''Only about ''30 percent of the editorial content will have to do with fashion,'' says M editor Kevin Doyle. ''It's really a magazine about style.''
Still others insist that the affluent, fashion-conscious male represents a market just coming into its own.
Experts cite as evidence of this growing market such changes within the industry as the New York Times' twice-yearly men's fashions supplement, the growing popularity of Esquire magazine's fashion edition, and the success of GQ. Since Conde Nast purchased the magazine five years ago, GQ has become the most successful men's magazine, according to industry statistics.
''Men are becoming very fashion-oriented,'' says Michelle Granger-Wilson, a fashion-merchandising instructor at Stephens College. ''It's a market that is really opening up. It's not broad-based yet, but the target market is a big one.''
Some experts say the men's fashion market may yet approach the magnitude of the women's. ''[Fashion] advertisers see the possibility of doing with men what they've done with women,'' Ms. Pool, the magazine critic, says.
M's debut, the rumor of which had been buzzing around the clothing industry for two years, is considered the pet project of Fairchild chairman John P. Fairchild. ''Now we know that thism is the right time [to launch the magazine],'' he says in his statement to advertisers. Yet apparently little market research had been done to back up this assertion.
In fact, some critics charge that as a trade publication, Men's Wear, unlike the highly successful Women's Wear Daily, was simply floundering and that a major transformation was desperately needed. (Fairchild also publishes a consumer version of Women's Wear Daily, known as W.) Many observers expect the retail-clothing industry to constitute a large part of a new magazine's audience. Nonetheless, some question M's ability to woo readers away from its closest competitor, GQ.
To broaden its largely young, male audience, M will differ greatly from Gentlemen's Quarterly, say staffers. GQ has been undergoing some editorial changes itself during the past year. Those include longer, weightier articles; more photographs of women; and personalities rather than models on its cover.
While GQ considers its 600,000 circulation to be under 30 years old, unmarried, and earning a median income of $30,000, M aims for an audience much smaller in numbers but higher in both age and affluence.
''Our core group will be men in the 35-50 year range, with a very high income ,'' editor Doyle says. Most observers put that median audience income near the $ 60,000 mark, making it a small but elite group. M's target circulation is roughly a third the size of GQ's.
''M is aimed at the motion-picture producer, not the motion-picture star,'' says Jack Hyde, a men's wear consultant and former editor of Men's Wear.
What does Fairchild envision for his brainchild? ''We intend to be an elitist magazine,'' he said to advertisers, ''and we will not apologize for it. We, in fact, expect it to be our greatest strength.''