The influential editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine has sown fear in the hearts of editors, designers and, yes, interns for more than two decades. Some things never go out of style.
Author David Carr Illustration Jeffrey Decoster
THE FASHION WORLD CAN BE…INTIMIDATING. For the seasoned reporter as for the fresh- faced intern, then, the trip from the entrance of Anna Wintour’s office at Vogue magazine to the vintage chairs in front of her immaculate desk (with its selection of black markers and sharpened pencils) can feel like the longest seven yards on the planet. She smiles as I walk in—Wintour is nothing if not well mannered—but I can’t help but wonder about my choice of footwear and the mysterious streak of god-knows-what that’s alighted on my lapel since I got dressed this morning.
Unsurprisingly, Wintour herself looks well turned out. There’s the Prada coat over a Calvin Klein sweater and a large vintage necklace. The shoes? I’m too embarrassed to look under the desk, so I just ask, and she smiles again as she delivers the information: Manolo Blahnik.
She’s doffed her sunglasses for the moment, but that eyewear, framed by Wintour’s unwavering pageboy haircut, has become one of haute couture’s iconic images. Even so, it is what goes on behind those glasses that has made her reign such a fruitful one. If editing is an act of assertion, the 60-year-old Wintour, a native of Britain, is very well qualified for the task, a magazine maker who knows exactly what she wants and usually gets it. Vogue is as much an empire as a publication, and important designers seek Wintour’s counsel and approval before making major decisions.
She’s busy as usual but still recovering from her friend Roger Federer’s loss in the quarterfinals of the French Open the day before. “I’m very sad about that,” she says. She’s quite capable of having fun, if you consider it fun to get up before 6 a.m. to play tennis (singles, naturally). Her skills on the court are applied to her work as well. Several years ago, I accompanied her to a fashion show, and at the end of the event, I hesitated for just a moment. The editor took three long, quick strides and was gone. You have to be on highest alert if you want to keep up with Wintour.
HEMISPHERES: You’ve edited Vogue for 22 years and counting. Has fashion grown in importance in that time?
WINTOUR: There’s just so much more coverage than there used to be. Beyond all the television, everybody now has a blog or a website. Ten years ago, someone living in Kansas wouldn’t know who any of the designers were, and now they all know who the models are, who the hairdressers are, who made the shoes, who made the jewelry. It’s been great for fashion.
HEMISPHERES: So it’s not as rarefied as it once was?
WINTOUR: It’s so much more democratic, in part because we have a first lady who loves fashion and wears it wonderfully. She’s been a huge asset to the fashion world.
HEMISPHERES: Vogue has generally focused on the high end. Does the fact that we are in difficult economic times influence your choices?
WINTOUR: Well, I think it’s been about having the right mix—the aspirational along with something much more accessible. We’ve made a big effort in terms of highlighting clothes that women can really wear, but without walking away from what Vogue is. It’s an interesting conversation I have with myself every month.
HEMISPHERES: That mix is not entirely new. Your first Vogue cover had a model wearing a $10,000 Lacroix top with $50 jeans.
WINTOUR: That’s the way that women wear clothes today. I think women are so much more adventurous about fashion and personal style. We don’t have the fashion icons, say, of the Jackie Kennedy era, when everyone just wanted to look like her. It’s so much more diverse now.
HEMISPHERES: Do you think the ability to be fashionable is innate? My father is an extremely natty dresser, but I always end up looking like a garbage bag with legs by the end of the day.
WINTOUR: You should come to work at Vogue for six months, and we’ll perfect you. I think that people learn what works for them over time.
HEMISPHERES: Your father, Charles Wintour, was an editor as well, eventually heading up the Evening Standard in London. How did that affect your career choice?
WINTOUR: Both my parents were extremely hard workers. My mother was a film critic before having all of us. I think being brought up with journalism and being around my dad when there was a breaking story—being called by Lord Beaverbrook in the middle of the night, things like that—it makes a big impression. I remember the excitement of it all.
HEMISPHERES: He had a reputation as a fairly tough boss. Did some of that rub off on you?
WINTOUR: Am I like my dad? I never worked for my dad. But having worked for people who were not always very clear, it’s much easier to work for people who do know what they want and who communicate what they want. He was certainly excellent at that.
HEMISPHERES: So editing requires decisiveness.
WINTOUR: A benevolent dictatorship.
HEMISPHERES: Maybe not all that benevolent. You’ve got a reputation for being extremely tough.
WINTOUR: I think it comes from being brought up in quite a strict household. Both my parents were very disciplined. My dad came from a very Victorian British background where you just didn’t complain about certain things, and I believe that as well. It doesn’t help anything to take a shot at someone, so I just think it’s better to move on—smile and move on.
HEMISPHERES: So when a former assistant published the novel The Devil Wears Prada, which was then made into a movie, you took it in stride and even attended the premiere.
WINTOUR: When something like that happens, it’s almost like you’re looking at another person. You just don’t feel you’re that person.
HEMISPHERES: Despite your success, you had your knocks on the way up. Is it true you were fired from Harper’s Bazaar in 1975?
WINTOUR: Totally right. I was told I would never understand the American market. I did a shoot in Paris, and I remember it very clearly: It was a couture collection, and I put dreadlocks in the model’s hair. It was too much for them. That was the end of me at Harper’s Bazaar. I think everyone should get fired once. I think it’s really important. It worked out great for me. You come back. I ended up at New York magazine, and that was a great, great learning experience.
HEMISPHERES: The publishing and fashion businesses have both faced their share of challenges in the last few years. Has it been a hard time to publish a magazine about high-end fashion?
WINTOUR: The fashion industry was having such a tough time, and everyone was just sitting around wringing their hands. I think it’s important to be proactive in those kinds of situations, because it is a big industry, and a lot of people were losing their jobs. Fashion is a huge source of employment in New York City alone and while the glamour of it is wonderful, it’s also a very important business. To me, that’s often overlooked.
HEMISPHERES: Okay, now for the lightning round: What is the one accessory a young woman starting out in the world needs?
HEMISPHERES: Name your favorite food.
WINTOUR: I’m very fond of avocado. And I love steak.
HEMISPHERES: What’s your greatest pet peeve?
WINTOUR: I don’t like people who are late.
HEMISPHERES: Favorite TV show?
WINTOUR: 24. I’m very sad it ended.
HEMISPHERES: Biggest personal fashion faux pas?
WINTOUR: I had a really bad haircut once. I wore a hat for about a year just so no one would see it.
HEMISPHERES: What job would you want if you didn’t run Vogue?
WINTOUR: I’d like to run the Tennis Channel.
HEMISPHERES: We’d all be wearing white shorts. Meanwhile, you’ll soon be closing the famed September issue, the year’s biggest. It seems unlikely you’ll top Vogue’s 2007 record of 840 pages.
WINTOUR: Well, everything has its ups and downs and cycles. At least now we’re going up, which is in the right direction.
HEMISPHERES: You’re expecting a robust September?
WINTOUR: We certainly are.
DAVID CARR, who writes about media for The New York Times, was unsuccessful in converting Ms. Wintour to flip-up sunglasses…for now.