The Queen of Condé Nast

 

FACE_EVU_Anna-Wintour

I: Condé Nasties

On the surface, Anna Wintour took public humiliation well. It was easier when The Devil Wears Prada was just a book, even if it was a New York Times bestseller and progenitor of an entire literary micro-genre, the “Boss Betrayal” roman à clef. Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 debut was easy to dismiss as an extended employment grievance aired in public after the fact. It was bitter, entitled, devoid of wit and, crucially, insight into the character and the industry it took aim at. However painful for Wintour personally or professionally, the novel was, in all the important ways, a failure. The real threat came from Hollywood: specifically 20th Century Fox, who quickly brought the rights to adapt the story and scooped Meryl Streep for the role of Runway editor Miranda Priestly. To Wintour’s horror, Weisberger would join Peter Benchley and Mario Puzo as one of a select group of novelists whose most famous work would be made into far better blockbuster movies. The feared Vogue “editrix” was doomed to be parodied by a respected and loved Hollywood actress and she had no option but to put a brave face on it. Later she told Barbara Walters, “I thought the film was really entertaining. Anything that makes fashion entertaining and glamorous and interesting is wonderful for our industry. So, I was 100 percent behind it” (1). At the time, in order to make the point as sharply as possible, like an ice pick aimed directly at Weisberger’s skull, she attended an advanced screening of the film wearing Prada

Nobody doubted Wintour’s power. She warned every designer and fashion label beholden to Vogue to avoid collaborating with the film or face the consequences (in the event only Valentino dared to show his face on screen). While publicising the movie, Streep made sure that everybody knew that she had modeled her performance on somebody else entirely — somebody male, for good measure. Weisberger never publicly admitted that Miranda Priestly was based on Wintour and, in fact, gave the real life editor a cameo role towards the end of the novel (albeit one that made snide reference to the time Wintour was spotted crying at a fashion show after the death of her father). All of this dissembling was transparent, but not futile: it was necessary to avoid a lawsuit. The portrait of Priestly very closely resembled Wintour, except for the working class East End Jewish background which was the novelists’ main fictional embellishment (“from Jewish peasant to secular socialite” was her story, for whatever reason, 2). Priestly’s Runway office, put together for the film by Jess Gonchor’s attentive and mischievous production designers, looked almost identical to its real life model at Condé Nast HQ. As soon as the film came out, Wintour had her own office redesigned and refurbished. 

This was a public humiliation for Wintour: a high profile trashing of the industry she represented, her management style and her personal relationships. The vindictive nature of Weisberger’s creation resided in its intimacy: the physical similarities between Priestly and Wintour (“willowy…perfect posture…casual but supremely neat,” 3) serving to reinforce a more damaging psychological portrait:

How many girls had no idea that the object of their worship was a lonely, deeply unhappy, and oftentimes cruel woman who didn’t deserve the briefest moment of their innocent affection and attention? (4)

According to Vogue’s creative director Grace Coddington the book did hurt her boss, despite Wintour’s public steel and bravado. It was “the bane of Anna’s life” and never quite left her personally or professionally: 

Even ex-President Sarkozy mentioned it semi-jokingly in his speech at the official Elysee Palace ceremony in Paris before awarding her the Legion d’Honneur in 2011. But it’s not a joke. (5)

Plenty of people thought she deserved this, and it did not exactly backfire for Weisberger, who burned all of her fashion bridges with the act of writing, but did not get sued, got paid for the movie rights and launched her own writing career off the back of the scandal. But if her aim had been to diminish or even destroy Wintour’s reputation then her failure was, in the end, total. Weisbeger started a process that created a mass media icon out of a powerful magazine editor. The fact that you could reduce Wintour’s profile to a cartoon helmet bob and Chanel sunglasses, or a scenery-chewing Meryl Streep caricature, didn’t undermine her reputation or standing at all: in the event, it elevated it. 

Wintour, as a true Machiavellian, was perfectly able to retake control of the narrative, manipulating the post-Devil fall-out to serve her own ends. In 2007, she invited a film crew into the Vogue offices to make a documentary about her. Again, this could have, and in one way actually did, backfire: chilly, imperious, poised and distant, Wintour proved less interesting for the filmmakers than Coddington, who provided them with a perfect, flame-haired, Romantic foil, stomping around the corridors complaining about her pictures being axed by the boss. C.J. Cutler’s The September Issue, released in 2009, was enjoyable, then, for this voyeuristic portrayal of a fascinating professional relationship, although it didn’t really have anything more interesting to say about Wintour herself or the fashion industry than The Devil Wears Prada did. But as a record of the creation of one of the most important magazine issues in the world, the film excelled. In the thick of this process, Wintour was supreme: decisive, focused, in control of all elements, balancing the competing interests of business and art. Coddington had the grace to concede this in her memoir: “while I am often approached in the street as a kind of heroine of the film about Vogue, to my mind the point of it was to show the creative push and pull of the way Anna and I work together” (6). Or, as Tina Brown wrote of her one-time rival within the Condé Nast empire:

Wintour’s computation — which was shrewd — was that after living through (and pretending to love) Meryl Streep’s queen bitch parody of her in The Devil Wears Prada, she had nothing to lose. She would embrace her inner vampire. Let the public see in Cutler’s movie how she daily massacres the muse of Grace Coddington, Vogue’s inspirational creative director, and sails around looking aloof in the back of her sleek black limo. At least they would also see how hard she works…(7)

In fact, watching beyond the vampire revealed more than this: despite the arguments, tears and corridor-stomping, the final September issue of 2007 was a visual triumph, and, in the end, dominated by the editorial work of Coddington. So the point was: Wintour’s control of the final product, in line with her strict directives and decision-making process, was the result of her ability to encourage, to bully, to inspire and to discipline the creative teams that she had put together in the first place. Like the other great Condé Nast editors of her time — Diana Vreeland, Beatrix Miller, Tina Brown, Liz Tilberis and Franca Sozzani — Wintour was dominant and sublime in the role, a rare combination of curator, director, producer and businesswoman. At the apex of two deadly and competitive industries — fashion and magazines — Wintour not only survived, she thrived. The spare white spines of all her Vogue editions collected together on the shelves of her Long Island home amounted to a formidable body of work, for which she was primarily responsible. 

So, maybe that didn’t make her a very nice person to work for.

II: Use Your Elbows

I’m the Condé Nast hit man. I love coming in and changing magazines. 
Anna Wintour (8)

If the old world of magazines was a state of war, then New York was the main battleground. Magazine warfare was intimate and intense because of the similarities between the combatants and the limited territory which they contested. The quintessential New York conflict was fought between the New York Intellectuals of Partisan Review, Commentary, Dissent and the New York Review of Books, “a feisty, battling community”(9) who would eviscerate each other in their magazines and at each others cocktail parties all over the Upper West Side during the 1950s and 60s. The political and cultural distinctions being contested were so subtle and arcane that they could look absurd to the uninitiated (“I heard that Commentary and Dissent had merged and formed Dysentery,” quipped Alvy Singer in Annie Hall), but this only made the fighting more fierce. In the world of fashion magazines and related glossies, the battles were equally intense and parochial: Vogue at war with Elle and Harper’s Bazaar; Condé Nast magazines at war with Hearst magazines; Condé Nast magazines at war with each other. Fashion editors fought vicious battles over clothes, models, and photographers. No prisoners were taken. During the Wintour-Tilberis hostilities of the early 1990s, for example, the photographer Patrick Demarchelier signed his Vogue death warrant by joining Tilberis to revive Harper’s Bazaar. (Coddington had to tread very carefully in this battle as Anna’s key fashion editor and Liz’s best friend.)

As cultural artifacts, magazines — particularly fashion magazines — are often ignored, dismissed or simply forgotten, but that is a mistake. Unlike a book or a painting, magazines are not designed for posterity: their life is in the immediate world, responsive to rapidly shifting trends, alive to the intricacies and intrigues of the moment. They reflect the world as it is — or thinks it should be, or dreams it will be — at the time of their production and consumption. Their impact has a limited life-span and is driven by the competing demands of culture and commerce. For this reason magazines age very well: old editions reveal details that are otherwise lost or written out of history. In particular, prestigious fashion titles like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar now provide an unparalleled visual history of the twentieth century, bordering the world of fine art and architecture and directly presenting the clothes, interiors, locations, photographic styles and beauty ideals of each year of each decade to the month. In an interview with the Guardian in 2006, Wintour proclaimed, “if you look at any great fashion photograph out of context, it will tell you as much about what is going on in the world as a headline in the New York Times” (10). She then lamely illustrated this by adding, “the clothes this season are very militant and urban, and have a sense of going into battle,” to the amusement of the interviewer. But she did have a point: Vogue presents the aspirations, desires and visual ideals of affluent global societies, and whether anyone likes it or not this is as relevant as the conflicts and poverty of failed states. 

The fashion magazines prosecuted a war to define the moment: as Tina Brown might have put it in her Vanity Fair pomp, to divine and to decide “what’s hot.” Capture the month and you can define an era. The skill of the editor is to arbitrate this, to make the decisions about what will define both the present and the future. The rivalries are built on deadlines and the time limit of trends: the pressure of the fashion timetable simply compounds this. This is the environment in which Anna Wintour thrived. Her artistic and commercial instincts — and her intense personal focus on leading American Vogue — drove her through Harpers & Queen, Harper’s Bazaar, the defunct Bob Guccioni title Viva, New York magazine and finally into the arms of Condé Nast. This took twenty years but the pace of work was ferocious and the ambition fierce. Each time she caused mayhem in the magazine offices in which she landed and then abandoned, carving out and defending her turf by attacking the established traditions and expectations (in other words, her colleagues). Her success, however, has been driven by her basic ability to drag all of her magazines into the contemporary world, capturing the zeitgeist if not quite leading the vanguard (her commercial instinct always remained too strong for this). Unlike Tina Brown or even Liz Tilberis, Wintour is notorious for her inability to translate ideas into words and has never written anything for her magazines; her editorial talent is almost entirely visual and conceptual, linking together clothes, photography, graphics, layout and (later on) celebrity culture.  

For Si Newhouse and Alexander Liberman, the owner and the creative director of Condé Nast respectively, Wintour’s primary asset was her own unique style of creative destruction. At British Vogue, House & Garden and finally American Vogue, they used her to revitalise aging titles, relying on her ruthless personnel management and design instincts to finish off their strategic dirty work. When Wintour arrived back in London to clean out and refresh British Vogue, the Times reported that Liberman had “instructed her to ‘use her elbows.’ A minister without portfolio, she sized up the situation and rather quickly became the jewel in the Condé Nast crown” (11). In the process, existing staff were sacked or quit and Wintour clashed with her two most important fashion editors: Coddington left to work for Calvin Klein on Seventh Avenue, while Tilberis bit her lip and submitted to Wintour’s directives (under Beatrix Miller both had enjoyed considerable artistic freedom). At American Vogue, working as creative director under Grace Mirabella, Wintour had tried to bring some of the experimentation and edgy energy that she had pioneered at Harper’s, Viva and New York to Mirabella’s rather tired, timid title; returning to British Vogue, she came to bring the bright, clean, commercial aesthetic and working habits of American Vogue to the formerly arty, ethereal, European fantasy world created by Miller, Coddington and Tilberis. (Private Eye reported that Wintour had telephoned managing editor Georgina Boosey to ask if “she knew of a gym that opened at 6 A.M. A little shaken, Boosey said no. ‘Well where do you all go?’ demanded La Wintour incredulously,” 12)

Meanwhile, looking at their stagnating American Vogue and spooked by the arrival of the young and experimental French Elle on U.S. shores (its sales quickly eclipsed Harper’s Bazaar), Newhouse and Liberman had already decided to dethrone Mirabella to make way for Wintour. This was the infamous July Fourth Massacre which also took out society editor Margaret Case, a Vogue veteran who had worked for the magazine since 1926 — so devastated by the manner in which she was axed, Case committed suicide by jumping out of her apartment window. (Condé Nast would become notorious for brutal, badly-handled dismissals.) In her new role — the one she had always dreamed of — Wintour was as ruthless as she needed to be, as was expected of her.  Her first cover swept away the Mirabella era, replacing the formal, high-gloss parade of full-face profiles with a loose Elle-like snap of Israeli model Michaela Bercu wearing faded jeans, a Christian Lacroix T-shirt, tousled hair and a big grin (see above). Within the carefully calibrated visual lexicon of fashion magazines this was a grand statement of intent. “I wanted the covers to show gorgeous real girls looking the way they looked out on the street rather than the plastic kind of retouched look that had been the Vogue face for such a long time,” Wintour declared, thereby consigning Mirabella to oblivion (13). Gradually, and to the amazement and consternation of Mirabella, Coddington and Tilberis, Wintour began re-importing an experimental European sensibility into the mainstream commercial arena of American Vogue. This is where she excelled: she adapted to the demands of the moment and transformed the magazines that she took over (House & Garden, renamed HG under her reign, was her one notable failure), bringing them forward into the modern world and making money for the men who paid her. She was a well-rewarded assassin. 

But this was not all about money. 

III: The Appearance of Things 

My mind is full of pictures, not words.
Liz Tilberis (14)

Before fashion, I love images.
Franca Sozzani (15)

In his 1972 book Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy Micheal Baxandall reprints a contract drawn up by the Prior of the Spedale degli Innocenti at Florence for a painting of the Adoration of the Magi that was completed in 1488 by the Florentine artist Domenico Ghirlandaio. The document details precise specifications for the work, including the exact monetary worth of the ultramarine paint to be used. As Baxandall explains, ultramarine was the most valuable colour after gold and silver, but was often substituted for cheaper blues, hence the anxiety felt by patrons and clients who wanted to display their wealth and power in public:

To avoid being let down about blues, clients specified ultramarine; more prudent clients stipulated a particular grade — ultramarine at one or two or four florins an ounce. The painters and their public were alert to all this and the exotic and dangerous character of ultramarine was a means of accent that we, for whom dark blue is probably no more striking than scarlet or vermilion, are liable to miss. (16)

This was a matter of prestige and utility. Painters participated in a commercial enterprise, with the content and materials chosen in advance by the purchasing party. The paintings that resulted are among the most famous and valuable works of art in world history: nobody doubts their value. Their commercial origin and social function add to their power, rather than detract from it. As Baxandall wrote: “paintings are among other things fossils of economic life” (17).

Fashion photography retains this productive overlap between commerce and aesthetics; in some ways, it is the best contemporary example of the condition. For this reason, and because of a dismissive cultural attitude to clothes more generally, fashion photography and haute couture have only intermittently been examined as art. Grace Coddington, one of the greatest fashion editors and stylists of her time, had no time for such pretensions in her world, writing:

I certainly don’t think fashion photography is art, because if it is art, it’s probably not doing its job. Obviously, there is photography that sets out to be art, but that’s another story altogether. In fashion photography, rule number one is to make the picture beautiful and lyrical or provocative and intellectual — but you still have to see the dress. (18)

Unlike Italian painters of the fifteenth century, who produced bespoke paintings to order, Coddington was loyal to a late Romantic ideal of art cut off from any commercial role or public utility, based solely on the primacy and purity of the vision of the artist. But there has always been a fine line, if any, between the output of the visual artist and the commercial image maker, and from this perspective Guy Bourdin, Helmut Newton, Norman Parkinson, Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Steven Meisel should be considered among the most important visual artists of the twentieth century. In different ways, their work seeped into and shaped the public imagination. Whether delivered by Louise Dahl-Wolfe for a Harper’s Bazaar cover in 1942 or by Guy Bourdin for a Charles Jourdan shoe advert in French Vogue in 1975, commercial magazines became the prime delivery channel for innovative visual aesthetics and new ideas of physical beauty. Fluxus had nothing on Vogue

Fashion magazines are about visual communication in the service of a commercial industry.  Their basic purpose, as Coddington noted, is to sell frocks. But on this basis a rich world of imagery was created with its own language and tradition, from the Helen Dryden illustrations decorating the earliest Vogue editions to the saturated panels of Mario Testino or the sexually subversive sittings of Ellen Von Unwerth. It was the magazine editors and artistic directors who created the space for this visual tradition to develop and thrive, often vicariously fulfilling their own artistic ambitions in the process. The key figure in this role for Condé Nast was Wintour’s own mentor Alexander Liberman, the White Russian emigre appointed to Vogue by Nast himself in 1941 and promoted to editorial director of all Condé Nast publications by Si Newhouse in 1962. Described by his friend and biographer Barbara Rose as “a Dostoevskian character…a larger-than-life gambler, adventurer and mystic” (19), Liberman was also a practising painter and sculptor throughout his Condé Nast career, creating enormous geometric steel sculptures and Hard Edge minimalist canvases that never quite received the critical recognition he yearned for. In 1962 he poached Diana Vreeland from Harper’s Bazaar, later saying, “she was the first editor to say to me, ‘You know this is entertainment’…In many ways she acted as a brilliant theatrical producer. She visualised Vogue as theatre” (20). The combination of Vreeland’s dramatic flair, Liberman’s highbrow pretensions and the photographic innovations of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon propelled American Vogue into its most visually creative and influential period, only terminated when the magazine began to hemorrhage money in the 1970s. 

By this point, Liberman had grown more cynical about the idea of fashion magazines becoming enduring cultural products in their own right: “It’s a business after all. I’m not interested in the fashion magazine as masterpiece. We are not making magazines to be preciously saved. I like the discardable quality of life” (21). At the same time, Vreeland’s work at Harper’s and Vogue presented a model to be emulated by other ambitious and experimental editors, including Liz Tilberis and Franca Sozzani. Unlike Wintour — who despite her English upbringing was temperamentally and culturally an American editor, deploying her talents to the service of the commercial imperative — Tilberis and Sozzani stayed loyal to their European sensibilities, curating their magazines like galleries, elevating fashion to the realm of dream and fantasy. Taking over British Vogue after Wintour returned to America, Tilberis pointedly rebuilt her editorial teams on the principle of collaboration rather than dictation, trusting the instincts of her photographers and editors. Her first key editorial decision was to rescue a David Bailey portrait of Christy Turlington wearing a white Calvin Klein shirt loosely askew — a picture Wintour hated so much she had literally thrown it in the bin. This became Tilberis’ debut Vogue cover. In fact, the quality of British Vogue covers improved dramatically under her reign, as she let the dramatic or simply gorgeous images speak for themselves:

Sometimes, if a picture was strong enough, we’d ignore all commercial wisdom and use it with a single coverline, unwilling to intrude on the beauty of the image with hard-selling text. Our record low was two words: Helena Christensen in a long white dress leading a white horse through the desert, against a backdrop of bluest skies and the words “International Collections.” That would be unthinkable now. (22)

I also recall Sante D’Orazio’s stately cover portrait of Tatjana Patitz for the March 1989 edition, similarly unadorned by text, although my personal favorite Tilberis-era cover remains Patrick Demarchelier’s sumptuous, pouting portrait of Christy Turlington for the April 1988 edition (see above). Tilberis set out to revive the subtle experimention nestled inside Bea Miller’s Vogue, pushing the boundaries of beauty and fashion:

I wanted to make my own statement with more cutting-edge clothes and smarter fashion writing — real explication about how things were changing and what the reader should do about it…I wanted a return to glamour. Anna liked the normal, and I liked the cutting edge. I felt what was lacking was the element of fantasy — the fancier, flashier, sometimes trashier, more extravagant, and even eccentric clothes. (23)

In a reversal of Liberman snatching Vreeland in 1962, the publishers at Hearst had paid close attention to the post-Wintour direction of Vogue and offered Tilberis the unprecedented opportunity to relaunch Harper’s Bazaar as editor-in-chief in 1991. Wintour considered this to be a major threat to her own status and to American Vogue, especially because Tilberis was offering something she refused to: a large measure of artistic freedom to her editors and photographers. The challenge attracted Patrick Demarchelier sufficiently to sign on exclusively with Tilberis and the supermodels followed him. Tilberis’ approach carried over from her time working with Coddington under Miller and her own tenure as Vogue editor, but was also directly inspired by the revolutionary work of Carmel Snow, Vreeland and Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s between 1932-62: 

Harper’s Bazaar was a laboratory, constantly reexamining and reinventing the magazine medium, using photographers like Hiro and Man Ray and launching the careers of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, of whom Brodovitch would demand, “Astonish me.” (24)

Vreeland, Tilberis, Coddington, Sozzani and Wintour too, in her own way, all understood the importance of their photographers and jealousy protected their relationships (and contracts) with them. Wintour had built her own career on discovering, employing and cultivating the loyalty of the best photographers available. As the fashion editor of Viva, for example — a magazine she was so ashamed to work for that she erased it from her own résumé  — Wintour published the work of Demarchelier, Newton, Deborah Turbeville, André Carrara and Shig Ikeda (25). She fully understood the power of images and, therefore, the power of the image-makers; she pushed them to produce their best work for her, which, of course, burnished her own reputation and advanced her own career. 

Fashion magazines are a complex collaboration of clothes designers, retail advertisers, graphic artists, writers and critics, stylists and copy editors, but the key to their ultimate success is the production of the right image. In this dynamic, the editor as artist, or curator, is central to the history of design and fashion imagery. Vreeland and Tilberis have their place in this pantheon, but the greatest of them all was Franca Sozzani, editor of Italian Vogue from 1988 until her death in 2016. The key to Sozzani’s success was her purely artistic ambition. She knew that her Vogue would be limited to the readership of the Italian peninsula unless it could excel in a different way: that is, through images. In a visual culture like Italy’s, this made perfect sense anyway. While Wintour began her tenure at Vogue searching for the perfect synthesis of art and commerce, ultimately breaking into the broader culture of celebrity and politics, Sozzani’s aim was different: she wanted to create the most visually beautiful and artistically experimental magazine of them all. She established an unbreakable bond with Steven Meisel and gave him every single cover of Italian Vogue until she died. She allowed photographers such as Bruce Weber and Peter Lindbergh licence to experiment, sometimes at the expense of the clothes. Within her corner of the Condé Nast empire she took the avant garde European aesthetic to its logical conclusion. She created something perfect and self-enclosed. Her magazines were works of art. You couldn’t always see the dress, but that didn’t really matter. 

IV: The Fashion Conspiracy

In the spring of 1975 Guy Bourdin produced an advert for Charles Jourdan that pushed the conflict between editorial and commercial demands of fashion to the point of mutual destruction. His image depicted a sidewalk murder scene with the female victim’s silhouette outlined in chalk surrounded by pools of fresh blood. The shoes being advertised — a pair of pink wedges — were left scattered on the pavement, the glamorous detritus of homicide. Apart from all of the symbolism packed into the image itself — the links between voyeurism, consumerism, compulsion and violence — the advert presented in extreme form the tension between producing art and flogging clothes. In the work of Bourdin, this reached a rich and conceptual horizon later “critiqued” in Irvin Kershner’s 1978 thriller The Eyes of Laura Mars, in which a model declares: “we’ll use murder to sell deodorant, so you’ll just get bored with murder, right?” (Kershner hired Helmut Newton to shoot parody Bourdin pictures as props for the film.) In his introduction to the 2001 Bourdin monograph Exhibit A, Michel Guerrin wrote: 

In Charles Jourdan, he finds his Lorenzo de Medici, and sticks with the label that is the leader in sexy, top-of-the-line shoes. Jourdan’s fame allows Bourdin to stray from strict promotion to produce revolutionary ad campaigns. Up to this point, no brand name has been so closely identified with a photographer — even though the photographer in this case is apparently “abusing” the product…In his conviction that the image is stronger than the motive behind it, Bourdin forms a visual ethic that allows him to remove the nuts and bolts that hold together frivolity, glamour, ornament. (26)

Bourdin’s relationship with French Vogue editor Francine Crescent was the 1970s equivalent of the bond between Sozzani and Meisel: “[by] the time Crescent was named editor-in-chief in 1967, every single issue of Vogue featured an average of twenty pages of Bourdin’s pictures” (27). The freedom  that Crescent and Jourdan gave Bourdin allowed him to push fashion imagery to the point of implosion: not only could you not see the dress, but the dress was often being, in the words of Guerre, abused. Like the Sozzani era of Italian Vogue, in Bourdin’s work the editorial eclipsed the commercial. 

However, as Diana Vreeland discovered, this kind of freedom was rare and finite. In the 1970s, as sales of American Vogue sank and the cultural moment moved beyond the theatrical escapism of the Vreeland era, Newhouse and Liberman wielded the axe. Grace Mirabella supplanted Vreeland as the most pliant vessel for the Newhouse Concept, a doctrine that prescribed the production of magazines in line with market research, circulation figures and the demands of advertisers. This became the model for all Condé Nast publications, leading to an ambiguous overlap between advertising and editorial that culminated in the “outsert” — expensively produced advertising supplements that used elite photographers, designers and models to mimick editorial content and thereby disguise commercial intent. This was a development that undermined the integrity of Vogue under Wintour and was mirrored at Vanity Fair under Tina Brown, who faced similar ethical questions over subservience to Hollywood moguls in the eternal quest for A-list access. The Newhouse Concept was patented at American Vogue under Mirabella, who dutifully created a magazine that catered to mainstreams interests and tastes: a commercial product designed to sell merchandise and advertising space. This was the period of Liberman’s newly acquired cynicism: the Vreeland years were no longer seen as an artistic triumph, but as a commercial failure, a wrong turn. Wintour’s place in this strategic drama was unique: she came to rest at American Vogue in a space that existed between Grace Mirabella and Franca Sozzani.

One of the key scenes in The September Issue shows Wintour hosting the Vogue Retailers Breakfast at the Paris Ritz, an annual forum that she established and which allows representatives of the major American retail outlets to meet the Vogue editorial team. In the scene, Burton Tanksy, CEO of Neiman Marcus Stores, speaks on behalf of all the retailers present when he asks Wintour to request that designers make smaller collections, to allow faster delivery times and speed up the entire supply chain. Wintour agrees. This is the scene that partially exposes the machinery of the fashion industry — the supply chains beneath the surface of Grace Coddingon’s sittings — and Wintour is completely at ease and in control of all the details. The brilliant Cerulean Sweater monologue in The Devil Wears Prada (actually written by Aline Brosh McKenna, not Weisberger) also touches upon the commercial networks that underpin fashion fantasy, providing the film’s transcendent Gordon Gecko ‘Greed is Good’ moment as she takes apart the pretensions of her assistant, Andrea: 

This “stuff”? Oh, okay. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you.

You go to your closet and you select, oh I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean.

You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic “casual corner” where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of “stuff.”

This put a glossy spin on a process that Nicholas Coleridge first detailed in his 1988 book The Fashion Conspiracy and which has since accelerated to the point of environmental and social meltdown. Coleridge’s book is now out of print and virtually forgotten, but it is one of the best books on fashion ever written: in luxurious if slightly snooty prose, Coleridge meticulously opened up every corner of the fashion industry as it existed in 1988, from sweatshops in Seoul and Brick Lane to Seventh Avenue design titans, the fashion victims of Manhattan society, the influx of avant garde Japanese fashion and the ongoing supremacy of Paris Couture. Coleridge wrote:

[T]he fashion conspiracy is not simply a conspiracy of expensive clothes being marked up around the world, it is a conspiracy of taste and compromise: the prerogative of the international fashion editors in determining how the world dresses, and how their objectivity can be undermined, the despotic vanity of the designers and ruthlessness of the store buyers in distributing their immense ‘open to buy’ budget. (28)

(Coleridge would go on to become the Editorial Director of Condé Nast’s UK division in 1989: Tilberis hated him, although she never mentions whether The Fashion Conspiracy influenced her opinion in any way.) If the word ‘conspiracy’ seemed to be a stretch for the world that Coleridge described in 1988, then he was writing on the cusp of developments that would fully befit the description. The rise of post-NAFTA outsourcing, fast fashion and internet retail would all follow in the 1990s, breaking up production and supply chains across continents and destroying or transforming established names and norms across fashion. Mobile technology and social media further accelerated the process, speeding up the transmission of new looks and offering fresh opportunities for theft and piracy. The trickle-down process that Miranda Priestly outlines does exist, but her description elides the real costs: offshoring production to China and Mexico and the destruction of jobs following NAFTA; horrific conditions inside sweatshops in L.A., Honduras, Vietnam and Bangladesh; the pollution of cotton production and the industrial scale waste of the ‘instant fashion’ system invented by Zara and copied across the globe. This is the underbelly of the industry detailed by Dana Thomas in Fashionopolis, which is like a late and at times apocalyptic update of The Fashion Conspiracy. Who knows how many borders the unfortunate cerulean sweater crossed, or in what conditions it was made? 

But for Wintour, like Miranda Priestly, this is a positive story: “the more people who can have fashion, the better” (29). Wintour presides over this world of production and consumption with imperial impunity, at the apex of haute couture and the apparel supply chains. Equally aware of the cultural impact of a powerful image and the economic reality of retail logistics, Wintour is in this sense the perfect leader for Vogue and by extension the entire fashion industry. Apart from her personal Machiavellian qualities, Wintour’s rise and longevity at the top can be explained by her ability to understand and accommodate both the editorial and the commercial without necessarily sacrificing one for the other. A creature of industry, society, aesthetics and magazines, she also retains a vast blind spot, whether by intention, necessity or temperament. The more people who can have fashion, the better: fine. But the more fashion produced on the old supply chains, through the traditional methods, to the seasonal rhythms of the established industry means, in reality, depletion of resources, pollution and death. The old fashion industry combined with current levels of supply and consumption is, simply put, a death trap. In this context, Bourdin’s 1975 Charles Jourdan murder scene aquires a new and existential dimension. 

V: Machiavelli in Manhattan 

It should be observed here that men should either be caressed or crushed.
Machiavelli, The Prince (30)

When I say that Anna Wintour is a Machiavellian I don’t really mean it in the way that the term is generally understood, as shorthand for deviousness or cynicism, or facilitation of tyranny: I am talking about the ruthless use of power for virtuous ends and the art of leadership in a world where man is more inclined to do evil than good. Wintour’s own stated goals have always been consistent: to democratise fashion and increase the prestige of the industry while maintaining the position of Vogue and Condé Nast at the top of the magazine pile. Since she has been a major factor in the achievement of all of these goals during the course of her career, it only seems fair to grant her motivations at face value. Of course, during that career, and in pursuit of these goals, she has acquired enormous power within the Condé Nast empire and over the whole of the fashion industry. She is sometimes called the most powerful woman in America. To reach this peak she has essentially practiced a form of Machiavellian statecraft. Bodies lie everywhere, and her methods have not always been attractive or even successful. If the result of your personnel management is as damaging as The Devil Wears Prada then something has, after all, gone awry.

Yet, even a crisis like this can be turned into an advantage by a cunning and pragmatic leader in the Machiavellian mould and, as we have seen, this is precisely what Wintour did. Her Machiavellian response was The September Issue, a risky move that relied on converting a piece of luck (Cutler’s offer) into a successful counter-tactic dedicated to an ultimate strategic aim: consolidating her position at Condé Nast. The momentum of Wintour’s career has been maintained by her ability to both crush and caress competitors and collaborators and by her unfailing ability to capitalise on good fortune. This can be seen in the course of her working relationships with Tilberis, Coddington, Newhouse and Liberman and the way that she took every opportunity offered at Harpers & Queen, Viva, New York magazine and Condé Nast to move towards her ultimate goal of American Vogue. Of her two major rivals, neither remain in the field: Tina Brown imploded, flouncing out of Condé Nast to found the ill-fated Talk magazine with Harvey Weinstein and never really recovering her touch; Liz Tilberis died of ovarian cancer in 1999, without seeing her revolution at Harper’s through to its conclusion. Wintour used her wiles with Newhouse to influence the selection of Graydon Carter — by this point an unthreatening Wintour ally — to helm Vanity Fair as Brown moved on to the safe pastures of The New Yorker. This piece of internal turf war was the culmination of the larger Condé Nast war that had raged between the “power booths” at the Royalton restaurant — the fabled ‘Condé Nast cafe’ (31) — throughout the 1980s and 90s.

The ultimate goal for both Brown and Wintour beyond the magazines they ran was Alexander Liberman’s job. Where Brown lost patience and made ultimatums, Wintour kept her ego in check, used her influence discreetly and with the correct people, neutralising threats by ensuring allies got promotions. When she did, finally, start to lose patience, she expertly leveraged a rumour that Barack Obama was going to make her his Ambassador in London. This ploy terrified the bosses: in 2013 Wintour was offered the bespoke position of Artistic Director of  Condé Nast, a role combining the oversight and responsibilities once held by Newhouse and Liberman. This was her ultimate victory in the magazine wars: as Brown conceded at the end of her memoir, “Oh, and yes: Anna Wintour reigns forever as queen of Condé Nast” (32). But having reached the summit, Wintour now faces a world in which Condé Nast has been ruthlessly cut down to size, as magazines have lost lustre, influence and sales to digital platforms and social media. The Condé Nast website no longer lists its diminished roster of titles as magazines but as “brands” — intellectuals no longer write essays for The New Yorker magazine, they contribute content to The New Yorker brand (incidentally, the only Condé Nast title now making a profit). As Reeves Wierdeman noted in a 2019 New York magazine profile, Wintour is still seen as the one indispensable person at Condé Nast (“someone whose eventual departure…will spell the company’s doom”) despite presiding over a steep and consistent commercial decline. As always, on the surface, she puts on a brave face and provides a positive spin, like the distinctively busy, beaming, leaping models of her 1980s Vogue magazine editorials: “How joyous to think about the future and what’s new and what’s next” (33). But, for once, her timing is off: Wintour reached the top of the Condé Nast empire at the precise moment it began to fall apart.

  1. Wintour interviewed on Barbara Walters Presents: The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2006: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEkmKyBzDOE
  2. Lauren Weisberger, The Devil Wears Prada (Harpercollins, 2003), p.40
  3. Weisberger, p.21
  4. Weisberger, p.266
  5. Grace Coddington, Grace: A Memoir (Chatto & Windus, 2012), p.259
  6. Coddington, p.243
  7. Tina Brown, ‘How Anna Turned It ‘Round’, The Daily Beast, September 11, 2009: https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-anna-turned-it-round
  8. Wintour quoted in Thomas Maier, All That Glitters: Anna Wintour, Tina Brown, and the Rivalry Inside America’s Richest Media Empire (Skyhorse Publishing, 2019), p.84
  9. Alexander Bloom, Prodigal Sons — The New York Intellectuals & their World (Oxford University Press, 1986), pps. 4-5
  10. Emma Brockes, ‘What Lies Beneath’, The Guardian Weekend, May 27, 2006
  11. Quoted in Jerry Oppenheimer, Front Row: Anna Wintour (St Martin’s Press, 2005), p.231
  12. Quoted in Oppenheimer, pps. 238-9
  13. Quoted in Oppenheimer, p.288
  14. Liz Tilberis, No Time To Die (Orion, 1998), p.172
  15. ‘Franca Sozzani, Editor in Chief of Italian Vogue, Dies at 66’, Vogue obituary: https://www.vogue.com/article/franca-sozzani-obituary
  16. Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (Oxford University Press, 1974), p.11
  17. Baxandall, p.2
  18. Coddington, p.260
  19. Rose quoted in Maier, p.26
  20. Liberman quoted in Maier, p.32
  21. Liberman quoted in Maier, p.46
  22. Tilberis, p.154
  23. Tilberis, pps.147-152
  24. Tilberis, p. 169
  25. Oppenheimer, p.130
  26. Michel Guerrin, ‘An Image by Guy Bourdin is Never Serene’ in Guy Bourdin, Exhibit A (Bullfinch Press, 2001)
  27. Alison M. Gingeras, Guy Bourdin (Phaidon, 2006)
  28. Nicholas Coleridge, The Fashion Conspiracy — A Remarkable Journey through the Empires of Fashion (Heinemann, 1988), p.4
  29. Wintour quoted in Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis — The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes (Apollo, 2019), p.35
  30. Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. Russell Price (Cambridge University Press, 1988), p.9 
  31. Meier, p.115
  32. Brown quoted in Meier, p.234
  33. Reeves Wiedeman, ‘What’s Left of Conde Nast’, New York Magazine, 28 Oct, 2019: https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/10/conde-nast-anna-wintour-roger-lynch.html

 

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