Defending Vogue’s Evil Genius

The brilliance of Anna Wintour.

Wintour: radical chic

If fashion editors are easy to caricature—writers were fond of Diana Vreeland’s rouged face and her preference for rouge-colored rooms—Anna Wintour may be easier than most. She has been described as a skinny, haughty, snappish perfectionist in sunglasses and stilettos so many times that journalists have been forced to get outlandish with their metaphors, labeling her variously as “a fabulously glamorous insect” and “kitchen scissors at work.” Now, along comes Jerry Oppenheimer’s Front Row: Anna Wintour, The Cool Life and Hot Times of Vogue’s Editor in Chief, a dishy indictment of Wintour based on tidbits collected from disgruntled former employees, slighted friends, and dissed boyfriends, many of whom spoke anonymously. In other words: more of the same.

But Wintour didn’t get where she is without talent; she is incredibly smart about fashion. During her tenure, Vogue has been enormously successful: The September issue, which ran to 832 pages, was the largest issue of a monthly magazine ever to be published. And so it’s worth getting beyond the caricature to examine Wintour’s work at Vogue,without which there would be no speculation about the “real” Anna Wintour.

In 1988, when Wintour was appointed head of Vogue, Grace Mirabella had been editor in chief for 17 years, and the magazine had grown complacent, coasting along in what one journalist derisively called “its beige years.” Beige was the color Mirabella had used to paint over the red walls in Diana Vreeland’s office, and the metaphor was apt: The magazine had become boring. Among Condé Nast executives, there was worry that the grand dame of fashion publications was losing ground to upstart Elle, which in just three years had reached a paid circulation of 851,000 to Vogue’s stagnant 1.2 million. And so Condé Nast publisher Si Newhouse brought in the 38-year-old Wintour—who, through editor in chief positions at British Vogue and House & Garden, had become known not only for her cutting-edge visual sense but also for her ability to radically revamp a magazine—to shake things up. (Wintour had so altered House & Garden by adding models in fashionable clothes to the traditional photo spreads of spartanly furnished rooms that the media had taken to calling the magazine “House & Garment.”)

In her first year at Vogue, Wintour gave the magazine a facelift. In contrast to the bland headshots of mostly blond models favored by Mirabella—this was the reign of Cheryl Tiegs, Patti Hansen, Kim Alexis—Wintour’s covers were fresh: The frame was almost always pushed back to encompass more of the model’s body, and the shoot itself was often done al fresco, in natural light. (Vogue covers were previously photographed in a studio.) She was also among the first to sprinkle inexpensive clothes among high-end fashions: Her much commented-upon debut cover in November 1988 featured a 19-year-old Israeli model in a $50 pair of faded jeans and a $10,000 jewel-encrusted Christian Lacroix T-shirt; another showed a black model in an Yves Saint Laurent tuxedo jacket, a $44 bikini, and a J. Crew bandanna. Wintour’s approach hit a nerve—this was the way real women put clothes together (with the likely exception of wearing multi-thousand-dollar T-shirts). And she also allowed her models to look less than perfectly spackled and coiffed. On another early cover (June 1989), for example, a model with wet, mussed hair wore only a terrycloth robe and what appeared to be no makeup at all. If Wintour didn’t return the magazine to Diana Vreeland’s oft-lauded avant-garde eccentricity—dramatic-looking models in weird, stagy hats—she had her own vision, which was vibrant and elegant and modern.

Wintour also had a clear idea of what a fashion magazine should be about—namely, fashion. Under Mirabella, the fashion had been subordinated to lifestyle. For example, in the July 1988 issue, a reader has to page through sections on beauty, “mind health,” the arts, fitness, horoscopes, health, hair, wine, travel, and living, before reaching a single piece about fashion. It’s striking how text-heavy Mirabella’s magazine was, as though it was trying to be the New York Review of Books. Wintour, by contrast, brought fashion to the fore; she began with a section on the latest trends (a young Jamie Gertz dressed in biker chic), filled the middle of the magazine with innovative spreads (model Carre Otis frolicking, nipples bared, on a beach in Santorini), and ended with a column that ruminated on some aspect of style (the attire of literary dandies, say). Today, Vogue remains relentlessly organized around fashion. The arresting layouts—like Steven Meisel’s austere shots of Grecian-inspired dresses or Patrick Demarchelier’s 25-page Bali spread, a visual vacation—are book-ended by Andre Leon Talley’s chatty, name-dropping “Life With Andre” column, and the “Index,” a well-curated what-to-buy section.

Detractors say that Wintour’s aesthetic is too rigid, too elite. She allegedly kills stories if the subjects are not good-looking enough or demands that the subject transform her appearance. Oprah Winfrey, for instance, had to drop 20 pounds before she was allowed to grace the cover; Hillary Clinton was advised to abandon her navy-blue-suit image. The feature articles, too, must be consistent with a certain rarefied lifestyle. As one former feature writer complained: “She’s obsessed only about reflecting the aspirations of a certain class of reader. We once had a piece about breast cancer which started with an airline stewardess, but she wouldn’t have a stewardess in the magazine so we had to go and look for a high-flying businesswoman who’d had cancer.”

But Wintour is not the first fashion editor with elitist tendencies; Diana Vreeland tossed off comments like “I love royalty. They’re always so clean.” The real question, of course, is whether Wintour’s uncompromising tactics have served her magazine. The answer, quite simply, is yes. In a sea of women’s glossies that purport to be about fashion but publish earnest articles chronicling the author’s quest for self-actualization, Vogue stands apart. The voluminous fashion pages are arty, original, and sophisticated, shot by talented photographers like Annie Leibovitz, Irving Penn, and Stephen Meisel. Most of us read Vogue not with the intention of buying the wildly expensive clothes, but because doing so educates our eye and hones our taste, similar to the way eating gourmet food refines the palate. This is a pleasure enabled by Wintour’s ruthless aesthetic, her refusal to participate in the democratizing tendency of most of her competitors. To deny her that privilege is to deny her readers the privilege of fantasy in the form of beautifully photographed Paris couture.