Anna Wintour is not wearing her signature sunglasses today. She meets everyone’s eyes as she greets them with a warm smile. She shakes my hand, asks my name and what subject I do, and even compliments my outfit. This is not the woman you might be led to expect by the public perception of the Editor-in-Chief of American Vogue, an impression fuelled by the looming caricature of Miranda Priestley from The Devil Wears Prada. In person, she is characteristically well-dressed (Valentino and Burberry, of course), very witty, and considerate. She even kindly provides me with a copy of her speech, should I wish to reference it.
What does strike me though is her unwavering commitment to her job. Perhaps it is this driven focus which is responsible for her rather Machiavellian reputation, but whenever she speaks about her work it is clear that she is not only diligent, but also that she cares deeply about what she does. She was recently given the position of Artistic Director at Condé Nast, a role which she is keen to discuss.
“A lot of my time is now spent working on all of the magazines and all of the websites and trying to be supportive to all of the different Editors-in-Chief and the digital creatives as well as working on the magazine. Obviously the big shift that’s happening, not just in the United States but all over the world, is how we adjust to the growth of digital whilst maintaining strength in our print property. That’s really my main focus right now.”
She repeatedly emphasises that she is “very much focused on what’s going to happen today and tomorrow rather than what’s going to happen in ten years.”
“I think it’s very, very important in whatever you do, in whatever field, to be able to give back. I think it makes sense for me personally to focus on the fields that make sense to my industry.”
It becomes increasingly clear that Wintour’s role is not simply as a journalist or as someone who works in the fashion industry; she is a manager and director, crossing the borders between several industries in the process. One gets the sense that if she dislikes the way something is run, she will either change it or leave. The worldwide nature of the Vogue brand is one area where she has a specific idea of how things ought to be run.
“There’s always been a sense that whatever country Vogue might be published in, it’s important that it reflect its own culture. I think Alexandra [Shulman, Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue] has done an incredible job of doing exactly that with British Vogue and there are a lot of things that I see and admire in British Vogue that might not make sense for us in America and vice versa. But each one speaks with an individual voice and I think there are other publications and companies out there that don’t have that perspective; they make things much more universal. That’s not something I subscribe to, I mean what’s of interest in British culture may not be of interest in the US. I think it’s very important to protect that individuality.”
This criticism of other companies is something which comes across in her talk as well, as she suggests that the majority of CEOs do not take enough time to experience new things; she endorses regular travel as an important part of remaining alert to new possibilities. She, on the other hand, shows no signs of becoming boring even in her 27th year as American Vogue editor. Having overseen several milestones, such as putting a black model (Naomi Campbell) on the front of her first September issue as American Vogue editor or leading the way in the influx of celebrities onto magazine covers, she is constantly alert to the potential for a new approach.
“I think the covers are very much a reflection of what’s happening in the culture so it’s important to put women, sometimes men and women on the cover that are reflective of the moment and also at some point expected. And from my point of view, what I like to do every now and again is what I call an ‘event cover’, which is something that’s completely unexpected – like last year, when we put Kim and Kanye on the cover. There’s a reassurance in it being familiar, but at the same time fashion is about change. A magazine like Vogue, which we’re talking about particularly, really has to reflect that change. You need also to publish things that are a little bit out of left field.”
So many Vogue covers have come to represent their times of publication, and since Wintour is considered such an arbiter of taste, I am interested to know whether she has a feel for what will define this decade in terms of fashion.
“In my experience it takes ten years to really be able to step back and put everything into context. So whatever I might point out would probably be wrong. I mean, there’s no question that there’s much more influence and interest in street culture through social networks, through Instagram or whatever it may be. You know, what people are wearing in the street is of much more interest than it was ten years ago but I think you really do need the distance to be able to see it much more clearly.”
For many, one of the most definitive designers of the last two decades was Alexander McQueen, whose label continues his legacy five years after his death. We discuss how the impending Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A will honour his creations. Wintour sings the praises of Andrew Bolton, who originally created the exhibition for New York’s Metropolitan Museum, and she is glad that it will now be seen in London. She also makes sure to mention Sarah Burton, the current Creative Director of the Alexander McQueen label, with whom she has had lunch on the same day as our interview.
“She’s been extraordinarily respectful and gracious about Alexander while at the same time forging her own identity. Her collections tend to be more poetic, more romantic. Obviously there are shades of the McQueen history in there, but it’s very much her own spirit. And any great designer will do that. You can’t be worried about looking to the left or to the right, you have to be your own point of view and your own stamp.”
It is this personal touch of interest in designers, both established and upcoming, which shows how Wintour works best; she does not believe that a meeting is productive if it has more than two people in it.
It is easy to see why there is such an aura around Wintour. Where others in the fashion industry play up to the cameras, she is primarily concerned with her work. Her supposedly bored-looking face during fashion shows is purely a sign that she is focussing on what is front of her. She may have little time for sentimentality or distractions, but that does not mean she cannot also be friendly and passionate about what she does.
PHOTO/ Roger Askew