Editor’s Note: CNN’s Chief International Anchor Christiane Amanpour interviewed Anna Wintour in New York on Friday April 5, 2019.
Anna Wintour’s omnipresent status, crafted over a three-decade-long career at the helm of Vogue, is unrivaled in the fashion industry. Her reputation has transcended that of the magazine she edits, her image – immaculately sliced bob, sunglasses – now instantly recognizable in silhouette or line sketch.
If the late Karl Lagerfeld was fashion’s commander-in-chief, Wintour is its head of state, enigmatically presiding over matters of style and culture far above the average Vogue reader’s head. She acts as a tastemaker and strategic adviser for the CEOs of luxury companies, uses her platform for philanthropic good (AIDS research in particular) and has transformed the Met Gala – an annual benefit for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute – into a night of Oscar-level red carpet excitement and serious fundraising.
In 2015, the New York Times reported that the gala had raised over $145 million under Wintour’s reign, a figure that will likely surpass $200 million after next month’s event.
Wintour will turn 70 this year and, if Vogue’s assertion that she’ll stay on is to be believed, she may be embarking on the most challenging years of her career.
Like many legacy media businesses, Vogue and its parent company Condé Nast are undergoing a moment of reckoning. The publisher has recently shuttered a number of publications in its portfolio, including the print editions of Glamour, Teen Vogue and Self magazine. Yet, the Condé Nast offices in London – often pitched as a “digital hub” for many of its titles, including Vogue – have grown dramatically in size and scale over the last 18 months. New digital-only publications, including Vogue Business, have also been launched.
Nonetheless, in the same way that steering a ship is entirely different from driving a speedboat, media giant Vogue can’t adapt as quickly as some of its younger, smaller, digitally native competitors.
Anna Wintour's fashion reign in 10 Vogue covers
Speaking exclusively to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in New York, Wintour expressed optimism about the changing media landscape she now finds herself in. “I think we’re so fortunate today to have so many different channels in which to speak to our audiences,” she said.
“If you go back to when I was a young girl growing up in Britain, and (when) I went for my first job, it was considered a great thing if we reached an audience of 90,000 people with a monthly magazine. Now we have, I believe, 22 million followers on Instagram alone at Vogue US. So we are talking to men and women all over the world … in so many different ways (and) in a way that we couldn’t possibly have imagined even 10 years ago, 15 years ago.”
Wintour was speaking the day after Condé Nast appointed Roger Lynch, former CEO of the music streaming service Pandora, as its first global chief executive. The news came less than six months after the publisher announced that it would merge Condé Nast International (headquartered in London) with Condé Nast (the US arm), a restructuring that also saw the company’s CEO, Bob Sauerberg, step down.
Rumors around Wintour’s potential exit predate the latest upheavals – and they swirled again last summer. Wagging tongues were once again silenced by Sauerberg’s insistence that Vogue’s editor-in-chief would stay on “indefinitely.”
How Anna Wintour became one of the most powerful people in fashion
“Anna Wintour is an incredibly talented and creative leader whose influence is beyond measure,” Sauerberg’s statement read. “She is integral to the future of our company’s transformation and has agreed to work with me indefinitely in her role as editor-in-chief, Vogue and artistic director of Condé Nast.”
The fashion industry, in all its parts, is currently facing a number of profound challenges: its contribution to the climate crisis, the fur debate and issues around diversity and inclusion.
While serious collective action to tackle climate change and pursue sustainable fashion has been slow to come within the sector (historically, advocacy has been left to a handful of outspoken figures like Stella McCartney), there seems to be a greater sense of urgency coming from the most powerful players across the luxury and high street fashion markets today. “I had a CEO of a major European company in my office just yesterday to discuss (the environment),” noted Wintour. “Everybody is concerned about the climate crisis and what should be done to help. And obviously we’re very aware, as other industries are, that we have been at fault and what can we do in the relatively short amount of time we have to course correct.”
Interestingly, despite a number of luxury brands announcing they will no longer use fur in their collections (Burberry, Chanel, Gucci), Wintour doesn’t reject its use entirely. Within the context of sustainability she asserted that “fake fur is obviously more of a polluter than real fur,” adding that it’s up to the houses to work to make sure they are following best practices and are “being ethical in their treatment.”
The issues attracting the most widespread attention today are, perhaps, those surrounding race and cultural insensitivity. In recent months, a spate of very uncomfortable and revealing mistakes have been made across the luxury fashion sector, with Gucci, Prada and Dolce and Gabbana all issuing apologies for racially and culturally questionable decisions.
The spate of gaffs began late last year, when D&G created a series of videos to promote “The Great Show,” the fashion house’s “tribute to China.” The 40-second spots, which were posted on the brand’s Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, depicted model Zuo Ye struggling to eat pizza, pasta and cannoli with chopsticks to the sound of stereotypical Chinese music.
In the following months, Gucci and Prada were both called out for releasing clothing items and accessories that appeared to resemble “blackface.”
Vogue has been diligent in reporting brands’ misdemeanors. But its judgment has also, at times, been found lacking.
The magazine’s US edition had to apologize to journalist and activist Noor Tagouri after it mistakenly identified her as a different Muslim woman in a photo caption. And in February, Vogue Brazil’s style director Donata Meirelles was forced to step down after images from her birthday party showed black women in traditional dress welcoming guests and posing next to a throne – scenes criticized for evoking slavery.
Such incidents have forced the industry to reflect on the attitudes it produces and promotes. Today’s readers and consumers demand more from the companies they engage with, and brands are expected to make their values known and be prepared to publicly account for their actions.
To this end, Vogue has made noteworthy efforts to diversify. In 2017, Edward Enninful replaced Alexandra Shulman as editor-in-chief of British Vogue, becoming the first non-white (and first male) editor to hold the role in the magazine’s history. Then, last August, Tyler Mitchell became the first black photographer to shoot a cover story for Vogue, with his image of Beyoncé gracing the cover of the US edition. Vogue Arabia’s latest cover features a shot of three black hijabi models.
“Edward is a brilliant editor,” said Wintour. “And I think he’s really, in his fearless style of editing, brought a completely different point of view to British Vogue – with no disrespect to the editor that was there for many years before Edward.
“I think that he’s very passionate about race. He’s very passionate about politics … He is taking a stand and he is not trying to please everybody, because you can’t in this day and age.”
Wintour revisited the idea of “taking a stand” several times throughout the interview. Her engagement with US politics, most notably her support for Hillary Clinton during the last presidential election, is well documented. She put Michelle Obama on Vogue’s cover three times, and the magazine has recently profiled Senator Kamala Harris and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Asked what she was trying to say through Vogue’s forays into politics, Wintour said: “I don’t think it’s a moment not to take a stand … I believe, as I think those of us who work at Condé Nast believe, that you have to stand up for what you believe in and you have to take a point of view.”
She also addressed the fact that many of the political figures profiled are Democrats: “I think it’s very, very important to have a point of view, and we profile women in the magazine that we believe in … After the defeat of Secretary Clinton in 2016 (in particular), we believe that women should have a leadership position and we intend to support them.”
Speaking about Michelle Obama, Wintour praised the former first lady for her fearlessness and for transforming the role. “She was just so inspiring to so many women. And obviously – on a very selfish note, speaking as the editor-in-chief of Vogue – she did wonders for fashion. She loved fashion.
“We always had a tradition at Vogue to photograph the first ladies when they first came in to office – some extraordinary, wonderful women, and it was an honor to photograph them. But they were always super cautious about what they wanted to wear and the image that they wanted to present: Nearly always a jacket, maybe some pearls if you were Mrs. Bush. But with Mrs. Obama, she was fearless and it was just such a joy for all of us that work in fashion.”
New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who has been widely praised for her response to the terror attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, is another female politician who has been featured in the magazine. “I think that she’s an exceptionally direct, articulate person,” Wintour said of Ardern. “And there is no sense that she’s ever on message.
“She truly brought the country together in such a remarkable way that I haven’t seen many other leaders achieve. And she was just so moving, and when she said, ‘we are all one country,’ it was a message that a lot of other leaders could learn from.”
While clearly a supporter of strong female leaders and role models, Wintour also credited her father for inspiring her at an early age and guiding her towards journalism. The editor of London’s Evening Standard newspaper for nearly 20 years, “Chilly Charlie,” as he was nicknamed, may have influenced Wintour in more ways that one. But rather than his notoriously inscrutable persona, she cited his “decisiveness” and “passion” as traits that rubbed off.
Throughout Wintour’s career, her image has been a constant source of intrigue and mythification. Whether people believe she is simply a little frosty or capable of “The Devil Wears Prada” levels of tyranny unleashed by Miranda Priestly (a character said to be modeled on Wintour) on her staff, it’s her sharpness that has enraptured the media and fashion worlds.
“Sometimes there has been a certain level of personal criticism directed at me that, possibly, might not have been (used against) a man in a similar position,” she said.
Her physical appearance, for instance, has been a regular source of discussion. Bringing up her weight herself, Wintour said she’s often criticized for being too thin. Yet, she doesn’t feel she’s been greatly disadvantaged for being a woman. “I’m very focused,” she said. “So I, maybe because of my clarity and my focus, haven’t let it in.”
With no personal social media presence, Wintour has succeeded in keeping her personal life private, forcing media speculators to lean on hints, rumors and deductions from her appearances in documentaries like “The September Issue” and “The First Monday in May.”
Sunglasses are perhaps the most obvious way she defends herself against attempts to deconstruct her. Worn throughout the entire interview, her eyewear is, she said, “incredibly useful because you avoid people knowing what you’re thinking about.”
“They help me when I’m feeling a bit tired or sleepy,” she added. “And maybe they’ve just become a crutch in part of who I am. But today I really did need them.”
Offering a rare snippet of personal information, she admitted to feeling under the weather: “I’ll be brutally frank: I have been unbelievably ill all week. And, plus, I just had eye surgery, so those are the real reasons I’m wearing them today.”
CNN’s Chief International Anchor Christiane Amanpour interviewed Anna Wintour in New York on Friday April 5, 2019.