Is Anna Wintour Too Big To Fail?
The editor in chief of American Vogue has long reigned over the worlds of fashion and glamour. But for how much longer?
Is Anna Wintour too big to fail? Despite limping through one of the worst years of her career, this week the veteran editor has seemingly accrued more power than ever thanks to two swanky new job titles: chief content officer of Condé Nast and global editorial director of Vogue.
Viewed as part of a broader shake-up at Condé Nast, the news could be interpreted as an escalation of the decades-long cult of Anna, with the 71-year-old many thought was on the brink of resignation this summer now overseeing all of the stable’s titles other than the New Yorker.
“There is very little star quality out there,” says Fiona Golfar, the former editor-at-large of British Vogue. “But Anna has more glamour than anyone else in the industry and she represents something that is fascinating and untouchable and yet she knows how to sell a dream. She isn’t accessible but she is aspirational.
“When I was starting at Vogue and celebrities were becoming the new supermodels, Anna straddled that really brilliantly and put herself front and centre of the whole thing and became bigger than them all of them. Condé Nast needs a brand name like hers at a time like this.”
Magazines have struggled pitifully in a year where events have been banned and advertising has fallen off a cliff edge. But Wintour’s new role also comes after six months of speculation regarding her future at the company.
It has been an annus horribilis in more ways than one for the London-born editor who rose through the ranks to dominate the New York media scene.
Leading a fashion magazine through a global pandemic was always going to be a difficult task but once lockdown hit, Wintour responded in her inimitable way, regularly appearing on Vogue’s Instagram page in her quarantine uniform of expensive tracksuit bottoms, and rallying the fashion industry by partnering with Tom Ford on A Common Thread, a fund to help struggling designers.
Then things fell apart — badly. In May, Andre Leon Talley, the six-foot-six, one-time African American creative director of US Vogue published The Chiffon Trenches, a tell-all autobiography in which he writes of his former boss, “I don’t think she’s capable of kindness”.
Sensing the mood was turning on Wintour, American designer Ralph Rucci joined the fray, calling Wintour “an evil British woman”, adding that she was mediocre and alleging that “many, many have spoken badly about her in private.”
A month later, Wintour was dealing with more than just bitchy comments. The Black Lives Matter movement looked as though it would knock off Wintour’s Condé Nast crown when former Vogue employees spoke publicly about their experiences at the magazine.
Shelby Ivey Christie tweeted that her time as a media planner at US Vogue in 2016 was “the most challenging and miserable” of her career, adding that bullying from white colleagues was “exhausting”.
Within days, Wintour’s reputation had gone from fashion’s grande dame to a baby boomer hopelessly out of touch with millennial and Gen-Z values.
As accusations mounted that she had ignored systemic problems within the magazine she presided over, speculation increased that Edward Enninful — the Black editor of British Vogue who has been working to improve diversity in the fashion industry for years — was being primed to take her job.
Which is why this restructuring could be seen in a completely different light. Condé Nast is a master of branding and CEO Roger Lynch knows all too well that booting out their star editor after a year like this would make the company look weak and confirm that it is in serious financial trouble.
By appearing to push Wintour further up the chain, giving her an even bigger corner office and a fancier title, are they really just creating a vacancy for Enninful to jump into the top spot in New York?
The shake-up this week has, after all, been about consolidating roles and bringing various international titles together under one editorial umbrella. Enninful — who has been the editor of British Vogue since 2017 — also received a promotion on Tuesday to European Vogue editorial director.
He will now oversee all of the magazine’s editorial operations in France, Germany, Spain and Italy. Notably, the long-time editors-in-chief for Germany and Spain both left last week, following from the departure of Angelica Cheung at Vogue China in November.
Meanwhile power at Condé Nast’s other publications, including GQ, is being centralised, consolidated and streamlined. It’s hard not to see much of this as a cost-cutting exercise. For decades editor-in-chief jobs at Condé Nast were seen as the industry’s gold standards, with the chosen few feted (and paid) like mini pashas.
For a company that posted losses of $120 million in 2017 that’s now as unaffordable as the wildly optimistic 23 floors it took over in the new World Trade Centre in 2014 .
Then 2020 struck: a year that saw advertising, which makes up 70 per cent of the business, slashed by brands who cut their spend by up to 80 per cent.
Condé Nast was forced to furlough hundreds of employees and reduce pay for those earning more than $100,000, which is almost half the workforce. Wintour herself took a 20 per cent pay cut.
“The consumer magazine sector has been going through a period of decline for a number of years but this has been hugely accelerated by the pandemic and the lack of travel and events,” says Alice Pickthall, a media analyst at Enders Analysis.
“Fashion titles in particular have been hard hit. How hard we won’t know until next year but I wouldn’t be surprised if all this restructuring was a way of hiding some of the changes being made below the very top since staff is one of the biggest costs at the company.”
Condé Nast has, of course, touted this restructuring as a bold move into a new future but the consolidation of European titles under Enninful’s direction suggests that content made in London will now be translated and syndicated across the region, much as it already is for Condé Nast Traveller and Glamour.
“I do think individual titles will lose something from syndication but it has to be the way forward,” says Golfar.
“We are witnessing the globalisation of everything and yes each magazine should have its own voice but I don’t think Vogue can afford not to make this move, and Edward is the person to oversee it. He is a brilliant brand ambassador like Anna was, but in a different way. She has become a brand ambassador for the business, but he has become one for the youth and diversity of the industry.”
The apparent rivalry between Enninful and Wintour has certainly engaged the fashion world. Their relationship has had its testy moments, as wincingly witnessed by any one who saw her dismissive handling of him in The September Issue, the film that consolidated Wintour as box-office heat.
It’s easy to pit the two very different editors against one another and it is notable that neither has been particularly fulsome in their praise of their colleague across the Atlantic.
Enninful may be 48 but he represents the New Guard of fashion, appealing to under-35s with his left-leaning agenda and push for diversity that has shaken up British Vogue and broadened its appeal among younger audiences.
Wintour, meanwhile, has been editor in chief of American Vogue since 1988 - impressive by any standards but a lifetime in a notoriously fickle industry. Her stewardship saw US Vogue become a money-making machine, and a King (or Queen) maker in Hollywood.
Celebrities fell over themselves to curry her favour because a US Vogue cover was as prestigious as a Vanity Fair one, with the added bonus that it opened lucrative portals to fashion sponsorship with luxury fashion brands happy to sign multi-million-dollar contracts with any muse who had “Anna’s blessing”.
Her fundraising for the Obamas and Hillary Clinton made her a potential Washington player too. But there were missteps. Wintour was deeply implicated in the debacle that saw Condé Nast lose an estimated £100 million after its relaunch of the once successful fashion news website, style.com, as an e-commerce site flopped catastrophically.
Washington never did come calling, despite rumours at one point that Barack Obama was about to reward her with the plum US ambassadorial gig in London. And after a year like this one can the past ever carry as much weight as the present?
At least one New York media insider believes Wintour’s promotion is genuine and that she will wield even more power than before. After all, Jonathan Newhouse, scion of the family that owns Condé Nast — who many believed to be her arch rival when he headed up the European division from London — was moved to a new role as Chairman of the Board.
In the minds of some observers, that made him less influential than Wintour.
“Anna has always been the shiniest star at Condé Nast, so her departure would cause the biggest drama and the best dinner party chat,” says Golfar.
“For the last 15 years people have been saying she’s on her way out — but she never was. I’ll be in a zimmer frame before Anna leaves Condé Nast.”
– The Telegraph