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The Editor Who Keeps Vogue in Fashion

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By Robin Givhan
Sunday, June 29, 2008

Anna Wintour is the only fashion editor whose name is likely to be recognized by those who have never purchased a copy of Vogue but are close readers of the Economist.

The blogosphere and the mainstream media are filled with stories that fetishize her as a combination oracle and beneficent dictator, as well as those who see in her inscrutable public demeanor, her waifish physique and her wardrobe of Chanel and Prada the sum total of all that is wrong with the Western world.

She is, in effect, both fierce and to be feared. Which means that over the 20 years she has been at the helm of Vogue, she has become a cultural icon and so has her magazine.

Wintour will mark this extraordinary accomplishment in the publishing world by doing . . . nothing.

On June 29, 1988, the chairman of Conde Nast announced that Wintour, who had been the editor of HG, would take over at Vogue. Barely a week later, stories appeared detailing how she had orchestrated a coup forcing her predecessor, Grace Mirabella, out the door. Wintour's reputation for steely discipline and determination has only grown during her long tenure, reaching a breathless furor with the 2006 release of "The Devil Wears Prada," based on the revenge novel written by her onetime assistant. Wintour attended the film's New York premiere dressed in Prada, thus proving that the devil also has a sense of humor.

The magazine's circulation is 1.2 million, a Vogue spokesman said, essentially what it was when Wintour took over two decades ago. She came to represent a new archetype for a fashion editor: a master of the universe who wears her power as comfortably and impeccably as Chanel couture. It's an intimidating combination because it implies that she is a woman who is accomplished in the so-called masculine art of war and still knows how to use all the stereotypically feminine wiles. She is a double threat.

Wintour personifies the sort of woman who is celebrated in the pages of Vogue. It doesn't matter whether that woman's clout is on the social circuit, on the pop charts or in federal Washington, the magazine highlights her achievements, influence and always, always her style. Vogue doesn't play the role of best girlfriend in the manner of O, the Oprah Magazine, which invites readers to get together for ice cream, girl talk and book club. Vogue does not advocate book clubs. It is a magazine for women about whom books are written.

It does not include recipes for fat-free cookies or how-to guides for juggling a job with the kids' soccer practice. The only real evidence that Vogue readers have children is when well-groomed toddlers serve as background props in photo shoots or when young socialites are explaining why they've signed up for Pilates classes.

No other American fashion magazine exudes such an unapologetic, cool-girl, gloriously elitist attitude about style. It does not explain fashion or gently lead its readers into the next season. It is a monthly fix for those who understand the futuristic appeal of Balenciaga and the wry wit of John Galliano.

Vogue treats fashion the way that Sports Illustrated treats athleticism: as something glamorous and in need of neither explanation nor validation.

I worked at Vogue briefly in 2000, a fact that always elicits the question: What was it like? I'm well aware that the questioner is breathlessly awaiting tales of free clothes, frantic assistants and hissy fits over cerulean blue belts. I hesitate to spoil the fantasy, but during my short stay I never witnessed any toddler-size temper tantrums. My colleagues did improve my standard of dress, although by example, not by mandate or largess.

Wintour brought an unwavering point of view to Vogue, a complex blend of brains and beauty. Editors search for the hedge fund manager who wears Christian Dior, the lawyer who litigates in Dolce & Gabbana or the activist who's a dead ringer for Halle Berry. The magazine represents a combination of things that many women secretly want but are unwilling to admit to because they think they would be criticized as politically incorrect, shallow or frivolous.

Vogue is not politically correct. The magazine loves fur, after all. And it celebrates a slender physique. Sure, in its annual shape issue it applauds curves. Vogue has championed fashion industry initiatives to combat eating disorders among models. But Vogue will never endorse fat; it won't even pretend to. Heck, it just ran a story about how it paid for nutritionists and trainers to help two promising young designers lose weight . . . for their health.

During Wintour's tenure, Vogue has incorporated street trends into its pages. It has put its stamp of approval on what was once called hip-hop style and now is merely urban style. But it does so on its own terms, by, say, including Sean Combs in a couture fashion shoot as a Cary Grant type with a tan. (It struggles with bringing diversity to its pages, as do most fashion magazines.)

Vogue has never implied that celebrities are the same as everyone else. They may talk about their insecurities in the pages of the magazine but they are always pictured as glorious, rarefied creatures. Their style triumphs are heralded, not their afternoon outings to Starbucks.

The magazine is at its most provocative, though, when it turns its attention to personalities not typically associated with high fashion -- Oprah Winfrey, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Cindy McCain, Condoleezza Rice. The resulting photographs are fascinating not because of any reality they reveal but because of the fantasy they unleash.

Vogue sets its sights on an of-the-moment character and transforms her into an impossibly perfect version of herself. In the accompanying story, her accomplishments are detailed: Her charitable acts. Her legislative successes. Her business acumen. But the primary photo rarely illustrates all that brainy, do-gooder activity. The photo is pure glamour.

It taps into that core desire to be gorgeous and declares it righteous and worthy and, most important, smart. Vogue validates the modern careerist's fantasy, that she can run the world and look fabulous doing it.


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