By: Lieba Nesis
The unrelenting negative press lobbed at 70-year-old Condé Nast head Anna Wintour has reached a crescendo these past couple of weeks. The British born Wintour has been editor-in-chief of Vogue since 1988 and artistic director for Conde Nast since 2013. The Conde Nast Empire includes Vogue, GQ, the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Wired, Architectural Digest, Conde Nast Traveler and La Cucina Italiana, among others. Wintour is as famous for her signature page boy haircut and dark sunglasses as she is for heading the most influential fashion magazine. Wintour became news fodder as far back as May when Andre Leon Talley’s scathing book “The Chiffon Trenches” chronicled his firing by Wintour because he was “too old, too overweight, too uncool.” The jilted Talley called Wintour “ruthless” and “incapable of human kindness” while admitting it was she who championed his illustrious career.
The New York Times ran a Saturday October 24th article which documented a pattern of discrimination at Conde Nast against black employees. The alarming part of the article was the 18 African American workers who spoke did so anonymously-indicative of the fear of retribution by Wintour. While undoubtedly Wintour has championed the careers of African Americans Naomi Campbell and Lupita Nyong’o it is her general rejection of those who are not rich, thin, white and young that makes her behavior reprehensible. Wintour has admitted to mistakes along the way and promises to make Conde Nast a more tolerant place.
Wintour’s liberal politics belie her fraternization with the upper echelons; her best friends are Sarah Jessica, George Clooney and Roger Federer–hardly an accurate cross section of America. Her avoidance of interviews has only served to enhance her icy image. The New York Post recently revealed she broke up with Shelby Bryan-her partner of over 20 years. Her private life is so guarded that the paper admitted they were unaware if they were married or had been living together for the past seven years. Wintour divorced her psychiatrist husband David Shaffer in 1999 for the wealthy Bryan and raised her two children Bee and Charles Shaffer largely out of the spotlight. In a rare post this past April the normally stoic Wintour revealed her son Charles, who is a chief resident at New York Presbyterian, was suffering with coronavirus.
While Wintour is renowned for being one of the largest Democratic fundraising bundlers; she uncharacteristically used the magazine pages of March’s Vogue to endorse Biden. Utilizing a fashion magazine for political purposes is unprofessional as the alienation of readers and advertisers can interfere with bottom line profits. She went even further in April by declaring that she hoped Trump would be the first to try drinking the disinfectant the president had recommended injecting for coronavirus. Wintour, who has featured Michelle Obama on the cover three times has declined to feature Melania by saying she felt it necessary to take a stand. Over the years Wintour has proven herself to be less than politically correct. Who can forget her cringeworthy 2009 interview with 60 Minutes in which she joked to Morley Safer “I have just been on a trip to Minnesota, where I can only kindly describe most of the people I saw as little houses”; or when she told Safer she “gently suggested” to Oprah to lose weight for her cover. Some other gaffes she was forced to apologize for was referring to Kanye West’s 2016 fashion collection as “migrant chic” and using the term “pica ninny” to describe black models in scarves-according to the recent New York Times expose’. In response to accusations of racism Conde Nast revealed that from 2017-2020 more than 32 percent of Vogue covers have featured Black women.
Wintour lost a significant amount of credibility when she featured Kim Kardashian and Kanye West on Vogue’s 2014 April cover-capitulating to the tawdriness of celebrity despite her obvious disapprobation of their sartorial choices. The sycophantic piece left the fashion world shocked as Vogue compared Kim to fashion icons Ava Gardner and Sophia Loren. Some other missteps have included her divalike behavior with Fashion Police’s Tim Gunn recounting in a 2010 Page Six interview her being carried down five flights of stairs by bodyguards at designer Peter Som’s fashion show at the Metropolitan Pavillion in 2006. Her assistants have described harsh unwritten rules which prohibit them from initiating conversation as well as requiring them to attend meetings 30 minutes prior to Wintour. Paradoxically, the “Mean Girl” behavior depicted by assistant Lauren Weisberger in “The Devil Wears Prada “has cemented Wintour’s predominance at Vogue as her name has become synonymous with the publication-thereby making it impossible to fire her.
Wintour’s philanthropic endeavors are equally legendary with her most successful being the preservation of the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute. Since the beginning of her stewardship she has raised more than $200 million for the preservation of gowns-not the most pivotal cause when millions around the world are starving to death. Wintour has used the first Monday in May for the Costume Institute Gala which has become an epic extravaganza often referred to as the Academy Awards of The East. This annual happening has enabled her to maintain control over the fashion and entertainment industry as designers are pressured to buy half-a-million dollar tables with celebrities strongly advised by Wintour as to which designer to choose-lest you be excluded from the pages of Vogue. The notion of charging $35,000 a ticket for a guest list that is pre-approved by Wintour is an anathema to any type of inclusive society. The Gala’s days might be numbered as celebrities will rethink attending an evening that will be viewed as insensitive and elitist.
Wintour’s hegemonic use of power is legendary as she frequently refuses to feature designers who don’t advertise in Vogue-such as Armani and Ralph Rucci. She is powerful enough to make-or-break a fledgling designer’s career. Her championing of Alexander Wang and the alleged anti-Semite John Galliano has proved invaluable to their careers. The stratospheric power Wintour has levied over the entire industry for more than thirty years is beginning to wane. Her impeccable eye for forecasting fashion trends along with her maniacal, detail-oriented work ethic have kept her at the helm of fashion for more than three decades. However, The New York Times, New York Post and The Guardian have been highly critical of the formerly untouchable Wintour. The days of “Nuclear Wintour” being given carte blanche to fire employees such as Grace Coddington and Andre Leon Talley at her whim are obviously numbered. With Condé Nast continuing to struggle after losing $120 million in 2017, and Vogue on the verge of irrelevancy due to the rise of Instagram and social media a restructuring might leave the legendary Wintour off the top of the masthead.