A lesson from Anna Wintour

She is possibly the most influential woman in the multi-billion dollar fashion industry Audacious and demanding, she has been the editor of the US edition of Vogue since 1988 EL PAÍS spoke to her during a brief recent stay in the Spanish capital

Anna Wintour, the editor of the US edition of ‘Vogue.’
Anna Wintour, the editor of the US edition of ‘Vogue.’Gorka Lejarcegi

The most powerful woman in fashion today enters the library of the US embassy in Madrid, displaying elegance and shyness. She’s wearing a Gucci dress, sports her distinctive bob haircut, and has her trademark Chanel dark glasses on. “Anna only has a few minutes,” warns one of her assistants.

So it comes as a pleasant surprise when Anna Wintour, the mighty editor of Vogue, sits down with a subtlety bordering on modesty, and removes her shades to reveal inquisitive blue eyes. Over the course of our conversation, she smiles constantly and shows a willingness not just to explain how she successfully carries out her job in a publishing world that is changing at light speed, but is also happy to provide some advice on how Spain can expand its very limited presence in the world of international fashion. What’s more, she never once glances down at her slim, gold watch, and we continue to talk beyond the stipulated time.

Wintour says she hasn’t been to Spain for several years. Despite her busy agenda, she has accepted an invitation from James Costos, the US ambassador, which she’s fitting in between the Milan and Paris fashion shows. Prior to the interview she has already talked with fashion students, as well as meeting a number of Spain’s top designers.

– What is your impression of Spain’s fashion designers?

− I felt possibly that they needed a little bit of help to raise their businesses globally: they seemed a little naïve in how you approach marketing a new brand and some of them were thinking about going to Paris, or London or New York. I think they were concerned that there wasn’t enough attention coming to Madrid itself for Madrid fashion week.

– Do you see much Spanish influence in international fashion?

Maybe you should talk to the queen here, and really put her stamp behind a fashion council. This is a business”

– Yes, we saw at the collections in New York this season both Peter Copping, for Oscar de la Renta: obviously there is a Spanish tradition there, and Proenza Schouler and Michael Kors — a lot of people were really referencing Spain, but in a very modern way, not in a bullfighter way, in a way you would really like to wear. I would love to see Spain take advantage of this because I think there’s a lot of love and admiration and respect for everything that Spain stands for.

– What needs to be done to raise the visibility of Spanish fashion?

– I felt that there was a real sense of disorganization among the planning of the fashion week and supporting young designers, and you know there are enough wealthy companies here that can sponsor and help, but do it in a practical way, not just about getting their logo somewhere.

– Who could help Spanish fashion designers?

– The way it usually works, the best way, is if you have an organization, all the companies, the stores, the Zaras of the world here, and designers who are successful make donations and then you go out and raise money and then you have an endowment, which can support and help these young designers. If you just have one or two people it gets a little tricky because maybe they have other agendas. But if it’s the whole industry, plus hopefully the government and the press supporting it, then it would have a real chance of being successful.

– Do you think Spanish fashion and designers are sufficiently well known abroad?

– They have some recognition in the US, but there isn’t a group like you see in Paris or London or New York, where — and I’m not criticizing or in any way saying it’s the fault of the talent or designers here — but I don’t feel they have had the support or the platform that any young person needs starting out today. It’s a big business for Spain and obviously I know it’s been a difficult time here economically but since that’s now changing and things are looking so much more optimistic, one would like to think that this could be a mission they would like to take on.

Anna Wintour, pictured in Madrid.
Anna Wintour, pictured in Madrid.Gorka Lejarcegi

Wintour knows what she’s talking about: her example is the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a highly effective lobby run by designer Diane von Fürstenberg, and on whose board sit titans of the caliber of Michael Kors, Vera Wang, Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren. In 2003, Vogue teamed up with the Council to award an annual $400,000 grant to an emerging young talent, along with $150,000 to each of the two finalists. She is now talking to Costos about bringing US designers to Spain.

– Do you think such a council would work in Spain?

– I’ve seen it work in Britain, which honestly, eight or nine years ago was a mess. And then the leadership changed at the British fashion council. Samantha Cameron [Prime Minister David Cameron’s wife] got very involved. Maybe you should talk to the queen here, and really put her stamp behind it. It’s a business; you know everybody tends to dismiss it as being, you know, a little too…

She leaves the sentence unfinished, preferring not to waste time talking to people who don’t understand the potential of the fashion industry. The possibilities for Spain, which has opened stores throughout the world, are obvious. Costos, who has been sitting in on the interview, highlights the potential for the country.

– Spain is coming out of the financial crisis. You know there are 4,000 fashion companies in Spain employing 90,000 people. Most of these companies only have a few employees, so the ability to scale things up is very difficult. It’s $4 billion in turnover domestically, with exports of $12 billion in the first half of this year alone, so it’s a huge boost to the economy. The government needs to support it, and businesses need to organize so they can say that they’re adding value, they’re creating jobs and they’re helping to move the country out of the crisis.

My very first September issue, I put Naomi Campbell on the cover. The board couldn’t believe that I had chosen an African American model”

Fashion is a business. Business needs to help fashion, and the government needs to protect the fashion industry. These are Wintour’s lessons, repeated over and over with the determination that has led her to her success in the international sector.

Born in the United Kingdom in 1949, Wintour joined Harper’s & Queen at the age of 20. In the mid-1970s she moved to New York to work on the US edition of the magazine, Harper’s Bazaar. In 1983 she went forward to Vogue, rising quickly to run the British edition, and then, after returning to New York for a brief stint as editor of House & Garden, in 1988, she took over at the US edition of Vogue.

Over the years she has delighted in breaking convention, mixing haute couture with off-the-shelf designs, and dedicating covers to celebrities. A decade later, she featured Hilary Clinton on the cover at the height of the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. Since then Michelle Obama has been on the cover twice. A committed Democrat, Wintour has raised more than $5 million for Obama, according to The New York Times. In April 2014 she commissioned Annie Leibovitz to photograph Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, causing a stir on the social networks.

– Was working with Kardashian and West hard work?

− We knew putting Kim Kardashian on the cover was going to shock everybody: you can’t do that every issue, you have to balance between a more traditional cover and something that is very surprising. Vogue has to be this authority, whereby you can’t be too far forward or at the same time too far backwards. You just have to know when to push the envelope.

− It made a big impression in Spain.

− What was amazing was that we were able to keep it secret. We had another cover that we had out everywhere that everyone thought was the real one.

− And you changed it at the last moment?

− We just didn’t tell anybody. We locked up the issue and Kim and Kanye, I have to say, were great. They’re not usually so great at being quiet, but they were very respectful, they were fantastic to work with.

Wintour with US embassador to Spain, James Costos.
Wintour with US embassador to Spain, James Costos.Gorka Lejarcegi

Wintour’s career has been littered with challenges. Asked if she would put a transsexual on the cover of Vogue, as Vanity Fair did with Caitlyn Jenner in July, she says that the magazine featured a profile of transsexual model Andreja Pejić.

−You also tackled race early on...

– My very first September issue, back whenever it was, I put Naomi Campbell on the cover, and I remember in those days we had to present the issue to the corporate board and I remember showing them that issue and there was a real silence when I showed the cover because they couldn’t believe that I would put an African American model on the cover of the September issue. Back then it was considered very risky [the September issue is the year’s biggest].

– A lot of people out there are calling for older people to be better represented on television, in movies, and in fashion magazines. Do you think this needs to be addressed?

– I never think about it. Listen, Karl Lagerfeld is 82, and he’s the most creative genius working today. I think everybody looks up to him as a god. Ralph Lauren is in his 70s, controlling a billion-dollar business very successfully, so it sounds a bit negative to me.

There was talk after the reelection of Barack Obama that Wintour would be appointed ambassador in the United Kingdom, but instead, in 2013, she was made artistic director for Condé Nast, the publishing group that, aside from Vogue, also produces Glamour, Vanity Fair and GQ.

Wintour is considered tough to work for. In 2003, a former assistant wrote a book about her short 10 months at Vogue called The Devil Wears Prada, the main character of which is supposed to be modeled on Wintour. A 2009 documentary, The September Issue, left little doubt about the high standards she demands from her team. At one point she says: “There is something about fashion that can make people nervous.”

Her private life is constantly being picked over in the gossip columns. A divorce in 1999 from psychologist David Shaffer kept the tabloids busy for months. Since then she has been in a relationship with Texan businessman Shelby Bryan.

In person, she displays a disarming mix of charisma, and humor. When she attended the premiere of The Devil Wears Prada, reporters asked what she was wearing, to which she replied “Prada, of course.” One of the most-seen videos on Vogue’s website is a rapid-fire Q&A in which she reveals that she gets up at 5am, has a Starbucks coffee for breakfast, and would never wear just black. “Where’s the color?” she asks an employee who brings in a rack of dark clothes.

Wintour has gravitated to being much more than simply the editor of a fashion magazine. She is a key part of a process of consolidating fashion as a multi-billion-dollar global industry, the highlights of which are the New York, Paris, Milan and London fashion shows each spring and fall. It’s reported that one of her gestures during a catwalk can sink a career. Above all, she is known for helping young talents find their way to the top.

The US edition of Vogue is still the leading fashion magazine in the world, but has had to adapt under Wintour’s tutelage to the digital age. In 2014, she relaunched vogue.com, which has increased visitor numbers by 108 percent in its first year.

– How have the internet and the social networks changed your job?

– Everybody’s job has changed, it’s not just our world, it’s everybody’s world. I mean obviously for us it’s fantastic, it means you can talk to your reader in so many different ways. And you can talk to your audience as well. It is 24/7, but that’s part of what makes it so exciting, and what I’ve seen particularly change over the last few years is that you were once very removed from your reader.

– Don’t you think that Instagram, Twitter and Facebook have changed the fashion world, which used to be very pyramidal?

– Well, I think disruption is very important, and you have to remember that fashion exists and lives and breathes through change, whether it’s change in terms of designers one’s excited about, or a movie you’ve seen, or an exhibition or a political candidate. You know, so many different things can affect the world we live in, and I actually think that Vogue in a way remains sort of quiet authority among all the noise.

– But the cover of Vogue is still the cover of Vogue.

– I think that being on the cover or being in Vogue gives you a stamp of authority and recognition. It’s interesting when we’re talking to models or celebrities or politicians or whoever it may be: yes they’re thrilled for us to cover them online or through social media or whatever it may be, but they really want to be in the magazine, it gives it a gravitas and a sense of strength and importance that, maybe because all of this is so quick and so immediate, but also disappears so fast. Yes it’s fine and it gets you news, and recognition, and attention but it doesn’t have the same weight.

Thanks to her perseverance, Wintour has raised fashion to the category of art. The fashion center at New York’s Museum of Metropolitan Art is named after her, reflecting decades of close involvement with the institution, whose design exhibitions are always a hit. In 2011, for example, the museum held a retrospective of the work of Wintour’s close friend, British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who had died a year earlier.

– Were you surprised by the success of the exhibition?

– I’ve never really seen anything quite like it, at a museum: you know, the hordes of people outside and lines around the block. It was such a popular show that we decided the last weekend we would keep the museum open, and it was 2am or something and the line went right down to Central Park. I told this story a lot, but it really stays with me. Andrew Bolton, who is curator of the costume center, and I were signing catalogues that last day, and people were even standing in line to receive the catalogue, and there was one African American lady who was, I think in her 90s, she came up to get the catalogue signed. I said I was so sorry she had to wait in line, and she said she had waited for nine hours to see this exhibition, and would wait for nine hours again.

– You were very close to Alexander McQueen.

– I was, and obviously I think it was completely correct on the part of the museum to want to do the exhibition to really recognize his extraordinary talent. His clothes deserve to be in a museum, they’re absolutely extraordinary, his mind is so creative and inventive, and a little bit insane. You just couldn’t believe it sometimes, I would fit with him sometimes and you could just see fingers just flying across the jacket or the dress or whatever it may be, it was like a magician at work.

One of Wintour’s most recent challenges has been corporate: Condé Nast has moved offices from its long-standing location in Times Square to One World Trade Center, the tallest skyscraper in the United States, built on the site of the attacks of September 11. It may only be four kilometers south, but for many in the magazine it might as well have been to another continent. What’s more, it was an unpopular move: from the heart of Manhattan, home to the most diverse fauna on the planet, to a corporate complex surrounded by expensively suited financiers.

– How is your team adapting to life in the new offices?

– I think for a lot of people it was difficult, but it’s also part of the American spirit, the NY spirit: you pick yourself up and you go on. The first day was tough, but it’s amazing what’s going on down there. It’s like a new city. It’s almost not like being in Manhattan.

– Condé Nast and Vogue have always been associated with Times Square.

– Well, we were in Times Square before and that wasn’t exactly chic

– I’m sure it was a big change.

– Change is good.

Change is good. That’s not just a lesson, but a philosophy Anna Wintour has made her own, and whose career has been one change after another with one goal in mind: fashion must be taken as seriously as it deserves.

Translation from Spanish by Nick Lyne.

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