WWD Time Capsule: Anna Wintour Talks Changes to ‘British Vogue’ and Plays Coy on Helming American ‘Vogue’

WWD Time Capsule
WWD Time Capsule

In a rare interview published in WWD on Nov. 5, 1986, then editor in chief of British Vogue Anna Wintour talks about the changes she made to the brand and about the possibility of heading back to New York to helm American Vogue.

LONDON — The cattiness began even before Anna Wintour stepped off the plane in April to take over as editor of British Vogue, and it has been constant ever since. Wintour, a shy, waiflike woman with a Louise Brooks hairstyle, has become someone a lot of British people love to hate.

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After all, the 36-year-old Wintour had left Britain to live in the U.S. for 12 years. Moreover, she succeeded Beatrix Miller, who had been British Vogue’s editor for 22 years and had assumed the exalted status of a dowager duchess. Wintour’s plans for the magazine and her criticisms of British fashion raised hackles both inside Vogue House in Hanover Square and in the fashion community. The gauntlet was cast.

Gossip about Wintour abounds. Rival editors tell countless stories about her willfulness, ignorance of Britain and alleged profligacy. People cheerfully say she is very unhappy in England, disliked by many on the Vogue staff and will not remain as editor of British Vogue for long. Others say her clear goal is to be editor of American Vogue as quickly as possible.

She has become a feature in the satirical magazine Private Eye’s Grovel column, which it reserves for its nastiest items. Grovel expressed sheer amazement when it reported the details of Wintour’s contract — a salary of 80,000 pounds ($112,000) a year, rental of a house, a car with full-time chauffeur and a nanny for her 8-month-old son Charles, plus two return airfares to New York a month on Concorde to visit her husband David Shaffer, who is a child psychiatrist at Columbia University. (Wintour refuses to discuss the details of her contract.) Private Eye followed that with stories about staff defections, and it positively crowed when it reported that the September issue of Vogue was late for the first time in 25 years because of Wintour’s indecisiveness.

Much of the gossip is propelled by jealousy, for Vogue is by far Britain’s most successful fashion magazine and Wintour is clearly a rising star in Condé Nast. British Vogue has a monthly circulation of 170,000 and profits of more than $6 million a year. It was the only British fashion magazine to increase its readership last year, and Wintour’s first seven months as editor have seen further increases.

Wintour has begun to strike back at the gossips. She sued Private Eye for their item about the lateness of Vogue’s September issue, forcing the magazine to print an apology and pay her costs. There also are signs she has become more cautious in her criticisms of England and British fashion, adopting a more low-key approach.

“I hope you read Private Eye today,” Wintour said of all the gossip the day after the magazine printed its apology, gloating momentarily before recovering her composure. “It’s all a peculiarly English thing, that’s all. The English quite like to gossip and it’s quite a small world. Plus it took me a long time to come over because I was pregnant, and everything just built up. The gossip really was out of proportion.”

Wintour seems at ease in England and dismisses reports she is unhappy. As for rumors she would like to be editor of American Vogue, she laughs. “I just got here. I have no plans to go back at the moment. And I think Grace Mirabella is a terrific editor with her finger on the pulse of the American woman. Unless she decides to go to the country and grow roses, they would be absolutely mad to replace her, which I’m sure they won’t.”

Wintour has substantially changed British Vogue in the seven issues she has overseen, bringing a new vitality to a magazine even her critics admit had become like an institution under Miller. Wintour has reshuffled the sections, reduced the length of the articles, improved the graphics and added several columns aimed more at the modern working woman. In addition, she has hired Michael Roberts as design director and Emma Soames as features editor.

“I think what Vogue should reflect as far as women today is a certain activity and modernity. A zippines, if you like. Women today have changed a lot and Vogue has to reflect that,” she says.

After concentrating on the front of the magazine, Wintour now is turning her attention to the fashion pages, a fact that reportedly caused tension between her and fashion editor Grace Coddington, who had been used under Miller to directing her own show and doing long photo layouts on young designers. Wintour is said to have insisted on sitting in on all the fashion selection sessions and on seeing a Polaroid photo of every fashion sitting to approve it.

The rumor, here and in New York, is that Coddington will soon resign, though both she and Wintour deny it. There have also been reports that Coddington would join the staff of Calvin Klein, although the designer declines to confirm that.

Wintour rebuts criticism that she is neglecting British designers in the magazine and finds British fashion either boring or too wild. The magazine devotes two issues a year completely to British fashion, she points out. “We try to show British designers as much as we can without forgetting that fashion is international. We have to also reflect what is going on in Paris, New York and MiIan.

“English designers have been known very much for rather eccentric clothes and I think it’s something peculiarly English and terrific,” she says, carefully choosing her words. “But I think we also have to think about how women are leading their lives and what they want to wear. That is why designers like Jasper Conran appeal to me because he fills that vacuum. And I think it would be a shame if British designers were known only for their eccentricity when they can be equally good at something that is as chic and modern as the American woman who wears Calvin Klein. That is what I have been drawn to and that is what I want to show.”

She admits she still has a lot to learn about the modern British woman, however, who seems less identifiable because the class system is still so strong. The problem is the length of time Wintour lived in the U.S., a period that saw major changes in American women’s lifestyles that are only beginning in Britain.

Wintour moved to the U.S. at age 25 after serving for a time as fashion editor of Harper’s and Queen. The daughter of Charles Wintour, an ex-editor of the London Evening Standard, she has said she was always a joke in the family because her brothers and sister thought she was unserious.

Her rise in America was not a smooth one. Wintour worked at Harper’s Bazaar for a period, but was fired. She then went to work for Bob Guccione, who wanted to add more fashion to his short-lived magazine Viva. When that folded, she joined New York magazine, which she says she still occasionally misses. Alex Liberman, editorial director of Condé Nast, hired her away from there, inventing the position of creative director of American Vogue for her.

Wintour by all accounts is not the easiest person to work with. She describes herself as “horribly organized” and a workaholic, although this has lessened with the birth of her son Charles. “I was too frenetic before and it has made me loosen up a bit, which is good for me and for my work,” she says.

She is philosophical about all the criticism she has attracted, but bristles slightly at suggestions she is simply turning the magazine into a copy of American Vogue, saying it is natural the experience she gained in the U.S. would be brought to bear on British Vogue.

“If people didn’t expect that they were foolish,” she says. “I think American Vogue is a marvelous magazine, and I hope one’s taking what one learned there and making it one’s own and British at the same time.”

She clearly relishes the thought of the next few months, promising more exciting changes at the magazine. Asked whether she can see herself as editor of British Vogue in 22 years, she makes a face and laughs. “I can’t see that far ahead. I’m still unpacking my furniture.

“But what I want to make sure of is that I always stay open to new ideas and thoughts. That is what makes a magazine dynamic. If it’s too expected, it’s dull. One views the first few months as a beginning. We’ve altered things quite radically, but now we want to take things further.”

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