Overrated: Anna Wintour

She is overpaid, overhyped and may soon be over here, as Obama’s ambassador. But does the Empress of New York fashion have any clothes?

Media Overrated US Politics
(Ellie Foreman-Peck)

The mugshot on the Condé Nast website tells it all. Fresh-faced and glowing at 62, Anna Wintour sports a scrap of fur, tied closely round her neck. Were she not the editor of American Vogue, we would say she wears fur as if it’s going out of fashion. To anti-fur campaigners it is a provocation. To most people, it looks a bit hot and stuffy. But fashion people would say it was perfectly judged, and at the same time edgy. Fashion people, you see, are different from the rest of us. And Anna Wintour is different from the rest of them. 

Her father, the distinguished British journalist and broadcaster Charles Wintour, is remembered by contemporaries as “chilly”. The daughter is a chip off the old block of ice. Her perfect fashion judgment is legendary. The horrors of working for her are legendary (“Miss Anna don’t like fat people,” one of her editors explained, describing how he’d been ordered to lose weight) and inspired a novel and a film starring Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada. Her haircut, unchanged since the age of 14, is legendary. The sunglasses (prescription lenses, and invaluable for keeping her reactions private at couture shows) are legendary. Everything about her is so extremely legendary, that when rumours begin to circulate that she is in line to be the next US Ambassador to the UK, if President Obama wins a second term, it is important to ascertain whether the legends are well-founded. Does the Empress actually have any clothes?

Part of the legend is to cast her predecessor at Vogue as timid and “beige”. Wintour’s first cover, on taking over, featured a model wearing cheap faded jeans with a $10,000 jewel-encrusted T-shirt. In 1988, this was considered revolutionary in the Manhattan fashion world. By then, however, British punks and Sloanes had been happily mixing up high street, vintage, couture and objets trouvés for over a decade. 

Wintour recognised the circulation-boosting value of celebrity faces early on. As one colleague said, “She saw the celebrity thing coming before everyone else did.” Everyone? Outside the rarefied atmosphere of high fashion, tabloid newspapers and magazines like Hello! were already catering to the public taste for celebrity when Wintour emerged in the late 1980s. Maybe fashion people are just slow on the uptake.

As an éminence grise, she makes and breaks the careers of those who produce fashion clothing. But besides advising Obama’s campaign to fundraise by selling cuter tote bags than Romney’s lot do, she never dips her toe into the cold and risky commercial waters in which designers swim. 

What was, during the 1980s and ’90s, a supremely sure fashion eye began to look unresponsive and fixed-focus in the credit-crunch years. Vogue’s impossible, unaffordable images seemed irrelevant, and ill-judged covers drew jibe after jibe. 

Perhaps Wintour’s many run-ins at the hands of anti-fur campaigners, who harry her continually with protests and practical “jokes”, or the criticism she has received for continuing to carry tobacco ads, had blunted her judgment. Promoting fur and conniving at encouraging smoking? An odd set of interests for one of the Democrats’ leading presidential campaign fundraisers.

When in March 2011 American Vogue   ran Joan Juliet Buck’s profile of “Syria’s First Lady”, Asma al-Assad, under the headline “A Rose in the Desert”, there was media mayhem. Buck did not help herself by explaining that Mrs Assad was “extremely thin and very well-dressed and therefore qualified to be in Vogue“. Yet the article was not pulled from the Vogue website for a whole year. Buck lost her Vogue contract and has drawn most of the flak, but it was Wintour who instigated and approved the piece, including the cringing headline and the botched damage limitation exercise. Any other editor would have been fired. When challenged, Wintour defended herself by claiming that, back in 2010, when the interview was set up, “like many at that time, we were hopeful that the Assad regime would be open to a more progressive society”. As Obama’s ambassador at the Court of St James, she would need better political advisers than whoever told her that.

Her cold-blooded insouciance enables her to emerge from every media storm somehow stronger. She has a rare ability to draw blood without chipping a fingernail. In 2005 it was rumoured —only rumoured — that fashion designers who appeared “as themselves” in the film version of The Devil Wears Prada would be airbrushed from Vogue for ever. The rumour was denied. Wintour herself — there is no denying that she can be gracious — seemed to receive the film like a good sport, even wearing Prada to the première. 

But, despite flurries of name-checks, just one ageing designer appears on screen in a film which elevated the nuclear Wintour legend to a new height, without denting her power by a pin’s-breadth. The fashion world is driven by rumour and fear. These forces are incarnate in “Miss Anna” herself.