Anna Wintour and the World of Fashion

The cover of the Japanese edition of “Anna: The Biography” by Amy Odell published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha

A biography of famed fashion editor Anna Wintour, “Anna: The Biography” by Amy Odell, was translated into Japanese and published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha on Dec. 4 last year. Wintour, 74, the chief content officer of Vogue magazine (which no longer uses the title “editor-in-chief”), was born in 1949 in Britain. The biography came out in the United States in 2022 and won multiple accolades that year — it made The New York Times’ best-seller list, and Bloomberg chose it as one of the 10 books to read — a testament of her global popularity particularly in the United States.

In Japan, Vogue may be seen as a high fashion magazine for fashion buffs, but it is one of the most read magazines in the United States. Its head editor is as famous as the U.S. president.

Wintour made headlines in 2005 when she became the target of pie throwing attacks by an animal rights group, for she often wore fur coats in her private life and used fur in ads ran by Vogue.

She became even more widely known in 2006 when the film “The Devil Wears Prada” came out. The film is based on the novel by Lauren Weisberger, which tells a story of a novice assistant to the editor of a fashion magazine. The similarities between the editor, Miranda, and Wintour were undeniable although the author denied that the character was modeled on Wintour. In the film, Meryl Streep brilliantly played Miranda as a formidable woman who does everything to stay in power and ruthlessly discards people who are no longer needed, while always dressing impeccably and looking glamorous.

In February 2006, I saw Wintour sitting in the front row of Ralph Lauren’s runway show during New York Fashion Week. When she took off her sunglasses, I was stunned by her beauty. When the show ended, I approached her to say, “Hello,” but was blocked by a big man wearing a black leather coat who probably thought I was a pie thrower. I asked him, “Are you Anna’s guard?” and he grinned and said, “Well, something like that.” This man was Andre Leon Talley, the right-hand person of Wintour and the editor-at-large of Vogue at the time. He died in 2022 aged 73.

The cover of “The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir” by Andre Leon Talley

In 2020, Talley published a memoir titled “The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir.” He was a fashionable man who captured people’s eyes for wearing flashy clothes and was involved in the editing of Vogue for nearly 30 years. In the memoir, he revealed Wintour’s ruthlessness. He was a close associate of Wintour who often sat next to her at runway shows, but saw their relationship deteriorate in 2011. He accompanied her to Paris where she went to be decorated with Legion d’honneur, but she apparently treated him as an assistant, not a friend, making him acutely aware of her mercilessness. Then, he was dismissed from Vogue without any explanation. He looked back on the firing and wrote that Wintour found him too old, too overweight and too uncool.

Until around 1980, it was undoubtedly designers who led the world of fashion, such as Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Yves Saint-Laurent, Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and so on. In the 1980s, there was a supermodel boom. Fashion photographers were spotlighted, too.

Since 2000, however, there has been no such strong leader in the fashion scene. To put it more harshly, the world of fashion has become led by a system called business. I feel that in such times, the presence of Anna Wintour, who is merely an editor, has become outlandishly larger than herself.

Without question, the pope-like figure in the fashion industry today is Bernard Arnault, the chairman and chief executive officer of LVMH, who built the luxury fashion empire. The annual sales of luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Dior and Bvlgari, reached a record €86.2 billion in the business year ending in December last year. Designers may fall into slumps or even die, but there is no weakness in the ironclad system of luxury brands. Arnault was the first person to realize this.

Meanwhile, Wintour has been reigning in the top editing post at Conde Nast, Vogue’s publisher, for more than 35 years since becoming the magazine’s head editor. She is highly trusted by the company’s owner, the Newhouse family. She is also said to be the founder of the Met Gala, which is highly coveted by fashion celebs. The reality is that the event has an overwhelming power as a money-collecting machine for Vogue and Conde Nast. Maybe Wintour and LVMH founder Arnault represent two sides of the same coin.

On Jan. 23, more than 400 Conde Nast employees went on strike to protest the company’s plan to lay off 5% of all staff, according to news sources. Furthermore, it was reported that Anne Hathaway walked out from a photoshoot for Vanity Fair, one of Conde Nast’s magazines, to show her solidarity with the protesters. Incidentally, Hathaway played Andrea, the assistant critical of the diabolical editor, in “The Devil Wears Prada.”

A New York Times article stated that Conde Nast lost more than $120 million in 2017. The company is run privately by the Newhouse family and is therefore unlisted, so the details are not made public. But the fact that the company is trying to cut employees this year may imply that the situation has not improved. Even though Wintour has been the company’s main breadwinner, her days until retirement may be numbered. I wonder what will become of the world of fashion when she is gone.

This is the final installment of this column.

Akira Miura

Miura is a journalist and a former editor in chief of WWD JAPAN.