What Will Happen After Anna Wintour Leaves Vogue?
Will fashion and Condé Nast collapse in her absence? I'm skeptical.
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A common misconception about Anna Wintour is that she is Vogue’s longest serving editor-in-chief. That distinction actually goes to Edna Woolman Chase, who retired as editor-in-chief in 1952, after holding the job for 38 years (through both World Wars). This summer, at age 72, Anna will reach her thirty-fourth anniversary as editor-in-chief, having assumed the position in 1988. There has been no indication that she plans to leave her job imminently. Yet many in the industry seem to agree that she has stayed too long.
Part of the reason her resiliency seems to rankle people is because of what has happened to the publishing industry over the course of those 34 years. At Vogue parent company Condé Nast, it went from being a glorious business where power was plentiful (at the very top, anyway), and budgets perhaps even more so. There weren’t mega digital platforms like Google and Meta to siphon ad dollars and attention away from lucrative print titles like Vogue. There wasn’t a great way for consumers to keep up with fashion without Vogue or competing magazines, either.
Now, of course, that’s all changed. With Vogue diminishing in both utility and perhaps also monetary value, what will be left for Anna’s successor? As I illustrate in my book ANNA: The Biography, her power has grown over the course of her tenure at Vogue, despite legacy publishing’s decline. She influences not only the fashion industry, but also the arts, entertainment, and politics, to name a few others. This influence is the result of savvy networking and corporate politicking conducted over the course of many years. It’s hard to imagine that Anna’s successor will step into the role with these advantages, which she has seemingly methodically accrued over the course of nearly half her life. Therefore, it’s easy to view the next editor-in-chief of Vogue as inheriting not exactly a throne, as Anna did in 1988, but something more like an ottoman with rickety legs. I suspect this is one reason many people find it so bothersome that she has stayed so long — the worry that the next person might never get the chance to become what Anna has. But I’m not so sure that will bear out.
We can begin to imagine a post-Anna Vogue by looking to history to see what has happened when past editors-in-chief left.
Edna Woolman Chase, editor-in-chief 1914 - 1952 (38 years)
Not sure this name is ringing bells. Who was this broad?
Chase began her career at Vogue during the Gilded Age, in 1895, when Vogue was just three years old. Then, it was a weekly that covered society in New York and Newport, Rhode Island. You know those embarrassingly ornate mansions up there? They go with embarrassingly ornate dresses.
How’d she get the job?
Edna began in the not-at-all glamorous job of addressing envelopes, then moved up to fashion reporter, managing editor, and eventually editor-in-chief. Foreshadowing the power Anna would one day hold, Chase organized a fashion show in New York when World War I forced the closure of Parisian ateliers, which supplied clothes to society women. Dressmakers in New York continued on this track, making more original designs instead of simply mass-produced styles, Chase encouraging them to hire stylists to help them design around trends.
How’d she leave?
She is reported to have just plain old retired in 1952, which is unusual for this group. I wonder if there was more going on behind the scenes. However, she was 75 when she retired, so maybe it was just that simple.
Jessica Daves, editor-in-chief 1952 - 1963 (11 years)
How’d she get the job?
Daves started at Vogue in 1933 as fashion merchandising editor. She was promoted to managing editor in 1936, to editor in 1946, and then to editor-in-chief in 1952.
What was she known for?
A friend told the New York Times that she was “a powerful executive who was very smart about business.” During her time at Vogue, the ready-to-wear market exploded, helped along by Daves and the coverage she gave it in Vogue. Alexander Liberman, who was Vogue’s art director during her tenure, said she brought “a serious note” to the title. “She wanted the magazine to reflect her feeling that a woman’s world was not just frills and clothes, but included many substantial concerns.” She seldom impressed with her personal style.
How did she leave?
She retired in 1963, according to her Times obituary. But according to a 1993 biography of Liberman, she was driven to it by Diana Vreeland. After Liberman was promoted to editorial director of all of Condé Nast, he was instrumental in hiring Vreeland away from Harper’s Bazaar to work at Vogue. Less than six months later, “Vreeland’s boundless energy and non-stop inventiveness as the new Vogue fashion editor had driven poor Jessica Daves, that devoted guardian of the status quo, into angry retirement.” Vreeland appeared as editor-in-chief on the January 1963 masthead.
Diana Vreeland, editor-in-chief 1963 - 1971 (8 years)
This one I already know about. How did she get the job?
Liberman and S.I. (“Si”) Newhouse hired her away from Harper’s Bazaar, shortly after Condé Nast was bought by Si’s dad Samuel I. Newhouse in 1960. They loved making competitors squirm by poaching their best talent. Vreeland started at the magazine when she was 63 years old, though she seemed decades younger.
And she was kind of a character, right?
Total character. She loved the color red, which engulfed her office and apartment. She was famous for the memos she would draft from bed in the morning (my personal favorite: “Today, let’s think pig white! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have stockings that were pig white! The color of baby pigs, not quite white and not quite pink?”). She called Vogue “the myth of the next reality,” and coined the term “youthquake” to describe 1960s Swinging London.
What did she do with Vogue?
Vreeland loved miniskirts and bikinis. She told designers what to do with their collections. She had no problem making composite images using the limbs of one model and the torso of another. She was perfect for the sixties, when fashion and pop culture both loosened up and converged, but her preference for the fantastical got her into trouble at the turn of the decade.
How did she leave?
In the seventies, women were looking for clothes to wear to work — practical American sportswear — and Vreeland wasn’t interested. With circulation and ad sales suffering (Vreeland wasn’t interested in featuring advertisers, either), she was fired and replaced with her deputy Grace Mirabella in 1971.
Grace Mirabella, editor-in-chief 1971 - 1988 (17 years)
Well she lasted more than twice as long as Vreeland. What was her deal?
Mirabella was perfect for the seventies, when women’s fashion shifted to office-appropriate workwear. Her favorite color was famously beige, the opposite of Vreeland’s adored red. And that was kind of also a metaphor for how she ran the magazine.
How did she get the job?
She started at Vogue in 1952, left for another job, then returned in the mid-fifties. She worked her way up to become Vreeland’s right hand, and was abruptly called back from a photo shoot in Los Angeles to be told that she was becoming editor-in-chief of Vogue. It was terribly awkward, because Vreeland lingered at the company in an “advisory” role before moving onto a job at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
How did she leave?
Mirabella turned Vogue around, tripling circulation and improving ad business. The eighties, however, were not her era. She failed to understand the popularity of Christian Lacroix and maximalist dressing in general. She also suffered when Anna Wintour came along in 1983 to serve as her creative director, having been put in the role by Alexander Liberman (shades of Vreeland / Daves much?). Anna left Mirabella’s Vogue to run British Vogue in London, but then returned to New York to run Condé title House & Garden. Mirabella was finally fired in 1988 in a pretty ugly episode: her husband called her at the office to tell her had seen a report on the television news that Anna was replacing her; she then went to see Liberman, who confirmed that the report was true.
Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief 1988 - ?? (34 years and counting)
Why did Anna get the job in 1988?
When she took over Vogue, it was in a strong position. Si Newhouse, Condé Nast chairman, was reportedly concerned about competition from then-new Elle. But, as I report in ANNA: The Biography, there seemed to be more going on behind the scenes. Mirabella was relying on an aging Liberman for editorial and managerial decision-making in a way that was unsustainable. Unlike Anna, she also didn’t have a good relationship with Newhouse. In fact, Anna was rumored in gossip columns to be having an affair with Newhouse (which both she and Newhouse denied at the time). As we know, she’s been in the role ever since.
How has she held onto it?
Well, this is the big question, and part of why I wrote a whole book on her. She was never fired! So many editors-in-chief are fired or pushed out. Anna’s longevity in the job is probably due to a mix of savvy corporate politicking, having a large network of important allies in fashion and other industries, and evolving her editorial approach just enough over time for Vogue to continue resonating with consumers.
Reviewing this history, a few things stand out. One, the editor-in-chief of Vogue has historically been chosen from within the Vogue family. Everyone who got the job worked in a lower role before ascending to editor-in-chief. Also, the editors-in-chief don’t usually leave entirely of their own accord. And most importantly, while these editor-in-chief transitions may have been stormy, shocking, and even downright cruel in the way they were handled at the office, the fashion industry ultimately fell in line behind the new editor each time. Not once did a new Vogue editor leave fashion adrift and rudderless. The times that fashion has been adrift and rudderless, the impact was from major world events, like wars and the pandemic.
We can also see that the power of Vogue’s editor-in-chief has been vast for some time. The woman in the role has served as the de facto chief advisor to the industry, guiding it when it comes to everything from designer appointments to fashion trends to events and charitable causes to support. Maybe because Anna has been there for so long, people imagine some sort of collapse or panic when she leaves. In a notable number of the interviews I conducted for my book, Anna was compared to a monarch, words like “regal” used casually to describe her. But people who worked for Mirabella compared her to a monarch, too. Reverberations were felt when she left, and the same will happen when Anna leaves. However, it’s also not difficult to imagine the industry quickly getting over it, if only because that’s what happened when Mirabella left, and Vreeland before her, etc.
Anna has been at Condé Nast long enough to see plenty of the ugly side of corporate politics. After all, the above Vogue editors weren’t the only ones on the payroll to be capriciously dismissed (this is what happened to Anna’s predecessor when she took over House & Garden in the eighties). I suspect she’s acutely aware of both this and the fashion industry’s ability to quickly move on from people, as it does with trends (high heels one minute, sneakers the next, etc.). You probably don’t stay in this job as long for as she has without knowing that the position is always tenuous.
The forces of technology are at play in a way that they weren’t when previous Vogue editors departed. No one wondered if Anna would be able to retain Vogue’s dominance over TikTok when she took over in 1988. But fashion brands still desire Vogue coverage. Being a “Vogue brand” still means something to a great many people in fashion. And that distinction can be awarded by an editor-in-chief, sure, but it’s also one that transcends any individual.
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