Anna Wintour at the Gianni Versace show, Paris, 1992. Photograph: Richard Young.
(This is an edited version of a speech given by Anna Wintour last week at the Women In Journalism meeting in London.)
My career got off to a very shaky start when I dropped out of school at the age of 18. Despite my lack of academic credentials, I got a job as a fashion assistant at Harper’s & Queen. I now know that this would never have happened in the States, as one of the big differences between American and British journalism is the expectation of qualifications. For one to get a job as a secretary at American Vogue, for example, Conde Nast’s personnel department demands some dazzling degree. High school drop-outs, even ones who show promise, don’t stand much of a chance.
I’m often asked why I left London for New York in the late seventies, and the reason is because five years of being asked over and over again if I was the daughter of Charles Wintour (editor of the London Evening Standard, 1959-80) was more than enough. In the many years I’ve now spent in New York not a single person has ever asked me who my father is, or was, or what he does.
My first job in the States was as a junior fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, which I enjoyed but not for all that long because I was fired by the editor in chief, who told me that I was too ‘European’. At the time I didn’t know what he meant, but in retrospect I think it meant that I was obstinate, that I wouldn’t take direction and that I totally ignored my editor’s need for credits. In his eyes I was neither commercial, nor professional. The shoot that finally drove him over the edge was when I photographed the Paris collections on girls with Rastafarian dreadlocks - a concept that must have been ahead of its time.
Thinking about that chapter in my life, what I find most interesting is to realise how little things have changed: talented, but totally self-absorbed, young English girls now come to see me with some regularity, and with some regularity they tend, not unlike myself way back, to have an almost total disregard for readers. With a bit of regret, I also realise that I have moved closer to the position of the editor who fired me. Although I might not have fired me, I certainly would have given myself a stern lecture - on how readers prefer seeing healthy, energetic, smiling girls over sick, sad and strange ones. And I might also have reminded myself of the fact that if you don’t acknowledge your magazine’s advertisers you won’t have a magazine.
After a series of jobs that I prefer not to recall, I was hired in the early eighties as fashion editor of New York magazine. It was a time in New York when artists, fashion designers and interior decorators were in fierce competition with each other for celebrity status, and Ed Kosner, then the editor in chief, allowed me to take advantage of that to break away from the usual catalogue formula of fashion journalism. To no one’s surprise, the decorators and artists were delighted to be photographed next to gorgeous girls, and the approach seemed to go down well.
For one issue, I asked some ‘of the moment’ eighties artists - Francesco Clemente, David Salle, Jean-Michel Basquiat - to interpret the New York collections. That story caught the eye of Alexander Liberman, then the all-mighty editorial director of Conde Nast, who offered me the position of creative director at American Vogue. In fact, I’d already been to American Vogue once before but nothing came of it - the reason being that when the editor in chief at the time asked me what job I really wanted, I said, in a sudden fit of candour, ‘Yours’.
In 1986, I returned to London as editor in chief of British Vogue. Although I still thought of myself as totally English, to my surprise everyone here thought I was some sort of American control freak. Journalists portrayed me as a wicked woman of steel - I always wore black and fired everyone in sight. Actually, I am always depressed by the sight of black-clad fashion journalists descending like nuns on the collections, and I remember letting only two or three people go. But, no doubt fearing my awful reputation, a number left of their own accords. It was about this time the British press began referring to me as ‘Nuclear Wintour’ and the ‘Wintour of our Discontent’.
Perhaps the cool reception I received in London was not entirely my fault. After all, replacing Bea Miller wasn’t easy. Everyone loved her. Plus, there was a cozy but mildly eccentric atmosphere at British Vogue, which, after my time in New York, struck me as out of date. It also seemed out of step with the fast developing social and political changes that were thundering through Britain in the eighties, under Margaret Thatcher. I felt the cozy approach was not responsive to intelligent women’s changing lives. So I decided to infuse the magazine with a bit of American worldliness, even toughness.
Naturally, I met with a bit of resistance. On the other hand, during my time at British Vogue I realised that there were and are lots of good things about the British approach. The British fashion editor - and I am talking about the girl who goes out on the shoot - is extremely independent. She chooses the clothes herself, she has a big say in selecting the photographer, and she spends a lot of time planning the location and the details of the shoot. By contrast, the approach in New York is positively industrialised. Staffs are enormous and editors - each with a highly specific job - abound. I was astonished when I learned that American Vogue had a bra editor.
In the States, the opportunity for a creative or personal approach is relatively limited. There are just too many cooks in the kitchen. This somewhat corporate manner of fashion editing isn’t due to any lack of creativity on the part of American editors. Rather, it’s dictated by the enormous size of the American market. Plus, the stakes are higher - American Vogue’s circulation is 1.2 million.
When I went back to the States to edit Vogue I took the British approach with me because it seemed that what was needed was some sort of combination of the two. For example, I gave the individual fashion editors more responsibility than they’d been used to. I encouraged them to sign their own stories and to develop their individual styles. But because of the phenomenal support system, the New York editors could work at a much faster pace than their London counterparts. The English fashion editor - at least when I was there - would comb the market, book both photographer and models, and plan the shoot with the same exquisite detail seen in London stage design. At best, these editors could only muster up one story an issue. In short, the English did everything except press the button on the camera - and I hear they often do that as well. By contrast, in New York the editor can usually do one shoot a week - sometimes more.
There are striking differences not only between the journalists but between the magazines. The best British magazines are conceived in a fit of editorial passion. Their gestation period is short, their need for sustenance is modest and in no time a British magazine can move from editorial idea to the news-stand. By contrast the conception of an American magazine is more likely an act of artificial insemination - a group of businessmen with their eye firmly fixed on the bottom line see a ‘revenue opportunity’ and after many meetings finally ‘green-light it’. Then begins months of market and design research.
A vivid example of the difference between British and American magazines are the launches of new ones. Dazed & Confused was founded five years ago by three art students. With no backers, and no personal money, these entrepreneurs managed to launch their dream by getting one company to sponsor their first three issues. After grabbing the industry’s attention with their experimental take on fashion, they now hit news-stands with a respectable number of ads. Rankin Waddell, 29, the only founding member left, is often described as a ‘control freak’. Lord help him if he dresses in black. In contrast, a new American magazine that was launched last year spent $40 million, had a large staff for a full year of research and careful marketing plans before appearing on the news-stand.
The same Atlantic divide separates American and British fashion. While a handful of high-profile British designers now have dazzling jobs at enormous French fashion cartels, you might remember that Alexander McQueen created his first collection for $4,000. By contrast, Victor Alfaro, a young, talented Mexican designer who lives and works in New York, recently abandoned his business because he couldn’t find the necessary $25 million!
In summary, the British fashion journalist often sees herself as an artist or a craftsman. Her work is very hands-on, she cares a lot about originality and less about readers or advertisers, and she is respected for this by her boss - who doesn’t pay her enough. Within limits she is left alone to get on with the job, which she can usually count on keeping for a very long time.
The New York editor, on the other hand, has many more resources to call on. She works in a tightly co-ordinated and organised system which leaves less scope for her individuality. She is acutely aware of her readership and the magazine’s advertisers, and she is handsomely paid. On the other hand, she does not enjoy the same job security.
How might I account for the Tina Brown/Anna Wintour /Liz Tilberis/Glenda Bailey phenomenon? Well, it is not only British women who have succeeded at American magazines. The phenomenon also includes Andrew Sullivan at the New Republic, Bill Buford at the New Yorker and David Yelland at the New York Post. The fact that the British have been so successful in the States as editors of such a wide range of publications surely demonstrates that our appeal doesn’t lie in any sort of cultural mystique. Contrary to what some cynics have said, it’s not the accent. If the sensibilities of New York and London were not so strikingly similar, we foreigners could never have succeeded.
I believe that market considerations on each side of the Atlantic have led to different systems, which, when taken alone, are in different ways equally flawed but when they meet it’s a marriage made in heaven. I have been tremendously lucky to work at a magazine like American Vogue, which is not only editorially driven but also commercially successful. I have also been tremendously lucky to have had the experience of working in Britain before turning up in New York.
The Guardian, 19 May 1997.