One evening in March, during the last Paris Prêt-à-Porter Fashion Week, 11 promising American designers sipped champagne at 41 Rue du Faubourg St-Honoré, the residence of the U.S. ambassador to France.
The young designers had come to Paris to participate in a showroom—a trip underwritten by U.S. sportswear mogul Tommy Hilfiger—and to present their collections to the international retailers and editors who regularly assemble in the world’s fashion capital to plot what we all will wear.
The American ambassador, Charles H. Rivkin, stepped forward to toast the emerging talent and pay tribute to America’s $350 billion fashion industry as a cultural and financial link between nations. President Obama appointed Rivkin, who once led the Muppet empire, to his post in 2009. The ambassador was a top fundraiser for Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign and served as co-chair of his California finance committee. Rivkin’s wife, Susan Tolson, is a slender, blonde former investment banker who swiftly elevated her personal style upon settling into her new public life in Paris, which has included a front-row seat at the Chanel show.
It was a perfectly crafted, succinctly timed evening subtly perfumed with the political. And the woman most responsible for instigating it all, who stood on the sidelines without comment, was Anna Wintour.
The self-contained Wintour is approaching her 25th year as the editor in chief of Vogue, fashion’s most prestigious glossy. The “Americans in Paris” showroom is one of the many ways in which she has left her imprint on the magazine, the industry, and, by extension, the culture-at-large. While Wintour, 62, has not ignored the fanciful and rarefied aspects of frocks, more than any of her predecessors she has defined fashion as a lucrative blend of glamour, global commerce, and—most intriguingly—political power.
Since Wintour’s ascendance in 1988, the magazine has maintained a circulation of approximately 1.2 million readers. And with 2011 revenue at nearly $390 million, according to the Publishers Information Bureau, it sits at the top of the fashion-glossy heap. The September 2012 issue, which celebrates the brand’s 120th anniversary, is its biggest book ever, with 658 ad pages—a 14 percent increase over last year.
Wintour has the ear of the industry’s top moneymen, such as Bernard Arnault, head of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, and François-Henri Pinault, the chief executive of PPR, when they are looking to fill lucrative design jobs. “She’s had tremendous influence in the selection of some designers,” says Ralph Toledano, president of Puig fashion division, which includes Jean Paul Gaultier and Nina Ricci. “I never took my instructions from her, but that doesn’t prevent me from respecting her ... She has an excellent business sense.”
Wintour has welcomed big commercial brands such as J.Crew and the Gap into the Vogue fold, and those relationships have led to collaborations with designers who benefit from the publicity and, in some cases, an additional paycheck. She created an initiative with the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, to support the next generation of U.S. designers. The fund was seeded in the weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the fashion business was dealt a staggering economic blow that affected young designers most profoundly. Now in its ninth year, the fund has supported such rising stars as Prabal Gurung and Joseph Altuzarra. In 2009 Wintour launched Fashion’s Night Out, a shopping bacchanal to jump-start New York’s languishing $10 billion fashion industry. Lord & Taylor alone saw a 40 percent leap in sales over the previous year, and FNO now drives retail traffic in major cities around the world.
Wintour has also raised more than $85 million for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute by helming its annual gala and curating a high-profile guest list from the worlds of fashion, film, music, sports, and, of course, politics.
Indeed, it’s Wintour’s immersion in politics that has recently attracted the most attention. She long ago turned Vogue into a haven for political women to tell their stories in a luminously lit environment. Condoleezza Rice, Kathleen Sebelius, and Susan Rice have appeared in its pages, seemingly nonplussed about the enduring Beltway prejudice that any association with fashion automatically implies elitism and superficiality. Vogue, it seems, is safely nonpartisan.
Its editor, however, is not. Wintour has a long history of personally supporting Democratic candidacies, from John Kerry’s presidential bid to the Senate campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Kirsten Gillibrand. She has supported Timothy Bishop, a congressman representing the First District of New York, which includes parts of Long Island, where Wintour has a summer house. And she donated to the 2009 Texas gubernatorial campaign of Bill White, who was vying to run the home state of her longtime companion Shelby Bryan. But the vast majority of her political attention has been focused on Obama.
“It doesn’t involve Vogue. It doesn’t involve Condé Nast. We have a very explicit understanding: I’m not going to throw the weight of Condé Nast behind any political candidate,” says Charles Townsend, Condé Nast’s CEO. “She doesn’t guide my political preferences any more than I do hers.”
Wintour was an early Obama supporter in 2008, hosting fundraisers and emerging as a highly effective bundler. She enthusiastically followed the campaign, eagerly parsing horse-race stories and analyzing some of Obama’s bolder speeches such as the Philadelphia one on race.
This year Wintour has emerged as an even more prodigious bundler, raising at least $500,000 for Obama and personally donating tens of thousands more. Her higher profile has the media asking, what does she want? Rumors of her interest in becoming an ambassador, which erupted during the last presidential-election cycle, have re-emerged. The gossip has been fueled by her growing collection of political thank-yous: multiple invitations to state dinners and a seat on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. And there is the coincidence of timing. A posting in London or Paris—a position typically filled by a political intimate rather than a career diplomat—could be a fine next chapter for Wintour after 25 years at the top of the fashion world. After all, if a former media executive can navigate the world of Franco-American diplomacy, why not a former fashion titan?
“I loved being a diplomat,” says Craig R. Stapleton, the U.S. ambassador to France from 2005 to 2008 and a onetime baseball executive. “It’s a fantastic job.” But, he warns, it is not a kind of posh retirement.
A lot of people “think it’s about having tea with the queen or going to the horse races,” Stapleton says. “You don’t want to be painted as a lightweight by the host government. The most important thing for them to know is the ambassador is close to the president and ... can get a message to the president in an effective way.”
The requisite teas, cocktail parties, and dinners all make an inviting setting for diplomatic information gathering. “People think, oh, here are these pinstriped fools tootling around with champagne in hand. Actually, it’s really important,” says Christopher Meyer, British ambassador to the United States from 1997 to 2003. “It’s part of the networking that’s required ... It’s damned hard work.”
Wintour’s friends believe she is wholly capable of taking on such a role, but completely uninterested. They say she’s not looking for payback for her politicking. “She’s doing it because she believes in the president,” says Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who has worked with Wintour on Obama fundraisers.
“I don’t think she should do anything but stay the editor of Vogue,” Weinstein adds. An ambassadorship “is a lame-duck job. After four years, you’re out. Then what?”
Wintour declined to be interviewed for this story but through a spokeswoman dismissed her interest in an ambassadorship as rumor. Still, nothing lasts forever, particularly in fashion. After decades of expanding her cultural influence, of growing the Vogue brand, does Wintour have a potential plan B? If not politics, then what?
Vogue editors in chief do not have a reputation for triumphantly—or even quietly—retiring from the magazine. They tend to be fired. Diana Vreeland was editor from 1963 to 1971 and turned Vogue into a repository of fantastical postcards from around the world. She was fired because Condé Nast “wanted a different sort of magazine,” she says in the upcoming documentary about her life, The Eye Has to Travel. Grace Mirabella replaced Vreeland and created a more subdued, intellectual publication. She was dismissed when Wintour was elevated to the top job.
In Vogue’s history, Wintour has been the second-longest-serving editor, surpassed only by Edna Woolman Chase, who from 1914 to 1951 ushered the publication through the Great Depression and two world wars.
One of Wintour’s early forays into Washington came in the mid-’90s through a chance encounter with Katharine Graham, the former chairman of the executive committee of the Washington Post Co. and doyenne of Washington society. The two met at a New York dinner party where Graham mentioned Super Sale, the company’s annual fundraiser for breast-cancer research. Wintour offered to help. “They really clicked,” recalled Virginia Rodriguez, who oversaw the fundraiser—an enormous designer discount sale—in 1996. “They had a mutual respect for one another’s position and accomplishments in life.” They also bonded over a shared love of Manolo Blahnik shoes.
Wintour marshaled Seventh Avenue, while Graham invited Princess Diana to serve as honorary chair of the Super Sale gala. Soon members of Congress and K Street movers and shakers were jockeying for tickets. The event raised more than $1 million, some five times more than the previous year’s. Graham, until her death in 2001, remained friends with Wintour, often inviting her to her Georgetown home for dinner—the setting of quiet tête-à-têtes among power brokers.
In the years after encountering Graham, Wintour transformed Vogue into a place where pretty meets powerful. The magazine featured Sarah Palin long before she stepped on the national stage with talk of hockey moms and pit bulls. Desirée Rogers was in Vogue before her ill-fated promotion of “brand Obama.” “As a woman in politics, it’s a place where you can be depicted in a more holistic way,” says Karen Finney, a former deputy press secretary for Hillary Clinton. “I keep thinking of Condi Rice. Her picture was stunning, and it showed the bigger context of her life.”
The images are not sexy. Rice wore a ball gown and was seated at a piano. They are idealized portraits of female authority as might be imagined by Aaron Sorkin. “If you look at the photo shoot of [Laura] Bush in 2004, it was strong and beautiful,” says Anita McBride, her former chief of staff. “If you look at the history of the magazine and everyone who’s been photographed there, there’s an enduring quality that’s captured for the ages.”
One of the most memorable political images was of Clinton in 1998, during the waning days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Shot by Annie Leibovitz and dressed in a merlot-colored Oscar de la Renta gown, Clinton looked regal and confident. “Throughout the whole year I’ve admired how she’s behaved so much,” Wintour told me at the time. “If you look at the year she’s had, how many women could behave with such stature? And from a Vogue point of view, she looks better and better.”
Following President Obama’s inauguration, the new first lady agreed to be photographed for Vogue, a decision made in part because Michelle Obama believed her appearance on the cover of the iconic magazine would have particular resonance for young women of color. The White House had no comment on the first lady’s Vogue shoot or her relationship with its editor.
Sometimes the blinding glow of glamour has led to a political misstep. In its March 2011 issue, the magazine published a gauzy profile of Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, just before citizen protests provoked state-led massacres. (Writer Joan Juliet Buck later gave her own account of the assignment in Newsweek.) The story left Vogue looking naive in front of the foreign-policy community, and Wintour eventually acknowledged the story was a mistake. The controversy, however, did not slow Wintour’s political fundraising or lessen her popularity. Three days later, Wintour co-hosted a fundraising dinner for Obama in New York at the townhouse of actress Sarah Jessica Parker. In his remarks, the president praised Wintour for her enduring support.
Both the truth and the mythology of Wintour—her rise through the ranks of the British glossies; her perfectionism as a boss; her preference for dresses over trousers, heels over comfort, and fur over political correctness—has been illustrated in The September Issue and The Devil Wears Prada. (Another documentary for HBO is in the works.) Yet no one has been better at enabling the fabulists than Wintour herself. (I became acquainted with Wintour when I briefly worked as an associate editor at Vogue and once co-hosted a cocktail party with her for the writer Teri Agins, who is now a Vogue freelancer.)
Wintour is most visible during the season of fashion shows, where her appearance always stirs low-level anxiety—fretfulness that she will be displeased by the clothes or the setting. She is accompanied by a pair of bodyguards, who spend most of their time loitering awkwardly nearby, like rhinos amid gazelles. The muscle first appeared during the late 1990s, when Wintour was under attack by animal-rights advocates; now they spend most of their time hustling her through the fashion herds.
In July at the Christian Dior show, new creative director Raf Simons was presenting his first collection for the great French fashion house. Long before its 2:30 p.m. start, guests began to arrive on foot at the hôtel particulier in Paris’s swanky 16th arrondissement. Soon a burly gentleman with a ponytail of dreadlocks began clearing a path for a slow-moving black Mercedes sedan. Wintour had arrived.
Simons himself emerged from the backstage pressure cooker to greet her. Wintour’s influence is woven throughout the modern history of Dior, for she was the one who recommended the previous creative director, John Galliano, for the job. For a time he made quite a success of the brand, until he was fired last year after making anti-Semitic comments in a Paris bistro.
Wintour’s business recommendations are far more influential than her aesthetic pronouncements. Indeed, in light of Condé Nast chairman Si Newhouse retiring, Condé Nast CEO Townsend says he wouldn’t discount the possibility that Wintour could have an expanded role within the company.
Or perhaps she’ll choose to focus on her brainchild, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, which aims to help young designers build a profitable company—not just buzz. “She doesn’t want to invest in someone who will not be in business five or 10 years down the road,” says Steven Kolb, chief executive officer of the CFDA.
“If she believes in you, your name is on her lips,” says designer Thakoon Panichgul, who was a runner-up for the fashion fund in 2006 and has become a favored designer of Michelle Obama. “If someone is looking for a collaboration opportunity, she’s always looking out for designers who are part of the fashion fund. It’s her baby.”
All this nurturing has an immediate benefit for Wintour, of course. “She’s creating the best sort of ecosystem for the continuation of Vogue,” says Stephanie Phair, who once worked at the magazine and now runs the online store the Outnet. The fund, with its modest $12 million endowment, could become Wintour’s legacy. Given her full attention, it could transform into a powerful foundation providing small-business loans and placing promising designers with major brands.
Or perhaps she could be convinced to dedicate more time to philanthropy, following in the footsteps of her family: her mother was engaged in charitable work, and two siblings are immersed in social do-gooding in London. Her fingerprints already are everywhere at the Met’s Costume Institute, from its signature exhibitions to the gala. Wintour’s unsentimental fundraising for the Met—which is focused not only on how much money is raised but also on making sure it comes from the right people—has financed a remodel of the galleries and sparked upticks in overall membership and attendance. In 2011 she was elected to the board of trustees.
In August Wintour attended an Obama fundraiser at the Westport, Conn., home of Weinstein and his wife, Marchesa codesigner Georgina Chapman. The president greeted the 60 dinner guests and thanked the movie mogul and his wife for their support. He gave shout-outs to the host committee, praising actress Anne Hathaway for her role in The Dark Knight Rises, swooning over actress Joanne Woodward, and admiring Sorkin’s prose.
He made no mention of Wintour, who was seated next to Sorkin, her sunglasses propped on the table in front of her.
Still, within diplomatic circles, the idea of an Ambassador Wintour retains modest currency, mostly due to her unflagging support of the president. Indeed the current ambassador to the U.K.’s royal Court of St. James’s, Louis B. Susman—a retired Chicago investment banker—was so renowned in Obamaland for his fundraising ferocity that he was nicknamed “the vacuum cleaner.” While he has subsequently been praised for his diplomacy, Susman was initially derided as just the latest in a scurrilous tradition of political appointees who earned his job through check writing and bundling.
“The ‘political appointment’ is more of a gamble until they’re put to the test,” says Meyer, the former British ambassador to the U.S. “Some have been very great successes. Others have been less so.” A true diplomat, Meyer declines to discuss the failures.
Contrary to popular assumptions, the role of ambassador does not require a foreign-policy background, as there is a staff of experts. Instead, one needs a “knack for creating a network of influence.”
“You need a quick mind, hard head, strong stomach, warm smile, and a cold eye,” Meyer says. “The shy do not prosper in this environment.”
Immense personal wealth—the kind defined by capital gains, not a biweekly Condé Nast salary and Vogue clothing allowance—is helpful for meeting the social obligations. So is having a spouse. And in Paris, language skills are a must.
Wintour is said to be “conversational” in French.