In a rare public appearance, Anna Wintour spoke to Jonathan Tisch at the 92nd Street Y last night. Topics included how Vogue stays relevant in the recession and how to look good without spending a lot of money. Fur might not have come up had the members of PETA in the audience not interrupted. “This woman skins animals alive!” they shouted. As they tossed a banner over the balcony and called Wintour a shame, the editor’s expression was a mix of polite restraint and Is there no security in this place? Drowning out the sounds of the chant “Fur Shame! Fur Shame!”, an audience member yelled, “I love you, Anna!” to booming applause. Wintour looked her hecklers in the eyes and said, “Fur is still a part of fashion, so Vogue will continue to report on it.” When 92Y staff removed the animal rights radicals from the room, Wintour joked, “As I was saying, fashion means different things to different people.” Read on for some highlights from the discussion, including why Michelle Obama matters and who will land on next month’s cover.
You’ve said it’s time to move on from a job when you get too angry. Are you getting to the point where you’re thinking about other options?
Well, mostly I’m thinking about the next day. I think that I have the best job in the entire world. To be honest, I don’t think I’d be very good at anything else!
How are you keeping Vogue current at this moment?
You have to remember exactly who you are and not panic. I don’t think that Vogue should turn into Recession Weekly. But at the same time, I think that we have to be very aware of what’s going on in the world. In terms of our fashion choices … racks and racks of clothes are wheeled into my office, and we discuss what’s going to be in the magazine and what’s not. And up until a year ago, we’ve been very free about the prices of clothes, and I probably didn’t delve as deeply as I should have into what things cost. Now I ask the price of every single outfit that comes into the office, and I think a lot of my editors have been quite surprised about what a little sequin dress from an unnamed designer might be, and if it’s $25,000, we’ll say, ‘Okay, well, not this time.’ So we’re looking at that, and at supporting younger designers — like Alexander Wang, Proenza Schouler — that are more price-friendly … But at the same time, we are who we are. We represent the fashion industry, and we have to show the best in the fashion industry, and that’s not going to change.
What went into putting Michelle Obama on the cover?
She emerged during the campaign as this enigmatic and strong woman with such great personal style. I think at the beginning, she had quite a hard time capturing the hearts of America, and it was interesting to all of us to see how that changed … Mrs. Obama loves fashion. She isn’t, like some people in Washington, frightened of it. She believes, as we do at Vogue, that to be an independent, working woman doesn’t mean that you have to walk around with a brown paper bag on … We always felt that Washington rather looked down on us or didn’t understand us or wasn’t quite ready for us, and now we have an administration that supports us.
What is the role of a fashion editor today?
There’s so much media coverage on fashion today from all sides. Our job is to really dig through all that and help our readers make choices and explain what we’re seeing. Right now, there’s almost too much information on fashion — I’m confused!
How do you go about hiring people for Vogue?
I really hire on instinct, and I look for people who are going to disagree with me. I think personalities like André Leon Talley and Hamish Bowles are really important to the magazine. Some people talk about lots of market research, but I’ve never really believed in that.
What’s different about a Vogue reader today compared to one 25 years ago?
Today’s reader knows so much more about fashion. It’s extraordinary — they’re telling us about designers we don’t know about. They’re online looking at collections as we’re walking out of the tents at Bryant Park.
Has there been a democratization of fashion? Can you look good now without spending a lot of money?
Yes, I think that’s one of the most wonderful things that’s changed in the last five years. When you’re seeing designers like Karl Lagerfeld doing collections for H&M and they’re being sold out, or any of the very high-profile names that are designing at Target, it’s really wonderful that so much more fashion is available to so many more people.
What’s the role of department-store directors now?
We work together. Both department stores and Vogue have really struggled with designers’ inability to understand global warming. The fact that they think a woman wants to wear triple cashmere and felt, hairy fabric in the middle of June or July – we go in and say, ‘Maybe this isn’t the smartest idea.’
How is the recession affecting the production of the magazine?
There’s no sense at all in the company that we shouldn’t invest as much as we can in the product. We’re always aware of the numbers — that’s nothing new. What is special about working for Condé Nast is that there’s never any pressure from the business side for editorial credits or being nice to an advertiser. That’s never part of the conversation.
Has retail changed permanently?
I think when things changed so dramatically last fall, some retailers panicked. Obviously, there was much discounting — I think it was too much; nobody knew what the value was anymore. But I think that period’s over. We had a meeting with the biggest stores in New York last week — there’s no question that they feel that time has passed. But they bought much more carefully.
How is New York for fashion shows now?
There’s a sense that we have too many shows right now. Bryant Park had run its course. They didn’t want us anymore. The space was proving way too small. A move to Lincoln Center is going to be very energizing for the fashion community.
Was “Models As Muses” an appropriate theme [for the Costume Institute’s new exhibit and Met Gala] this year?
I think this year’s theme was particularly important, because the whole world is kind of in celebrity overload, and certainly in terms of what we see in the world of fashion. So I think to take people back in history and really look at the influence of models on designers and popular culture was really an interesting analysis.
So will we be seeing more models and less celebrities on the cover of Vogue?
Well, tomorrow is another day. We’ll never know. But we certainly do have a model tied to the next issue, yes.
Is there someone you’d like to invite to your next dinner party?
I’d like to spend more time with Ambassador [Susan] Rice. She seems like such an extraordinary woman with a wonderful and difficult job.
If you could pick one cover or one face that describes Vogue, what or who would it be?
I have very fond memories of my first cover of Vogue, which was a girl named Michaela Berçu wearing a Christian Lacroix couture T-shirt and Guess blue jeans. And I remember that cover with great promise, because I feel that it meant something’s changing, something’s different. My first cover is my favorite cover.