Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue and global fashion éminence grise, rarely speaks at length publicly. (When Cathy Horyn, fashion critic for the New York Times, profiled her last February, she got Karl Lagerfeld, French megamogul François-Henri Pinault, and Marc Jacobs's business partner, Robert Duffy, on the record — but was denied an interview with Wintour herself.) So it was with great surprise, and not a little trepidation, that I set off this morning to attend a conversation between Wintour, Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter, and the New Yorker's David Remnick. With the rumors swirling about her supposedly imminent retirement or replacement, what would Wintour have to say for herself?
As might be expected given that there were three editors of Condé Nast flagship publications present, the discussion — moderated by New Yorker media critic Ken Auletta — mainly turned on commonalities between the magazines, namely the souring economy and the internet. (Yes, this thing you are reading. Graydon Carter thinks a lot about it.)
Wintour, dressed in brown suede kitten heeled boots, a brown satiny skirt, oatmeal knit top, and a grey jacket with a large fur collar that did her lapel mic an injury midway through the audience questions, was the first to bring up the recession. "Right now we're in difficult times, but I think it makes you a little edgier," she said. "Out of bad times can come great magazines." Remnick took a similar tack: "Editors have to keep a clear eye and do what they have to do. I think magazines—ones that mean something—have a future."
In response to a question from Auletta about whether the economic downturn poses temporary or fundamental problems for magazine publishing, Wintour cautioned first against "over-reacting."
"I see a lot of people in my industry who are over-reacting. Stores that are over-discounting, designers who are creating collections for the price and what sells rather than to reflect who they are." Straitened times, she said, should not mean the end of luxury. It takes a special understanding of the world — wasn't the Dow just below 8,000? And aren't advertising pages in this month's Vogue down 22% compared with last December's issue? — to frame the fashion industry's biggest problem right now as charging too little for its wares.
Still, Wintour did offer what might pass for a glimmer of understanding. Recently, a sequined mini-dress "not much bigger than your shirt, Graydon" came through the Vogue offices, on request for a photo shoot. When she found out the garment retailed at $50,000, Wintour said she told everyone, "I'm sorry, but we're not putting that in the magazine, no matter how magical Steven Meisel thinks it is." (Of course, just this September, Vogue featured an entire article about a $64,300 gold-dipped mink coat. I guess it's lucky the issue closed before Lehman did.)
When asked about the internet, Wintour took a surprisingly pragmatic view. She recalled how this past season when Alessandra Facchinetti was fired from Valentino after less than 10 months as head designer, she learned the news backstage, before the show began, and got the scoop online. (The announcement was to have been made at the show's conclusion.) "It was a horrific, horrific situation," Wintour continued. "I mean, [Facchinetti] was weeping backstage, telling the whole awful story."
Remnick mentioned how last week's attacks in Mumbai came too late for the New Yorker's deadline — but contributor Steve Coll, an experienced reporter who'd covered Lakshar-e-Taiba before, wrote a post about it to one of the magazines blogs. (Imagine that, using your website to keep your magazine's coverage up-to-date.) "Do we compete with the Internet? I don't know what that means. We compete with specific sources...It's foolish for me to think the magazine is this thing that comes once a week, and then there's this business over here [online]," Remnick said. "It is all the New Yorker."
In fact, only Carter seemed a little troubled in his understanding of the web. "What's the point of duplicating the magazine and putting it all on the web for free?" he asked, rhetorically. (Uh, so people can, I dunno, read it?) Later he compared the internet to a supermarket, and his magazine to a gourmet restaurant. He claimed he didn't see the web as a threat, though his language was a tad on the antagonistic side: "If you're in the business of telling long stories with great pictures, it's going to be a while before the internet takes that away."
Remnick — who does post all of his magazine's content online — had the most realistic approach. "The internet is a system of distribution," he said. Of the three, the New Yorker editor seemed to best grasp how the web could be employed to enhance his publication's reach.
When Auletta asked about the way Condé Nast's readership skews older, Carter joked, "Sometimes people ask me how to get a 21-year-old reader, and I say, 'Wait eight years. He'll read when he's 29.'" Wintour claimed Condé chief S.I. Newhouse had never asked her to seek younger readers. "I'm thinking of a discerning person," she claimed, "whether they're 16 or 62 doesn't matter to me."
The elephant in the room, naturally, was Wintour's rumored retirement. Neither Auletta, nor the audience members who got to ask questions, addressed the item directly. (Apparently low balls like "Which magazines did you read growing up?" were thought to be more important.) However, when asked indirectly about the "next step," Wintour denied she would be retiring.
"My father always said to me, 'The day you get too angry, that's the time to stop.' The day I get too angry is the day I take up gardening."
I suppose there we have it. For now.
Related: Wintour Said Replaced By French Counterpart [Gawker]