Ever since Anna Wintour's third decade atop the masthead at American Vogue began in June, rumors of her imminent retirement have intensified. Signs offered in support of this include the fact that her contract is ending, the shuttering and/or draw-down of spinoff titles Men's Vogue, Fashion Rocks, and Vogue Living, and the fact that competitors have been weathering the downturn better, as measured in ad pages. A new twist came in the form of news Wintour could be getting replaced. By Carine Roitfeld, her Vogue Paris counterpart. While it sounds like a tale right out of The Devil Wears Prada, if there's any merit to the rumor, big changes will be ahead for the title. An examination of the differences between the spunky Parisian and the chilly Brit, and a round-up of why la Roitfeld might just knock some cool into the stuffy luxury mag, after the jump.
1. Fewer Celebrity Covers
The formula for a typical American Vogue cover under Wintour goes like this: A celebrity, probably with a film to promote, posed in some self-conscious location, often outdoors, photographed full or 3/4 length, with an awkward expression, PhotoShopped to approach the point of plasticine unrecognizability. The styling is stagey, overproduced, and 80s.
Since Wintour took over in 1988, American Vogue began featuring more celebrity covers than ever before—a cancerous, fashion-averse trend that has since spread through the women's magazine industry. At first, the covers were said to improve sales: readers were motivated to pick up the issue to read the profile of the celeb within more than they were by cover images of models, who have always held a much more circumscribed kind of fame. You could even make the argument that for a magazine such as Vogue, which seeks out the independent, successful, working reader, giving more covers to women for what they do as opposed to what they look like was an empowering step of sorts.
But the celebrity cover has had two negative effects: firstly, it's made Vogue's fashion dumber, since celebrities inevitably go about posing for fashion magazines as though it's a promotional drudgery they only put up with for the benefit of the latest terribly important film they starred in, and they always come phalanxed with minders whose entire purpose in life is to insure that the celebrity never cede too much control of her image. It limits the creativity of all involved, and drains the resulting images of the drama and charisma that resides in the best fashion photography. Secondly, the prevalence of the celebrity cover has caused an inevitable gerrymandering of the definition of "celebrity"—meaning that instead of our magazines periodically serving up interesting in-depth profiles of only the best actresses, singers and public figures, we get puff pieces that examine the inner musings of Kate Bosworth and Jessica Simpson faster than they can think them up. And according to circulation figures, readers have grown weary of being told 23-year-old Keira Knightley's life story several times per annum.
Vogue shouldn't be a promotional arm of the film industry: it should be a luxury fashion magazine. And Carine Roitfeld understands this. Paris Vogue's covers are striking and evocative; there's no formula in evidence. Models frequently take the honors, because whose image is more easily molded to suit the story of the moment than a model's? A Hollywood ingénue, like as not, has neither the look nor the inclination to pull off, say, an all-black avant-garde ensemble. Or a wacky couture gown constructed out of 15 yards of orange silk. But you can find a model who can. And Roitfeld consistently does just that.
And when she does feature a celebrity on her cover, Roitfeld doesn't put her through the generic setting, lighting and retouching that makes American Vogue covers so sameish. Behold Charlotte Gainsbourg, whose magnificent aquiline nose would've been doubtless rhinoplastied into submission with the liquify tool over at American Vogue:
Or what about this 2004 Madonna cover? It's a vivid shot of a legitimately interesting icon — and it's not easy to find a compelling way to shoot and style a woman who's been photographed millions of times. Roitfeld, unlike Wintour, does not fear the close crop. I want to travel back in time just so I can buy this magazine.
Under Carine Roitfeld my bet is American readers would finally be treated to more interesting and more varied covers, featuring singularly striking images of whoever embodied the given moment best — not just more portraits of some pretty so-and-sos who can give empty quotes about a (probably average) movie.
In March of 2007, Jennifer Hudson became the first black woman to grace a cover of American Vogue since a 2005 Liya Kebede cover. Under Wintour's leadership, readers ought not expect more than one black woman on a cover every 2-3 years. All told, 14 black women have made the cover alone, and another 4 have been included in group covers, in the publication's 116-year history.
As for Vogue Paris, I can bring to mind several very recent black cover subjects. Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss had a cover together in February.
Noémie Lenoir had a solo cover in June/July. (Half the print run featured a Laetitia Casta cover with identical lighting, styling, and pose.)
And who can forget the cover that introduced the world to André J, a bearded drag queen who was chosen after a chance meeting with Bruce Weber and Roitfeld? (Which shows the kind of freewheeling spontaneity that can go into a Vogue Paris cover, and which American Vogue's triangulated, procedural covershots under Wintour conspicuously lack.)
Obviously people of color are a part of Carine Roitfeld's conception of fashion in a way they simply aren't at American Vogue. Fashion as an industry still struggles with racism, despite the fact that black women spend more than $20 billion a year on apparel, despite the fact that closing issue after issue without a single editorial page devoted to a model of color ought to be a source of shame for any editor-in-chief, and despite the fact that it is the damn 21st century. Roitfeld's approach would be a welcome change.
3. Creative Freedom
At virtually every shoot I do, the photographer and the fashion editor come prepared with materials for inspiration. Sometimes it's as elaborate as a bulletin board covered in location snapshots, iconic art photography, historic or news shots, and tear sheets from magazines, where the images together inform the story of the shoot, or even just the mood. (Other times it's as simple as a post-it in a Tim Walker book that points to the picture the client would most like to rip off.) Either way, there are always a million magazines on set for supplementary inspiration, or just to stave off boredom. And during the hours it takes to set up, everyone flicks through the titles, searching for an image that might help inform the inchoate ideas. Fashion people are rarely highly verbal, and to aesthetes, the right picture means a lot.
At the danger of putting words in her mouth, I believe this was what Anna Wintour was getting at when she said that "If you look at any great fashion photograph out of context, it will tell you just as much about what's going on in the world as a headline in the New York Times." One can talk all day about how fashion reflects the world; the million little tells it betrays to anyone who cares to notice, like how a certain kind of soutache embroidery became popular in Europe in 1919 only because the Communist revolution, which expelled skilled workers, temporarily depressed the wages of the Russian garment workers who produced it, or any of the other myriad ways styles have points of origins the way wines have a terroir. When you work in fashion, pictures start off being in your world, then they define your world, then they become your world. You live in pictures. You communicate in pictures. Pictures are everything.
So it's perhaps telling that, for as long as I have worked in fashion, I don't recall ever being directed to an American Vogue image as an exemplar of something to aim for.
Stylists and photographers, they thumb through Vogue Paris, Vogue Italia. British Vogue. Because what are you going to find inside an American Vogue? We already know. A Craig McDean editorial, shot in a studio with a neutral background, of Caroline Trentini jumping. A boring profile of a celebrity you cared about three years ago. A showpiece editorial shot by someone like Steven Klein or Steven Meisel where the great photographers try and work dumbed-down versions of ideas they explored at greater length and with greater freedom—more suitable props, edgier locations, maybe a surrealist touch or two, or a reference to an obscure film—seasons ago in Vogue Italia's pages. Or in Vogue Paris's. Wintour reportedly demands a full selection of images from every photographer she works with, so that she can make the final photo choices herself (it's much more normal for a photographer to do a first edit, and for the eventual images to be something of a compromise between the photographer and the magazine). This level of control has hamstrung her publication, which consequently recycles the same tiny list of models, stylists, and photographers virtually every issue. American Vogue has, for far too long, been deficient in that most fashionable quality, surprise. Carine Roitfeld would breathe in some life.
Of course, S.I. Newhouse quickly denied the Roitfeld replacement rumor through a spokesperson. And Roitfeld herself has always claimed that she is not gunning for Wintour's job: Last year, she told a reporter, "My best quality is to be stylist. I never think about this career, this big job [...] I never wanted to be what I am today, and I will not die in the position." Roitfeld is said to dislike New York. She spends as little time in the city as possible, and her daughter says she loves her home in Paris too much to ever leave. It's also possible that Roitfeld might not be keen to sign up to fill Wintour's shoes because in the current economic climate, it's a virtual certainty that Wintour's successor will never be granted the leeway Wintour carved out for herself, which includes vast editorial control, a reported 2 million dollar salary, a $50,000 annual clothing allowance, and a personal chauffeur. When Wintour wanted to buy an apartment in Greenwich Village, Condé Nast cut her a $1.6 million loan, interest-free. S.I. Newhouse will probably never grant a single editor-in-chief such extraordinary freedoms again.
It's possible that these rumors are unfounded, and perhaps the challenge presented by American Vogue—a mass-market title with a circulation of 1.3 million—might itself wreck all it is that's so inspiring about Roitfeld's editorial vision. A Roitfeld who could not change Vogue would be instead changed by it, and not, I would wager, for the better. And Roitfeld is, after all, comfortable overseeing a small-but-mighty 133,000 circulation magazine more loved by the fashion crowd than the wider world.
But even if the next in line proves not to be Roitfeld, it will be someone else, and sooner rather than later. Anna Wintour is nearing 60; the flurry of varying replacement/retirement rumors reported in different titles from different sources might at least be pointing in the right direction. Change is long overdue.
Related: Anna Wintour Said Replaced By French Counterpart [Gawker]
The Anti-Anna [NY Mag]