For decades she has stood astride the fashion industry, micromanaging the look and content of US Vogue, marshalling a significant part of the global fashion industry to her worldview, and presiding over an annual gala at which, for $25,000 a head, paying guests and favored courtiers mounted the lavishly carpeted steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to symbolically kiss the ring.
But for Anna Wintour this has been her annus horribilis. New York fashion week has been written off, the Met Gala has been cancelled, magazine advertising revenues are plummeting and there are scarcely any frocks to shoot since the coronavirus barged its way into the European fashion shows in February.
Yet now a crisis is breaking over Wintour, Vogue and the Condé Nast publishing empire: the reckoning with racism in America, triggered by the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, that has now spread to all aspects of American life, from publishing to academia to sports.
Last week, Condé Nast, the publisher of Vogue and other lifestyle glossy publications, was hit by charged criticism for failures to support diversity in the workplace and in terms of the content it typically publishes. With two senior editors leaving over racial insensitivity, and former employees describing the Vogue workplace as fearful, accounts of discrimination in the New York office of Condé Nast flood out.
Speculation mounted last week that Wintour’s position as Vogue’s editor-in-chief, as well as the publisher’s US artistic director and “global content adviser”, could be becoming untenable after several employees spoke out about racial discrimination in the workplace and pay inequities.
On Friday, Condé Nast’s top executive convened a town hall meeting of employees to say that Wintour would not be stepping down.
“There are very few people in the world who can have the influence on change and culture, as it relates to the activities that our business has, than Anna,” Condé Nast’s CEO, Roger Lynch, said. “The reason she is here is because she can help influence the change that we need to make, and I know she is committed to it.”
Mounting turmoil at the publisher in recent days has included the resignation of Adam Rapoport, the editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit magazine who reported to Wintour, over Instagram photos of Rapoport and his wife in a Latino version of brownface at a Halloween party in 2013. A public apology said staff members conceded that the magazine “continued to tokenize” the people of color that it did hire.
That was quickly followed by the exit of Condé Nast’s head of lifestyle video programming, Matt Duckor, after staffers claimed that Condé Nast failed to feature people of color in videos and did not pay them for appearances. A number of Duckor’s tweets with racist and homophobic comments were recirculated online.
Wintour has attempted to quell the tide of protest, admitting to making mistakes and publishing material that has been intolerant, as well as not doing enough to promote black staff and designers at the magazine. In a memo sent earlier this month, Wintour apologized to staff for “publishing images or stories that have been hurtful or intolerant” and admitted there were too few employees of color.
“I want to say plainly that I know Vogue has not found enough ways to elevate and give space to black editors, writers, photographers, designers and other creators. We have made mistakes too, publishing images or stories that have been hurtful or intolerant. I take full responsibility for those mistakes.”
But the letter was met with scorn by an African American former member of Vogue’s staff. Former colleague and ally André Leon Talley shared his views on Wintour’s email in a podcast interview.
“[Wintour’s] statement came out of the space of white privilege,” Talley said. “I want to say one thing: Dame Anna Wintour is a colonial broad, she’s a colonial dame, she comes from British, she’s part of an environment of colonialism. She is entitled and I do not think she will ever let anything get in the way of her white privilege.”
Others have followed suit with damning portrayals of the treatment of minorities within the company.
Former staffer Shelby Ivey Christie wrote on Twitter: “My time at Vogue, at Condé Nast, was the most challenging + miserable time of my career – The bullying + testing from white counterparts, the completely thankless work, the terrible base pay + the racism was exhausting.”
Wintour’s position may be further undermined by the appointment of Samira Nasr, formerly of Vanity Fair, as the first female black editor of rival Harper’s Bazaar. “As the proud daughter of a Lebanese father and Trinidadian mother, my worldview is expansive and is anchored in the belief that representation matters,” said Nasr in a video message.
British Vogue also has a minority editor, Edward Enninful, who has done much to steer the magazine away from predominantly featuring white subject material. In the current issue, Enninful commissioned a series of powerful portraits by Jamie Hawkesworth of women, often minorities, and often working in healthcare and other essential services on the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The turmoil at Condé Nast comes as the magazine industry, as well as publishing in general, has been slammed by coronavirus-related advertising revenue drops of about 45%. In recent years, the publisher has cut or reduced publication of several titles and sublet six of its 23 floors at 1 World Trade Center.
Wintour will be hoping Condé Nast’s 10-member board of directors, headed by Lynch and made up by members of the Newhouse family and two independent directors, including the former Gucci CEO Domenico De Sole, continue to stand behind her, as they have for decades.
But some observers are not so sure.
“Fashion comes and goes,” one former glossy magazine editor, who declined to be identified, told the Guardian. “Magazine publishing and fashion were in deep trouble before all this. Will Anna get washed away in that flood? Probably.”