Grace Mirabella obituary

Editor of American Vogue for 17 years who democratised fashion and promoted wearable US clothes

Grace Mirabella’s 17 years as editor of American Vogue, the core publication of Condé Nast’s magazine empire at its most expansive, are usually evaluated as a successful business intervention. She took the magazine from a circulation falling towards 400,000 in 1971 to rising above a million and half in 1988. Fleeing advertisers returned with such big budgets that her hefty September issues required the US Post Office to make special delivery arrangements.

But Mirabella’s lasting value to fashion was her belief that the US had its own style of glamour, and that its major creators deserved international acclaim for what a Mirabella favourite, Bill Blass, called “a certain nonchalance”.

She had seen as a wartime teen how good women looked when dressed for hard work, and wrote that she arrived on Seventh Avenue, Manhattan, in the early 1950s at the same time as sportswear; by the end of her Vogue tenure, US ready-to-wear, much of it based on that sportswear tradition, was part of the global uniform, and American brands had opened stores in Paris, London, Milan and Tokyo.

In the royal court-like atmosphere of the leading glossy, the ascent of Mirabella, who has died aged 92, had been unlikely. She was not journalistically ambitious, having been forwarded from an entry-level position at Saks Fifth Avenue to Vogue to check the “must list” of merchandise sent by advertisers to be included in editorial shots. She briefly escaped to fashion PR in Rome, but Vogue drew her back, though to limited advancement; she wrote the shopping column threaded through the opening pages, edited sportswear, and was looking for a job elsewhere when Diana Vreeland, who arrived as editor in 1963, clomped down the corridor and invited Mirabella to be her personal assistant.

Mirabella had a schoolgirl crush on Vreeland and was for eight years the practical operative behind her boss’s fantastical features by, for and about the rarefied world of the Beautiful People; she did all the menial tasks, down to trying on accessories for Vreeland to inspect.

Despite her devotion, Mirabella did not share Vreeland’s view of fashion as performance art for the very few, preferring easygoing clothes for the many. Her other mentor, Alexander Liberman, editorial director of Condé Nast, commended her to the company’s chairman Si Newhouse, who needed Vogue for its secure revenue (from ads and newsstand sales more than subscriptions) and a solid identity so that he could extend into new publications. Vreeland’s pzazz supplied neither, and in 1971 Newhouse deposed her abruptly. Mirabella was on a fashion shoot a continent away when the phone call appointing her to editor-in-chief came.

Most Vogue staffers were amenable to Mirabella’s democratisation project, but there was hostility outside the company, accusations that Newhouse was taking the magazine middle-class, that Mirabella was an unconnected nobody from Newark, New Jersey, who had soon redecorated Vreeland’s red lacquer shrine of an office in neutrals. She had never hidden that she was the daughter of a Cuban-rum salesman and gambler, Anthony Mirabella, and a migrant from Italy, Florence (nee Belfatto); she first began working while at high school to help pay her father’s debts, and was proud of her degree in economics from Skidmore College.

However, Mirabella’s magazine agenda of wearable American clothes, shown on healthy models, including, at last, black women on the cover, and her introduction of sections on health, fitness and cosmetics, and skincare from laboratories rather than magical cauldrons, happened to be fashionable. The campaign against smoking that she began after her marriage in 1974 to the surgeon William Cahan, who specialised in lung cancer, was confined by the ad department to occasional issues that did not have ads from tobacco clients.

But modes always move on. The publisher Hachette launched a US version of Elle magazine in 1985, with young fashion mixed with other features for the MTV generation, and Newhouse envied its big initial success. In actual fashion, there was a revival in extravagant haute couture, with celebrities to flaunt it. Newhouse wanted that, too. “My favourite subject is women and theirs is glitz,” Mirabella shrugged. When she complained to Liberman that she was still shut out of the business side of publishing where the real decisions were taken, he told her: “Women are cheap labour and always will be.” He had a new protégé, Anna Wintour, brought in as creative director.

On 28 June 1988 Mirabella heard third-hand about an announcement on a television programme that reported Wintour was replacing her. That was the way in Condé Nast, and in retrospect she merely said: “Name the editors who weren’t fired like that.”

Within two days, Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation had offered her a magazine to command, under her own name. Mirabella, aimed at over-30s, launched well but its fashion-plus-features formula had already been pre-empted by the more youthful Elle. Readers, then ads, waned; corporate suits pushed the disheartened Mirabella out of decision-making and she left in 1996.

In her payback memoir, In and Out of Vogue (1995), she wrote of Newhouse and Liberman: “They are in the communications business but they don’t know how to communicate,” but she confessed herself that she had never spoken again with the revered Vreeland after her fall from power.

Cahan died in 2001. Mirabella’s two stepsons, Anthony and Christopher, survive her.

• Grace Mirabella, magazine editor, born 10 June 1929; died 23 December 2021


Veronica Horwell

The GuardianTramp

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