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Anna Wintour on the Met Ball, the Future of Magazines and Her Own Future

In part two of our exclusive interview with Anna Wintour, Imran Amed sits down with the American Vogue editor-in-chief during a calm before the Met Gala storm to discuss the famed event, the next generation of magazine editors and her own legacy.
Anna Wintour | Photo: Patrick Demarchelier
  • Imran Amed

In part two of the cover story from BoF's latest special print edition (available to pre-order here), Imran Amed sits down once again with the most powerful figure in fashion. On the morning of their second meeting, news breaks that Edward Enninful has been appointed editor of British Vogue, a position that Wintour herself held for a short stint between 1986 and 1987. Wintour is also busy preparing for the "Met Ball," the Costume Institute exhibition's opening night fundraising gala, that is to take place on May 1st.

Read part one of the cover story: Anna Wintour on Politics and the Fashion Business in Trump's America

Imran Amed: It’s a few weeks away from the Met Ball. What are you focusing on right now?

Anna Wintour: You can really get a sense of what it's going to look like. When I was there last week I don't think any of the costumes were in, but I'm pretty sure they are starting today. And then, in terms of the evening, we are just starting to work on the seating and getting a rough idea of what that's going to look like and between now and May 1st that changes about 500 times. But you know, the train has left the station so this is the calm before the storm.

We’ve done it here so many times now that things are pretty much under control. It’s quite a strong installation, I mean, having done something very romantic with China and then very architectural with fashion and technology, this is a little bit more minimal, as you can imagine. But I think the clothes will really stand out with the point of view that Andrew [Bolton] has taken.

IA: So in the period since that annual tradition has existed, starting under the days of Diana Vreeland, how has it changed?

AW: I was very honoured when they first asked me to become involved because there was such a tradition of Vogue always supporting the Met. I remember when I was first here and Si [Newhouse] used to take tables at that event and all the editors would go and it was considered a big company night out. I thought of it with great affection and connection and I think obviously we have opened it up to maybe a larger world than the society world that it was when Mrs. Vreeland was there. It was more society and fashion, and we broadened that.

IA: In a way, just like the magazine.

AW: Yes, but I also feel that it’s the times. Yes, the party has become more of a thing and the exhibitions have become incredibly popular due to Harold [Koda] and Andrew’s brilliance and expertise, but I think there’s just so much more media attention on everything today. So it sort of grew as the media world expanded, the coverage of the exhibitions and the opening as well. We were just part of that.

IA: Does that mean you try to contain it more though? Someone said to me that it’s much smaller this year than it was last year.

AW: I feel I say that every year.

I like it to feel like you're experiencing something very special and that when you're there, it isn't like any other [event]. I don't know if I always succeed — but you want to feel that it's an experience, that you're seeing an extraordinary exhibition, that you're seeing wonderful people and extraordinary clothes and that being there is a special experience. So sometimes that means reducing the numbers a little bit. It really is to do with the subject of the exhibition and Rei [Kawakubo] has always struck me as being a very private person, not someone who opens herself up to hundreds of thousands of people so it seems to me fitting with her to keep it smaller. When we did "Punk" it was kind of like a crazy night and lots of people so we always try to fit the mood of the evening to whatever the exhibition may be.

I look on it as Vogue's job to curate what we see ... changes in culture, changes in political times, changes in fashion.

IA: Onto something else: the evolution of Vogue, and the future of magazines. Vogue is like a big brand.

AW: I hate that word.

IA: Brand?

AW: [laughs] Yes, I don’t know, brands, products. I always feel like I’m in the supermarket.

IA: But it’s like Disney... Disney is not just about cartoons, Disney is about so many other things. I think about Vogue in the same way. What do you think is going to change and what will always stay the same?

AW: Well I like to think that Vogue is the centre of excellence in whatever it is that we embark on. Some succeed and some fail. We can’t be everything to everybody. I think we have to remain incredibly focused on what being in Vogue or part of Vogue is ... That’s what I talk to all our contributors and all our editors, all our photographers, writers whatever it may be about, that we need to respect that because fashion is available now to everybody, on a very mass level, and I think to some extent, to some degree, that’s become a bit of a problem. There’s just so much out there.

I look on it as Vogue’s job to curate what we see ... changes in culture, changes in political times, changes in fashion. It’s our job to make sense of that to our audiences whether it’s through the book I wanted you to look at or whether it’s through our Instagram feed, whatever it may be. We are always curating, we are always editing, we are always trying to focus and maintain our standards. I ask everyone who works here, I encourage everyone who works here, to be very open. I think it’s when you close yourself off, and don’t welcome change and disruption, that’s a huge mistake.

IA: That goes back to those ETF meetings that you told us about. So if that’s what stays the same, what has to change about Vogue?

AW: I think it’s what we cover [that] changes constantly. That’s what fashion is. We are always thinking about how we do things, why we do things, new people come in. A wonderful editor [Valerie Steiker, Vogue’s longtime culture editor] sadly resigned. She’d been here for 15 years and I’m very, very sad to see her go because she’s been a great part of this magazine for a long time, but it’s also not only a great opportunity for her — she’s going to go off to do a book imprint — but it’s an opportunity for us to bring in a new voice, a new eye, a new way of thinking. I’m always sorry when people leave. But at the same time, it’s a huge opportunity. I was actually just talking about that with Stefano [Tonchi] this morning. I said how fantastic for Edward — a brilliant, brilliant choice on so many different levels — but also a great opportunity for you, Stefano. Change has to be what we breathe.

Anna Wintour | Photo: Patrick Demarchelier

IA: One way to think about the future of Vogue, at least for me, has been to look at the amazing stuff happening at Teen Vogue, which has been quite eye-opening. The breadth of coverage, the really daring coverage taking strong positions and pushing the envelope in terms of the discussion around politics ...

AW: They are the voice of their generation for their generation, both Elaine [Welteroth] and Phil [Picardi], with Marie [Suter’s] support. They are fearless and they don’t worry. They don’t worry about who’s going to think about what [they do], they just do it. And I think that’s what’s so striking about all of them, is that they are very true to themselves. If you’re too cautious and you’re too careful, you become nothing, so that’s also a very important lesson to learn.

IA: Yes, you have to be able to take...

AW: Risks

IA: One of the risks that I saw someone take was that amazing young woman Lauren Duca on television with Tucker Carlson on Fox News. What did you make of that interview?

AW: Talk about fearless. I [end up] talking about this wherever I go. I was at a dinner the other night with a couple of very high-powered people in the media industry, and what do they want to do? They want to talk about Teen Vogue. And I was down talking to a writer from the Washington Post not so long about working on one of our titles and he wants to talk about Teen Vogue. So they’ve become part of the conversation in a very original and wonderful way. It’s not because it was forced on anyone. It just happened and that’s great journalism.

IA: But Carlson was quite dismissive of her being a fashion writer.

AW: I mean, come on, does that not happen to you all the time?

IA: It happens from time to time.

AW: There is unfortunately a world that still exists that dismisses fashion as being a little bit frivolous and [assumes that] the people who work in it are not so smart. And none of us here [at Vogue] feel that way and I certainly don’t think that’s reflected in the pages or online or in Teen Vogue, or any of the titles here at Condé Nast. But there is an old-fashioned sensibility that is sometimes frustrating.

IA: Do you think that’s still a big problem in terms of the image that fashion has in the wider world?

AW: I don’t think it’s a big problem at all. There is still unfortunately a shrinking [group], and usually men, frankly, and old-fashioned men, that think that way and see us that way and you know, you can’t let it worry you. It’s annoying but it doesn’t stop any of us.

There is unfortunately a world that still exists that dismisses fashion as being a little bit frivolous and assumes the people who work in it are not so smart.

IA: Now onto the Damehood, which we didn’t touch upon last time. First of all, congratulations. How did you find out and do you remember your initial feelings and reactions?

AW: Well they are very secretive. They call you, they tiptoe around and they tell you not to tell anybody — “will you accept” — they are so polite, the British, that it took me a little while to understand actually what they were saying! But of course I was thrilled and honoured and it’s been interesting to see how happy everybody — my friends, my relatives — is in England. Whereas, to be honest, here, nobody really cares. [They’re] not quite sure what it means, which is good.

IA: So now that you’re a Dame, I wanted to ask your advice for all those young people who want to break into fashion.

AW: I talk to students and young designers a lot. It’s interesting to see with two kids in my office just last week who are going up to [the University of Pennsylvania] next year. There is an awareness and an intelligence and sophistication that I have not seen in a young generation since I can remember. I don’t know if it’s the political situation or because so much more information is available today but how great is that, that they are so interested in the world? These two young women — yes they’d had a wonderful time in the Vogue beauty closet getting free makeup or whatever it may be — but then they really wanted to talk to me about climate change.

I think it’s very important [that] young people today, whatever avenue [you] are going into, use that time when you’re at university or college to discover yourself. No one should have to be forced into knowing what you want to do when you’re 17 or 18. It is a time for experimentation and finding out who you are. Embrace what you’re passionate about and what you care about and if what we saw with the women’s marches, if we see that with climate change, if we see that with immigration, women’s rights, gay rights, how wonderful would that be? Find your career path, but also find the causes that you care about. That is what has always been so important to me from the beginning.

IA: You said this once: “When you live with intention, you create the space to achieve true excellence in every sense.” How would you describe your own intention?

AW: I think we talked about this a little last time. I really do like to help people and however I can do it, whether it’s way back when this industry was decimated by HIV and people really did not want to talk about it, helping the industry come together and be open and vocal and supportive and talking about it as well as raising money and awareness. That was really one of the most important causes that I can remember supporting because it was just so emotional and magical to see an industry — and I think this is a very generous industry — really come together at a time when people weren’t talking about it. Believe it or not, it just was not being discussed the way it is now. So whatever you feel passionately about, that is what is going to make you be the person you want to grow up to be, as well as having a successful career.

IA: Last question. You mentioned the announcement of Edward Enninful. He’s the second man who’s been named editor-in-chief of a major edition of Vogue.

AW: We are in a gender-fluid generation.

IA: We really are. But it also made me think: someday you won’t be the editor-in-chief of Vogue and I wondered, do you think about that ever? When I spoke to Bob Sauerberg about this, it was like it is not even on his radar, he didn’t even want to contemplate you not being here. But one day that will happen, and with Franca Sozzani’s passing and Alexandra Shulman stepping down, I’m sure it’s made you think a little bit about your time here and that one day it will end.

AW: Well of course it will. And obviously losing Franca was a huge personal loss for me but I think I look at Francesco [Carrozzini, my son-in-law] and my daughter and I look forward. And that’s always really what I try to do. I look at tomorrow, not yesterday.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Read part one of this interview: Anna Wintour on Politics and the Fashion Business in Trump's America

This article appears in BoF's latest special print edition: "America." 

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