The devil wears Prada, and Chanel and... H&M
Luke Leitch finds out what drives Anna Wintour, fashion's most formidable figure
Straight-backed, un-upholstered, and cast of tempered steel the chair from which Anna Wintour commands American Vogue looks every bit as uncompromising as its owner's reputation.
Yet once sat upon, Wintour's editor's chair proves a revelation: it's rather comfortable.
Today, as often, the editor-in-chief of American Vogue is outfitted in the manner so quintessentially her own that NBC once snittily listed 'Anna Wintour' in its top 10 Halloween costumes. The emblematic bob haircut she's worn since a teenager is firmly in place. Above a surely-Chanel bouclé dress her neck is encircled by a rich glitter of gemstones.
The only accessory absent are the famous sunglasses – despite the morning sunshine streaming into her 12th-floor, corner office at Condé Nast's Times Square building.
If you believe everything you see in the movies, this is the moment I'm fixed with a glacial stare and informed of the significance of cerulean. Instead, Wintour sits me down (on a sofa, first), then begins, perfectly warmly, to talk.
She starts with her father. Charles Wintour was the editor of the Evening Standard newspaper between 1959 and 1976. As a child, recalls Anna: "The family all knew that he cared very deeply about us, but we also knew that he cared very deeply about the paper.
"There wasn't any sense that he was an absent father – on the other side, he taught all of us what a work ethic is, and how important it is to love what you do in life."
On Sunday evening Wintour will be in London for the Evening Standard Theatre Awards, which were founded by her father who died in 1999. Burberry's chief creative officer Christopher Bailey will co-host the awards with her: "I know how much he loves the theatre.
"Very generously, he said yes." Of course he did. For Wintour has been the editor-in-chief of American Vogue – and fashion's pre-eminent eminence – since 1988.
Some of the title's strongest personalities past and present star in a new HBO documentary, In Vogue: The Editor's Eye, that's out next month. "I look for strong people," says Wintour of her staff. "I don't like people who'll say yes to everything I might bring up. I want people who can argue, and disagree, and have a point of view that's reflected in the magazine."
Also like her father, Wintour has been instrumental in establishing an awards ceremony. From its first winner (Proenza Schouler in 2004), the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund has entreed almost every new US designer of note – including Alexander Wang, Prabal Gurung, Rodarte, Marchesa, Rag & Bone, and Joseph Altuzarra – into the limelight.
There is at the moment a mass reshuffle afoot in fashion: new designers at Dior and Yves Saint Laurent and vacancies at Balenciaga and Schiaparelli.
Of the changes, says Wintour: "It is important always to have really original talent. There are lots of good designers that make attractive clothes and make women look beautiful. But at the same time one doesn't want to lose the idea that there is someone out there who can change the way you look at fashion.
"The way, going back, that Armani did, that Galliano did, that Alexander (McQueen) did."
She adds: "One doesn't want fashion to look ridiculous, silly, or out of step with the times – but you do want designers that make you think, that make you look at fashion differently. That's how fashion changes. If it doesn't change, it's not looking forward. And that's important to me."
Her focus, she insists, is on "the people one meets, the talent one can help, and trying to show a world to my readers that they will be as excited about as we are". One of fashion's most potent recent shifts, she says, has been its democratisation: "Fashion today is available to everybody in a way that it's never been before: you've got every designer you've ever heard of working for H&M or Target. That's fantastic."
Key to this, she believes, has been Michelle Obama, for whose husband Wintour has been a prominent fundraiser. "Look back at the history of First Ladies and you'll see they wore a good suit or a ball gown. Now we have someone who wears J.Crew or Thakoon or Azzedine Alaïa: a gamut of different designers.
"She has changed the way American women see fashion."
Of the US election result, she says: "It's no secret that I worked very hard for the president this campaign. . .
"And it's very rewarding to see that money can't buy the White House, which is what the Republicans were trying to do with all those hundreds of millions of dollars that the Super PACs were raising.
"I'm so grateful that the president will have a second term."
There is a rumour – one I'm too gutless to ask her about – that Wintour hopes to be appointed the next US ambassador to London. I don't believe it. For with Manhattan spread magnificently beneath her floor-to-ceiling windows, and the world of fashion at her black-booted feet, why should Anna Wintour ever wish to be anywhere else but there?