Friday 23 March 2018

Donal Lynch: The lioness in Wintour

Is the well connected 'Vogue' editor tailor-made for the role of Ambassador to Britain?

ON THE face of it, you wouldn't expect a woman who bears the sobriquet 'Nuclear Wintour' to be a natural candidate for international diplomacy.

But power is the one thing that's always in vogue. And for years now Anna Wintour, the 63-year-old editor of the iconic Vogue magazine, has been emerging as a surprisingly informed and well-connected politico, one who, if reports can be believed, may be about to become the US Ambassador to Britain.

To some, it would be a bolt from the blue – a stunt that would give credence to the idea that Obama is a little too enamoured of his showbiz friends. But Wintour has substance to go with her forbidding style. Friends have described the inscrutable one as a cultured and well-read lefty (one magazine dubbed her 'The Devil Reads Pravda').

At Paris Fashion Week in March, she seemed to pay less attention to the couture than to who was going to win the country's presidential race.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand recently recalled to the New York Times an unlikely conversation she had with Wintour on the subject of the fabric trade.

"She said, 'You may not realise this, but the tariffs and the treaties we have in place fundamentally affect the ability to provide various goods to various markets at an affordable rate,'" Gillibrand told the paper.

And of course Anna Wintour has a line right to the top of US politics.

During the summer, she hosted a private fundraiser for Obama at the West Village home of Sarah Jessica Parker. Those attending coughed up $40k (€30,500) a head for an audience with the president and first lady, and Wintour helped Obama to field questions from the likes of Meryl Streep – who played the Wintour-based character in The Devil Wears Prada – and designer Michael Kors. That the evening was a success – raising more than $200,000 (€150,000) for Obama's re-election campaign – came as no great surprise: Wintour is an old hand at these things.

In 2008 she hosted similar events, one with Calvin Klein and another with Sarah Jessica Parker, raising hundreds of thousands for Obama. Two years later the president came to Wintour's Manhattan home, where he mingled with the likes of Donna Karan and Calvin Klein, each of whom had paid $38,400 (€29,000) for the privilege.

One of the rewards for this was fairly unfettered access to Michelle Obama after she became first lady. An Annie Leibovitz photoshoot of Michelle was accompanied by an adoring piece by Vogue editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley.

Another reward may be the plummest of all American ambassadorial roles. It's quite common for American presidents to reward 'bundlers' – those who gather donations from others – and to appoint those from outside the diplomatic core to ambassador posts. Our own ambassador, Dan Rooney, is the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team; and the creator of the Muppets, Jim Henson, was appointed ambassador to France.

Susan Johnson, the president of the American Foreign Service Association, said that Wintour was "clearly an intelligent, energetic, capable, attractive, elegant person", before adding that diplomatic experience was usually preferable for an ambassador.

But Wintour has other advantages. Politics is in her blood. Her father, Charles Wintour, was the editor of the London Evening Standard. Her brother, Patrick, is the political editor of the Guardian. Another brother works in local government in London.

And of course she has the 24-carat advantage of having been born in England.

Latterly she's also been thought of more as a businesswoman than the prima fashionista. In her new memoir, Grace Coddington, another legendary editor at Vogue, loyally defended Wintour against The Devil Wears Prada image and lauded "the creative push and pull of the way Anna and I work together". Nonetheless, she suggested, for Wintour fashion now takes second place to the global brand that is Vogue.

The objections in the British media to Wintour have been shrill. "The new ambassador will need to be a veteran well versed in long and technical negotiations, not a person used to their word being writ," wrote Thomas Pascoe in the Daily Telegraph.

And then there was that glowing 3,000-word feature she commissioned on the wife of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. "But that was last season," Wintour's cheerleaders might cheerfully reply, if only to rile her detractors.

As Coddington attests, the idea of Wintour as an edict-issuing martinet, living in some rarefied style bubble, is false. She's used to taking the precise temperature of the public and reacting accordingly. To many, Anna Wintour is an inspiring blend of pop culture and glass-ceiling-shattering ambition.

Still, none of that really matters to her opponents. In the US, Republicans have attacked the president for considering her, and some have threatened that the appointment could be blocked in the Senate by means of a filibuster.

One Republican official reportedly said: "Her policy repertoire of negotiating her seat at an Armani event and barking latte orders to her assistants obviously makes her uniquely qualified to handle America's diplomatic affairs with one of our most important allies."

At the heart of such sentiment seems to be a sexism-based contempt for the very idea of fashion. Its place as a repository for the fantasies and self-expression of billions is irrelevant to them, as is Wintour's unique role in fashion history.

They may be right about one thing though: in a White House where staffers obsess about whether the first lady's clothes are too expensive, appointing the ultimate fashion doyenne to such a senior role may give off the wrong "optics". But after a lifetime in one arena where image, style and froth take centre stage, Wintour may be uniquely suited to a second career in another.

Sunday Independent

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