When reading about Anna Wintour, one inevitably comes across phrases like “fashion icon” and “legendary editor.” While both are unequivocally true, to celebrate Wintour solely for her role as media’s most famous tastemaker is to sell short her many other accomplishments. The longtime Vogue editor in chief and Condé Nast artistic director has an influence over a global industry that most CEOs could only dream of, a talent for raising awareness (and funds) that’s valued by everyone from museum curators to presidential candidates, and a knack for fostering talent that has launched the careers of power players in the magazine business and beyond.
Wintour is also, in the words of Condé Nast CEO Bob Sauerberg, “a true celebrity.” With her trademark bob and Chanel sunglasses, she has become a brand unto herself, whether she likes it or not—and for the record, she does not, which she makes clear during an early-morning interview at her airy office on the 25th floor of Condé Nast’s One World Trade Center headquarters in New York.
“I have a wonderful family, and they do not think of me as an icon or a brand,” says the notoriously private Wintour, visibly wary of talking too much about herself. (Later, when asked why she doesn’t maintain a social media presence, she explains, “I just feel that’s not my responsibility in terms of the job I have. I work for Vogue and Condé Nast. I don’t work for Anna Wintour.”)
What she does want to talk about: the state of fashion, the future of Condé Nast, her involvement with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, and, most importantly, Vogue’s 125th anniversary, which the magazine is celebrating this year. “We felt that it was such a milestone, and obviously one is so proud of so much of what Vogue has created over such an incredible amount of time,” she says. “The great thing about the world that Vogue works in is we’re always celebrating the new, and it seems to me such a fascinating time for fashion. Vogue’s mission is to reflect that and reflect our culture.”
So how is it, exactly, that a British journalist became queen of American fashion? Born in London in 1949, her father was Charles Wintour, editor of the Evening Standard from 1959 to 1980. (Her younger brother Patrick, currently diplomatic editor at The Guardian, is also in the family business.) She began her career as an editorial assistant at Harper’s & Queen, and later moved to New York, where she was a fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, the now-defunct Viva and New York magazine.
Wintour’s tenure at Condé Nast began in 1980, when she became Vogue’s first creative director. After a brief stint as editor in chief of Vogue U.K., she returned to the States to take over House & Garden. Finally, in 1988, she was named editor in chief of Vogue.
It was clear from the start that Wintour had a distinct point of view for what Vogue should be: in an era when close-up glamour shots of heavily made-up models were the industry standard, Wintour’s inaugural Vogue cover showed model Michaela Bercu walking down a city street in a Christian Lacroix haute couture jacket and a pair of Guess jeans, hair blowing across her face. (Wintour later said that the printers had called to make sure it wasn’t a mistake.) More recently, she made headlines for covers featuring the likes of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, Lena Dunham and just this past March, a group of seven models of varying ethnicities and shapes celebrating diversity in fashion.