Adweek’s Brand Visionary: Anna Wintour Changed Publishing and Fashion With Inimitable Style

How the Vogue editor put her stamp on culture

Wintour is now a brand unto herself. Photographed in New York City by Annie Leibovitz
Headshot of Emma Bazilian

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.”)

Photographed by Patrick Demarchelier for Adweek

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.

While many of its magazine peers have struggled in the internet era, Vogue’s influence remains unmatched. “[Anna has] really shifted focus continuously to maintain relevance with consumers. Whether it’s a cover image or the types of photographers that she’s using or even just the tone, she is just in the flow of what’s going on around the world,” says Sauerberg.

Wintour credits Vogue’s endurance to its role as a cultural arbiter. “I think that when we’re bombarded with information from so many different places, it makes Vogue even more valuable and valid,” she explains. “We curate for our audiences everything about the world of popular culture and fashion and beauty and women in a way that they can’t find anywhere else.”

1 The first Vogue cover under Anna Wintour (November 1988). 2 Naomi Campbell stars on Wintour’s first September issue (September 1989). 3 “Supers” including Cindy Crawford and Linda Evangelista celebrate the brand’s 100th anniversary (April 1992). 4 Hillary Clinton was the first first lady to land her own cover (December 1998). 5 Nicole Kidman has the most Vogue covers of any actress. 6 Vogue’s largest-ever issue (September 2012). 7 Kim and Kanye’s appearance made headlines (April 2014). 8 Vogue touted the new wave of social media-savvy “Instagirls” (September 2014).

The brand is also still a business powerhouse. The magazine has a circulation of 1.2 million readers per month, per the Alliance for Audited Media, while Vogue’s cross-platform audience reached nearly 22 million in August, according to the MPA, up 16 percent from the prior year. It’s also the most followed women’s media brand on social media, counting 16.9 million Instagram followers and 8.7 million Facebook likes.

In 2013, Wintour added the title of Condé Nast artistic director, a brand-new role for the company and one that gives her a say in the publisher’s entire portfolio of brands—including Glamour, GQ, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker—which together draw a cross-platform audience of 120 million.

“We needed someone who could really attach themselves to what made Condé Nast great, and Anna was the natural choice,” explains Sauerberg. “Having her front and center as artistic director and really being able to drive new ideas and concepts has just been a godsend.”

Digital disruption

One of Wintour’s most crucial tasks has been helping guide Condé Nast into the digital age, something that she has done with great aplomb at Vogue. Under the leadership of Wintour acolyte Sally Singer, a longtime Vogue staffer who became digital creative director in 2012, the brand’s website churns out a steady stream of fashion industry news, smart cultural commentary and must-watch celebrity videos. On social media platforms from Instagram to Snapchat, Vogue content is seen by tens of millions more fans. Vogue even recently teamed up with Google Home, allowing readers to ask questions about the magazine’s September issue.

“I don’t think of myself as a tech nerd, but I love all the different ways that one reaches one’s audiences, and I like the challenge of thinking about what’s going to work for them and what can be different but still Vogue,” Wintour says. “I find [different platforms] all equally fascinating and interesting, just as much as I am fascinated and thrilled when we create a book or work with the Metropolitan Museum or with the CFDA. To me, those are all channels just as much as Snapchat or Instagram or whatever it may be.”

Adds Sauerberg: “When she has something she really knows is hot, she’ll play it everywhere rather than have some data scientist say it’ll only work on Instagram. She knows that the best ideas work everywhere, and that’s actually quite wise.”

A willingness to experiment can also be seen in the changes Wintour brought to other brands within the company. While some efforts have been less successful (like the reinvigoration of Lucky or relaunching into an ecommerce platform), most have drawn widespread praise, from the transformation of Teen Vogue into a must-read for politically savvy women of all ages to the “new” Architectural Digest, led by Teen Vogue’s former editor Amy Astley, who, for a second time, was handpicked by Wintour to oversee a brand.

“We’re not trying to hang on to things that for whatever reason might not be as successful as one might hope,” Wintour says. “We’re trying to reimagine and rethink and understand that different generations, different audiences require different voices, and that’s fascinating and challenging.” The key to that is “finding people that really have a real point of view,” she says.

This year, in honor of its 125th birthday, Vogue has debuted brand collaborations that include everything from shoes and handbags to nail polish and juice. There’s even a Vogue Anniversary Rose.

The next wave

Wintour’s ability to spot and foster new talent, in the publishing industry and beyond, is one of her most valued skills. “You feel the support when you’re on her team, and it’s really a great feeling,” Sauerberg notes.

That support has played a key role in the success of countless designers, including Tory Burch, who expressed gratitude for the “invaluable mentorship” she received from Wintour after launching her brand in 2004. “Creatives and business leaders seek her advice because she is as visionary in her approach to business as she is in international affairs,” Burch said via email.

Since 2003, Wintour has also led the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund competition, which supports emerging American fashion designers. (Past honorees have included Alexander Wang, Derek Lam, Prabal Gurung and Proenza Schouler’s Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez.)

Recently, she has championed Virgil Abloh of Off-White, a streetwear label favored by A-listers like Rihanna and Bella Hadid. “She’s been so supportive. I feel like she knew my potential before I did,” says Abloh.

Even in the social media age, he adds, being featured in Vogue remains the ultimate seal of approval.

“Having my work shown in the pages of Vogue gives me a million more times a sense of satisfaction than any digital image that can come across my Instagram,” he states. “Vogue transcends the fly-by-night nature of digital media.”

At Condé Nast, one of Wintour’s most promising new proteges is Phillip Picardi, the 25-year-old digital director of Teen Vogue and Allure. As of this month, he is also the editor of Them, a new online publication dedicated to LGBTQ issues.

“Anna actually approached me and basically had asked me, ‘What would you do if you could guarantee the editorial future of Condé Nast?’” recalls Picardi. “I told her that I wanted to launch a queer publication, and she asked a lot of great questions and challenging questions, and after I answered them, she basically said, ‘I think it makes total sense.’ If you believe in something, she wants to believe in it with you.”

Picardi applauds Wintour’s support for the bold, often outspoken content his brands produce, like Teen Vogue’s coverage of the Trump administration. “I was very nervous that there would be some hesitance or resistance to the kinds of things we were publishing online, and it wasn’t until I was able to talk to Anna directly that I realized she was incredibly for it,” he says, adding that she told him in their first meeting, “You have to stand for something.”

Making a statement

Wintour follows that same “stand for something” philosophy in both her personal life (she is famously politically active, hosting star-studded fundraisers for Democratic candidates, and has been a supporter of causes like teenage mental health) and in her work at Condé Nast. Wintour, a member of the company’s inclusion committee, has been a vocal proponent of women’s causes and diversity in fashion and publishing.

“The design community and fashion community doesn’t live in a bubble,” she says. “Many of them have been deeply involved and supportive of not necessarily political causes but women’s rights and human rights. … It is a very engaged community, and Vogue should be reflecting that.”

The magazine has long featured politicians and first ladies in its pages (and occasionally on its covers). New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is one of those figures, having first been profiled in Vogue in 2010.

“Having Anna tell her readers early on that I was someone they should care about was incredibly meaningful and made a difference,” she said via email. “She cares intensely about the world around her, and you feel that. She has the passion and depth of knowledge to be incredibly effective at whatever she puts her mind to.”

Vogue took its penchant for politics a step further last fall. In October, the brand made its first presidential endorsement, putting its weight behind Hillary Clinton—a decision that Wintour says she did not take lightly. Now, nearly a year after Clinton’s defeat, Wintour believes that Vogue still has an important role to play.

“Coming out of what we thought was going to be a moment in history for the United States, we felt even more strongly that we wanted to look at women and what they had achieved in all different spectrums and areas of life,” she says.

As for where Vogue will be sharing that message in the future, even a trailblazer as prescient as Wintour doesn’t know for sure. “If you’d asked me five years ago what the media world would change into, I would not have prophesied where we are,” she admits.

But that doesn’t mean she’s at all daunted by what’s to come—in fact, it’s quite the opposite. “How lucky we are to work at a time when we are challenged in all these very surprising ways,” she says, adding with a laugh, “Bring them on!”

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This story first appeared in the Oct. 16, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@adweekemma Emma Bazilian is Adweek's features editor.