[SINGING] When you walk in the room, do you have sway?
It’s been a busy week for Vogue and Anna Wintour. I spoke with her last Friday about her 32-year tenure as editor-in-chief of Vogue. We also discussed the February cover featuring Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. But the very next day, the February cover photo leaked and the internet reacted — and not in a good way. In the photo, Harris is standing in front of a green and pink backdrop in a black jacket, skinny pants and converse sneakers, which have become famous in social media. The Twitter reactions I saw were overwhelmingly negative. Some took issue with the styling and the pose, others with the lighting. When we spoke last week, Wintour told me that she found the cover welcoming and relaxed. But the general consensus online was that it was too casual, that it did not rise to the historic occasion of the first woman Vice President, the first Black woman Vice President — that it was disrespectful. It certainly didn’t bode well for Conde Nast or for Wintour, who has been here before, having been accused of racially insensitive coverage and workplace discrimination by some of her staff just seven months ago.
According to people familiar with the matter on both sides, there was not a written formal agreement in place. These people also say the Vice President-elect’s team had an expectation of a different cover— one in which Harris is wearing a blue suit and standing in front of a gold backdrop. It’s a more stately and serious photo, and one that is clearly more fitting for a Vice President. By Sunday, that photo was released as a digital cover, along with the one that was originally leaked. At the time of this recording, people familiar with the matter said the photo with the sneakers will be the only physical cover. They added that Vogue is considering using the more formal portrait in a second print edition.
After the cover leaked, I went back to Wintour for comment. She said, quote, obviously, we have heard and understood the reaction to the print cover, and I just want to reiterate that it was absolutely not our intention to in any way diminish the importance of the Vice President-elect’s incredible victory. We want nothing but to celebrate Vice President-elect Harris’s amazing victory and the important moment this is in America’s history, and particularly for women of color, all over the world. She also said, there was no formal agreement about what the choice of the cover would be. And when the two images arrived at Vogue, all of us felt very, very strongly that the less formal portrait of the Vice President-elect really reflected the moment that we were living in, which we are in the midst- as we still are — of the most appalling pandemic that is taking lives by the minute. And we felt to reflect this tragic moment in global history, a much less formal picture, something that was very, very accessible, and approachable, and real, really reflected the hallmark of the Biden-Harris campaign and everything that they are trying to — and, I’m sure, will achieve. I’m not exactly sure with the pandemic has to do with it. But here’s my conversation with Anna Wintour. And just as a reminder, again, this interview was recorded before the cover leaked.
Can you tell me about the cover shoot, and how you got her to do this?
Well, we’re very honored that we have the current vice president-elect on the cover. I think by the time we publish, she will be the vice president. And, obviously, it’s a historic moment for women of color, for America. And it was an ongoing conversation for some time. And, obviously, with everything that was going on with the election, we were thrilled when we knew that she would make the time for the shoot, and honored. And we had featured her in Vogue before and, obviously, covered the campaign in many different ways over the campaign season. And we very much wanted to have this cover around the time of the inauguration because we felt that it would be such a moment of celebration and joy.
Did you pitch her directly? Did you pitch her yourself?
No, that was done by my features team. And they were in touch with her office, but it was very much a conversation between Vogue and the vice president-elect’s office.
I can’t believe I’m asking this, but, what is she wearing?
Well, the favorite item of clothing that she’s wearing on the cover, for me, is that she’s wearing sneakers.
Well, of course. Converse, correct?
[LAUGHS]. That’s right. And the picture was taken by a wonderful young photographer, Tyler Mitchell, who had previously photographed Beyonce for us, and also a wildly successful December cover of Harry Styles. And he had the wonderful idea of putting her in front of the colors of her sorority, which are sort of like a pink and a green. And she’s standing in a black pantsuit, and a white t-shirt, and sneakers.
Is this her clothing? These are her own clothes?
Yes, and she looks fantastic.
Did you want to put her in other clothes? Or —
We were very open. I mean, I think that she has a very assured sense of style. I think, if you look at any images of her during the campaign season, she has a very strong sense of self and what she wants to wear. So she was very clear on what she wanted to wear. And on the inside picture, she has a super chic blue pantsuit. And I think it’s very much in character. And I think the fact that the cover itself is so charming and so relaxed — and for me, so surprising and so real — and as I listen to the President-elect and the Vice President-elect talk about empathy, and unity, and bringing people together, to me, this cover symbolizes that. I feel it’s a very welcoming image.
Do you expect to be on the receiving end of any controversy about it? I mean, obviously a lot of politicians are on covers. But recently, President Trump tweeted about you not putting Melania on the cover. Do you think about that at all? Or what did you think about that tweet, by the way? She’s been on the cover.
Yes. She was on the cover when they got married.
Quite a wedding dress. Yeah, quite a wedding dress. That was some dress.
Well, President Trump is no longer relevant. And I think that what’s amazing about the February cover, to me, is that it is just so joyful and optimistic. And I cannot imagine that there’s anyone that really is going to find this cover anything but that, and positive, and an image of a woman in control of her life who’s going to bring us where the President-elect, the leadership, that we so need. And to me, it’s just a very important, but positive, statement about women, and women in power.
So last May, you actually wrote an op-ed for Vogue.com, urging President-elect Joe Biden to choose a woman of color to be his Vice President. Why did you feel the need to weigh in on that?
I think the reason that I felt so strongly about it — like so many of us, we were so disappointed and let down by the last election results. And I respect and think that the President-elect is a wonderful choice for the country at this time. But that it was, I think, so important to the United States, and to women, and really to the world, that he choose a woman. That it couldn’t just be that the guys are in charge.
Do you consider yourself a political person? You just said President Trump is irrelevant, or is not relevant.
He is irrelevant. We have a new President. We have a new Vice President that is going to solve all the many problems that he created, and are going to take the current situation in hand, and organize a correct distribution of the vaccine, and put us back where we should be on the world map. And so am I political? I am a concerned citizen. And I think there is no way that you cannot be involved in politics, particularly during the last four years.
I’m curious — do you pay attention to British politics as well?
Yes. Well, my brother works for The Guardian newspaper, first as a political editor and then the diplomatic editor. So it’s hard for me not to be concerned and interested.
And your thoughts?
[LAUGHS]. Well, I feel, like we have here, they’ve mismanaged the messaging on the virus. And I think that’s been very confusing and damaging. And I think there’s been a lack of leadership on the pandemic, there’s no question.
So the past year has been really eventful for Conde Nast from a business point of view, but also from a social point of view. Employees were very publicly talking about racism and diversity issues. These discussions took place at company-wide meetings. Can you talk about those meetings and what employees were saying?
I think what was happening at Conde Nast was happening, also, at many other businesses — whether they were media or other companies — throughout the United States, and indeed, throughout the world. So I don’t think it would be correct to single out Conde Nast as being the sole place where this was happening. And obviously, it was a moment of change and social unrest. And I think everybody everywhere, throughout the world, questioning so many different issues. So I think Conde Nast is a company that is extremely committed to diversity, and inclusion, and to listening to everyone that works within the company. I think everything was obviously being heightened, Kara, by the time and by the fact that we were all living and working in the way that we are continuing to live and to work. And the fact that one couldn’t be physically together to discuss things possibly made conversations a little bit more heated than they might be under more normal circumstances because it was definitely a sense of being disconnected. But I feel that we have certainly had very fruitful discussions. We heard the complaints and the issues that have been raised by everybody who works at Conde Nast, and we’re working towards, I think, a lot of very positive change.
I want to press you a little more. Words like fruitful are somewhat opaque to me. What did you hear the employees saying specifically?
Well, there were many different discussions. And I think a lot of it was rooted in the social unrest that was happening at that time. And I think that this was definitely heightened by the leadership that we have in this country. And I think that the sense of— some of it was panic— but a sense of not fully understanding what Covid was meaning to the United States in a sense that there was not enough leadership, that leadership was incredibly divided, that there wasn’t a sense of anyone being in charge and really understanding what Covid was going to mean. The messages were very, very mixed. So I think that fed into the social unrest — that there was just a general sense of unease. But in terms of specifically at Conde Nast, I mean, obviously there was discussion about diversity and inclusion. There was just a very open discussion about many different subjects. And I think, you may not like the word fruitful, but it is a word that I like.
I think fruit is fantastic — I eat it frequently. But what I’m talking about is, what did you hear that really struck you, specifically?
I don’t think that it was about one specific issue, Kara. I think it was about just listening. You have to understand that Conde Nast is a global company. So issues that may exist in the United States are somewhat different elsewhere in the world. And it’s important for us to hear all the issues that are being raised. But to me, what one needs to do as a leader is really just hear— listen and hear, and then act. We’ve made a lot of progress, fruitful progress.
And I just would like to emphasize again that I think that these were conversations that were happening in companies all over the world at that particular point in the summer, and that we have moved to a much better place.
OK. All right. So let me get to the email you wrote to the staff acknowledging that Vogue hadn’t done enough— they hadn’t elevated Black creators, you’ve published some hurtful stories. And you said, quote, I take full responsibility for those mistakes. What do you think those mistakes were?
I think it was a reflection of just what you and I have been talking about, is that I wasn’t listening, or listening enough. And I think what’s important is to be seen as someone who does listen and will hear any number of complaints, or questions, or suggestions. So I think it was a statement whereby I was trying to make it very clear in that email, specifically, to Vogue that I was available, that I wanted to listen, that I acknowledged there had been mistakes made in the past and that we wanted to move forward and make sure, as much as we possibly could, that it would not happen again.
When you talked about that, did you reflect, for example — let me take one, not hiring enough Black creators or Black photographers, for example. It’s just one of the many different things people had raised. Have you thought and self-reflected on why that didn’t happen given you were the editor of the publication?
Well, I think we reflect on a lot of things in hindsight. But my belief is that we have to move forward, and we have to see what we can do in the present and in the future. And we have discussed all numbers of kinds of content, and who contributors to that content should and would best be to fulfill those roles. And we are definitely being far more careful as we move forward. And I think the most positive result that you can give to your workforce is action and results. And I think, if you look at what we have been doing within the company, and our many diversity and inclusivity initiatives, and the mentorship programs that we have started, and the incredible woman that we’ve hired to head up diversity and inclusivity globally, I think that anyone who works at Conde Nast would see — of course we’re not perfect and there’s a lot more work to be done— that we have heard, we have listened and we are moving forward.
So I cover a lot of Silicon Valley. And one of the things I’ve reflected on when I watch these issues, and they’re rife throughout Silicon Valley — as you know it’s mostly white men who run everything there and occupy all the positions of power. And one of the things I’ve thought about is how they do talk about diversity inclusion, but they often rank it lower. Why hadn’t that been stack-ranked as a leader? Is that something that you were not trained in? Or why do you think —
Well, I think that we actually did have a diversity and Inclusion council at Conde Nast that was very active. But I think where we, maybe, were not active enough was involving enough people throughout the company to make sure that the initiatives that we were launching and discussing were hearing enough voices. And I think that’s the lesson learned from the summer, is that it isn’t about a singular initiative, or a singular committee. That one has to listen to everybody within the company, and to hear all voices, and to make sure that those voices and those people within the company, feel free to raise their voices when they feel it’s necessary.
So how does that manifest in your day-to-day in terms of listening? Because right now you are now, Conde Nast worldwide content chief and global editorial director of Vogue. Some people were wondering that you might resign from Vogue, or leave Conde Nast, last year. And, obviously, Bon Appetit’s editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport did after staff accused him of discriminatory practices. And you gained a couple of titles. So can you give me an example of what you’re doing to change the culture.
Yeah. I mean, I think that throughout Conde Nast, we’re encouraging all of our editors to work with a wide range of writers, and photographers, and videographers, and really to be very open to everything that we’re seeing in the world. And then within the company, we have launched several really strong programs — a mentoring program within different titles, and then a reverse-mentoring program. I lead several committees myself, including a diversity and inclusivity committee group at Vogue, where we have monthly discussions and that covers everything from whatever might be going on in the world to things that are very specific to the company. I’m mentoring a number of young people within the company, and encouraging others within the company in leadership positions to do exactly that. So that’s certainly where we’re being exceptionally proactive, as well as widening out the range of writers, photographers, et cetera, that we’re working with.
But do you have actual targets of measurable milestones. I’m going to hire this many people of various kinds. I’m going to hear this many voices. I’m going out to lunch with —
Who goes out to lunch?
That’s right. That’s right. Correct. Fair point.
Yeah. I meet with a huge amount of people within the company that are on different roles. The chief people officer is very committed to putting forward, whenever there is an opening, a very diverse slate of candidates. Every job is posted within the company. So everybody is free to apply, and there’s full transparency. We committed to a 15% outside contributor pledge with Aurora James’ 15% pledge. We are very committed to being a much more diverse workplace and more diverse in our content.
OK. So let’s talk about representation on Vogue covers. In the last six months, there have been five, including the September 2020 issue, featured a Black woman. Those numbers are of just solo covers. Is that the piece we can expect going forward?
Well, I think that we certainly want to be diverse, and inclusive, and to reflect the culture as we see it. I think that my very first September cover for Vogue was Naomi Campbell, and that was considered a little bit surprising at that time. But I thought that she was absolutely the right face and the right person to put on that cover. I feel very strongly about the women that have graced our covers in the past few months. More diversity, more inclusivity is very much the direction that we’re going. And I think I would like to say, also, I think, for Vogue globally.
So one of the things that someone told me about you when you got this job is, the worry was that you were, and this is a quote, locked into your generation. I understand that completely. I am locked into my generation. Do you feel that about yourself? That you are locked into your generation, and you’re not able to make those changes.
Well, obviously, I’m so excited about the changes, and I think it’s exhilarating. And I think one of the joys of my position is that I am so lucky, and that I can surround myself with editors, writers, people from all different generations. And I think, if you look at the editors in-chief that I brought into the company since I became artistic director, it’s an extremely diverse group of people. And so I think age is a number.
Right. But I’m talking more is, when you’re a leader, for a long time, many leaders — not you in particular — surround yourself by similar people, or the same people, or people you’ve relied on, and it’s harder and harder to hear and listen. I’m thinking of someone like Mark Zuckerberg — doesn’t listen, hasn’t been listening. He’s a young person — it’s not an age thing. It’s when you get to a certain level of power. Do you think it’s difficult to change those behaviors when you’re surrounded by those behaviors?
I actually work in an industry that is all about change, and that embraces change. And I think it’s one of the reasons that I was drawn to fashion journalism in the beginning, is because you’re always thinking about what’s going to be new and exciting. And, of course, fashion reflects the culture and the times that we’re living in. And that has been always what’s fascinated me about the world that I work in, that you’re always meeting a new generation that is looking at the world of fashion and culture completely differently from the generation before. And I think if you look at a number of the great designers who’ve defined different decades, and then you look at the next generation and you see that it’s very different and has a completely sometimes opposite point of view, but a completely different point of view. And being able to report on that, and reflect on that, is what I love. [MUSIC PLAYING]
We’ll be back in a minute. If you like this interview and want to hear others, hit subscribe. You’ll be able to catch up on Sway episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with Parler C.E.O. John Matze. And you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Anna Wintour after the break. [MUSIC PLAYING]
So I’ll be honest with you, I’m not really a fashion person — although my mother was the head of fashion at Bonwit Teller back in the day.
Oh, yeah. She’s a stylist. And I didn’t get the gene, I suppose. She calls me a fashion black hole. But I’d love to ask you about some current trends. First of all, with everyone wearing more comfortable clothes from home — I think I even saw a photo of you wearing sweatpants — tell me about your sweatpants situation.
[LAUGHS]. Those are the pants that I play tennis in, and I was, I think, on my way to play tennis when that picture was taken. So there’s no deep significance to that image.
But there is this idea — someone sent me a note saying the runway is now the bathroom to the kitchen. So what do you think about the work-from-home wardrobe? And what impact will it have?
I think what’s going to happen is that a lot more people are going to continue to work remotely. Because I feel that, even though it’s driving us all insane right now, I think there’s been a complete switch in many people’s mindsets — that they find that they enjoy it, and they like it, and it works for their family situation, or whatever. So I think that we’ll be moving towards much more of a hybrid situation in terms from how we work. I think the workplace is going to be completely redefined. But I also would argue that, once we do reemerge — and hopefully, that will be over the summer and into the fall — I think people are going to really want to dress up, and have fun with fashion, and enjoy it, and want to go, out and think about what they’re wearing not just from the waist up. So, yes, it may be more relaxed when you’re working from home, as it is right now. But I think when people do go back to a more relatively normal life, they’re going to go back to enjoying and loving fashion. I think one thing that we were talking about, even before the pandemic, was the cycle of fashion was moving far too fast and the emphasis was so much on what’s new. And it was way too much excess. So I do feel — and we’ve seen this already — that houses are pulling back, they’re only going to be doing two shows a year. That I think the emphasis will be much more on quality, and creativity, and clothes having emotional meaning. I mean, the way maybe a piece of jewelry does. That it is something that can bring you a memory of a wedding dress, or a moment in your time. That, that dress means something, it’s something that you might want to give to your children. So I think the emphasis is going to be much more on quality, creativity. And does that house, does that label, are they in step with the values that I have myself?
Yeah. So there are a lot of major changes in the fashion landscape. Direct-to-consumer. Reformation. Fast fashion, like H&M. Shared economy on fashion, rent the runway, the RealReal, how do you reflect on the shifts that are happening? They’re not un-similar to what’s happening in entertainment or media.
Yeah. And I think a lot of it has been emphasized by the learning that we’ve had during Covid, and the fact that so many stores have been closed. And particularly designers that are not backed by huge houses, they’ve had to work much more closely with their customers. And whether it’s through Zoom events, or however it may be, they are talking much more directly to their customers, to their consumers. And, obviously, that is something that is going to continue. And I think that the reason that these virtual fashion shows — although many of them have been exceptionally creative and interesting — they’re not having the same emphasis as the physical fashion show is, it is important to have a personal exchange with the designers. Whether you’re a customer, or you’re a journalist, whoever it may be. Not everything can just exist on a screen. So I think we’ll be moving towards a mix of virtual and physical.
When you look at fast fashion, what has been your reaction to watching its growth? And it’s been hit pretty hard in the pandemic, for sure.
I think that it’s wonderful if fashion can be available to everybody. That we want fashion to be available to all people. But I do feel this emphasis on disposable fashion is very difficult when you look at sustainability, and you look at climate change, that I think that we do all need to slow down and think about what values we care about. And I do think that the fast fashion houses, the less expensive fashion houses, are very focused on that right now. And, again, we’re going to see a lot of changes.
So one of the companies that has gotten very heavily into it — Amazon, in its quest for world domination is now number one fashion retailer in the US. They own Shopbop. They’re using smartphone data to make customized t-shirts on Made For YOU. They’re even a partner with Vogue. Is Jeff Bezos, the next Anna Wintour?
[CHUCKLES]. I think that Jeff has a wonderful leader for Amazon Fashion in Christine Beauchamp. He’s obviously aware of everything that she’s doing, but trusts her implicitly. And I think it’s going to evolve over time. But I believe that fashion needs to change and to evolve. And its distribution needs to evolve and change as well.
But how do you feel about it, Jeff Bezos controlling fashion in this —
[LAUGHS] Well, I don’t think —
Well, it’s number one seller.
It’s a distribution system, though. It’s like you have Apple in your phone. It’s like electricity.
Well, they said that, and then, now, they’re making shows. Same thing with Apple. They’re making TV shows. They’re moving into areas that you didn’t think they were moving into.
But I think we all have to be open to change. It’s going back to what you were talking about at the beginning of our conversation, Kara. We can’t be stuck in the old ways. And if people are seeing new ways to get fashion, or film, or entertainment to people, I think we have to look at that, and understand that, and support it in ways that make sense for us.
All right. In that regard, your opinions on fashion have been critically important. But now there are influencers, and thinkfluencers, and social media accounts. Do you think the decentralization of editorial voice is a good or bad thing?
Well I think Vogue is the biggest influencer of them all. I really do. I mean, if you look at the power of Vogue throughout the world, I can’t remember the exact numbers, but I think our role in today’s unbelievably crowded world is to curate and to make sense of everything that’s out there. Because there just is so much. And that’s why we have editors that work at Vogue around the world that really understand the world of fashion, and are on the lookout all the time for new talent, and help surface that new talent because that’s so much of what we do, and reflect it, and bring it to the attention of customers, and to stores, and to audiences around the world. So I think you need to look at us as both a huge influencer, and a curator, and first and foremost, as fashion journalists.
Do you follow any of the influencers on Instagram, or anywhere else?
I follow a number of different people on Instagram. And, obviously, very intrigued by everything that we see happening on new platforms like TikTok and Twitch. And I think looking at all these platforms, from our point of view, and seeing how we can partner with them in ways that makes sense for us, there are huge opportunities.
Do you use TikTok and Instagram heavily? Do you spend a lot of time on it?
I look at it, I see it. I don’t engage in it myself. You don’t engage in it yourself. There’s no Instagram version of you. No.
No. No dancing.
[LAUGHS]. No. Not yet,
No tie-dyeing. You know tie-dyeing is a big thing on TikTok, in case you’re interested.
[LAUGHS]. Yeah, I know.
And what do you think of that?
Tie-dye never goes away.
All right. OK. So many journalists are moving away from large companies. A whole bunch have moved to Substack for example, and are doing really well, and making money. Is that a threat to institutions? Like whether it’s the Vogue, or the New York Times, or whatever.
I think that when journalists, and editors, and writers, and young people coming into the media landscape think about Conde Nast, I do think that they know that we believe in quality, that we believe in journalism, we believe in truth, that we are curious. And I understand the appeal of having your own voice. And there is also a sense of, I can be independent and I can make my own way. But at the same time, I do feel that having a sense of community and being involved and connected to a title — whether it’s GQ, or Wired, or Teen Vogue, whatever it may be — I think that is very important to journalists.
But the business, obviously, is changing too. It’s not just that people are doing this and using these new forms of communication. But I think you and I are both painfully aware that the glory days of publishing are long-gone. Print is dying, the margins on digital content are still low — although rising. Conde Nast has lost hundreds of millions in the past few years, and the pandemic has led to more layoffs during the pandemic. You have a much bigger role now, a business role. Correct?
Yes. And I think that we’re looking at where the growth opportunities are. And a very strong growth opportunity that already has huge revenue for us is video, whether it’s short form or long form video. And as print and more traditional revenue streams decline, we’re very focused on the consumer — whether that’s through paywall, or subscriptions, or membership, or e-commerce, or events, or experiences, or all the things that involve our consumer, that obviously is another area that we are deeply committed to investing in as well.
You have been at Conde Nast since 1983. Is there anything else you want to do? Do you have ambitions in other sectors?
You mean if I was to leave Conde Nast?
Yes, yes. I mean, there was a rumor that you were interested in being an ambassador. Is there anything else you want to do?
I’d like to run the Tennis Channel in my next life.
There’s always things that I’m interested in doing. But right now, I’m really focused on what the next chapter is for Conde Nast.
OK. All right. I think that’s it. Thank you so much.
We appreciate it. Thanks a lot, Anna.
Bye. [MUSIC PLAYING]
“Sway” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Hepa Elorbany, Matt Kwong and Vishakha Darbha. Edited by Paula Szuchman. With original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Erick Gomez and fact checking by Michelle Harris. Special Thanks to Renan Borelli, Liriel Higa and Kathy Tu. If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to subscribe to a podcast. So subscribe to this one. If you’re listening on the Times website and want to get each new episode of “Sway” and a subscription to Anna’s tennis channel, download a podcast app like Stitcher or Google Podcasts, then search for “Sway” and hit subscribe. We release every Monday and Thursday. And for the record, I wear 10-year-old Tretorn sneakers, which is a brand many millennials have never heard of.