Anna Wintour, Vogue and Haute Couture Confront the Race Issue: “We Have Made Mistakes”

Anna Wintour. Photograph via Flickr.

From a long New York Times story by Edmund Lee headlined “The White Issue: Has Anna Wintour’s Diversity Push Come Too Late?”:

Vogue’s September issue was different this year. Anna Wintour and her staff put it together when more than 15 million people were marching in Black Lives Matter protests nationwide and employees at Vogue’s parent company, Condé Nast, were publicly calling out what they viewed as racism in their own workplace. At 316 pages, the issue, titled “Hope,” featured a majority of Black artists, models and photographers, a first for the magazine.

For members of Vogue’s editorial team, the September edition came in the uneasy wake of an internal email Ms. Wintour had sent on June 4. “I want to say plainly that I know Vogue has not found enough ways to elevate and give space to Black editors, writers, photographers, designers and other creators,” wrote Ms. Wintour, the Vogue editor in chief since 1988 and Condé Nast’s artistic director since 2013, making her the editorial leader of all its titles. “We have made mistakes, too, publishing images or stories that have been hurtful or intolerant. I take full responsibility for those mistakes.”

Black editors who have worked with Ms. Wintour said they saw her apology as hypocritical, part of a calculated play by an executive known for her ability to gauge the public mood. Other Black journalists who are current or former employees of Condé Nast said the email and the September issue that followed it represented an awkward, though heartfelt, attempt at genuine change.

More than any other institution, Vogue has defined fashion and beauty for generations of women, and the runway looks encouraged by the London-born Ms. Wintour, 70, have trickled down from haute couture houses to fast-fashion retailers and into the hands of everyday consumers. From Manhattan to Hollywood and beyond, she has helped set a standard that has favored white, Eurocentric notions of beauty.

The rare magazine editor who is known outside the publishing industry, Ms. Wintour — she is simply “Anna” to those in the know, or those who want to be — has become a singular cultural figure. After establishing herself in fashion, media and entertainment in the first part of a career that stretches to the 1970s, she has more recently become a political power player as a bundler for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. . . .

The recent tumult at Condé Nast has knocked Ms. Wintour off balance. Inspired by the protests that arose after the police killing of George Floyd in May, employees have confronted their bosses at companywide meetings and in smaller gatherings. Their complaints have led to the resignations of key editors and pledges from the chief executive, Roger Lynch, and Ms. Wintour herself, to revamp Condé Nast’s hiring practices. . . .

For Ms. Wintour, who descends from British nobility and was recently made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, the pace of the current moment of protest may be a challenge. But she is also the daughter of a London newspaper editor and has made a career out of anticipating and responding adroitly to cultural trends. . . .

Some of Ms. Wintour’s relationships with Black editors have been rocky. André Leon Talley, a fashion titan, was one of Vogue’s most recognized personalities, often seated beside Ms. Wintour in the front row at runway shows in Paris, Milan and New York. She lavished professional and financial support on Mr. Talley, but the two had a falling-out, and he left the magazine in 2013. . . .

When Ms. Wintour promoted Elaine Welteroth, a Black woman, to a top position at Teen Vogue in 2016, the appointment was heralded as a step forward for diversity. But the promotion was fraught, Ms. Welteroth wrote in her 2019 memoir, “More Than Enough.” Instead of running Teen Vogue herself, as the editor in chief, she was given a more ambiguous title, “editor,” and was asked to split leadership of the publication with two others. Ms. Welteroth felt that the structure effectively sidelined her, giving her less power than that of the previous Teen Vogue boss, Amy Astley. . . .

To work at Vogue is to inhabit a kind of prep school dormitory where relationships are defined by family ties and social connections that span generations. For many younger people of color who came from less rarefied backgrounds, gaining a toehold was considerably more difficult.

Condé Nast assistants famously put up with grueling hours and humiliating tasks, a job satirized in “The Devil Wears Prada,” a best-selling novel by a former Wintour assistant and later a hit movie starring Meryl Streep as the demanding boss. The hazing is seen as a rite of passage, part of why the company has the nickname “Condé Nasty.” And while Black staff members acknowledge all that, they said that race complicates matters. . . .

In 2016, the actress Lupita Nyong’o showed up at Vogue’s office at One World Trade in Lower Manhattan to discuss a planned photo shoot. Ms. Nyong’o sat down with top editors, who had proposed photographing her in her home country, Kenya, along with some family members. The accompanying article would also focus on her family.

Ms. Nyong’o expressed concern about how her family would be portrayed, saying she feared they might come across as cultural props, according to several people with knowledge of the meeting. After a long pause, a junior editor — the only Black staff member in the room — piped up. Addressing the actress, she suggested that the shoot would be an opportunity to showcase Africa, a rarity in any American magazine, let alone Vogue.

The shoot was a go. And the junior editor was never asked to attend a fashion meeting again.

Edmund Lee covers the media industry as it grapples with changes from Silicon Valley. Before joining The Times he was the managing editor at Vox Media’s Recode.

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