There is something strange about sitting opposite Anna Wintour. That’s where I found myself for much of the spring/summer fashion shows last month.
For a start, you can’t help but stare. At the bob. At the sunglasses. At the pursed lips that suggest deep contemplation or — because it is hard to tell — sheer fury.
It is a look that has been so endlessly parodied by other editors, by Hollywood, by anyone looking for a shorthand way to sum up what the editor of a fashion magazine should look like — that to see ‘the original’ up close feels like looking at the Mona Lisa.
And an original she really is; as shrouded in legend as she is glamour and gloss. Long before 5am starts were fashionable, carbohydrates were the enemy and we all realised stand-up meetings were the way forward, Anna Wintour was doing it all.
Farrah Storr spoke to 11 of Anna Wintour’s (pictured at Tom Ford’s SS 2020 show) insiders ahead of her 70th birthday this Sunday
Tales of her rising at 5am to play tennis are legion. As are the stories of her rare steak lunches. Back then I thought it was exaggeration at best, affectation at worst. Now I realise it was neither. She was just ten strides ahead of us all.
Which is right, given the job she does. After all, Vogue, the magazine she has edited for 31 years, is about selling a lifestyle as gloriously aspirational as it is inaccessible. And no one personifies that more than Anna ‘Nuclear’ Wintour. She rarely gives interviews, seldom smiles and will never, ever stay to the end of a party. As for the sunglasses? They only add to the tantalising out-of-reach mystique.
But for someone to have remained at the top of one of the world’s most fiercely competitive industries for over three decades requires far more than looking the part. You see Anna’s real talents move far beyond those of editor. She is a skilled marketeer, always within close proximity to the shiniest new talent, whether that be in Hollywood, fashion, politics or Silicon Valley.
She is a connoisseur of people, too, particularly those the world wants to watch. This is most obvious at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Met Gala, which she has transformed into a cultural touchstone as well as a multi-million-dollar fundraiser for the museum. But, above all, she is a shrewd businesswoman, able to satiate advertisers and galvanize the fashion industry as much as she can excite readers of the magazine she is paid to edit.
Trish Halpin who is the former editor of Marie Claire claims that there is an unwritten rule that you don’t make small talk with Anna (pictured in 2012)
Of course, there are always rumours of her time at Vogue drawing to an end. Even in The Devil Wears Prada, the film allegedly based on Wintour and her relationship with a former assistant, the threat of departure is always on the horizon. And yet leave she never does. Because she is too valuable: to Conde Nast (the parent company of Vogue); to the fashion industry; to a world which is still fascinated by her every move.
To no longer have Anna Wintour at Vogue would be a bit like going to The Louvre with the Mona Lisa no longer there. ‘What is Anna like?’ is still the question I am most asked.
Here, 11 other insiders share their own tributes to her.
Farrah Storr, editor-in-chief Elle Magazine
‘THERE’S AN UNWRITTEN RULE – NO SMALL TALK’
Trish Halpin, former editor of Marie Claire
I was once standing behind Anna at Heathrow, going through security for a 6am flight to Milan for fashion week. Even though I would see her at the shows it’s an unwritten rule that you don’t make small talk with her — there was just a brief nod of recognition as we removed our coats and shoes.
She had on a pair of chic knee-high boots, which she wore to shows in the winter (during summer it would be one style of Manolo Blahnik sandals — she must have had dozens of the same design made for her).
When she took off the boots I was surprised to see she had on a pair of thick woolly socks over her tights! At last, her perfect image was dented. She seemed a bit vulnerable and just like the rest of us mere mortals getting on the plane that morning.
Tina Brown who is a former editor of Vanity Fair, says Anna (pictured in 2008) has impeccable style, even when she was pregnant
‘THE BUTLER TOOK ME TO HER ROOM IN THE RITZ’
Anya Hindmarch, designer
I’ll never forget the first time I met Anna. I was ushered into her private dining room at the Ritz by the hotel butler. I was quite scared. But you soon realise Anna gets stuff done. She is kind, focused, quick on an email and generous with her connections. She is also interested. She has earned her formidable reputation. And any woman who can maintain hair like that deserves to be seen as scary.
‘HOW DID SHE LOOK SO CHIC WHEN PREGNANT?’
Tina Brown, founder of Tina Brown Live Media/Women In The World and former editor of Vanity Fair
Anna has the highest standards of excellence in her work, in maintaining friendships and in her devotion to family. She gets what’s important.
Her impeccable style even extended to when she was pregnant. I remember running into her in the Conde Nast elevator when we were both about eight months along. It was 1985, so she was pregnant with her son Charlie (now 34).
I wrote in my diary: ‘I am now the size of a tank. How can it be that also-pregnant Anna Wintour seems to have only a neat couture bulge under a long Chanel jacket, while I am now the size of a helium balloon?’ She’s become more interesting over the years. Her next act will be her best.
Sarah Cotton who is creative director of Bang hair salon, recalls Anna (pictured in 1996) spending over an hour talking to her staff
‘I NEARLY THREW UP WHEN SHE WALKED IN’
Stacey Duguid, fashion editorial director, Harrods magazine
In the late 90s when I worked in PR, I represented a young designer called Louise Pring, whom Sarah Mower, then a contributing editor of U.S. Vogue, was interested in. Sarah arranged to bring Anna to meet the designer at a grubby studio in Soho.
I could have fainted from nerves. Louise and I practically threw up when she walked in, a perfect vision, bobbed hair, glasses, signature print dress. She was formidable yet curious and when she left, we had to lie down and catch our breath. I’ve always respected her for making the time in her schedule to meet new, unheard of talent. Not many editors do that.
‘MY HUSBAND GAVE HER A BIG YORKSHIRE HUG’
Sarah Cotton, creative director of Bang hair salon in York
I was booked to do Anna’s hair when she visited York in 2016 to speak at a charity fashion event. Her niece, Ellie Wintour, who was studying English there, invited her.
We were excited and honoured to have been asked — and then Anna had to cancel. The next day we got a phone call to say Anna was on her way to meet us. She stepped out of a fancy car, dressed in Chanel.
As she went to shake hands with my husband Jon, he grabbed her for a big Yorkshire hug. She was slightly taken aback, but she hugged him back. She stayed for half an hour meeting all the staff and chatting.
Jo Elvin who is editor of You Magazine, says Anna (pictured in 2008) requested a meeting with her after the launch of Glamour Magazine in 2002
We couldn’t believe she’d gone out of her way to visit us to apologise for cancelling her appointment.
The funniest bit is that Jon had just had a vasectomy and dashed over to meet Anna when we got the call. He had been told to wear loose clothes but said, ‘I’m not wearing track pants to meet the editor of Vogue’, and managed to pour himself into skinny jeans. No lasting damage was done!
‘SHE NEVER TOOK OFF HER SUNGLASSES’
Jo Elvin, editor of You Magazine, ex-editor of Glamour
Anna requested a meeting with me in 2002 just after the launch of Glamour Magazine. It was the first smaller ‘handbag-sized’ magazine and its success had made waves, as everyone said it would never work.
So I got up at the crack of dawn and went and got my hair blow-dried before the meeting. I mean, get a grip. In my tiny, poorly-lit office she didn’t take off her sunglasses the whole time. She was professionally cordial. Not warm but very complimentary about the magazine.
No warm-up chit-chat, just straight into business. I remember her saying, ‘I don’t want to waste your time’, but I think we both knew she didn’t want us to waste hers. After about half an hour, the meeting was considered done. I went to show her out and she very firmly said she could see herself out. The thing is, all the wood panelling in our corridor made it difficult to see the difference between the walls and the one panel that was actually a door.
I watched as Anna paced the length of the corridor, clearly unable to find the door.
Just as she finally found it, our post-room man walked past her and said to me, loud enough for her to hear: ‘Bloody hell, who was the vampire lady I just saw leaving?!’ I wanted to die.
A few days later an incredibly warm and gracious thank you letter arrived from her, so maybe she didn’t hear after all.
‘SHE TOLD ME TO DYE MY HAIR RED’
Patrick Wintour (pictured) says Anna adores her family, no matter how extended
Vanessa Friedman, New York Times fashion director
Anna is responsible for me having red hair. When I was 25 and worked at Vogue, she decided dyeing my dirty blonde hair should be part of a story on ‘getting glamorous’ (Linda Evangelista, with her many hair changes, was the inspiration, I think). To everyone’s surprise, it looked better, and I’ve kept it ever since.
It’s a small personal echo of how much the fashion world as we know it today reflects Anna’s taste and decision-making capability. Whether or not you agree with all her decisions, there is no doubt she has done more to shape fashion, anticipate what is coming next and adapt to it, whether that’s celebrity influencers or the high/low mix, than any of her peers.
Along the way she has also amassed more power in the fashion world than anyone else. I do not think her path could ever be recreated — or should be. But it has been something to see.
‘SHE’LL DO ALL SHE CAN FOR FAMILY’
Patrick Wintour, Anna’s brother
Anna doesn’t just adore clothes, she loves her family, no matter how extended. Nothing makes her happier than seeing 30-plus seated at a long table on a bright August day on Long Island, with sons, daughters, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, friends, in-laws and out-of-laws chattering away over lunch. She understands each and every one of them, and will do all she can to help them make the best of their life.
‘ANNA GAVE ME MY DREAM WEDDING DRESS’
Jemma Kidd (now Lady Mornington), make-up artist and model
I respect Anna more than almost any human being. Her attention to detail, her professionalism, her loyalty, her kindness, her ability to spot and nurture talent is inspiring. She has been consistently a true friend. I will never forget how she arranged for the amazing Christian Lacroix to design my wedding dress. It was the dress of a bride’s dreams — sublime, chic and romantic.
Fashion editor Sarah Christie, recalls Anna (pictured) having a pie shoved in her face by an animal activist in 2005
‘SHE HIRES THE BEST & LEAVES THEM TO IT’
Plum Sykes, contributing editor at American Vogue
It goes without saying that Anna is one of the most powerful women in media, and that she absolutely is the most powerful woman in fashion. What is extraordinary is to be both of these things — and at the same time be an inspiring mentor to everyone who works for her, myself included.
Anna’s incredible generosity when it comes to nurturing editors, stylists, writers, designers, actors and so on is second to none, and she has created some amazing stars in her Vogue ‘stable’.
I often wonder what the secret of her success is, but I think it’s fairly simple: she picks her team with incredible skill, she hires the best and then leaves them to get on with it. All they want to do for her is their absolute best, and that’s what she gets.
THERE WAS ANNA, ALONE, DRIPPING IN CREAM PIE
Sarah Christie, fashion editor
I was there when an animal rights activist shoved a pie in Anna Wintour’s face. It was outside the Chloe show in Paris in 2005.
I was with colleagues when we became aware of a commotion and there was Anna, all alone and dripping in cream pie. As a lowly fashion editor, I was terrified of her. We all stood there staring, rooted to the spot, until Marie Claire’s executive fashion director Elizabeth Walker marched forward pulling a packet of wet wipes (in a Prada tissue case) from her Gucci handbag. Not a word was said as she helped Anna clean herself up, but two days later Elizabeth received a bouquet of flowers with a note from Anna to say thank you.