Anna Wintour: ‘You can’t lead by staying in the middle’

Anna Wintour: ‘You can’t lead by staying in the middle’

Any conversation with Anna Wintour is bound to be interesting. I had confessed right at the start that I knew almost nothing about fashion; she responded by simply saying that she hoped we wouldn’t be talking “only about fashion.” The editor-in-chief of Vogue since 1988 and artistic director for Conde Nast, Vogue’s publisher, since 2013, Wintour is a truly global personality, and in our half-hour discussion in a dressing room at the Athens Concert Hall, we spoke about a range of topics, from climate change and the US presidential election to the future of printed newspapers and magazines.

It’s not by chance that the British-American journalist and editor has occupied the position she has for the past 30 years and created a brand of her own. And not surprisingly, publisher Kathimerini’s office was inundated by requests for invitations to the Athens event organized by Vogue Greece at which Wintour was the keynote speaker.

American Vogue has become more political. Is this a recent thing and how do you justify it?

I am great believer that at a time when things are uncertain and when the things that people believe in are at risk you can’t lead by staying in the middle; you have to take a stand and obviously for those of us who work at Conde Nast we are staunchly behind diversity, inclusivity, we’re behind what we can do in terms of sustainability, we’re behind human rights, gay rights, women’s rights. We were very thrown a few years ago when we discovered things that were happening with people that we work with on a regular basis that were completely unacceptable. We had to make tough decisions, such as not working with these people in the foreseeable future. I see particularly from young people today they want to be associated with a company, a title, journalism that stands for something. And I think when you are in the middle or trying to cover everything, you stand for nothing.

Can fashion be political?

Obviously fashion has become more political more recently because of all the causes that I just mentioned that I think many houses and many designers care passionately about. I know from my conversations with young designers in the US that they are adamantly behind being involved in the 2020 election and will support any of the Democratic candidates just to make a change in the White House. They are very aware of the responsibility in terms of representation on the runway, in their campaigns, or people in their workplaces – as we are – that you need to have representation and inclusivity. I certainly think that we’re an industry that is behind; we are guilty in many ways in terms of our practices but everybody is not in denial. They understand how terrible the situation is, that it is a crisis and it’s not about change, and everybody is aware of everything that they have to do and that it’s not something that they should be putting off but something they should be doing now.

Do you know whether US President Donald Trump or First Lady Melania Trump read Vogue and what they think about it?

Well, I know both of them and – full disclosure – when Melania was engaged to Donald, American Vogue helped her with her wedding dress and we actually put her on the cover at that time. So she certainly was aware of American Vogue back then. We featured Ivanka in the pages for where they are in the current situation. They were very much part of a New York scene so I imagine that they were then very aware of Vogue and I imagine that they are today. They may not agree with everything we write or say but there is no question that they are aware.

When you look around the world, do you see any female role-models? Strong leaders in different sectors?

I think young women, young people today, are the ones that are fearless, who are taking a stand, that demonstrate, that march for all the things that you and I have just been discussing, and to me they are the ones that we need to look to and to lead change. What I am sincerely hoping for in the 2020 election in the US is that all those students that couldn’t vote in 2016 or were not for whatever reason involved, maybe because we were all complacent and were all convinced that there would be a different outcome than there was, and they didn’t feel it necessary to vote or were not inspired to vote – I strongly believe that they will be voting in November 2020 and that that will make the difference.

Is environmental activist Greta Thunberg a role model in your eyes?

I think she is a role model for the world. I think it’s so impressive to watch what she’s done in a short amount of time and I think, yes, she is completely inspiring to the world, I wouldn’t say it’s unique to any territory or any individual. I think that she has inspired everybody from a global perspective.

Is there any female political leader who stands out in your eyes around the world from New Zealand to Germany?

Obviously the PM of New Zealand when they had that terrible shooting incident. I thought the way that she immediately took action and was so visible, was so aware of the hurt that the country was feeling but was at the same time so inclusive, she wasn’t calling people out – I felt that it was a remarkable way to deal with a country that was in pain and in crisis. And I would so like to believe that in the US a degree of gun control is close, because we have – as I’m sure you are aware – appalling incidents, seems to me public ones, all the time in the US. If you look at the facts and figures, there are young people, people of all ages, who are dying from self-inflicted wounds every single day of the year in the US. The fact that we do not have much stronger gun control measures is to me unconscionable and unthinkable.

What advice do you have for a young fashion designer anywhere in the world who wants to make it on the global scene? What should they focus on?

I think you need to focus on your message and your talent and what you are trying to say, what your vision is, whether you are making dresses, shoes or beautiful necklaces – whatever it is, you have to stay close to your own vision. And I think there are wonderful advantages to the world that we live in today where you can become famous easily through social media, but I also think it’s a disadvantage because it’s deceptive: Just because you have X amount of followers through Instagram doesn’t mean that your P&L (profit and loss statement) is where it should be. So what I advise young people starting in fashion today – and I think fashion is global, so I think your question is relevant, it’s hard to succeed in one territory – my advice, unless you’re lucky to have really a partner that understands the business aspect of what you’re entering into or if you are lucky enough to have substantial funds, my strong, strong advice is to go and work for a company that you admire, whose esthetic is something that you relate to; learn from another designer, travel the world and work in different countries and you can be successful at 30. You don’t have to succeed when you’re 21 and you’re graduating from college. I see so often young designers with lots of talent, with many ideas, fall by the wayside because they’ve tried to do too much too quickly.

There is a lot of talk about sustainability in the industry. Is this a bit of marketing gimmickry, or do you think it’s a real trend that has changed the industry?

I don’t think of it as a trend, but as a worldwide concern for changing our practices, correcting our practices, being responsible citizens, understanding how close we are to a situation where we can’t turn back, what we are advancing toward. We started an initiative in the US right after September 11 [2001], which was to help young designers who needed the support, who needed the mentorship and we were in such crisis at that time and the retail industry was in really bad shape, so our idea was to support young designers through a certain amount of mentorship and through cash donations. It’s been interesting to watch the designers that have come through that fund and it’s been 16-17 years now and many of them are now household names in the US – like Alexander Wang or Proenza Schouler. We choose 10 finalists every year and I would say that in the last five years nearly every one of the young finalists has talked to us about sustainable practices and how they want to have a sustainable business. And that would not have happened back in 2003 when we started it. So I do feel again that we are being led by young talent, young thinking, but it is from our industry’s perspective a global responsibility and I think there are very few of us, from within our industry, that don’t accept that we are late, and that we should have listened to pioneers like Stella McCartney. But we are now committed to change.

How do you manage to have a global brand which can also be very local and very relevant to each country. What’s the secret to achieving that?

Well, I think it’s a great advantage and a great opportunity because I’m often asked about YouTube influencers and I always answer that Vogue is the biggest influencer of them all. We have over 127 million followers from a global perspective across all our social channels but we also bring with it our authority, our access, our sense of what fashion is. And I think that if we are looking, as we are now at Vogue, from a global perspective, the opportunity is to work on initiatives together, whether it’s on sustainability or diversity and inclusivity or from an event perspective or to be talking about certain issues that we all feel passionately about in one voice and to be able to have a much stronger presence because of that. But there is no question I think that all of us in the company believe firmly in the importance of local content and how cultures are so different, and what might be of interest and newsworthy and things that one cares about passionately in the US are very different in Russia, or India or Europe or China. So we are stronger as one but also very protective of our local voices.

What about print? Is there a future in magazines or newspapers?

I think that we have titles within our company that are better used as being digital first properties and I would cite Self in the United States that was launched as a print title, a title that represented health and wellness – and obviously that’s a subject that has become globally of so much interest, particularly in the last 10 years – I would say it’s catapulted, and we switched to a digital-only brand two-and-a-half years ago and all the naysayers – as always there are many naysayers – said, “Oh, it’s never going to succeed, it’s going to fail,” and it’s actually one of our most successful titles now as one of our digital properties. But at the same time I think within our portfolio we have titles that represent quality and luxury like Architectural Digest or Conde Nast Traveller, Vanity Fair, GQ, Vogue, certainly, and I think that the essence of what we are is print and, talking particularly from a Vogue perspective, I always say to this question that I am asked many times is that print is our runway and it’s where we send our message out to the world and it is picked up by digital video, events, whatever it may be, but it is our hallmark and our heart and that we need that. What we are is quality, the best journalism, the best minds in the work that we do, and if we become something that is too instantaneous that trends in one minute and disappears, then we are not what we believe we are at Conde Nast, which is about great journalism and quality.

And what about social media? It’s a very chaotic world out there.

Social media is a fantastic tool but it’s also a very crowded space, which is why I go back to the heart of what we do in those titles that I was just discussing with you. For those particular titles, I feel print is our calling card and our strength.

What’s a defining moment in your own career – something that always sticks out for you?

I think it’s always about the opportunity to change and I think I have been so incredibly fortunate in my career to have the extraordinary platform that Vogue gives me to create change and opportunity in areas that I care deeply about, whether it’s diversity and inclusivity or the work that I do with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, or being able to support young designers, or on a more personal level I’m able to work with young children that suffer from anxiety and depression and even in the worst cases some suicidal tendencies. If I can speak out and up about the causes that I care about, I would say that the answer to your question is that the most inspiring moments are the ones that are still to come.

Is there a message you’d like to give the average Greek? Greece is going through a tremendous change and seems to be on an upbeat path.

Greece has survived a downturn with great pride and it seems to me that you have such history and culture here, something you should be extraordinarily proud of, but at the same time I feel that Greece is moving forward in a way that some other countries could learn from.

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