Still Haute, Less Haughty. The dowager queen of women's magazines gets a makeover from the new editor in chief. THE FACE OF FASHION

SIZZLING and sassy, the January cover of Vogue is anything but wintry. And nothing like the magazine used to look. Standing on the beach is a black model, in white wool Yves Saint Laurent tuxedo jacket, black bikini, athletic legs, her tousled hair swept up by a bandana.

Gone is the old standard of beauty - the flawless, ``don't touch me'' face framed by jewels and couture. Instead, Vogue's recent covers are youthful, vibrant, and European - like the new editor in chief herself, Anna Wintour.

``If Vogue doesn't change, then it's not really doing its job,'' says Ms. Wintour, noting that more than anything it's a change of thinking about fashion.

The changes shake a firm foundation. For nearly 80 years Vogue has been the ``fashion bible'' of clothes and culture for American women. Started in 1892 as a high-society weekly in Victorian New York, Vogue was recast in 1909 when Cond'e Nast of St. Louis bought it and tried out his idea of targeting a specific audience: upper-class women.

It has attracted the best photographers: Steichen, Beaton, Avedon, Newton. The legacy of top journalists includes Clare Booth Luce and Joan Didion. Grandes dames editors include Edna Woolman Chase (editor from 1914 to 1952), Diana Vreeland (1963 to 1973), and Grace Mirabella (1973 to June 1988). Vogue is owned by S.I. Newhouse Jr., whose roster includes 12 magazines, among them GQ, Gourmet, Cond'e Nast's Traveler, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker.

Today fashion leader Vogue sells 1.2 million copies monthly and carries more ad pages than any other magazine of its kind. Says Valerie Steele, writer and fashion historian, Vogue is ``very important symbolically as well as in real terms.'' She cites the way ``just the term vogue has entered the English language'' with such frequency and authority, especially ``the reality and the image of the Vogue fashion editor as being a real authority, a real fashion power.'' The latest dance in New York's downtown clubs these days is ``the Vogue.''

IN fact, there has been plenty of shakedown in midtown, on Vogue's 13th floor of the Cond'e Nast building. Last summer Mr. Newhouse moved Wintour into the top spot, abruptly ousting Grace Mirabella, without explanation, after a 17 year tenure. (Ms. Mirabella heard of her replacement from her husband, who heard from a friend, who heard it on TV.) ``It was not a very classy way to do something,'' says the veteran editor, who immediately ``lost interest.''

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch quickly snatched her up to launch a magazine of her own, Mirabella, aimed for the slightly older market now reached only by Lear's.

Back at Vogue, Wintour wasted no time. Starting with the all-important November cover. The first under her direction - as expected - was dramatically different: model in the street, windblown hair, clad in a $10,000 jeweled jacket and $50 blue jeans - with tummy bared between. December featured two models, on location, wearing Greek fishermen's caps.

Wintour comes to Vogue from Cond'e Nast's HG - formerly House & Garden - which she overhauled to include fashion and celebrity, to the disapproval of some advertisers and many media analysts. Only 39 years old, she has been editor in chief of British Vogue, a creative director at American Vogue (under Mirabella), and editor at New York magazine.

With one eye on style and another on the bottom line - she heeded reader complaints that covers looked the same and ads cluttered editorial pages. In her characteristic clipped British accent, Wintour says she wanted ``to give the Vogue covers a stronger point of view ... something that changed every month rather than looking a little bit much the same.''

The headlines have become fun and punful, almost like Britain's Tatler (which was remade by Tina Brown, who recently revived Vanity Fair). Wintour built up the back of the magazine with a new section, ``Talking Fashion'' - gossip in the vein of rival John Fairchild's ``W'' and ``Women's Wear Daily.''

So far, Wintour is on target: Sales for the November issue were up 11.6 percent over last year's issue. Advertisers, analysts, and observers are watching closely. Most are positive about the changes.

``I think the new look is great! What a visual impact!... It was so much more lively than what they've been doing,'' says Ms. Steele, a teacher in the graduate division of New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. ``It's much more youthful. More Elle-ish.''

INDEED Vogue now looks younger, like its closest competitor, American Elle. Although Vogue still reigns in circulation and advertising, Elle has moved in quickly after only three years, boasting a circulation of more than 825,000 - nearly two-thirds that of Vogue.

Elle's appeal: a younger look, bold graphics, ethnic variety, and less expensive, more innovative fashions on the editorial pages. Market studies place the Elle reader in a higher income bracket than the Vogue reader (with a median age of 26, to Vogue's 30). Last year Elle surpassed Vogue's long-time rival, Harper's Bazaar.

Elle hit the women's marketplace ``like a lightning rod,'' says Leo Scullin, media director at New York's Young and Rubicam advertising firm. ``It has dared to be different, and dared to deliver a dramatically different product to the marketplace with great success.''

Just as Elle shook a host of women's magazines, so they threaten Vogue. Some competition comes from within the Cond'e Nast stable: cutting-edge Details, revamped Self (which is under new editor Anthea Disney, third editor in three years). Even Glamour (highest circulation) and Mademoiselle are taking on a fresher look.

Hearst's Good Housekeeping is billing itself as `The New Traditionalist,'' reorienting toward the growing ranks of new and working mothers. Sassy and Model are newer entrants. Even Ms. is shedding its feminist image and looking more celebrity.

VOGUE'S circulation has been up and down over the past five years, with a dip in 1986 - the year after Elle moved in. Ad sales have been flat lately. But if it seems obvious that Vogue is competing with Elle, most insiders say there is not a magazine war at all; there are too many magazines for that.

``There's a little bit of a tempest in a teapot here.... It's really not a big deal at all,'' says magazine analyst Neal Vitale, president of McNamee Consulting Co., Inc., in New York, noting that Vogue, like other magazines, is simply ``updating, sort of moving into the '90s.''

``Vogue was in for an evolutionary overhaul,'' says Mr. Scullin, insisting that ``it would be unfair ... to say that they're changing because of Elle.''

Wintour herself insists she is not competing with Elle, but simply making Vogue better. ``It's not so much youthful as it is a change of attitude ... more accessible, more approachable, more friendly.'' The dowager queen of women's magazines has been known more for being haute and haughty.

``Vogue will always be Vogue,'' says Alexander Liberman, editorial director of Cond'e Nast since 1962 after being Vogue's art director since 1941. ``But as fashion changes, there are evolutions ... [this] is really an evolution.''

``How do you compete?'' he asks. You don't. ``You produce the best magazine you know how.''

Meanwhile, Hachette's Elle appears to have felt tremors from the quake across town. According to publisher Peter Diamandis, Elle's creative director, Regis Pagniez, promises to ``completely remake'' his magazine.

Or maybe he's choosing to ignore the competition. On January's Elle cover, the model's eyes are closed.

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