More than fashion: Vogue’s Anna Wintour influences culture at large

Vogue editor Anna Wintour’s cultural clout extends from Hollywood to Washington and beyond, says biographer Amy Odell in “Anna: The Biography.”

Arthur Elgort/Simon and Schuster
Amy Odell is the author of “Anna: The Biography.”

In “Anna: The Biography,” fashion journalist Amy Odell explores the life and career of legendary Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who has so far remained a mysterious figure even though she wields influence across American culture. While many recognize her as the woman who inspired the Miranda Priestly character in the 2003 novel and 2006 movie “The Devil Wears Prada,” little is known about the reach of her empire. Ms. Odell spoke recently about Ms. Wintour’s significance, as well as how it translates in the era of social media and social justice movements. 

Why did you decide to write about Anna Wintour? 

She’s someone I’ve always been fascinated by. She’s a person who has been in this unique position of power. Some people I interviewed even said they believe that her cultural innovation is on par with that of Steve Jobs. She’s also a person who has had this extraordinary longevity. I mean, if you think of business leaders, she’s been at the helm of Vogue for 34 years. Jeff Bezos left Amazon after 27, so that’s remarkable. I really went into the book with this question of why is she powerful and why has she been powerful for so long? And the other thing is that despite being in this public position running Vogue for so long, she has remained an enigma even to people who know her. I want this book to really pull back the curtain. 

What should we understand about her career? 

This book is really for anyone interested in business and people who become powerful, because she has had power that touches a lot of different areas. Of course there’s fashion and there’s publishing. But she has influence on Hollywood. She has influence in politics. [Actor] Bradley Cooper is someone who relies on her input. I found it remarkable that he emailed her his script for “A Star is Born” seeking advice. I have another example in the book where [actor] Hugh Jackman wants Anna and her team’s advice on putting together “The Greatest Showman” [on Broadway] and he calls them to a meeting and they pitch their ideas. I believe that she was the first Vogue editor to put a first lady on the cover, with Hillary Rodham Clinton. Recently, Jill Biden. She also put Michelle Obama on the cover a number of times. And these were big decisions that had a wide impact on the culture and that connected the fashion industry in a strong way to Democratic politics. And she was someone whom the Obama administration was looking at when they were thinking about ambassadors after the 2012 election. 

How has she dealt with issues such as a lack of diversity? 

She has had a lot of criticism, especially in recent years. Diversity is one of the things that she’s been criticized for a lot. She did not embrace diversity until recently, and she was late to that. I’ve been writing about fashion since 2008, and diversity has always been an issue. ... It was talked about in the 1980s, it was talked about in the ‘90s, the lack of Black models and Black fashion in magazines and in campaigns – that was talked about. It wasn’t like it just came up. Anna is someone who reads a lot. So it would seem weird to me that she wasn’t aware of this. So why didn’t she embrace it until recently? I think because the audience really, really demanded it. 

Is her influence dwindling in the digital age? 

Powerful people behind the scenes are asking her advice and relying on her and still thinking that she’s powerful and that her opinion matters. That is significant. Anna pushed the industry to get online around 1999. She did push labels to get online early. She was at the forefront of that. I think Vogue has worked to make sure that they’re getting that social media impact out of the [Met gala]. Another thing that’s remarkable about her having been in this position for so long, she’s seen the publishing industry transform. I think what’s really interesting about fashion and culture now and with social media is the shifting power dynamics. Anna has remained powerful in her position and her influence is still there. It really is. 

What is the future of fashion? 

The conversations about fashion are going to be happening based on what’s happening online. The print magazine maintains relevance because it has the budget to create these beautiful images and these remarkable, memorable images that get distributed online, which  are then jumping-off points for discussions on TikTok and Instagram. So things are going to go online; probably there will be a point where we have a lot fewer issues of a magazine like Vogue. I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up seeing more of a model of working where influencers maybe get together once a quarter and they make a magazine and then they put that out.

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