Magazine editor. Born on November 3, 1949, in London, England, to newspaper editor Charles Wintour and philanthropist Elinor Wintour. Anna Wintour has become an international fashion icon in her role as editor-in-chief of the highly influential Vogue magazine. She is known for her oversized dark glasses, high heels, sharp bob hairstyle, and icy demeanor.
Born into a family with considerable wealth, Wintour demonstrated a tendency to do things her own way at an early age. As a teenager she made the decision to forgo academics, dropping out of her fancy finishing school and opting instead for a life that revolved around the tony London life of the 1960s that she so clearly adored. With her signature hairstyle—she first went to the bob at the age of 15 and has changed it very little since then—Wintour frequented the same London clubs of pop culture’s biggest stars, including members of the Beatles and Rolling Stones.
The management style and drive that Wintour would later show as a magazine editor was in part inspired by her late father, a decorated World War II veteran who’d earned a tough, stern, and talented reputation as editor of the London Evening Standard. Wintour never shied away from the similarities she shared with the man known as “Chilly Charlie.” “People respond well to people who are sure of what they want,” Wintour told 60 Minutes in May 2009.
Long before Vogue, however, Anna Wintour started out in the fashion department of Harper’s & Queen in London. Over the years, she rose up the editorial ladder and bounced from publication to publication between New York and London. In 1976, she moved to New York and took over as fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar. Still in her 20s and still in New York, Wintour left Harper’s for a job at Viva, a publication owned by the same outfit that managed Penthouse. There, Wintour essentially became the magazine’s fashion department, cutting her teeth as a high-end editor and manager. Wintour spent generously on photographers and shoots, arranging for expensive trips to places like the Caribbean and Japan.
Following a brief stop at Savvy, where she served again as the magazine’s fashion editor, Wintour took a job with New York magazine in 1981. From the start, Wintour displayed her own sense of style and direction, even going so far as to bring her own desk to her new office. It’s look: “A contemporary Formica-topped affair on two metal sawhorses as legs…along with a high-tech chrome-framed chair with a seat and back made of bungee cords,” wrote Jerry Oppenheimer, in his 2005 unauthorized biography of Wintour, Front Row.
In 1986, two years after she married South African psychiatrist David Shaffer, Wintour returned to London as chief editor of the Condé Nast-owned British Vogue. Not surprisingly, Wintour had her own ideas about the magazine and where it needed to go.
“I want Vogue to be pacy, sharp, and sexy, I’m not interested in the super-rich or infinitely leisured. I want our readers to be energetic, executive women, with money of their own and a wide range of interests,” she told the London Daily Telegraph. “There is a new kind of woman out there. She’s interested in business and money. She doesn’t have time to shop anymore. She wants to know what and why and where and how.”
Wintour’s sharp critiques and lack of patience soon earned a few memorable nicknames: “Nuclear Wintour” and “Wintour of Our Discontent.” The editor, though, relished it. “I’m the Condé Nast hit man,” she told a friend. “I love coming in and changing magazines.”
Her next big makeover came in 1987 with another Condé Nast publication, Home and Garden, where she summarily changed the publication’s title to HG and managed to reject nearly $2 million of already-paid-for photos and articles.
Grumblings about Wintour’s changes were quick to appear, but her bosses at Condé Nast were clearly behind her, doling out a salary of more than $200,000 to its demanding editor, and allowing a $25,000 annual allowance for clothes and other amenities. In addition, the magazine’s owners arranged for Concorde flights between New York and London so Wintour and her husband could be together.
Wintour’s stay at HG didn’t last long. In 1988 she was named editor-in-chief of Vogue, allowing for her return to New York. The move by Condé Nast came at a time when its signature fashion publication was at a crossroads. A magazine that had been at the forefront of the fashion world since the early 1960s, Vogue suddenly found itself losing ground to a three-year-old upstart, Elle, which had already reached a paid circulation of 850,000. Vogue’s subscriber base meanwhile, was a stagnant 1.2 million.
Fearing that the magazine had become complacent or worse, boring, Wintour was placed atop the editorial masthead with all the freedom, not to mention financial backing, that she needed to revitalize the publication. In her more than two-decade reign at the magazine, Wintour more than accomplished her mission, restoring Vogue,’s preeminence while producing some truly mammoth magazines. The September 2004 edition, for example, clocked in at 832 pages, the most ever for a monthly magazine.
Along the way, Wintour demonstrated fearlessness about forging new ground. She decisively called an end to the supermodel era, showcasing a preference for celebrities rather than models on her covers. Wintour was also the first to truly mix low-end fashion items with more expensive pieces in her photo shoots. Her debut cover in November 1988 included a 19-year-old Israeli model outfitted in a pair of $50 jeans and a $10,000 jewel-encrusted t-shirt.
Despite her claims to the contrary, Wintour became a force in the fashion world, not only through her decisions about what to feature in her magazine, but also by breaking in newer designers and celebrating their styles. She helped make the careers of such designers as Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen. In recent years, her work has made her a power broker between designers and retailers. In 2006, she initiated a deal between men’s designer Thom Browne and Brooks Brothers, which resulted Brown’s work appearing in 90 of the retailer’s stores.
Over the years Wintour also demonstrated an ability to speak her mind. As gentle as she could be about the matter, the editor informed Oprah that she’d need to lose 20 pounds before she would put her on the cover of her magazine. And early in 2008, when Hillary Clinton snubbed Vogue out of fears that appearing too feminine might undermine her presidential ambitions, Wintour fired back at the Clinton camp with a letter in the February issue of her magazine.
“The notion that a contemporary woman must look mannish in order to be taken seriously as a seeker of power is frankly dismaying,” she wrote. “This is America, not Saudi Arabia. It’s also 2008: Margaret Thatcher may have looked terrific in a blue power suit, but that was 20 years ago. I do think Americans have moved on from the power-suit mentality.”
Of course, with that power and influence comes a well-documented ego. Through the years, Wintour developed a reputation for being aloof and cold. It has been said that she is difficult to work for, and insists that her staff always look fashion-forward and rail-thin. Wintour, a mother of two who famously wore Chanel micro-mini skirts throughout her pregnancies, doesn’t exactly deny she can be a demanding person for which to work. “I’m very driven by what I do,” Wintour has said. “I am certainly very competitive. I like people who represent the best at what they do, and if that turns you into a perfectionist than maybe I am.”
One of Wintour’s former assistants, Lauren Weisberger, wrote The Devil Wears Prada (2003), a fictionalized account of her days at Vogue. Her main character, played by Meryl Streep, was a demanding boss not unlike Wintour. The book was made into a film in 2006, and Wintour turned heads when she arrived at the film’s premiere dressed in Prada. This move showed critics and fans alike that Wintour was not without a sense of humor.
“The thing about Lauren’s book and this film is that I do not think fiction could surpass the reality,” a UK fashion editor told a reporter around the time of the movie’s release. “You only have to see Anna’s requests for seats at the New York shows to get an inkling of how art in this instance is only a poor imitation of life. Most of us just ask for seats in the first or second row. She has her people request a seat from which she will not have to see or be seen by specific rival editors. We spend our working lives telling people which it-bag to carry but Anna is so above the rest of us she does not even have a handbag. She has a limo. And she has her walkers [Vogue staff members] Andre Leon Talley and Hamish Bowles, whose main job is to carry her bits around for her.”
In 2006, plans were announced to allow a documentary film to be made about the work done behind the scenes on Vogue’s September 2007 issue. Weighing nearly five pounds, the issue of the magazine was the largest ever to be published. The movie, entitled September Issue, is set for release in August 2009. The movie shows, for the first time, the exacting work required to produce an issue of Vogue. Touted as “the real Devil Wears Prada,” the movie has already received wide critical acclaim.
In general, Wintour appears unfazed by comments about her in the media. But what doesn’t seem to get much mention is her charitable work. Wintour helped raise money for the Twin Towers fund after the September 11th terror attacks. With the Council of Fashion Designers of America, she also helped create a new fund to encourage and support up-and-coming designers. Each year, she also organizes a fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s costume department, which over the years has brought in some $50 million.
She and husband David Shaffer divorced in 1999. The couple has two children together: Charles and Katherine. She now maintains an ongoing relationship with investor Shelby Bryan.