You either know fashion or you don’t


“There is something about fashion … that can make people very nervous,” muses the formidable Anna Wintour, in the opening segments of The September Issue. The 2009 documentary offered a rare glimpse into the role of an editor-in-chief for the world’s most well-known and highly respected fashion magazine, Vogue. For readers of the fashion bible, the inimitable power that Wintour, and others fashion magazine editors such as Anna Dello Russo and previously Carine Roitfeld, hold both over what we interpret as readers and the fashion industry as a whole, is definitely a point of interest. The release of The September Issue came three years after the film adaption of the book, The Devil Wears Prada, which was a box-office hit worldwide, demonstrating a fascination with their role not merely limited to only the most dedicated followers of fashion. The reputation that ‘persona’ fashion editors such as Wintour, Roitfeld and Dello Russo enjoy is a huge asset to their respective magazines – they become brands in and unto themselves, which helps in publicising their magazines.

It is hard not to watch The Devil Wears Prada without wondering where the line between caricature and reality is drawn, making Wintour all the more interesting. She surprised many, and demonstrated a sense of humour in the process, by attending the premiere of the movie in New York, wearing Prada, and later saying in an interview that “Anything that makes fashion entertaining and glamorous and interesting is wonderful for our industry. So I was one hundred per cent behind it.”

Across the Atlantic, epitomising French elegance with a coquettish attitude, it is no small wonder that Roitfeld was one of the first editors to become a star of street style blogs – her minimalist Parisian chic helped her in transcending her role at Vogue Paris to become a fashion icon, while also paving the way for her daughter Julia to become a style celebrity in her own right. Anna Dello Russo (editor-at-large, Vogue Japan) and Giovanna Battaglia (editor, L’Uomo Vogue), have both accomplished a similar status in their own unique manner. Dello Russo’s eccentric sense of style is always noteworthy, and she has been described by photographer Helmut Newton as a “fashion maniac”. Her enthusiasm and genuine excitement for fashion has won her many fans, and no one could doubt her dedication to the industry. As Dello Russo, Battaglia and Roitfeld are sparking the sartorial interest of discerning fashionistas, it means they are acting as a powerful marketing influence for their respective magazines.

Can iconic status, however, act as somewhat of a disadvantage? In one interview Roitfeld has said “when you go to a show now, the photographers are more interested sometimes in the dress or the jacket you’re wearing than to photograph the show, and I think this is totally wrong.” It may be wrong, but fashion is big business – worth $300 billion globally. Deciding and circulating the trends featuring the designers, photographers, models, make-up artists, and hair stylists of the season is a task assigned to few. Those few bridge the gap between the world of fashion and the fashion-conscious consumer through the magazines they publish. Editors are balancing the fact that their revenue is dependent on the advertising of those very fashion brands they are analysing and featuring (or not featuring), with the need to produce a relevant and credible artistic body of work which must be aspirational and different, so as to appeal to its readers.

If editors aren’t careful and this balance is not attained, the desire to be different can be marked by controversy, as was the case with the December 2010 issue of Vogue Paris. Guest edited by Roitfeld’s long-time colleague and friend, fashion designer Tom Ford, it featured an editorial spread modelled by a ten year old girl in full make-up, heels and a dress cut to the waist. The editorial caused outrage, and was seen as completely inappropriate. When Roitfeld resigned a few months later, many speculated as to whether it was a consequence of the issue, a claim which she denied. At the time, CEO of Vogue Paris’ publisher, Condé Nast, Jonathan Newhouse said “It is impossible to overstate Carine’s powerful contribution to Vogue and to the fields of fashion and magazine publishing. Under her direction, Vogue Paris received record levels of circulation and advertising and editorial success.”

Creative director of American Vogue, Grace Coddington in The September Issue concedes that “If the magazine didn’t sell, I wouldn’t have a job … you’ve got to have something to put your work in, otherwise, it’s not valid.” It’s possible that an editor-in-chief is not the behind-the-scenes player in the way we would expect. Maybe their role is one of representing a brand, personifying the slant their magazine takes on fashion. Perhaps their power is justified in the way they ensure fashion progresses by constantly demanding something more, something different, and something better, from the creative geniuses behind the work. As Wintour herself puts it, “Fashion’s not about looking back. It’s always about looking forward.”