The Imperial Editor Goes the Way of the Dodo

On Monday, when the fashion world will gather in Paris for the first live couture shows since the pandemic began and assorted editors will take their socially distanced seats en masse, the front row — that power chain of often instantly recognizable individuals who set the tone for trends and style setters for the world — will look very different.

Not just because many editors and influencers have to remain in their various home countries because of travel regulations, but because so many of the most familiar faces, the women and men who have dictated style from on high for lo these many years, are no longer in the jobs they once embodied.

Emmanuelle Alt, the editor of French Vogue for a decade, with her sweep of rock star hair obscuring one eye, her skinny jeans, spike heels and military jackets? Gone.

Angelica Cheung, the editor of China Vogue for 16 years, with her asymmetrical bob? Gone.

Christiane Arp, the editor of German Vogue for 17 years, with her platinum bun and penchant for Jil Sander? Gone.

The changes in leadership of the world’s most famous fashion magazines were prompted by a consolidation of content in titles across the globe, spurring the departure (voluntary or forced) of a swath of their most celebrated editors. And though it seemed like a case of the night — or season — of the long knives at Vogue’s owner, Condé Nast, it was in fact more like the final paroxysm of a transformation that has been taking place for a long time and that permeates the entire glossy universe.

The mold of the imperial editor, established in the early part of the 20th century when Edna Woolman Chase of American Vogue and Carmel Snow of Harper’s Bazaar first claimed their fiefs, has been broken, probably irrevocably. It has disappeared with the Town Cars and, perhaps, the dodo. The last example standing is also the most famous of them all: Anna Wintour, now as global chief content officer of Condé Nast, ironically presiding over the decimation of the job she defines.

The new guard of editors (many chosen by Ms. Wintour) is younger and less familiar, but significantly more diverse, possessed of a very different aura and set of priorities.

There’s Edward Enninful of British Vogue, Radhika Jones of Vanity Fair and, at Hearst Magazines, Samira Nasr of Harper’s Bazaar — all three the first nonwhite editors of their storied titles. There’s Margaret Zhang, an influencer who took over Vogue China earlier this year, becoming, at 27, the youngest editor of all global Vogue titles.

And there’s a set of hungry, young, digitally native editors, like Lindsay Peoples Wagner of The Cut and the newly appointed Versha Sharma of Teen Vogue. They are voices demanding inclusivity and representation in ways the old guard never did. And they represent a cultural power shift that could potentially shape a lot more than fashion.

The Editors’ Century

Since the millennium, fashion has famously had something of a revolving-door policy when it comes to designers, with companies swapping them out practically every three years, elevating the brand over the individual. In contrast, the front row seemed cast in amber.

Indeed, it was so unchanging that people who occupied those seats started to merge in the public mind with their positions, until their silhouette was practically a symbol and their job title shorthand for a certain type of leader: demanding, diva-like, ruling yea or nay on styles and stars with impunity; on occasion issuing edicts that verged on the absurd.

Diana Vreeland set the tone when she ran Vogue from 1963 to 1971, in part thanks to the combination of extreme personal style — black lacquered bob, slash of red lipstick — and extreme diktats. (“Rinse your blond child’s hair in dead champagne to keep it gold.”)

It was later adopted in varying ways by such names as André Leon Talley, often the only Black man on the front row, who would sweep into every show in a caftan and was known for his edicts (“It’s a famine of beauty!”), and Carine Roitfeld, the former editor of French Vogue, who wore only pencil skirts, black eyeliner and the spikiest of shoes.

And it was enshrined forever by Kay Thompson, as an editor in “Funny Face,” shrieking, “Think pink!” and Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada,” forever tossing her coat on her assistant’s desk while not bothering to learn the young woman’s name.

“Magazines were once vehicles of inspiration into which a lot of expertise was poured, and editors were celebrities,” said Joanna Coles, who edited Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan and was briefly Hearst’s chief content officer before leaving the company in 2018. “They became the human extension of their publication, arbiters of style at a time when it was completely undemocratic, and hierarchical, so they had to dress in a way that reflected the brand.”

Instead of crowns, they had hairdos. “Basically we had our own fiefdoms, so we could be empresses,” said Alexandra Shulman, the editor of British Vogue from 1992 to 2017.

It was such a potent caricature that it became part of the cartoon landscape of our times. It was almost as if in order to be the editor in chief of a major style publication, you had to adopt the persona to succeed. Indeed, the nuttier and more dramatic the antics, the more connected to the myths of the “creative” the editor could seem.

But a combination of business crises and cultural shifts has changed all that. At their best, magazines have always been a reflection and distillation of the world around them. That is still true, even as what they reflect is the fracturing of their own system.

A Broken Model

In an age increasingly dominated by Instagram, TikTok and influencers, publishers could no longer claim to be the authoritative gatekeepers of the worlds of high fashion and Hollywood, and no one wanted to wait a month for their cultural or fashion fix anyway.

By 2017, the #MeToo movement had pulled back the velvet curtain to reveal the complicity of the fashion world in the abuse of its least powerful citizens — its models — and the noblesse oblige of the editors began to look more like exploitation and willful blindness.

Consumers, especially the younger ones, were more inclined to trust the opinions of their friends than some haughty figure in an office far, far away.

Then came the pandemic. As stores closed and shopping came to a halt, fashion advertising fell by as much as 50 percent as luxury brands, which endured their worst year in history in 2020, slashed budgets.

And then the industry was forced to confront its own history of racism, as the social justice protests spurred by George Floyd’s murder grew into a worldwide movement that prompted a reckoning inside many of the most recognizable publishing houses, including Condé Nast and Hearst.

“The fact is, most very creative leaders have a dictatorial side that rallies people, inspires them and scares them a little,” said Tina Brown, who spent the 1980s and ’90s editing Tatler, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.

But while once that was seen as an asset, it began to look like a problem. Assistants were more likely to rebel if they had a comb thrown at their head. When Glenda Bailey, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar for almost 19 years, stepped down in 2020, it was in part because her history of tempestuous behavior, including belittling staff members, had become unacceptable to management.

It’s no longer only about “representing the ideas of one editor anymore,” said Phillip Picardi, who founded Them, Condé Nast’s first L.G.B.T.Q. platform, in 2017, before departing the company a year later. It’s about “representing your audience. It’s not so much about a cult of personality anymore.”

Nor is it even about a physical magazine. An editor’s main responsibility is no longer the alchemy of a monthly print issue, which is increasingly as much of a relic as the imperial persona; now it involves a multiplatform juggling of mutating websites, social media accounts, podcasts and other digital properties.

Little wonder, perhaps, that at Condé Nast some of the most storied positions, including editor in chief positions at Vogue Paris and Vogue Germany, are not expected to be filled at all. In April, the company published a letter from top editors outlining “a collective vision” for a sweeping overhaul of its famously hierarchical and protective global operations.

“We used to work in silos, tending to our individual titles and often competing with each other — ultimately it’s self defeating,” the letter said.

The ‘Sharing Economy’

Now newer editors in chief, like Samantha Barry of Glamour (who took the job in 2018), reflect a collaborative spirit between magazines at Condé Nast. Ms. Barry called it a “sharing economy,” in which editors support one another on weekly Zoom calls with Ms. Wintour or via text messages. (Of the editors-only group chat, Ms. Jones of Vanity Fair said, “it is a great resource and it gives me great joy.”)

“I think that might be a bit different to the way it was in the ’90s,” Ms. Barry said.

But the editors are sharing content, too — cover shoots and interviews — a strategy that has been underway since 2018 and that was also employed at Hearst (where different editions of Harper’s Bazaar share content, for example) and the former Time Inc. (where the international InStyles also shared).

In practice, this has meant a marriage of the previously separate sister companies of Condé Nast and Condé Nast International, centralizing power in New York and creating redundancies. Many magazine employees interviewed for this article have been told they have to reapply for their roles, and said that their titles were expecting significant layoffs, to be announced in July.

This is not the case for titles like Vogue Scandinavia, which will have its debut in August and is one of 14 Vogues that are licensed by Condé Nast to regional partners and therefore not under the company’s editorial control. (In the curious case of Vogue Netherlands, the license is held by the local arm of Hearst.) Titles like Vogue Paris, Vogue Spain and Vogue Germany will likely fall under the control of Edward Enninful, who became Vogue’s European editorial director in December. Some top spots, like the editorship of Vogue India, are unfilled.

The cost savings are obvious, but though the internal letter said the pandemic had shown how operations can be “more decentralized, more democratic, open to more voices than we’ve been in the past,” critics of the decision charge that the planned consolidation risks the opposite: that by centralizing power in the hands of a few, it devalues local voices, cultures and nuance, and turns the editors into figureheads, often with big followings on social platforms but little actual decision-making power.

“You can’t just be a symbol,” said Ms. Shulman, of British Vogue. “If you don’t really have independence and you don’t have authority, what are you?”

Mr. Picardi, who was briefly the head of Teen Vogue, noted the risks of the “glass cliff” effect, whereby executives may be more willing to extend opportunities to a more diverse pool of job candidates at moments when there is nothing left to lose.

“It felt like we were being invited to a party, but once we got there, it was actually a funeral,” said Mr. Picardi, who is headed to Harvard Divinity School in the fall. “And we were totally ill dressed for the occasion.”

There are those who mourn the end of the empires and the loss of associated power (that’s history for you), but it is also true that with creative destruction comes opportunity — and the chance to rethink what is relevant.

Different by Design

It was Lindsay Peoples Wagner’s “childhood dream” to become an editor, she said. And she became one in 2018, running Teen Vogue until earlier this year, when she was named editor of The Cut. But for a long time, she didn’t think she’d get there.

“I always felt like I would never become an editor in chief, because I’ve always been incredibly unapologetically Black in any space, and a lot of what fashion has done is diversity on the surface,” said Ms. Peoples Wagner, who in 2020 co-founded the Black in Fashion Council, a group aimed at advancing Black professionals in the industry.

“I felt like an outsider, and like I wasn’t good enough or smart enough or cool enough, et cetera, because I didn’t have all the money and I didn’t have all the things that I felt like were what a traditional editor really came from.”

Today Ms. Peoples Wagner is one of the most recognizable faces of the new guard: a group of editors who may not have the same extreme personas (or budgets) of their predecessors, but also don’t really care.

Instead they care about inclusion, representation and accountability. The biggest threat to their reputation is being seen as elitist or egocentric or a bad boss — the traits most associated with the old guard of magazine editors. When younger people ask her for advice, Ms. Peoples Wagner tells them to “be hungry to do the work and less thirsty for attention.”

“It’s never been about solely my opinion or my vision,” she said. “I’ve been very explicit in this job and my last job at Teen Vogue: We’re a team. You don’t work for me, we work together.”

When Ms. Sharma took over Teen Vogue, that was the kind of editor she thought about emulating, not any of the famous “old-school greats, or however they were perceived,” she said.

“I want to be seen as a thoughtful leader — somebody who is thoughtful about the editorial decisions that we’re making, who we’re putting on the covers, and then also internally with the treatment of staff,” Ms. Sharma said. “I think that’s something the new generation of editors is more openly concerned with than the past: actually being good managers.”

The new guard isn’t made up of only millennials. Those at the top of some of the biggest magazines — Mr. Enninful, Ms. Nasr and Ms. Jones — have all worked in publishing for decades but approached their roles with a similar viewpoint about inclusion.

“I wanted to do the job as myself, not in imitation of someone else,” said Ms. Jones, who started at Vanity Fair in late 2017, and whose first priority was to “modernize the magazine” by changing its roster of cover stars, contributors, photographers and staff. “I didn’t want to try to imprint myself on some model of what an editor in chief had been, because I think that part of the goal for me was to expand the notion of who might be an editor in chief.”

The new guard also does not want the lifestyle presented in their publications to seem overly aspirational or exclusive. When Ms. Barry became the editor of Glamour, she promised coverage to any designer who extended their size range.

She followed in the footsteps of Atoosa Rubenstein, the editor of Seventeen from 2003 to 2006, who was one of the first to put “real girls in her pages, moving away from what she called the “very white and skinny and model-y and airbrushed” standard in magazines.

At the time, Ms. Rubenstein was “toeing the line between old school and new school,” she said. Her concerns over inclusivity ended with her readers, not her staff.

“I let corporate sort of handle that end of things, and my eye was almost 100 percent on the product,” said Ms. Rubenstein. “I think I would be different today.”

Still, Ms. Rubenstein said she misses the days of editors having big personalities and distinct styles. “Those were our heroes and our icons, and I don’t think that’s the case anymore,” she said. “This layer of aspiration and dreamery has lifted.”

As a pre-recession editor, she also misses her driver, her regular hair and makeup appointments ahead of TV appearances and events, her clothing allowance.

The youngest editors of the new guard have no such perks. Though they’re aware of the bottomless expense accounts and glamorous big-budget travel of old, they aren’t clamoring for that part of the job.

This month, instead of boarding a flight to Paris for the haute couture shows, Ms. Peoples Wagner is heading to the Midwest.

“I’m going home to see my family,” she said. “I need to be around regular people.”

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