Now seems as apt a time as ever to re-run an article that famed critic, Cathy Horyn, penned in December 2008 for the New York Times. Entitled," What’s Wrong With Vogue?," the article, while obviously time-stamped due, in part, to its talk of Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour's rumored impending ousting in favor of then French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld, seems to have withstood the test of time for the most part. Many of the salient points that Horyn makes are still remarkably accurate, although the specifics differ a bit.
Back then, Horyn took issue with the magazine’s “too many stories about socialites,” including “staff-member accounts of spa treatments and haircuts.” Skip forward to today and such reader-alienating articles take the form of those describing the extravagant trips you must take before you're 30-years old and a particularly “patronizing” one (yes, that is what one popular web-based publication called it) that set out the do’s and don’ts of using Instagram. The latter article was authored by Hayley Bloomingdale, the 29-year-old heiress to Bloomingdale's department stores and an editor for Moda Operandi. These articles seem to highlight the same weakness that Vogue demonstrated years ago: More often than not, it is woefully out of touch.
Another point of issue: “Many do not seem to know how to relate to women in their 20s, except to throw celebrity pictures and clothes at them.” And not much has changed here. While Vogue has made enormous progress in terms of the digital sphere, where 20-somethings live, they are still largely catering to younger people by way of celebrities. That Kimye cover. Rihanna’s fourth cover, which debuts for April. The endless number of editorials and videos featuring Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner, including the “special” Kendall Jenner supplement, which will accompany the upcoming April issue. I guess some things never change.
Here is Horyn’s article from December 2008 …
NO one at Vogue, least of all its editor in chief, Anna Wintour, could have been seriously stung by a recent letter from a reader complaining that the magazine was in a rut. After all, Ms. Wintour chose to publish the letter, which chided the magazine for featuring the same women — “Gwyneth Paltrow, Caroline Trentini, Gisele Bündchen, Nicole Kidman, Sienna Miller, blah, blah, blah,” as the reader, Kathryn Williams of San Diego, said. “I could make a calendar of your cover girls, and it would probably repeat year after year.” She added: “Let’s face it: Vogue is getting a bit stale. It is a pity, too — because the magazine is still much better than the others.”
What is remarkable — given the rumors last month that Ms. Wintour was going to be replaced by the French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld — is that she was able to include not merely a critical view but one that accurately identifies the problem with the magazine. Vogue has become stale and predictable, and it has happened in spite of some of the best editors, writers and photographers in the business. And it has happened in spite of a leader who “only cares what readers care about,” according to a long-time staff member.
Because of her intimidating presence, heightened by an almost unvarying personal style — the bob, the sunglasses, the extra armor of her Cheeverish clothes — Ms. Wintour, 59, is considered the ultimate fashion editor. In fact, her instincts are really those of a journalist. She has periodically updated Vogue over the last 20 years to reflect changes in the world and in women’s lives. She has introduced new photographers, beginning in the late 1980s with Peter Lindbergh and Steven Meisel. At the same time she has a deep respect for the work of Irving Penn, as if she knows that Mr. Penn, however contemporary his pictures, is part of the mysterious link to Vogue’s — and fashion’s — past.
“That’s the main reason I keep looking in the magazine, to see a photograph by Penn,” said Magnus Berger, an editor in his 30s who, with Tenzin Wild, recently started a publication called The Last Magazine, an oversize journal that is a blend of art book and newspaper and which its founders hope will be a platform for young talent.
This sense of history, which enriches Vogue, is much less evident today in other fashion glossies. It has been nearly wiped away at Harper’s Bazaar.
An avid follower of politics, as well as sports, she has broadened Vogue’s coverage in both arenas and put a first lady on the cover. It was one of the first national publications to write about Sarah Palin. For all the fantasy in Vogue, especially the fairy-tale kind produced by Grace Coddington, the creative director, and Annie Leibovitz, the magazine is actually quite serious. There are things to read, long pieces, from writers with distinct voices: Julia Reed on politics, Jeffrey Steingarten on food, Sarah Mower on the Paris collections.
And unlike many of her rivals, Ms. Wintour, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has largely resisted the pressure to break down content to lists and small bites. Though this faster, drive-thru approach to editorial consumption may be what more people want.
According to a writer at Condé Nast, who requested anonymity because he works at a sister publication, “Anna’s two great talents are that she understands her readers and she speaks with this incredible authority to advertisers.” Indeed, as the writer points out, Condé Nast, having monopolized high-end magazines, has a rather odd relationship with luxury advertisers — which is that these advertisers cannot afford to go somewhere else, bad economy or not. Luxury brands haven’t yet found a formula for success in digital media. Their relationship, then, with Condé Nast creates an “interesting ecology,” as the writer put it. “They keep each other in business.”
Meanwhile, though, many people have all but abandoned traditional media for Web sites and blogs. This is the locus of Ms. Wintour’s harshest critics and where rumors first surfaced that she was going to be replaced by the 50ish Ms. Roitfeld, who has made French Vogue exciting in part by drawing on the sexiness of her own act. She knows how to play with fashion’s self-referential habits.
The rumors were silly — Ms. Roitfeld runs a magazine with a circulation of 133,000, in contrast to American Vogue’s 1.2 million. But silly or not, they were extravagantly denied by Condé Nast, which took out a two-page ad in The New York Times to show Ms. Wintour’s record. It cited figures showing that Vogue had the highest number of advertising pages of any fashion magazine. Yet, in 2008, Vogue’s ad pages were down 9.6 percent, Mediaweek said, compared with an average 8 percent decline for other fashion magazines. Rivals like Elle and Harper’s Bazaar, which have adopted a pell-mell style that encourages value-for-money nibbling, have fared better. The very qualities that set Vogue apart — consummate fashion judgment, a comfortableness with ideas in the shallow pool of celebrity and weight-loss articles — now seem to be narrowing its view, like an aperture shutting down.
There are too many stories about socialites — or, at any rate, too few such stories that sufficiently demonstrate why we should care about these creatures. What once felt like a jolly skip through Bergdorf now feels like an intravenous feed. To read Vogue in recent years is to wonder about the peculiar fascination for the “villa in Tuscany” story. Ditto staff-member accounts of spa treatments and haircuts.
It’s embarrassing to see how Vogue deals with the recession. For the December issue, it sent a writer off to discover the “charms” of Wal-Mart and Target. A similar obtuseness permeates a fashion spread in the January issue, where a model and a child are portrayed on a weekend outing with a Superman figure. Is a ’50s suburban frock emblematic of the mortgage meltdown?
To ask what works in Vogue is in a sense to ask the same of all fashion magazines. Many do not seem to know how to relate to women in their 20s, except to throw celebrity pictures and clothes at them. Although the median age of its readers has hovered around 34 since Ms. Wintour became editor, in 1988, you don’t feel that the magazine has considered how changes like social networks and Web-based subcultures have influenced women’s ideas about themselves. This lack of awareness is reflected in Vogue’s pages.
Also, people are likely to be short of money in the coming years. Vogue, along with the fashion industry, must find a way to deal with this reality, said Grace Mirabella, who ran Vogue for 17 years until she was replaced by Ms. Wintour. “You’ve got a fashion market that doesn’t know how to do good, inexpensive clothes,” she said. “That is something which should stop whether there is a recession or not.”
The critic Vince Aletti, who is a curator of “Weird Beauty,” an exhibition of recent fashion images that will open this month at the International Center of Photography, thinks that Vogue under Ms. Wintour is still the leader in a lot of ways. “For me any magazine that publishes Penn is great, and she has been publishing some amazing work by Annie Leibovitz,” he said. Referring to Condé Nast, he added: “I think they would be crazy to get rid of Wintour, although I think the magazine needs something different. I don’t think it’s a bad-looking magazine, but it hasn’t changed in quite some time in a significant way.”
To people inside Condé Nast, like Michael Roberts, the fashion director of Vanity Fair and a friend of Ms. Wintour’s, it’s hard to imagine that Ms. Roitfeld would be in line to replace her unless, as he said, someone “has spiked the Kool-Aid.” If such an event were to happen, he said: “There’s a whole financial machine that would come crashing down, I would say. I’d like to see Carine talking to the people from North Beach Leather or St. John knits. It’s all very professional and businesslike at American Vogue.” As Ms. Roitfeld herself once said, with typical candor, “I’m not a business girl.”
But there is something more in Ms. Wintour’s background that makes it hard to replace her, though, inevitably, it will happen. “In newspaper terms, she is old news — the Nuclear Wintour story,” Mr. Roberts said wearily. Editors of Ms. Wintour’s generation, like the designers they champion and the photographers they protect, have a depth of knowledge not easily reproduced. Mr. Roberts said: “I’ve never seen anything from Carine that astonishes me the way that I have in American Vogue. I’ve seen kinky, sexy but not astonishing. But I did see astonishing in Vogue when Anna published a picture of Nadia Auermann having sex with a swan.” He was referring to the Helmut Newton picture from the early ’90s. That kind of subversion made American Vogue really cutting edge, Mr. Roberts said. “He’s never been replaced.”