Inside Story

Frocks, sweat and tears

Why have so many people put so much effort into the world’s most famous fashion magazine?

Diana Bagnall Books 30 April 2021 2084 words

Micromanager: Vogue’s long-running editor-in-chief Edna Woolman Chase with the magazine’s art director. George Karger/Pix Inc/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Glossy: The Inside Story of Vogue
By Nina-Sophia Miralles | Quercus | $32.99 | 330 pages

Does anyone else remember the first time they picked up a copy of Vogue? You’d probably be of a certain age, as the French say. For me, it was the mid 1970s. I was seventeen and oblivious to how the fashion world turned except when it involved Levi jeans and Hang Ten t-shirts. I might have remained oblivious had I not acquired a boyfriend with an English mother who got about the house in a Jaeger suit matched with Scottish knitwear and pearls. I didn’t need to ask why she always bought the latest issue of British Vogue: I could see it helped dull the pain of her exile from Knightsbridge and Piccadilly.

Whenever we went to visit, I’d grab a magazine to shield myself from the pain and awkwardness in the room, flicking through the ads and fashion till I got to the stories. I might read about a civil war in Latin America or morality and manners in the Outer Hebrides or… honestly, I don’t remember most of the subjects, but I’ve never forgotten the voice. Polished, witty, literate, knowledgeable, superior. I read a lot and the Vogue voice — which other glamorous titles used too — etched itself on my brain.

A decade later, when I wrote my first stories for Vogue Australia as a freelancer in Paris, I was hoping to replicate that worldliness. My personal fashion sense was never going to pass muster — couturiers Azzedine Alaïa and Franco Moschino must have been highly amused at the appearance of the young woman sent to interview them — but I could try to sound the part.

By the time I left the magazine in 1992, having worked on several of its titles, I was disabused of the notion that writing added any value to the product. Fashion editors talked about doing a little black dress story, or a weekend away story, or maybe a leisurewear story (activewear was yet to come), and these were the stories that counted. Everything else was just text. “How will we illustrate it?” was the usual response to any idea from the features department. Over its 125-year history, though, some very fine writers have taken the Vogue coin. A roll call would include Virginia Woolf, another Wolfe (Tom), Rebecca West, Aldous Huxley, Nancy Mitford and Jeanette Winterson.

You won’t find feature writing mentioned in Glossy, Nina-Sophia Miralles’s new history of the magazine, but nor does Miralles mention models or fashion trends as such. What interests her is how the magazine evolved from a Manhattan society gazette into one of the world’s most recognised brands, and the people who drove and profited from its growth, who managed it through war and economic downturns, and who pushed through to the top of a company that demands crazy degrees of loyalty from its staff.

Thus far, Vogue — once a magazine, now a self-styled global brand — has prospered in good times and in bad. In what counts as a very bad time, quite possibly the end times for glossy magazines, Vogue is one of the few structures still standing in the ruined landscape of old media. It struts its stuff, shapeshifting with the times and technology, still recognisably Vogue, haughty, never naughty and, most importantly, with never a hint of self-doubt.

Vogue was born during the Gilded Age. Its founder, Arthur Turnure (no, not Condé Nast — he was Vogue’s second owner), came from old New York money but had an eye on the new money pouring into Manhattan. His publishing formula, which still holds good, was one part entitled to one part aspirational. Miralles describes how, from the first issue of 17 December 1892, Turnure nailed his market. “With one paper he seduced two social groups: middle class readers would buy it so they could finally see what the rich and distinguished were up to and upper class readers would buy it to feed their egos.”

Miralles’s profile describes her as a London-based fashion and arts writer who launched LONDNR, an online culture magazine, in 2015. Her style is breezy and palatable, her narrative rich in detail and anecdote, and she doesn’t ask too many hard questions. But this is not Vogue propaganda; it is a well-researched biography of the queen of fashion titles, relying heavily on the memoirs and biographies of former editors, proprietors and fashion luminaries.

The focus is on the big three — American, British and French Vogue. New York is where the power lies, and American Vogue has always had the biggest budgets, the most formidable editors, the final say. But the London and Paris offices, established in 1916 and 1922 respectively, sound like a lot more fun.

The Newhouse family, which bought Condé Nast’s company in 1959, launched Vogue Australia that same year. They asked a gregarious shoe-and-textiles salesman, Bernie Leser, to help them. Together with his editor, Sheila Scotter, this most unlikely of publishers made a huge success of the venture. Leser’s star rose in the corporation until in 1987 he was appointed president of Condé Nast in the United States. Forget Nicole and Elle. Bernie — everyone called him Bernie — was the most influential Australian in the magazine’s history.

I remember him visiting the Vogue office in Sydney with Si Newhouse Jr, maybe for the thirtieth anniversary bash in 1989. He wanted to trade memories of growing up in Auckland with me. Did I remember the Tudor cinema in Remuera? I did. Had I rolled Jaffas down the aisles? I had. He didn’t tell me that he’d arrived in New Zealand in 1939 as a fourteen-year-old refugee from Nazi Germany — and though I sensed he was an outsider, I didn’t ask. We didn’t have much else in common. I was a Vogue writer, and Vogue’s top brass, including fashion editorial, have a polite but profound indifference to the written word.

Miralles covers Vogue Australia in two scant pages dealing with Bernie, and Norman Parkinson’s first golden cover photo. Other editions of Vogue get even shorter shrift. The Condé Nast licensing strategy is described in an extended paragraph, and it’s not complicated. Emerging economy grows a middle class. Vogue — created by the smart set for the smart set — sweeps in to tempt the newly created wealth. Same formula applied in Brazil, Korea, China, Turkey and so on. It works. And until very recently it seemed immune to cultural pushback.

Of the many anecdotes Miralles recounts in Glossy, there’s one that really sticks in my mind. It features Edna Woolman Chase, editor-in-chief of American Vogue from 1914 to 1952 (you read that correctly) and the treatment she meted out to Alison Settle.

Settle was appointed editor of British Vogue in 1926, replacing Dorothy Todd, who had edited the magazine from 1922 to 1926 with her girlfriend, a wealthy Australian tearaway called Madge Garland (née McHarg). The magazines produced in those four years are now celebrated as avant-garde masterpieces, but Todd and her entourage (Bloomsbury — say no more) were too much trouble for the Americans. Chase fired her and hired Settle to steady the ship. Settle’s personal life was conventional, and she brought solid experience in journalism to the job.

Not that Vogue had much use for the latter. Little in the British edition was homegrown. Covers came from New York, pictures from Paris. Settle’s job was to see and be seen at a relentless round of dinners, parties, dress shows, performances, sporting events… It was exhausting, but then editing Vogue has never been for homebodies. It’s no surprise to read that Chase considered it Settle’s “duty” to become good friends with Helena Rubinstein (who took out double-page spreads for her beauty products). But the degree to which she micromanaged her editor’s private life is pretty horrifying.

When Chase learned that Settle, a widow with two children, lived in Hampstead and caught the tube to work, she read her the riot act. “In one of her more draconian moments,” writes Miralles, she declared that “Hampstead was essentially vulgar and Settle was forbidden from living there.” (The kiss of death for a story proposal at Vogue Living, I recall, was to be judged suburban.) Settle was ordered to find a flat with a uniformed porter and a lift. She complied, moving to Mayfair and leaving her children behind in Hampstead. On her next visit to London, Chase reportedly found the Mayfair flat unsatisfactory and told her to move again.

Settle was caught in “the Vogue vice grip,” as Miralles calls it. Some handle it better than others. Settle left Vogue under a cloud in the mid 1930s, and went back to Fleet Street. In a letter to her daughter, cited by Miralles, she said working for the Observer gave her a cleaner conscience. I cheered for Settle, but she was quickly replaced.

Condé Nast proprietors play favourites, and for those who make the cut, the lifestyle is princely. Art director Alexander Liberman was rewarded handsomely for his friendship with Si Newhouse, earning US$1 million a year in 1980. He stayed with the company for more than fifty years. Anna Wintour has been the editor-in-chief of American Vogue since 1988 and has outflanked all her rivals. Her annual salary is reportedly US$4 million, and at seventy-one she shows no sign of abdicating. Miralles is good on Nuclear Wintour, as she was known during her tenure at British Vogue.

The final few chapters of Glossy will interest those who want to know the nitty-gritty of the reign of Wintour and her generation, and to learn how the magazine is coping with the media climate since 2000. But the problem isn’t just the internet: fashion as an industry is facing serious consumer resistance right now, and Vogue’s trajectory is twinned with the industry’s.

I found more to enjoy in Miralles’s back catalogue: the twentieth-century chronicles of Vogue when it was just a magazine. I learned of editors who will never be household names again, some from surprisingly modest backgrounds, whose resourcefulness made small fortunes for Condé Nast (the man rather than the company). I didn’t know, for example, that Chase “invented” the catwalk show (it’s a great story) when the outbreak of war in 1914 choked supply from Paris ateliers.

There are some great characters in Vogue’s management too. Miralles tells of the extraordinary efforts of Harry Yoxall, the managing director of British Vogue, to get copies of the magazine out around the country during the second world war. In Paris, meanwhile, Michel de Brunhoff showed the ingenuity of a Resistance fighter in keeping Vogue Paris out of the hands of the Nazis. “Exactly what motivated everyone in this herculean effort is another question entirely,” Miralles comments in one of her few, albeit gentle, digs at the idea of a fashion magazine as a cause worth supporting.

In one of her strongest chapters, Miralles takes a close look at Colombe Pringle, who in her time at the helm of Vogue Paris (1987–94) finally managed to put a black woman on the cover (a previous editor had been fired by the Newhouses in 1966 for trying to do so). Pringle then followed up with holiday issues featuring the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela. Miralles asks whether fashion should be political, but backs away from answering the question. Vogue Paris seems to have been much less a vassal of New York than London was. But then, in 2017, it was the British edition that broke the mould most spectacularly by appointing Edward Enninful — not only a man but a gay black man — as editor-in-chief.

Vogue is a business, and you can bet that Enninful’s appointment reflected business priorities that have been clear from the outset. Condé Nast was firstly an ad man — his soulmates, says Miralles, were in the advertising department. The Nast business model, which came to be used everywhere, never saw magazine sales as the end game. They were just a number to throw at advertisers to lure them into spending money. Condé Nast’s guidelines are that 40 per cent of the “book” should be advertising. Well, that worked brilliantly for a long time, but we know now that it isn’t foolproof.

Still, Vogue has a lucrative niche on the top shelf. Some of its current advertisers (Tiffany & Co., Veuve Clicquot and Perrier Jouët) have been buying space since the first issue. Miralles finds some comfort in noting that the habits of the ultra-rich haven’t changed all that much. I can’t say that I do. •