09.11.09

How Anna Turned It 'Round

Just a few months ago, Vogue editor Anna Wintour was fighting negative press and rumors of a replacement. Then, writes Tina Brown, she came up with a plan.

Hand it to Vogue’s fêted dominatrix Anna Wintour. She took the lemons and made them into lemonade. Only three months ago, she was having to endure the nasty, rattling drip of negative press. Vogue’s ad pages were cratering. The collapse of the economy made her glossy, aloof brand look suddenly dated. Si Newhouse, chairman of Condé Nast, known for his lightning strikes on the careers of even his seemingly safest executives, was supposed to be shopping for younger, fresher faces from his European stable to take over the faltering flagship. Gossip columnists had begun to circle for a death watch. Behind her mysterious shades, Ms. Wintour is anything but impervious—that’s why she wears them. She’s been in America too long not to have absorbed the quintessentially American neurosis about success—fear of falling.

View Our Gallery of Fashion’s Night Out

So she took a big, bold gamble. She allowed the documentary director R.J. Cutler’s movie cameras behind the closed doors of Vogue’s offices in Times Square. It was a gamble, because few subjects of documentaries and reality-TV shows ever like what comes out at the end. The subject loses control as soon as all that random footage is filtered and shaped in the cutting room from the director’s beady point of view. Wintour’s computation—which was shrewd—was that after living through (and pretending to love) Meryl Streep’s queen bitch parody of her in The Devil Wears Prada, she had nothing to lose. She would embrace her inner vampire. Let the public see in Cutler’s movie how she daily massacres the muse of Grace Coddington, Vogue’s inspirational creative director, and sails around looking aloof in the back of her sleek black limo. At least they would also see how hard she works. She then proceeded to go on David Letterman and sell the hell out of it.

Now the movie is a hit. Anna is bigger than ever. After so much reality TV and confessional celebrity interviews, the public is tired of accessible stars. Who needs them to be Just Like Us? Just Like Us means just as boring as we are. It’s mystique today that everybody craves. What’s she really like behind the dark glasses? Anna’s appeal is that she has no interest in pretending to be human.

On Thursday night, at the opening of her brainchild and shopping extravaganza, Fashion’s Night Out, she arrived at the opening in Queens with New York’s Mayor Bloomberg, the designers Diane von Furstenberg and Michael Kors, the movie star Kate Hudson, and the cast of Hair. The crowds had been lining up to meet Anna for hours and were thrilled when she was oblivious.

“Everybody loves a bitch, and Anna Wintour was true to her image tonight,” Mary Flannelly, 66, of Rego Park, told The Daily Beast’s Isabel Wilkinson. “I had been waiting for two hours and I had my little shirt all ready. Anna comes flying in high—has she ever been to Queens before? She’s in her ivory tower, and that’s how she gets to the top. People love a bitch.”

Yes, people do. It’s so thrilling to be intimidated. But maybe Anna isn’t a bitch, just a smart, hard-headed businesswoman doing her job. While the fashion world wailed about the effect of the collapse of the economy on retail, she briskly assumed the leadership role. Fashion’s Night Out, the orgy of shopping she decreed on the eve of Fashion Week in New York, was her brainchild and her triumph. She persuaded the mayor to let the 800 stores open all night and marshaled her influence to try a self-starting stimulus package that swiftly spread, via the editors of Vogue in Europe, to Paris and Milan, too.

It was a gamble again. What if no one had come? What if those stores and boutiques and showrooms had been devoid of customers opening their wallets? But the gamble paid off—well, in turnout anyway. It was a fete de fashion that at least announced that fashion was trying to stay alive. The ka-ching of the cash registers from Manhattan’s style palaces to the knockoffs in the outer boroughs were singing all Thursday night the sweet music of commerce, even if it was only for $30 t-shirts. Von Furstenberg, her collaborator as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, told me that one of the best things about the idea was that it wrested back Fashion Week from the spectacle of those bored celebrities who sit in the front row—and restored fashion to the trade. “So she has created something that will now always be the Thursday before the shows, something as big for the fashion world as Mother’s Day is for Hallmark!” she said.

I guess you get called a bitch when you get things done.

Tina Brown is the founder and editor in chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A With Tina Brown.