French Vogue Editor Carine Roitfeld was the most famous editor in the business aside from Anna Wintour—until she quit. Jacob Bernstein asks industry insiders what made the rising star fall out of fashion.
What could have led to the resignation of Carine Roitfeld at French Vogue? It's a question virtually the entire fashion world has been asking since the editor announced early Friday that she'll be leaving the magazine next month.
Roitfeld said it was nothing other than an itch to do something new, a feeling that 10 years at the helm was a milestone and it was "time to do something different," she told The New York Times.
Her boss Jonathan Newhouse professed deep admiration for her, telling the Times, "It's impossible to overstate Carine's powerful contribution to Vogue and to the fields of fashion and magazine publishing." According to one person who knows both Newhouse and Roitfeld well, there was no outward indication that he’d been unhappy with French Vogue.
Still, the announcement caught everyone in the business off guard, even her closest friends. There was rampant speculation that Roitfeld was leaving to work with Tom Ford on his newly launched women’s line, but a close source in the fashion business said that’s doubtful, because Ford didn’t even find out about Roitfeld’s resignation until it was all over the Internet. Many are still questioning Roitfeld's decision to feature Ford on this month's cover—an editorial choice that didn't exactly curry favor with advertisers like Armani, Chanel, and LVMH. Roitfeld and Newhouse couldn’t be reached for comment for this story.
Ultimately, the reason for the editor's departure, said one industry source, may have been that she's simply more unhappy with the job than she cared to admit. According to this person, the increasing commercial considerations of the magazine (and her bosses at Conde Nast) began to wear on her. She didn't like having to kowtow to advertisers, and she was being pressured a bit more than in the past to get more product on the pages of her magazine, this source said. It probably didn't help matters that Roitfeld has a well-known distaste for handbags—she considers them totally unfashionable—and the entire fashion industry rests on the continuing strength of the accessories business.
Gallery: Carine Roitfeld
While almost every fashion editor these days is being forced to make harsh economic tradeoffs to keep their magazines afloat, the idea doesn't sit so well with a woman known for thumbing her nose at the establishment. When asked by New York magazine in a definitive 2008 profile whether she might be gunning for Anna Wintour's job, Roitfeld poured cold water on the idea. "I'm not a business girl, I will never be a business girl, but I will say, for Anna Wintour, that I respect successful people, I like things that are success [sic]. But this is really American."
If Roitfeld managed to succeed at French Vogue, it's largely because it was small enough and niche enough for her to recreate it in her own Helmut Newton/Yves Saint Laurent-obsessed image. Tough, sleek, shellacked in black eyeliner, Roitfeld arrived at the job after working hand-in-glove with Ford in the mid-'90s to recreate Gucci as the ne plus ultra of jet-set fashion. And her style hasn't changed much since she got to French Vogue. The good thing about that, said Michael Roberts, the former fashion director of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, is that "There is not one person who cannot identify a Carine Roitfeld photograph." The bad thing, he said, is that "it can also get you into a kind of cul de sac. It doesn't go anywhere after that."
Roitfeld has a well-known distaste for handbags—and the entire fashion industry rests on the continuing strength of the accessories business.
The sniping hasn't been limited to Roitfield's aggressive, angular fashion sense. There have also been complaints about the lucrative work she has booked as a stylist doing ad campaigns—work she continued to accept long past the time she was made editor of French Vogue. Earlier this year, the entire French Vogue staff was disinvited from Balenciaga's fashion show after Max Mara began selling a coat that looked remarkably similar to a Balenciaga that Roitfeld had recently borrowed for a photo shoot. "I think that if Conde Nast had any issue with her," said one colleague in the business, "it's the consulting work."
And then there was Roitfeld's penchant for doing photo shoots that were "controversial" but somewhat lacking in a coherent message—like one recent spread in which a white model was done up in blackface, and another that featured photos of pregnant models smoking cigarettes. The most recent issue even featured a shoot with little girls done up in sexy designer duds, prompting a certain amount of controversy online and rattling some inside and out of Conde Nast.
Still, one source cautioned against seeing her exit from French Vogue as anything resembling a career ender. "Carine is Carine," this person said. "She will land on her feet. She can go back to consulting full time and make three times what she was making at French Vogue."
Whatever the complaints against Roitfeld, most of the fashion world seemed to be mourning her exit from the magazine. As Diane von Furstenberg said, "She's a great editor. She has great style, and I thought French Vogue was great. I am so sorry to see her go. Her leaving the magazine creates a big hole."
Luckily for Conde Nast, there is no shortage of talent ready to take over the magazine. More than half a dozen candidates were being bandied about in the British papers Friday, although the three most likely seemed to be Emmanuelle Alt, French Vogue's fashion director and herself a prominent stylist for the white-hot design firm Balmain; Katie Grand, editor of Conde Nast's new coffeetable-like magazine, Love; and Virginie Mouzat, the fashion director of Le Figaro, a woman known for having a more commercial sensibility.
Given Roitfeld's bombshell this week, it's perhaps appropriate that the December/January issue now on newsstands features her old pal Ford on the cover, in a tribute to his return to womenswear. Whatever comeback Roitfeld has up her sleeve will just have to wait for another issue.
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.