I Was Australia’s Anna Wintour
It was 10 a.m. on a Wednesday. I had a scheduled meeting with Nicole Sheffield, the newly appointed CEO of NewsLifeMedia, the company owned by Rupert Murdoch that had held the license for Vogue in Australia since 2007. We had met only once before, a quick and pleasant chat in her office in March a few weeks after she had started.
I had been working at Vogue Australia for twenty-five years and in the editor’s chair for thirteen. She was my eighth CEO. Magazines were going through a tough time in the face of a digital onslaught, but Vogue was faring better than others. Circulation was steady, subscriptions and readership were at an all-time high, we reached our advertising targets each month and held the greater market share. We had also been voted Magazine of the Year the previous November at the annual Australian Magazine Awards, and were commended by industry leaders for our consistent excellence, innovation, and quality. Given that Nicole had less experience in luxury publishing, in particular Vogue, I anticipated she would value my input.
I took the elevator up to the second floor without any inkling of what was about to happen. Her assistant looked jumpy.
“Hi, I’m here for my meeting with Nicole,” I said cheerily.
“Yes, they’re in there,” she said, pointing towards a usually unoccupied office, quite clearly not Nicole’s. Something was up.
The realization began to dawn. It dripped down from my head to my toes in slow motion, as if treacle had been poured over me. I walked in and saw the human resources director sitting at the table with a folder and a jug of water, one of those cheap ones pretending to be a Georg Jensen. The presence of HR always meant bad news. Nicole was shifting in her chair, shooting longing glances at the open door—clearly in a hurry to do what she had come here for. I knew exactly what was going to happen.
“You’re kidding,” I said calmly.
“I’m sure this is a shock, but I just think we need new leadership,” Nicole said in rapid-fire. “Condé Nast are in full support of this.” Condé Nast International is the parent company of Vogue Australia, and an organization I had developed a strong relationship with over the years. Nicole repeated that Condé Nast knew all about it, probably thinking I was going to put up a protest and try to get the chairman, Jonathan Newhouse, on speed dial.
But for some reason I felt strangely relieved. There had been increasing pressure on the brand, with reduced budgets and pages, and the retrenching of crucial editorial staff. The holy mantra was “digital” and we had been waiting endlessly for funding to progress and evolve, but it felt as if the magazine itself was regarded as a burden. No one wanted to listen to my views on the importance of maintaining quality or protecting the brand. Not even Condé Nast. I was however, stunned by their lack of loyalty. Obviously their main interest was the licensing checks.
I decided not to let a wonderful, stimulating quarter-century at Vogue be diminished. How you conduct yourself on the way out is more important than how you went in. It didn’t occur to me to ask who the new “leader” would be. I really didn’t care. Nicole had at this point left the room anyway, and I was faced with a scarlet-faced HR director who instructed me to leave the building immediately without speaking to my team—my amazing and loyal colleagues, some of whom I had worked with for more than thirteen years, and many of whom would also be shown the door shortly afterwards.
The whole episode was devoid of any graciousness, and perfectly reflective of a new mood in publishing. As I picked up my handbag and walked out the door, I turned my phone on silent and braced myself for the media who would swoop like vultures.
The Vogue I knew was over.
An excerpt from Kirstie Clements’s The Vogue Factor published by Chronicle Books.