Under the Cover: Will Condé Nast's Reckoning With Race Leave an Indelible Imprint on Anna Wintour's Legacy?

Anna Wintour attends the 2020 amfAR New York Gala on February 05, 2020, in New York City.
Anna Wintour attends the 2020 amfAR New York Gala on February 05, 2020, in New York City.
Photo: Theo Wargo (Getty Images)

One of the buzziest stories of the past weekend was no doubt old news to many Black journalists, particularly those who’ve spent time at Condé Nast—or, “Condé Nasty,” the moniker repeated in a Saturday New York Times article titled “The White Issue: Has Anna Wintour’s Diversity Push Come Too Late?” As the media world experienced an onslaught of “outings” of longstanding racial bias, racist behavior and equity issues this spring, Wintour, Condé Nast’s global artistic director as well as the now-legendary editor-in-chief of American Vogue, was among the most notable personality to offer an apology and acknowledgment of her shortcomings during her 32-year tenure of the 127-year-old magazine. As The Glow Up previously reported, Wintour wrote a memo to staff in which she admitted to ignoring or sidelining Black talent, as well as publishing”hurtful or intolerant” content over her years at the helm.

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“It can’t be easy to be a Black employee at Vogue, and there are too few of you,” she wrote in part, adding, “I know that it is not enough to say we will do better, but we will—and please know that I value your voices and responses as we move forward.”

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With that in mind, one must wonder how much value Wintour will see in the intel at least 18 people currently working for or formerly employed by Condé Nast gave when interviewed by media reporter Edmund Lee for the Times. Eleven of those interviewed were of the opinion that “Ms. Wintour should no longer be in charge of Vogue and should give up her post as Condé Nast’s editorial leader.”

Lee also reported:

As Ms. Wintour ascended, Vogue’s publication of “hurtful or intolerant” content rarely resulted in lasting negative attention for her. But Black journalists who have worked with Ms. Wintour, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution, said they had not gotten over their experiences at a magazine whose workplace mirrored its exclusive pages.

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Their main accusation was that Ms. Wintour created a work environment — and there is no facet of Vogue that she does not control—that sidelined and tokenized women of color, especially Black women...Many Black people who worked for her said they felt so out of place in Ms. Wintour’s domain that they created white alter egos—two used the term “doppelgänger”—just to get through the workday, reconditioning their presentation and dress in a way that was mentally draining.

No doubt the “Hope”-themed cover American Vogue published in September, the second of four consecutive covers featuring Black images or talent—Simone Biles, Lizzo and artist Kerry James Marshall among them—struck many as more hypocritical than hopeful. While the more generous among Wintour’s critics deemed it an “an awkward, though heartfelt, attempt at genuine change,” others who have been in her employ “saw her apology as hypocritical, part of a calculated play by an executive known for her ability to gauge the public mood,” giving the longstanding rumors of Wintour’s Devil Wears Prada-like persona a far more sinister tone.

This was intensified by accounts of troubling rhetoric from Wintour and some of her closest colleagues, like the email Wintour wrote in reference to a 2017 cover under consideration featuring two darkskinned, headscarf-adorned models. “Don’t mean to use an inappropriate word, but pica ninny [sic] came to mind,” she said. Presumably, she also didn’t mean to be inappropriate when she “requested that a specific Black staff member evaluate the photo shoot. The employee, an assistant, told her superiors that the work was fine. The real problem, she continued, according to several people familiar with the meeting, was why a low-ranked person such as herself had been asked to assess it,” the Times reports.

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Wintour apologized in a statement, maintaining that she “was trying both to express [her] concern for how our readers could have interpreted a photo and raise the issue for discussion.” Nevertheless, the Times picked up on other racially charged commentary from former top staff members, including former Executive Fashion Editor Phyllis Posnick, who reportedly said of the 2016 electoral results, “It’s all the Blacks’ fault. They didn’t vote.” Grace Coddington, the famed former creative director at large (who made headlines last year when she was photographed in her home with a collection of vintage “Mammy” cookie jars in the background), reportedly also relied on racist tropes when speaking about Rihanna’s delayed arrival to a Vogue event, saying “Black people are late everywhere.” Both women have vehemently denied making such comments, despite multiple reports to the contrary.

Of course, not all who have worked with Wintour were indicting. Naomi Campbell, who first appeared on the cover of Vogue in September of 1989 and is currently on the October cover, credits Wintour with being “a very important factor in my career and my life and has been honest about what she can do and what she cannot.” Teen Vogue Editor-in-Chief Lindsay People Wagner was more diplomatic in her response, telling the Times Wintour “has given me opportunities in leadership, and I’ve made inclusivity a deep part of the conversations we’re having.”

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After decades at the helm, inclusivity is now an unavoidable part of Wintour’s conversations, too—with tangible (albeit long overdue) results, claims Condé Nast. “Anna and Vogue and all the leaders at our brands have made concerted efforts to build inclusion into all we do every day,” the company said in a statement, adding that “42 percent of its editors in chief were now people of color—all of them put in place by Ms. Wintour.”

Speaking for herself, Wintour said in an emailed statement: “I strongly believe that the most important thing any of us can do in our work is to provide opportunities for those who may not have had access to them. Undoubtedly, I have made mistakes along the way, and if any mistakes were made at Vogue under my watch, they are mine to own and remedy and I am committed to doing the work.”

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up, co-host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door...May I borrow some sugar?

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DISCUSSION

I’m over it. Just come out and say it, Condé Nasties: It’s about money. It’s always about money with you. Blatant racism is becoming bad for business, boo-hoo!