Vogue magazine has long been at the forefront of the fashion industry, forecasting trends that the rest of the world follows. But now, the magazine is in the rare position of working to get ahead of a cultural moment in which the fashion industry—and its publications—are being indicted for their treatment of the black talent in its ranks.
Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue since 1988 after being in the same at British Vogue from 1985 to 1987, also became artistic director for parent company Condé Nast in 2013. In that time, the Vogue franchise has been perceived as progressive its elevation of black talents, which have included not only former American Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley, Wintour’s one-time righthand man who recently accused her of callously discarding him in his new memoir The Chiffon Trenches, but also Elaine Welteroth, who became editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue in 2016 (only the second African American to hold that title in Condé Nast 107-year history); Edward Enninful, editor-in-chief of British Vogue since late 2017; Vanessa Kingori, Publishing Director of British Vogue since January 2018, preceded by the same role at GQ; and Lindsay Peoples Wagner, who took over the helm at Teen Vogue in late 2018.
But a staff memo from Wintour sent out last Thursday and since obtained by Page Six tells another story. In the emotional missive, the longtime figurehead of the franchise—who lobbied for Joe Biden to pick a woman of color as his running mate in her May 31 editor’s letter—admits that the magazine has been “hurtful and intolerant” to its black community, in particular.
“I want to start by acknowledging your feelings and expressing my empathy towards what so many of you are going through: sadness, hurt, and anger too,” wrote Wintour. “I want to say this especially to the Black members of our team—I can only imagine what these days have been like. But I also know that the hurt, and violence, and injustice we’re seeing and talking about have been around for a long time. Recognizing it and doing something about it is overdue.
Wintour’s words were confirmed in a Twitter thread by fashion historian and former Vogue media planner Shelby Ivey Christie on Tuesday, who described her time at the magazine as “the most challenging [and] miserable time of her career.” Among the “thankless work” she describes were expectations that she work around the clock, including Saturdays and Sundays spent in the office and at least one case of being scapegoated for the error of a superior. Christie also describes a racially offensive incident which was reported by black staffers but received an inadequate response from human resources at the company and implies that the severances of many departing staff may have been conditional upon signing NDAs, effectively muting them on speaking out on these and other pervasive issues at Vogue and other Condé Nast imprints. Several of her claims were corroborated in online responses from other black women.
“I want to say plainly that I know Vogue has not found enough ways to elevate and give space to Black editors, writers, photographers, designers and other creators,” Wintour’s note to staff continued. “We have made mistakes too, publishing images or stories that have been hurtful or intolerant. I take full responsibility for those mistakes.
“It can’t be easy to be a Black employee at Vogue, and there are too few of you. 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. I am listening and would like to hear your feedback and your advice if you would like to share either.”
If Wintour can acknowledge that there are too few black employees at her imprint—and far too few black talents featured on the highly influential platform she’s managed for over 30 years, surely she knew that before last Thursday; in fact, well before George Floyd lost his life at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. In fact, if the fashion industry is “one of the greatest racial oppressors in the world,” as alleged by Business of Fashion writers Jason Campbell and Henrietta Gallina, then surely with her unparalleled influence, Wintour is a perpetrator, even if only by her willful obliviousness. Now, however, she has been galvanized—or perhaps, shamed—into action.
“I am proud of the content we have published on our site over these past few days but I also know that there is much more work to do,” she says. “Please don’t hesitate to be in touch with me directly. I am arranging ways we can discuss these issues together candidly, but in the meantime, I welcome your thoughts or reactions.”
To be fair, the problems at Condé Nast extend well beyond Vogue. In fact, on Monday, Adam Rapoport, editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit, resigned amid revelations of old photos of him wearing brownface as part of a costume, as reported by the New York Post, which also notes the incident as “compounding a race-based controversy over pay equity in Condé Nast’s video division.” Following Rapoport’s resignation, former Condé Nast editor Elizabeth Thompson tweeted that the publisher held a “company-wide Town Hall” on Tuesday, in which they announced plans to “conduct internal ‘studies’ about diversity and pay equity” and to “take action ‘by the end of summer.’” Understandably, the declaration gave many the impression that these issues may not be as urgent as the higher-ups’ summer holiday plans.
More tellingly, CEO Roger Lynch seemed to equally place blame on the purported victims during the meeting, saying that “I think if people had used the internal channels and raised concerns about this earlier on, we would’ve been able to address them.” While Lynch was reportedly referencing the issues at Bon Appétit, Elaine Welteroth was among those who called bullshit on his rhetoric, after apparently also calling out several of Condé’s shortcomings in her bestselling 2019 memoir, More Than Enough.
Are these issues that can be solved with a “study”? Or does there need to be a massive overhaul in Condé Nast’s policies, initiatives and culture that starts from the top down? It remains to be seen if any more resignations will be required, but if Wintour’s accepting responsibility, she’s also making her best effort at damage control, writing: “This is a historic and heartbreaking moment for our country and it should be a time of listening, reflection, and humility for those of us in positions of privilege and authority. It should also be a time of action and commitments. On a corporate level, work is being done to support organizations in a real way. These actions will be announced as soon as possible.”