Anna Wintour’s Power at the Met Gala and Beyond: Excerpt
On the evening of May 2, Anna Wintour will take her place at the top of the carpeted steps leading into New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wintour, now Condé Nast’s global chief content officer as well as the global editorial director of Vogue,She has been the host of the Met Gala since almost 30 years. She is always happy on this night, a year in the making—but this is still work. This means that every little detail has to be right.
Former Met Gala planner Stephanie Winston Wolkoff—also a former adviser to Melania Trump—describes Wintour as “militant” during the party each year. “Where is everybody? It’s time,” Wintour says to her team. “Where are they? Can you tell me where they are?” The VogueAll staff know. Every guest has a prearranged arrival time, and Wintour’s people know what cars they’ll arrive in, if they’ve left the house, what they’ll be wearing, and if they’ve broken a zipper along the way that needs to be fixed.
The gala planning begins usually in early autumn with meetings at 7 a.m. at the Met once every four to six week. In past years, the museum’s team has tried to keep the costs and footprint down, though VogueThe party has grown to the point where it is now worth 4,000 pounds. floral arrangement. As with her assistants, Wintour has had a habit of not learning the names of some at the Met that she has worked with—year after year—to plan the party, a former staff member recalls. Sometimes she addresses them as “you” and points; other times she calls them variations on their names. The Met team often laughs off her ridiculous directives. According to two people familiar with her remarks, at one point Wintour gave them the impression that she found the Temple of Dendur ugly and said she wanted to board it up, but ultimately compromised and simply had Katy Perry’s stage erected in front of it. (“Anna has been in the public eye for 30 years, speaks regularly about her life and work, and yet she has often found herself in a position in which others claim to be telling her story,” a spokesperson for Vogue“I wrote this when I was asked to comment. “Anna: The Biography was written without Anna’s participation.”)
At dinner, Wintour notices every detail. Kim Kardashian wore a customized latex Thierry Murgler dress to the Camp-themed Party in 2019 and Wintour was stern with Lisa Love, a close friend and ex-West Coast Director of Marketing. Vogue, “Can you please tell her to sit down?” Love had to explain that, actually, Kardashian physically could not sit.
Kim Kardashian is seen in a custom latex Thierry Murgler gown at the Met Gala to celebrate ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 5/6/2019 in New York City.
Neilson Barnard—Getty Images
“The only thing about the Met that I wish hadn’t happened is that it’s turned into a costume party,” designer Tom Ford says. “That used to just be very chic people wearing very beautiful clothes going to an exhibition about the 18th century. You didn’t have to look like the 18th century, you didn’t have to dress like a hamburger, you didn’t have to arrive in a van where you were standing up because you couldn’t sit down because you wore a chandelier.” (The planners often have to provide backless chairs for guests wearing gowns that won’t fit into regular seats.)
Wintour is fond of the extravagant looks. “It’s that English part of her. She loves a dress-up party,” Love says.
Katy Perry attended the Met Gala 2019 celebrating “Camp: Notes On Fashion”
Pierre Suu—GC Images/Getty Images
Continue reading:Lady Gaga wowed the Met Gala Red Carpet 2019.
A night of excess and exhibition, the Met Gala is where Wintour flaunts her dominance over an industry that’s predicated on the understanding that there is an “in” and an “out.” In Wintour’s world, people occupy those distinct buckets. Some are always “out”—low-performing assistants, the Met’s event planners who tell her she can’t hang a dropped ceiling over a priceless statue, the Hilton sisters. Some, whose success, power, creativity, and beauty are undeniable, are therefore always “in” (Ford, Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Michelle Obama). Some begin as “in” and get moved to “out” (the late André Leon Talley). Others begin as “out” and become “in” (Kardashian).
Wintour’s longevity as a fashion mega-influencer in a business that is fickle by design is unmatched, and the Met Gala is the ultimate manifestation of her power. But her selection of who’s in and who’s out—who gets her endorsement in the industry, and therefore who gets fast-tracked to success—extends far beyond the guest list.
“As much as she loves a person who has talent,” Talley said before his death, “if she does not love you, then you’re in trouble.”
Met Gala began as a fundraising event for the Costume Institute back in 1948. The party of the Year, the Met Gala was New York’s midnight dinner. In 1995, Wintour started planning the party. This was during a time when the Costume Institute wanted to create buzz again. The museum turned it into an event where celebrities called and asked for invitations. Many invitations were refused repeatedly. The celebrity guest list, carefully curated over the years by Wintour, led the Met Gala to be dubbed the “Oscars of the East Coast,” but that moniker no longer fits: in terms of the red carpet, the Met Gala now surpasses the cultural significance of the Oscars.
There have been many controversies that have only increased the excitement surrounding this annual event. In 2018, Scarlett Johansson walked the “Heavenly Bodies” carpet in one of the more demure evening gowns of the night, by Marchesa, but still caused quite a spectacle. It was the first major red-carpet appearance for the label since designer Georgina Chapman’s husband, Harvey Weinstein, had been brought down in a defining story of the decade.
Scarlett Johansson attends 2018 Met Gala wearing a Marchesa dress
Rabbani & Solimene Photography/Getty Images
The New York Times published its October 5, 2017 issue. Times had published Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s report about Weinstein’s long history of paying off sexual harassment and assault accusers. This was then followed by an explosive report in the Daily Mail five days later. New YorkerRonan Farrow’s report, which included additional harmful accounts about Weinstein’s sexual assault and harassment.
Weinstein was a bully for years, however someone who worked closely with Wintour said that there were no signs she knew anything about the accusations detailed in the TimesThe New Yorker. She was loyal to certain people and Weinstein appeared to be in a close relationship. Weinstein had feverishly courted her favor since the mid-’90s, desperate for both her approval and for VogueHis films. Their decades-long relationship was why Wintour repeatedly made the allowance—afforded to no one else—for him to split the cost of a table at the Met Gala with Tamara Mellon, the Jimmy Choo co-founder. And why he was among a small group of guests Wintour made sure were discreetly pulled out of the line queued up before the red carpet so they didn’t have to wait. That also explained why Wintour couldn’t have lunch at Weinstein’s invitation. TimesStory broke in order to avoid having the chance of them being photographed together. So it was not surprising that the entire eight-day period after the incident took place. TimesThe story was published because of her denial about his conduct.
Continue reading: ‘There Was a Part of Me That Was Terribly Naive.’ Harvey Weinstein’s Estranged Wife Georgina Chapman Speaks Out for the First Time
“Behavior like this is appalling and unacceptable,” she told the Times. “I feel horrible about what these women have experienced and admire their bravery in coming forward. Their families and Georgina are in my thoughts. We all have a role to play in creating safe environments where everyone can be free to work without fear.”
Wintour had already made the statement and cut contact with Weinstein before calling his wife. They set up a phone call to discuss Weinstein’s fashion career, which she has been following for over a decade. After the gala on, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Wintour commented directly: “Georgina is a brilliant designer, and I don’t think she should be blamed for her husband’s behavior. I think it was a great gesture of support on Scarlett’s part to wear a dress like that, a beautiful dress like that, on such a public occasion.” A dress that Wintour, as she does for most of her guests, had likely approved.
Wintour seems to have seen it as her duty to restore the reputations of her most beloved designers who were embroiled in scandals over the years. When John Galliano, one of her all-time favorite designers, was fired from Christian Dior after being filmed spewing an antisemitic tirade at a bar in 2011—saying, “I love Hitler”—Wintour sprang into action. Prior to placing him at Maison Martin Margiela (now Maison Margiela), it was she who called Parsons asking if Galliano would be interested in an appointment as a professor. After a backlash, the school offered to offer him a three day class. However, it was cancelled.
Anna Wintour is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala Opening for the ‘Haute Couture’ exhibition. This was Dec. 4, 1995.
Ron Galella—Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images
It was controversial that she tried to save Marchesa. In one essay, The Cut’s then-editor-in-chief Stella Bugbee wrote, “This is not a designer with Galliano-level talent. Chapman’s career was funded and made possible by affiliation with her powerful husband and his equally powerful fashion-editor friend. After being abused and bullied, Chapman’s editor now allows her to return to the red carpet. This is how Anna Wintour chooses to use her power.”
Wintour’s alliances with powerful men came under further scrutiny when, following Weinstein’s downfall, Vogue’s favored photographers Mario Testino and Bruce Weber were also accused of sexual misconduct as part of the #MeToo movement. Wintour, however, took an alternative route and announced that the month would see that they had been accused of sexual misconduct despite being close friends. VogueI would not work with them again.
The ability to make decisions about who matters is the great source of Wintour’s power—along with her ability to put people in the “out” bucket in an instant. “If you get frozen by her, that’s it. She’s a Scorpio, you’re done,” says Love. “It’s that cold.” It’s why, with Wintour in control, fashion designers, writers, editors, photographers are never safe. How will they react if they freeze?
Designer Isaac Mizrahi enjoyed Wintour’s support for three decades, even though it seemed to wax and wane as the years went on. After losing financial backing, Mizrahi had to shut down his label in 1998. He later relaunched it. I.M. that he was left “jealous of others [Anna] paid attention to.” Finally, at one of his shows in the early 2010s after the relaunch, he was waiting for Wintour to take her front-row seat. After 20 minutes, it became clear she wasn’t coming, and they let someone else have it. “It was a blow,” he wrote. “I took it as a sign that my years as a couturier were waning.”
She can find her interest in designers fleeting. Zang Toi first received her support in 1989. “She fell in love with what I do. I was the first Asian designer that was championed by Anna Wintour,” says Toi, who is Malaysian. One of Wintour’s market editors came to see his very first collection, which included just 13 pieces. Wintour was impressed by her Polaroid photographs and she ended up borrowing three more looks. Two were sent back, and they requested to keep the third. This was a bright-orange, and pink, baby-doll gown that they had photographed in Morocco. It was part of a feature about young designers, published in the February 1990 issue.
Toi’s clothes started appearing in the magazine regularly. Wintour came by herself to Toi’s 200-sq.-ft. studio to see his second collection, taking notes the whole time. He was grateful for Wintour’s support. She was actually very warm to him. “She gave us great press in the first year. That cemented my reputation,” says Toi, who started attracting a clientele of very wealthy, private-jet-owning women. Toi won a contest for young designers that Wintour sponsored in 1990.
Through the middle of the 90s, their friendly relationship continued. She recalled that she always came to see him’s collection just a few days prior to the show. He never asked her to alter his clothes. One day, however, she couldn’t make it. Two members of her team went to see Toi’s collection, but he missed their visit, which had been rescheduled for a time he was supposed to be at lunch with an editor from Harper’s Bazaar.
When he got back from lunch, his assistant told him, “They loved the collection, they thought it was beautiful, but they told me two dresses were not very Vogue. Don’t show them.” Toi didn’t think anything of it. There were 45 of them in the show. Vogue didn’t like two of them?
Toi said Wintour didn’t attend his show that season, but VogueShe had asked for seven to eight seats in the front rows. Toi did not wear the offensive dresses during the show. From then on, he couldn’t get Wintour or her team to come to his shows or to see his collections in his studio. They last saw each other at Bill Blass’ fashion show 10 years ago, after Toi was out of favour. Wintour had already stopped Toi. He looked at her for about two minutes before she moved on with her bodyguard.
Anyone who attends the Met Gala this year will know that they are, at least for now, “in.” But being blessed by Wintour does not always translate to positive feedback outside of the industry. Last year, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attended for the first time, wearing a white gown by Aurora James that read “TAX THE RICH” in red on the back. For a politician whose every move draws debate, entering Wintour’s world, even just for a night, stirred up a swarm of critics, among them New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who wrote, “A.O.C. wanted to get glammed up and pal around with the ruling class at an event that’s the antithesis of all she believes in, a gala that makes every thoughtful American feel like Robespierre …”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez attends 2021 Met Gala dressed in Aurora James gown
Kevin Mazur—MG21/Getty Images
It’s a sentiment that echoes how people feel about exclusionary practices across every category of life in America. In 2020, with social justice protests sweeping the globe, Wintour’s leadership of VogueShe was particularly critical of practices that caused a decade-long absence of diversity on the pages and her staff. On June 4, 2020, she sent her staff an email—quickly leaked to the New York Post’s Page Six—in which she confessed, “I know VogueWithout sufficient opportunities to provide space and elevate Black authors, writers, photographers, creators, and designers has failed to do so. Publishing images and stories that were hurtful, intolerant or offensive has been another mistake. I take full responsibility for those mistakes.” Less than a week later, the New York Times published an article headlined “Can Anna Wintour Survive the Social Justice Movement?”
While there are those who think she should be fired or forced to resign, Wintour’s influence remains profound and unmatchable. She ended the disastrous year of 2020 with a promotion, announced in mid-December, to Condé Nast’s chief content officer, giving her oversight of all magazine brands, including the New YorkerAll international titles. Her ascendancy seemed unaffected even by negative media. The mere mention of Wintour’s name remains enough to prevent advertisers from pulling money from Condé Nast magazines. A simple phone call can get any brand sponsoring a museum exhibit worth millions of dollar. She is, in a capitalist society, exactly the kind of person a company like Condé Nast wants to keep at all costs, no matter how exclusionary her leadership style has been.
At 72 years old, Wintour surely has a plan for her exit from Condé Nast and for her future—but, aside from telling friends maybe she’ll do something where she’s being paid for her advice instead of giving it away for free, she hasn’t told them what it is. Sally Singer, who worked for Wintour for nearly 20 years, explains Wintour’s vision for Vogue,Perhaps it is a mirror of the one she chose for herself. “There was never an idea that Vogue was an editorial project alone,” she says. “It was an intervention into the fashion world.”
Wintour created her own kingdom. And the world’s most beautiful, most powerful people are living in it. Others are simply watching.
This excerpt is from Anna: The Biography of Amy Odell. Copyright © 2022 by Amy Odell. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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