Imagining a World After Anna

Anna Wintour, in the receiving line at the Met Costume Gala in 2012, including, from left, Donald Trump, Melania Trump, Barry Diller, Miuccia Prada, Diane Von Furstenberg and Carey Mulligan.

For the last seven days, pretty much every conversation I have had with pretty much anyone — fashion friends, book agents, parents at the school gates, my mother — has started with the same five-word question: “Do you think it’s true?”

“It” being a report that came out last week in The New York Post that the reign of Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue since 1988 and the artistic director of Condé Nast since 2013, the woman memorialized by Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada” and typically referred to as either the most powerful editor in fashion or the most feared editor in fashion, was ending.

The article — citing “stunned” anonymous sources — said that she was going to move on this summer after finishing her September issue, the largest of the year, and which she made famous when she agreed to let the documentarian R. J. Cutler into the Vogue offices to film its making.

The rumors had been swirling around the fashion ether for the last few months, but until The Post article appeared, no one had dared voice them in anything except a whisper. It was just so hard to imagine. Ms. Wintour has been shaping our experience of fashion and dressing and fame for as long as most people can remember.

Yet, though Condé Nast denied the article via unnamed spokesmen, and Robert A. Sauerberg Jr., the chief executive of Condé Nast, sent an internal note to his editors telling them to dismiss the gossip (and though the section of the article stating Ms. Wintour had already arranged an exit interview with The New York Times is incorrect), it didn’t shut down the buzz.

Matters were not helped by the fact that while Jonathan Newhouse, the chairman and chief executive of Condé Nast International, who The Post suggested was coming back to the United States to be chairman of the American arm, denied his part of the story to the Business of Fashion website, the article didn’t say anything about Ms. Wintour. The smoke continued to rise until, at the end of last week, Mr. Sauerberg had finally had enough.

“I am happy to tell you there is no truth to the rumors of Anna’s departure,” he wrote in an email to me. He called Ms. Wintour “a great partner as we continue our ongoing efforts to transform the company into the future.”

So where did the rumors come from, and what do they mean? Perhaps for the first time in a very long time, maybe the first time ever, people are beginning to entertain the possibility of a fashion world after Anna. Think it won’t matter to anyone outside the lint-picking world of One World Trade Center, the shiny new headquarters of Condé Nast, and Avenue Montaigne?

Just close your eyes for a moment, and think again.

Chaos, probably. Confusion! This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Ms. Wintour has exercised both obvious and behind-the-scenes power for so long that it’s hard to parse her influence. To put her tenure in context: She has been empire building through five presidential administrations. Since before Tom Ford made his debut at Gucci, before the Marc Jacobs grunge collection and before Stella McCartney or Alexander McQueen graduated from fashion school. As David Carr once put it in The Times: “She does not put a finger in the wind to judge trends: she is the wind.”

She effectively exerts her own gravitational force field, magnetized by strategically deployed invitations, introductions, magazine features and messages of support. If that disappears, particles previously held together by her atomic network will disperse and collide before renegotiating themselves into some sort of new order, which is one way of saying it would affect not just glossy magazines, but also the broader fashion establishment and the Hollywood-sports-fashion industrial complex.

Ms. Wintour has been, if not formally a headhunter or employment agency, a very active sounding board and adviser for numerous brands in the game of designer musical chairs. She helped get Marc Jacobs his job at Louis Vuitton and Thom Browne his job at Brooks Brothers, though both have since left. She helped engineer John Galliano’s return after he was fired from Dior after an anti-Semitic rant (fueled, he later said in an interview with Charlie Rose, by a drug and alcohol addiction).

She has seeded her protégés around Condé Nast and beyond, including Amy Astley, the editor of Architectural Digest, who began in the Vogue beauty department, and Phillip Picardi, the current boy wonder of the building. The industry is full of Anna alumni (including yours truly, who was a contributing editor at Vogue for a year in the mid-1990s).

She has recast many of the Condé Nast magazines in her own image. (Some say she has presided over the demise of internal rivals: If there’s to be a shrinking ad base, the pickings will go to Vogue, still very much her magazine.)

Ms. Wintour was a driving force behind creating an entire generation of New York designers, post-9/11, including Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough (of Proenza Schouler), Joseph Altuzarra and Jason Wu, thanks to the Vogue/CFDA Fashion Fund, which thrust new names into the limelight with increasing speed. Though for a while their aesthetic was so weirdly consistent that the designs were called by onlookers, “please Anna clothes.”

Still, the award helped spawn a host of similar prizes around the world and created a pathway to market for emerging designers. Ms. Wintour’s understanding of the mutually beneficial exploitation that could result from putting the star of a new film on the cover of a magazine, and all the tertiary events involved, was just as formative, changing the Hollywood/fashion calculus, as well as the model/actress cover star ratio, which now heavily favors the celebrity — even the nascent celebrity.

She also realigned the philanthropic poles of New York via the Met Gala, turning a generic opportunity for cultural beneficence into an “A.T.M. for the Met” that raised so much money that it got her name etched on the Costume Institute door. In the process she made the gala a paparazzi magnet, which gave rise to a special issue of Vogue, thanks to her vetting of guests, dictating which brand got which celebrity, and the Vogue-orchestrated dressing of attendees so that much of the red carpet is composed of the people she wants, wearing what she wants, hoping to be in the pages she approves.

Then she began to extend that formula, or versions of it, into other arenas (Broadway, with the Tony Awards, for one).

What would happen to all of that if Vogue ceased to be her base is unclear. A triangular relationship (Anna-brand-star) may once again become a two-way street. Celebrities and socialites may have to choose their clothes without her guidance. It could be traumatic at first — mistakes would be made! — but it’s kind of an interesting idea. As for us … well, at the most basic level, we would all have to redefine our ideas of what a fashion magazine editor is.

Bob wearers everywhere would lose their most visible icon. The whole dark-glasses-at-the-runway trope could disappear. While many of Ms. Wintour’s peers have style, it is impossible to think of another who took it to the same calculated, rigorous extreme. She is certainly the only editor since Diana Vreeland who has parlayed her public persona into a pop culture character, but unlike Ms. Vreeland, she now regularly plays herself in not just documentaries but also feature films, as opposed to letting others play her.

And, of course, tennis could lose one of its most high-profile boosters.

It is a singular job description, probably impossible to replicate, in part because fashion has become as splintered as every other industry in the age of digital and identity politics. Her hold, and the idea of a single person or magazine as the ultimate arbiter of style, may be as much a vestige of the former world as print itself.

Certain macro trends and a conjunction of events have given the gossip momentum.

Magazines in general are widely acknowledged to be struggling: Condé Nast has closed the print versions of Teen Vogue and Self as part of drive to emphasize digital; cut the number of print issues of W; and reorganized the company so that some staffers work on several different magazines. S. I. Newhouse Jr., the long-term chairman of the company and one of Ms. Wintour’s champions, died last year (he became chairman emeritus in 2015).

Reports of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct broke the same month as Mr. Newhouse’s death, and Mr. Weinstein’s friendship and working relationship with Ms. Wintour came under scrutiny. Later she had to cut ties with three of Vogue’s favored photographers — Bruce Weber, Mario Testino and Patrick Demarchelier — when allegations of a history of sexual harassment became public.

Of the three most formative Vogue editors in recent decades, all of whom started around the same time, she is the last still working: Franca Sozzani, the editor of Italian Vogue, who was hired the same week as Ms. Wintour, died in December 2016; Alexandra Shulman, the former editor of British Vogue, stepped down in January 2017. And this year will be Ms. Wintour’s 30th at the Vogue helm, and anniversaries are such classic watersheds.

There have been rumors around for a while that she was interested in a final career. At least since the Obama administration, when Ms. Wintour’s role as a highly effective “bundler” gave rise to much speculation that she was interested in an ambassadorship, either to France or to Britain.

Though both ideas were dismissed by political insiders and denied by those involved, they emerged again during the Hillary Clinton campaign, and even (bizarrely, given Ms. Wintour’s political views) made a brief reappearance earlier this year in Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury,” vis-à-vis the Trump administration.

And then there’s the current reality of the fashion world, which has gotten so accustomed to rumor and gossip because of endless leaks about designer change, that the industry has been lulled into a state of believing anything we hear is possible. Hedi Slimane is leaving Saint Laurent? The gossip was taken as gospel months before it happened. Kim Jones going to Vuitton? Ditto. Riccardo Tisci is going to Versace? Absolute truth, except then it wasn’t. (He ended up going to Burberry.)

Yet if there’s one thing all the designer gossip should make clear it’s that it’s not over till the designer comes out to take a bow. Or the power editor signs her departure contract. Or something.

Besides, Ms. Wintour has been here before — surrounded by rumors that her end was nigh, and that she was suddenly human, and hence vulnerable. In 1999, New York magazine ran a cover story, “The Summer of Her Discontent,” that included the following: “‘The general feeling is that people are abandoning Anna,’ says one Vogue editor. ‘And that her heart isn’t in it anymore.’”

Eight years later, whispers had it that she was going to be replaced by Carine Roitfeld from Paris Vogue. Ms. Roitfeld ended up announcing her Vogue resignation in 2010. (She is now global fashion director at the Vogue rival Harper’s Bazaar, and has her own magazine, CR Fashion Book, which comes out twice a year.) Ms. Wintour is still here. Alexander Liberman, the former Condé Nast editorial director, worked into his early 80s. Ms. Wintour is 68.

She has outlasted not just rivals but also designer carping, competition from other magazines, not to mention the internet, criticism about her manner and her model choices, and multiple trends, fashion and social. She has adapted her magazine and herself to changing times and cultures to an unmatched extent, dispassionately (or ruthlessly) jettisoning her catechisms when they cease to work, from magazine sections to Vogue spinoffs.

Such longevity is impossible to achieve without a certain amount of casualties and chafing, and it is little wonder there are those who have embraced the recent speculation as a long-awaited comeuppance.

And yet, as Marco Bizzarri, the much-celebrated C.E.O. of Gucci, who previously was the much-celebrated C.E.O. of Bottega Veneta and before that the much-celebrated C.E.O. of Stella McCartney, regularly jokes in interviews, he doesn’t wonder whether he will be fired, but when. The only person in fashion who doesn’t own the company he works for and is widely known to have permanent job security is Karl Lagerfeld, who has a lifetime contract with Chanel.

Which means that as far as Ms. Wintour goes, no matter the rumors and their particulars, the question is not actually “Will she leave?” Of course she will, at some point. The question for her, as for all of us, is when, and how.

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