Vogue publisher Condé Nast is making drastic changes to its editorial structure as it streamlines its operations and consolidates power in the hands of its New York-based leadership after merging its US and international arms.
Vogue editors-in-chief from France to India, who once ran local editions with autonomy, are being deputised or exited in a reorganisation that gives Anna Wintour ultimate control over content at all Condé Nast-owned Vogues in the position of global editorial director.
In many ways, this strategy is a blast from the past. It is a common misconception to think of Wintour as the longest serving Vogue editor, but long before her there was Edna Woolman Chase, who spent 57 years at American Vogue, from 1895 to 1952. And though she may belong to another time, Vogue’s current strategy somewhat mirrors her methods.
By the time Woolman Chase retired, she was on the executive board of Condé Nast, director of both its American and British companies, and had, at one point, been editor-in-chief of American, British, French and German Vogue all at the same time.
In Woolman Chase’s day, there were no editors-in-chief at Vogue’s local editions. The highest-ranking editor at Vogue Paris, for instance, was known as editor, but not editor-in-chief, a title reserved for the head of American Vogue, who had control over international editors, which were under constant pressure to conform their Vogues to American Vogue.
The tone was decided in New York, and then exported. Woolman Chase’s influence was felt most keenly in the UK, where until the Second World War most of British Vogue’s content was dictated from the US and not permitted to be altered except to account for English spellings.
Today, the job titles are different, but what used to be Woolman Chase’s all encompassing ‘editor-in-chief’ has, in many ways, returned as Wintour’s ‘global editorial director.’
And the comparison continues further down the masthead. When Edward Enninful of British Vogue was promoted to European editorial director, overseeing all titles on the continent, and a similar restructuring began to unfold in Asia, where Vogue editorial teams (not including China) were reportedly placed under Vogue Taiwan editor Leslie Sun, the strategy very much mimicked the Woolman Chase era, where power was consolidated under a few key managers.
Though Vogue’s restructuring may seem new, it replicates methods from the 20th century.
Though Vogue’s restructuring may seem new and particular to the digital age, in many ways, it replicates Condé Nast methods from the 20th century. These methods may have worked well at the time. In fact, there is little doubt that they did. But they seem outdated in 2021.
Back then, Woolman Chase held the entire publication in her grip, while staff had the habit of hopping frequently between international editions, meaning they were seldom associated with a particular Vogue and rather more broadly associated with the wider brand. Cultural specificities were at best ignored, at worst derided. This allowed Woolman Chase to keep a stronghold on content across the world, helping to define and maintain correct ‘Vogue voice’ and style. What’s more, duplicating content across territories was cost effective.
The strategy worked well, helping to bolster Vogue’s reputation and, in part, driving in the financial boom years of the 1920s and 1950s (the 1930s and 1940s were hampered by the Great Depression and the Second World War). Starting in the mid-1920s, Vogue was consistently ranked top in monthly advertising intake for women’s magazines. Earnings skyrocketed, rising from $241,410 in 1923, to $1,425,076 in 1928.
Today, it’s safe to say profit is at the very top of Condé Nast’s concerns after declining print advertising revenues have led to gut-wrenching losses. But if its strategy for streamlining Vogue, narrowing the circle of command to a small cohort under American leadership, harkens back to the time of Woolman Chase, today’s market landscape is totally different.
In today’s post-colonial, internet age, homogenous output will bore audiences quickly.
Audiences are far more globalised and have an unbelievably wide choice of content to consume. In Woolman Chase’s day, readers were unlikely to come across a foreign Vogue and would never even know if the features were simply repurposed. They were perhaps also more open to their magazines taking a US-led line on what was fashionable. But in today’s post-colonial, internet age, where China, not the US, is the world’s biggest fashion market, homogenous output dictated from New York will bore audiences quickly.
Condé Nast says it is committed to being “globally local” but Wintour’s position runs the risk of eliminating local market originality at a time when readers may be thirsting for this more than ever. The same goes for Enninful’s appointment as editorial director over a Europe bristling with many Vogues and beneath them the cultures and aesthetic traditions that make each country distinct.
Then, there’s the shifting reality of women in the workplace to consider.
In Woolman Chase’s day, there were relatively few employment opportunities for female editors, which made them somewhat pliable. But if Wintour expects submission from a well-connected, multi-hyphenate talent like Margaret Zhang, the Chinese Australian super-blogger recently named editor-in-chief of Vogue China, she may be in for a surprise.
Influencers are typically accustomed to operating on their own terms. And if Vogue plans to continue hiring from a pool of young, self-sustaining creatives who have robust personal followings, the magazine may need to rethink its command-and-control approach or the list of former editors, already growing by the minute, may grow even longer still.
Nina-Sophia Miralles is the author of Glossy: The Inside Story of Vogue.
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