We asked what Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour was thinking when she chose what was widely panned as a dreadful choice for Kamala Harris’ first cover of the famed fashion magazine—and she has answered, claiming to have had only the best intentions. The response to the cover was overwhelmingly negative when it was leaked on Saturday night, many feeling the chosen image—an homage to both Harris’ casual campaign looks and her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha—far too informal to commemorate the election of the first woman and woman of color to become vice president of the United States, nor especially flattering to its subject. “Vogue got too familiar, too fast,” was the well-phrased headline of an op-ed by acclaimed fashion critic Robin Givhan of the Washington Post, who noted:
In the midst of a pandemic, in the aftermath of a riot at the Capitol and during the lead-up to a historic transfer of power that has become violent, what should have been a blissfully distracting, glossy celebration of a barrier-breaking moment has become a cause for disappointment. Not because of what was in the frame, but because of what was absent.
The cover did not give Kamala D. Harris due respect. It was overly familiar. It was a cover image that, in effect, called Harris by her first name without invitation...Her history-making rise is not telegraphed by a formal setting, a business suit or a confrontational stance. The only thing that announces the importance of the picture is the woman in it.
Adding to that were reports that the cover choice “blindsided” Harris’ team, which had been expecting a more formal, suited shot that emerged as an alternate digital cover on Sunday. But an exclusive interview with Wintour on the New York Times’ podcast Sway with Kara Swisher, taped one day prior to the cover’s leak on Saturday found the embattled editor-in-chief excited about the forthcoming image—disclosing that her favorite detail about the then-unrevealed cover was the presence of Harris’ well-beloved Converse.
“I think that the fact that the cover itself is so charming, and so relaxed, and, for me, so surprising, and so real,” she muses, noting that the cover is “a very welcoming image.
“What’s amazing about the February cover to me is that it is just so joyful and optimistic,” Wintour later added. “And I cannot imagine that there’s anyone that really is going to find this cover anything but that, and positive, and an image of a woman in control of her life who’s going to bring us, with the president-elect the leadership that we so need, And to me, it’s just a very important but positive statement about women—and women in power.”
Needless to say, that was not the general consensus—though, as Givhan so aptly noted, “There’s nothing inherently wrong with this picture. In some ways, it’s an audacious way of depicting this new political era and its break with the past. The problem is that it’s on the cover...She’s a woman alone in sneakers sharing space with the Vogue brand.”
A more formal and decidedly more expected, if not inspired, version of the cover debuted on Sunday, featuring Harris in an elegant, powder blue Michael Kors pantsuit (Harris wore only her own clothing for the shoot). But details disclosed by Wintour during her interview indicate some scrambling done on Vogue’s end to right any perception of wrong. For starters, Wintour told Swisher the cover would likely be live around the same time the interview aired, suggesting that the alternate cover was pushed for release in response to the leak and subsequent outrage (as most likely was Swisher’s interview). As Wintour also describes the suited portrait as an image relegated to the inner pages of the issue, we can surmise that the formal image that emerged was also mocked up as a last-minute digital cover to quell the criticism.
“At the time of this recording, people familiar with the matter said the photo with the sneakers will be the only physical cover,” Swisher notes in the episode’s introduction. “They added that Vogue is considering using the more formal portrait in a second print edition,” she continues, addressing the concerns of many who don’t consider the casual cover a worthy commemorative collectible.
So, what has Wintour to say now, after what was expected to be a landmark cover was not well received? Issuing a statement to Sway, the editor-in-chief acknowledged the controversy and explained the choice of cover. She also clarifies that there was no formally agreed-upon cover prior to its publication (a claim the Times corroborates, “according to people familiar with the matter on both sides”). The statement reads, in part:
Obviously we have heard and understood the reaction to the print cover and I just want to reiterate that it was absolutely not our intention to, in any way, diminish the importance of the Vice President-Elect’s incredible victory.
There was no formal agreement about what the choice of the cover would be. And when the two images arrived at Vogue, all of us felt very, very strongly that the less formal portrait of the Vice President-Elect really reflected the moment that we were living in which we are all in the midst—as we still are—of the most appalling pandemic that is taking lives by the minute. And we felt to reflect this tragic moment in global history, a much less formal picture, something that was very, very accessible and approachable and real, really reflected the hallmark of the Biden-Harris campaign and everything that they are trying to, and I’m sure will, achieve.
Of course, the controversy didn’t end there. While Wintour penned an op-ed last May urging President-elect Joe Biden to choose a woman of color as his running mate, she also faced a rash of allegations in regard to Vogue and Condé Nast’s treatment of Black talent and staff (for which Wintour issued an apology last June). As Swisher noted, this latest controversy, viewed by many as further evidence of Wintour’s disrespect of Black women, “certainly didn’t bode well for Condé Nast or for Wintour, who has been here before, having been accused of racially insensitive coverage and workplace discrimination by some of her staff just seven months ago.”
“I think what was happening at Condé Nast was happening, also, at many other businesses—whether they were media or other companies—throughout the United States, and indeed, throughout the world,” said Wintour, pointing also to the isolation of the pandemic and a lack of unified national leadership in response to Swisher’s pointed question about discontent at Condé Nast, noting that the company “is extremely committed to diversity, and inclusion, and to listening to everyone that works within the company.”
“So I don’t think it would be correct to single out Condé Nast as being the sole place where this was happening,” she continued. “And obviously, it was a moment of change and social unrest. And I think everybody everywhere, throughout the world, questioning so many different issues.
“But I feel that we have certainly had very fruitful discussions,” she added. “We heard the complaints and the issues that have been raised by everybody who works at Conde Nast, and we’re working towards, I think, a lot of very positive change.”
Swisher rightly pressed Wintour on those changes, pointing out “fruitful” as a very “opaque” term for very raw and fraught issues. Wintour, famously known for sporting eye-obscuring sunglasses indoors and out, didn’t necessarily become less opaque or vague about what those changes might be, let alone the specific accusations leveled against her and the culture she’d perpetuated at Vogue.
“I think we reflect on a lot of things in hindsight,” she said. “But my belief is that we have to move forward, and we have to see what we can do in the present and in the future...And we are definitely being far more careful as we move forward. And I think the most positive result that you can give to your workforce is action and results.
“More diversity, more inclusivity is very much the direction that we’re going,” she later added. “And I think I would like to say, also, I think, for Vogue globally.”
We can only hope, as Wintour has had no shortage of teachable moments in the past year. She maintains that “age is just a number” in response to Swisher’s question of whether she might be too set in her ways, and shares her prospectus for the future of fashion—including our work-from-home wardrobes and the future of fast fashion vs. climate change. You can hear it all on the Sway podcast, but Wintour has one forecast we certainly hope will soon be in style:
“President Trump is no longer relevant.”