Fashion makes people nervous: Anna Wintour

The American Vogue editor, who became a household name with The Devil Wears Prada, tells us why fashion matters, and why she won't be changing her look any time soon.

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American Vogue editor Anna Wintour became a household name when The Devil Wears Prada hit the best-seller lists and the box office. Style's high priestess tells Gary Jones on a visit to China why fashion matters, and why she won't be changing her look any time soon.

Elfin in stature and instantly recognisable beneath her trademark pageboy bob haircut and Willy Wonka-esque sunglasses, Anna Wintour strides towards the Central Academy of Fine Arts' auditorium on a suitably frosty morning in the Chinese capital. Her reputation precedes her like a crackling and hostile storm front.

The British-born editor-in-chief of American Vogue is the most powerful and polarising figure in her industry. She has been slated as demanding, imperious and intimidating; labelled as ruthlessly ambitious and occasionally, malicious. Wintour does not suffer fools at all, let alone gladly, according to one former assistant. And "she doesn't do small talk".

Inside the auditorium, a chock-full house of Chinese design students has rallied to participate in a rare question-and-answer forum with high-fashion incarnate. They fidget skittishly while the press pack huddles in anticipation of an "Icy Wintour", rather than a "Nuclear Wintour" (her distaste for that unflattering sobriquet is on the record).

Ninety minutes later and the dispersing congregation is nonplussed. Was Meryl Streep's Cruella De Vil-like fashion editor-cum-horror in The Devil Wears Prada really modelled on Wintour? While flanked on the Beijing stage by Vogue's poised director of special events, Sylvana Soto-Ward; its businesslike fashion news director, Mark Holgate; and Vogue China's effervescent editor-in-chief, Angelica Cheung, a composed Wintour has had the crowd eating out of her expensively manicured hand. She has been gracious, charming and engaged.

"They were all so polite and well-behaved," Wintour says later while settling in for our post-event tête-à-tête. "That's quite unusual." The supposedly iron-fisted tastemaker disarmingly enquires from where her interviewer originates and how long he has lived in China. Couture's uncontested über-führer, it emerges, is not at all averse to chummy chitchat.

It is her first visit to China, and she seems impressed. "I wouldn't underestimate anything about this country right now," says Wintour.

Her impenetrable shades remain, as they will all morning (Wintour's sunglasses are fitted with corrective lenses. She has referred to them as her "armour", and where would she put them, anyway? She doesn't care for handbags). "I believe there is a fashion week in Beijing. Whether China will ever have a fashion week on the same scale as what we have in Paris or Milan or in New York, I couldn't say, but growth here has already been so extraordinary. It's fantastic."

She says that visiting the Beijing offices of Vogue China reminded her of when she started out in London. "I was working for Harpers & Queen at the time. We had a tiny staff, and basically you had to do everything: take pictures, write captions, cover the market, do the layouts, follow up ... To me, that was the best training. When I came to the US and American Vogue, I discovered we had a shoe editor, and a lady in her 90s who was the fabrics editor. There was an underwear editor ... there were so many layers, and I think that's not always helpful to understanding the industry."

It is soon apparent that, with over two decades at the helm of American Vogue under her belt, the 61-year-old Wintour is a polished operator. She answers questions in broad, diplomatic strokes, and she parries when she deems it necessary. Wintour has, after all, frequently been a lightning rod for tirades against her field, notably on issues such as fur ("Fur is still a part of fashion, so Vogue will continue to report on it"), skinny models ("We need to reverse the tyranny of sample clothes that just barely fit a 13-year-old on the edge of puberty") and elitism (Wintour has been accused of, or credited with, wiping out the early 1990s grunge look).

She is of course so much more than a magazine editor now. Thanks to the films The Devil Wears Prada and The September Issue, she is the only Vogue editor to become a household name. What does she think of the films? "I enjoyed the movies," she says. "I thought that they were highly entertaining, and they were extremely kind to me because, of course, actually I beat all my assistants, I lock them up in cupboards, and none of them gets paid."

Wintourhints at an aloof indifference to unsolicited public or media opinion when asked how Vogue sustains its influence and clout (the US edition sells more than 1.2 million copies a month).

And whether Wintour had anything to do with it or not, the fashion world is abuzz over the Condé Nast Vogue empire, as Corine Roitfeld, the editor of Vogue Paris, abruptly resigned last month after 10 years in the job.

"It's a particularly interesting time right now," Wintour muses. "Everybody seems to think they are a fashion editor, or a photographer, and everyone has an opinion and access to fashion in a way that they never had before. That makes our job particularly challenging and even more useful because there is an awful lot of noise out there; everyone thinks they are an expert."

She goes on to say that Tom Ford "so hates" the internet's influence on fashion that he invited only 100 guests to his September show in New York. "I think Tom has a very valid point. Sometimes women feel that clothes are overexposed by the amount of coverage they get online."

Wintour has also mentored designers, such as John Galliano. "When I first met John, he did not have enough money to take a taxi. I would lend him money for fares; he would sleep in my hotel room. I used to fly him over from London to New York because I felt it so important for him to meet the right people. I helped him find investors. We really went to everybody and everywhere to support John because we realised he was a unique talent, and it's Vogue's responsibility to nurture and support talent as much as we possibly can.

She is aware of how crucial her role is in encouraging new talent. "The most important thing is to be honest. Designers have friends, the press and whoever rushing backstage to tell them they are wonderful. That may be very nice to hear, but it's not always constructive for someone trying to develop a business. Vogue always tries to be helpful, and to tell the truth. It's equally non-constructive to completely knock somebody."

"We gently try to explain our point of view, and what we think they might try and change, or what a collection might be lacking. Then they usually go ahead and do whatever they want to do anyway, but at least we told them what we think."

While her visit to Beijing will prove to be part pleasure (taking in sightseeing on the Great Wall, in the Forbidden City and at the galleries of the 798 Art District) and part fact-finding mission, Wintour sees her role at Vogue as semi-ambassadorial for the US fashion industry, and she acknowledges that American brands have been relatively tardy in entering the China market compared to their European counterparts. "Dolce&Gabbana ... I know they were just here in Shanghai. They told me it was their first trip. They loved it. The American design community cannot afford to ignore the strength of this market, and my understanding is that there are a lot of retail properties being looked at right now by key American designers. It's going to be a huge market for them. There's a limit to the amount of growth possible in the US, so we all have to look at the emerging countries for expansion."

Previously, Wintour has opined that politics and fashion make uncomfortable bedfellows. In a 2006 interview, she said: "Washington is frightened of fashion. I think the British government is the same. People in political office tend to get extremely nervous about fashion because they feel it's frivolous. And they don't want to look too elitist or too silly."

Recalling this statement in Beijing, Wintour grins. "Well, actually, I think, thanks to the First Lady in the US, that has all changed," she says. "Michelle Obama really has been a standard-bearer for fashion. She obviously enjoys it, and she wears it so well. She has been so incredibly supportive of young American talent, of designers like Jason Woo, Derek Lam, Narciso Rodríguez, Michael Kors."

Wintour is adamant there is more to fashion than clothes. "Fashion does not exist in a vacuum," she says. "Fashion reflects culture; it reflects our times. A great fashion photograph can tell you just as much about what is going on in our world as any headline or TV report, so go out, go to the galleries, go to the theatre, read books, travel ... all of that will come back to eward you later."

And of the fashion she has witnessed on Beijing's nippy winter streets? "I notice a lot of really interesting hair, I have to say. The colours and cuts are fantastic." Wintour suddenly becomes the most animated she has been all morning, and for a brief moment reveals an endearing glimpse of the shy teenager who rebelled against her school dress code by taking up the hemlines of her skirts. "It seems to me that, among young people, there has been an explosion in self-expression here. It's great."

It is clear that her passion for fashion is as strong as ever. "I feel I'm the luckiest person in the world. I have the best staff in the world. I've been doing the job for 100 years and I still can't wait to get to the office every morning. The wonderful thing about fashion is that it changes all the time. If you are working for a magazine like Vogue, you have the opportunity to work with the most incredible talent."

The Wintour file

BORN November 3, 1949, London

SCHOOLING North London Collegiate School

FAMILY Father Charles Wintour (a former editor of the Evening Standard, London, and the original "Nuclear Wintour"), and mother Trego Baker, an American. Four siblings. One brother died in a car crash when he was a child. Wintour married the child psychiatrist David Shaffer in 1984 and they had two children, Charles and Katherine. They divorced in 1999.

FIRST JOB At the trendsetting Biba boutique in London when she was 15. Her father pulled strings to get her the job. As she says in the documentary The September Issue: "I think my father really decided for me that I should work in fashion".

FIRST JOB IN FASHION JOURNALISM As an editorial assistant at Harpers & Queen, where she told colleagues that one day she wanted to edit Vogue.

FIRED FROM Harper's Bazaar in New York in 1975, where she was a junior fashion editor. Apparently, her shoots were too innovative.

EARNED HER NICKNAME, "NUCLEAR WINTOUR" At British Vogue. After taking over in 1985, she shed staff and became a far more hands-on editor than the previous incumbent had been.

BECAME EDITOR OF AMERICAN VOGUEIn 1988. Her editorship has been controversial, especially over her pro-fur stance. Also known for trying to control cover girls; she reportedly told Oprah Winfrey to lose weight before her cover shoot. She also refused to follow an ultimatum from Armani to feature more of his clothes on her editorial pages. Armani caved in.

HOBBY Plays tennis every morning before work.

WINTOUR ON FASHION "There is something about fashion that can make people really nervous."

WHAT'S WITH THE HAIRCUT AND THE SHADES? She has sported her a bob since she was 14, and always goes back to it after trying something else. Her glasses are prescribed.

AND THAT FILM? Well, most observers agree the character of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada was partly based on her, but no one has admitted she is quite that bad. However, she was the victim of a real-life murder plot by Peter Braunstein, a reporter who had once worked for her.

MOST TELLING QUOTE ABOUT HER "At some stage in her career, Anna Wintour stopped being Anna Wintour and became 'Anna Wintour', at which point, like wings of a stately home, she closed off large sections of her personality to the public", wrote Emma Brockes in The Guardian in May 2006.

ANOTHER TELLING QUOTE ABOUT HER "Anna happens to be a friend of mine", said the journalist Barbara Amiel, "a fact which is of absolutely no help in coping with the cold panic that grips me whenever we meet."