There are few things a jet-black Kabuki cut, blunt fringed bob and crystal chokers, swept grey coiff, and zebra print shift have in common, save for they all belong to iconic editors-in-chief. Diana Vreeland, Anna Wintour, Graydon Carter and Helen Gurley Brown, while distinct characters, all share a similar rank in the industry hierarchy; they’re icons whose work – and looks – precede them. Soon, thanks to an incoming August start date as EIC of British Vogue, Edward Enninful, whose Cutler and Gross rims and crisp button-downs have been constants for the editor since before his early W days, could join the latter editors as permanent figures in publication history.
But what cements editors into the cultural framework is not just a haircut that transcends time and trend or a signature accessory. Despite the stretch of years and shifting sensibilities between them, editors, specifically those whose contributions to the industry go unmatched, share a set of key traits that drove their success.
A good editor is a pervasive entity whose presence and vision can’t be ignored. Theirs is an attention-grabbing singularity, which often landed them the gig in the first place. Say what you will about Gurley Brown’s off-kilter, even contradictory, brand of feminism, but her views on sex and the single girl represented the under-represented at the time and launched Cosmopolitan into the circulation stratosphere. She knew what women really wanted to read about.
During her tenure as editor-in-chief from 1965 until 1997, she personified her views in print, transforming the magazine from a mundane monthly to an indispensable source of intrigue and advice for women whose views on sex were previously sheltered. But Gurley Brown didn’t just talk about sex, says New York Times writer Margalit Fox, she put it on the cover in the form of plunging necklines, heightened hems, and less-than-subtle cover lines. “The look of women’s magazines today — a sea of voluptuous models and titillating cover lines — is due in no small part to her influence,” Fox wrote.
Similarly ahead of her time, Diana Vreeland was an editor of firsts. She put the bikini in print before it was considered appropriate, was one of the first editors to embrace London’s youth culture, and introduced the editorial as an art form. Ever the romantic, Vreeland’s vision was a fashion fantasy that pulled readers beyond the pages and into far-off locales. In Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel, writer and art critic Ingrid Sischy credits Vreeland for editorial escapism. “That’s the thing about Vreeland. She knew her job as an editor is you’ve got to give people what they can’t get at home,” Sischy said. “Give them something that will just make them travel in their minds, take them somewhere.”
The best EICs will know not only what type of photograph will render pages impossible to ignore and issues necessary to pick up, but also what text will connect them in between. They have an unwavering eye for visuals, but - maybe more importantly - an ear for narratives. Editors either start or are part of a dialogue, picking up on trends, notable personalities, and stories their readers need to hear. There’s an aesthetic quality to every editor to be sure, but it’s his or her instinct as a journalist that creates noteworthy features and compelling profiles.
While for a longtime she’s been exaggerated as an ice queen overlooking a cold fashion bible, Wintour expanded Vogue to content well beyond the right lipstick and in-season shoe. And while the latter may be part of what her reader wants, Wintour understands her reader is multifaceted and as he or she changes, so does the magazine. From increased political coverage to longform pieces penned on intersexuality, mental health, and diversity, Wintour’s Vogue, like its reader, is well-rounded and, thanks to consistently eye-catching editorials, well-dressed. “Whether it’s through fashion photography or through our political coverage or our cultural coverage, a magazine is a living, breathing thing,” Wintour the Business of Fashion's Imran Amed. “You need to be of the moment, not too far ahead, not too far behind. You have to reflect what one sees happening.”
This instinct for the moment and how it’s evolving is a sixth sense, in addition to an invaluable eye and ear. It not only informs an editor of what stories need to be told, but who should tell them. Whether this means introducing new writers, photographers, models, or even ideas, it seems a good editor can pinpoint talent blindfolded. Vreeland’s attention to detail bled budgets and frustrated photographer David Bailey, but led to the finding of matchless image-makers. From Vreeland’s work with Richard Avedon, Twiggy, Polly Mellon, Lauren Hutton, and André Leon Talley, to her embrace of the 60s youthquake and its musicians as muses, the editor had an instinct for the inimitable. Diane Von Furstenberg, whose clothes were featured in Vreeland’s Vogue, credits Vreeland with recognizing the faces and lenses that captured an era. “She saw things in people before they saw them themselves,” said DVF.
So, an editor is always more than his or her job description. He or she is a spokesperson, a style icon, an industry encyclopedia, a cultural thermometer, a talent scout, a host, a storyteller, and a killer eye. But first and foremost, they are their reader. For Mr. Carter, his sense of style and aesthetic obsessions bleed into Vanity Fair’s design, its very aesthetic is a reflection of its EIC. The table of contents, everything from coverage of Trump’s gaffe-fests to the red carpet, is a list of Carter’s enthusiasms, and those he knows his reader shares. And while perhaps most well-known for his Vanity Fair Oscar Party, once an experiment and now the holder of a spectacular exclusivity, Carter knew his readers well enough to capture the cultural zeitgeist and their interest in the cult of celebrity.
This relationship between editor, audience, and content varies from magazine to magazine, but is necessary to keep the conversation going, especially when the relevance of publications is in question. For Enninful’s tenure at British Vogue to be a success, he will not only have to be a fashion editor, but a reader, a mediator, a keen observer and a journalist. Trends may have changed between now and Vreeland’s and Gurley Brown’s time, and technology introduced, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the role of an editor has changed along with it. An editor still wears many hats, even if the styles have changed. And we’re eager to see which hats Enninful wears first.