It’s time for a change at Vogue: the most venerable of the global fashion magazines hit rock bottom in 2020 when, after several years of losses the pandemic dramatically decreased its print advertising revenue.
To address this critical situation Condé Nast, the publishing group that owns Vogue, has decided to implement a severe cutback plan designed by its CEO, Roger Lynch. According to BOF’s What’s Behind Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief Exodus, written by Chantal Fernandez, the plan is to spend 10% of revenues on technology and content to improve digital subscriptions and e-commerce. Creating material for film and television and reducing costs for the printed magazine will be other priorities. While Lynch is counting on ending 2021 with losses, he expects to return to profitability by 2022.
It is not the first time that Vogue has lost touch with l’air du temps, but it has always been able to reinvent itself in time to retain its status as global fashion’s compass, and looks like this time will be no different. The first of these “evolutionary leaps” came when Vogue, born as a weekly newspaper edited by New York businessman Arthur Baldwin Turnure, was acquired by Condé Montrose Nast in 1905. From that moment on, it went from being a publication for men and women, inspired by the lifestyle of the Gilded Age elites, to focusing on a female audience particularly attentive to the ups and downs of fashion.
Since then and through the vision of each of its editors-in-chief (mostly women editors, in fact), Vogue has accompanied women through the 20th century, first with its North American edition and, from the 1930s onwards, with its progressive global expansion. Everytime a change of mentality was imposed or the competition stole too many sales, a new editor brought the necessary breath of fresh air: in the case of Vogue America, the most famous editors were Jessica Daves, who guided northamerican women during the golden years of economic expansion in the 1950s, the extravagant and charismatic Diana Vreeland in the 1960s and the most vindictive and feminist, Grace Mirabella, in the 1970s. And, after the decline of the latter, the era of Anna Wintour began, commanding the magazine since 1988.
Digitalisation and the Internet, however, have been challenges that only Wintour has had to face. In the publishing world, as in nature, the strongest are not necessarily the ones that survive, but the ones that best adapt to the conditions of the environment, and that is Roger Lynch’s goal for all Condé Nast publications. The transformation of the Vogue “brand” involves prioritising online content over print. It is no coincidence that Wintour has chosen the 27-year-old super blogger Margaret Zhang, who has no previous editorial experience, to replace Angelica Cheung, who was editor-in-chief of Vogue China for more than 15 years. This appointment speaks volumes about Vogue’s current priorities.
The most immediate consequence of the Lynch plan has been a wave of redundancies, forced retirements and resignations that has already taken down editors-in-chief Emmanuelle Alt (Vogue Paris), Priya Tanna (Vogue India), Christiane Arp (Vogue Germany), Eugenia de la Torriente (Vogue Spain), Emanuele Farneti (Vogue Italy) and the aforementioned Angelica Cheung. However, it is not only the high executives who have fallen: as Triana Alonso reported in her article for Fashion Network Lo que los ERE de Condé Nast y Hearst España dicen del futuro de la prensa de moda en España, Condé Nast intends to let go off 49 workers across all its Spanish titles, a quarter of the staff. Similar moves have also taken place in Europe and the United States.
Behind this metamorphosis is the merger between Condé Nast US and Condé Nast International, announced in 2018, in order to form one global company. This move has translated into a striking concentration of power in the hands of New York-based executives, especially Anna Wintour, who now adds the positions of Global Editorial Director and Chief Content Officer to her role at Vogue America. Edward Enninful, editor-in-chief of Vogue UK since 2018, is now also Editorial Director for Europe, overseeing the magazine’s Italian, French, German and Spanish editions, which will reportedly continue to operate without editors-in-chief of their own.
The goal is to unify some of the content across all editions of Vogue, overcoming the traditional competition between them and making the editorial content budgets more cost-effective. However, the down side of this could be a certain loss of the “flavour” of each individual title, a problem that Emanuele Farneti alluded to in his farewell message as editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia a few days ago: “I believe we have honoured the tradition of innovation and freedom that underlies the greatness of this magazine,” he said. “This attribute is what made Vogue Italia the voice of an industry that gives credit to Italy around the world. Italy is a culture that deserves respect and to be represented for what it is: the culture from which many of fashion’s most influential ideas are conceived and through which the finest quality craftsmanship is produced.”
Not all editions of Vogue will undergo these changes, however. Condé Nast owns and manages its publication in the United States, France, Spain, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico and Latin America, Taiwan and the United Kingdom. In China it operates through copyright agreements and the rest of its international editions (Vogue Poland, Vogue Greece, Vogue Singapore, Vogue Korea, etc.) operate through licenses with local publishers and will therefore not be affected by the restructuring.
Vogue UK, Condé Nast’s greatest hope
To make matters worse, Condé Nast was also confronted in 2020 with numerous accusations of racism, work-place harassment and inequality at some of its publications, Vogue being one of them. Wintour acknowledged her share of responsibility on this in a memo and, despite rumours of dismissal, managed to retain the group’s trust. After the scandal, in June last year Lynch declared at a staff meeting: “There are very few people in the world who can influence the change and culture of our business activities like Anna,” she said. “The reason she is here is because she can help influence the change we need to make and I know she is committed to it.”
The “new” Vogue, of which the British edition commanded by Edward Enninful is the best example, does not want to be just a women’s publication focused on fashion and beauty that turns its face to social issues. As Vanessa Kingori, Chief Business Officer at Vogue UK and Condé Nast Britain Style Division said in a recent podcast for BOF, it is about expanding revenue streams but also expanding the magazine’s message and purpose, which is to advocate for inclusivity and social justice. And by offering new ways of advertising, improving its digital strategy and advising brands on how to address social responsibility, racism in the industry and other sensitive issues in an honest and effective way, they have achieved “unprecedented economic growth” for Vogue UK, which in the first half of the year increased its digital revenues by 75%, consolidating an upward trend that began last year.
Paradoxically for Vogue UK, improving the digital strategy has boosted sales of the print magazine, which in turn has further boosted online channels, creating a virtuous circle. Consider the tremendous success of last June’s issue, with Billie Eilish on the cover. Photos of the singer’s interview broke records on Instagram while all outlets quickly ran out of copies. “We sold out on the newsstand so many times, we had to pull office copies, gifted copies, etc. to keep trying to feed the newsstand. And it just kept selling out,” said Kingori. “For me there is no digital marketing that you can do that will be more effective. Our print magazine is our biggest marketing tool, and our social media platforms are our biggest agent.” Only time will tell whether or not Vogue UK’s recipe for success can be replicated in the rest of the world and how this turbulent chapter in Vogue’s century-long history concludes.