Like Andy in The Devil Wears Prada, I showed up at Vogue in 1990 with all the wrong clothes. Andy’s were cheap and preppie. Mine were cheap and just….weird. I had moved to New York from San Francisco, where my idea of dressing up was to wear a vintage boy’s tuxedo jacket in metallic blue, sleeves rolled up to hide the stains (from what, I never stopped to wonder), over pegged black cotton pants and ankle boots. I owned three beaded evening gowns from the ‘30s, a Norma Kamali grey belted sweatshirt dress, a few ‘50s bowling shirts and one black skirt, knee length. But no jackets. No suits. No heels.
Anna Wintour hired me to be her health editor, so she probably figured she could keep me under wraps somewhere until she got me sorted out. I had a long way to go. It was the winter when all the fashion editors came to work in hip-length fitted jackets over tight black leggings. My first day in the old Conde Nast building at 350 Madison, I remember a sense of confusion bordering on panic: ‘No one is wearing any pants!’ It was the reverse version of my childhood first-day-at-school nightmares, where I’d slip-slide in my white anklets down the hallway at North Franklin Elementary, having forgotten my maryjanes.
My Vogue makeover began in week three, when a longtime fashion editor invited me to lunch at the Royalton. I was touched by what I assumed was a friendly gesture. Over tuna nicoise (which I ate, unlike my date) I was asked if I had a hairstylist in New York, and if perhaps I’d like her to arrange for me to go to the Donna Karan showroom to buy some clothes wholesale?
Now, unlike Andy in the movie, I knew some designers’ names. Plus I actually admired my boss (after all, she’d just doubled my salary). And I had been an anthropology major at Berkeley—I was determined to participate, not merely observe.
First to go was my bad late-80s perm, dyed faintly purplish to cover my premature gray. I was so brave, I even let the stylist wax the back of my neck to even out my hairline. Short choppy brown hair achieved, I schlepped my one black wool skirt to the drycleaner and had it hemmed to the regulation 19 inches. (Minis were the leggings alternative that season. Anna’s were Chanel. Mine would shortly be shiny with wear.) At the Donna Karan showroom I tried on a flesh-colored gathered-front jacket over a skirt (which the showroom muse told me sternly did not go with my coloring) and a fluid chocolate brown pantsuit. I bought both. I remember my hand trembled as I signed the credit card slip for $1,723.
Though my fashion editor friend (okay, not friend—that first lunch was our last) pronounced airily that she “wished the suit had more interesting buttons, perhaps of horn,” Anna could see I was trying. “How do you like your new haircut?” she asked me one day. And, “I’m glad to see we got you into a short skirt!”
I spent five years at Vogue, my tenure marked by fashion missteps large and small. For Christmas one year my husband, obviously coached by an expert, presented me with a tiny, bandage-tight Azzedine Alaia miniskirt. The look on my parents’ faces as they watched me wriggle into it over my pjs was something I hadn’t seen since I was 16. When the weather warmed up I realized I could not risk the subway in the skirt, especially if I wore my skintight white velour top. In the cab on the way to midtown, the driver turned completely around in his seat to leer happily at me through the partition. (We lived in the Meatpacking district, pre-fashionable and full of hookers, so his mistake was understandable.)
Then there were the car-wash pants. No name designer this time, the pants appealed to me because of the cunning strips of fabric that flowed from knee to shoe tops. Standing still, you see, the pants looked completely conventional. In the slight breeze of the fitting room, I glimpsed a few slices of calf. What I didn’t figure on was the flapping sound I made as I walked—or the escalator from the subway at Grand Central, which threatened to masticate and swallow the trousers, not to mention my legs. Anna called me into the Vogue art room later that day to review a layout, and watched, mesmerized, as the pants streamed in behind me and settled back down. In the silence someone said, “That’s an interesting choice.”
I had always wondered why so many of the most famous fashion editors on the planet wore what amounted to an upscale waitress uniform every day: black pants, ballet flats, white shirts, black cashmere sweaters looped over shoulders. Now I got it.
I came to love and appreciate and even covet high fashion while working at Vogue. Granted, my seat at the circus was high in the bleachers. The subjects I covered (health, and later politics and women’s issues) were considered nonessential, not filler exactly, but certainly never center ring. Once, when a story of mine was deemed too lousy to run in the scheduled issue, I asked, “But what are you going to put in its place?” Anna answered brightly, “Another frock gets lucky!”
Still, the negative cult of personality that has grown up around Anna Wintour never rang true for me. I’ve worked for terrifying bosses, and she wasn’t one of them. She had high standards – she would occasionally write the single word “dreadful” on copy (it usually was) but just as often her verdict was “wonderful.” She respected passion, which meant you could argue with her and win. She worked hard, expected people to show up on time and do the same, didn’t gas on about herself in meetings, went home at a decent hour. Most of the people who worked at Vogue when I did still do. She’s loyal. She once told me she felt she owed it to her staff to be decisive. Whenever I dither, I think of those wise words.
When I left Vogue after five years, a rumor made the rounds that Anna had offered me a Chanel suit if I would change my mind. This is a good story, but it is not strictly true.
When I announced that I was leaving (a bad move, Anna told me, and she was right—the magazine I joined folded after five months), she deputized a staff writer to stroll down to my office and see if there was anything that could be done to convince me to stay. “Well, I have always wanted a Chanel suit,” I mused. His response: “If you stay, I’ll make sure there’s a Chanel suit on your desk on Monday morning.”
I was tempted, I really was. But to be honest, Chanel never did it for me.
I should have asked for Prada.