Anna Wintour: The Recent Rumors Finally Explained

There's been no shortage of Anna Wintour rumors the past couple of months. Back in November, the word circulated that the Vogue editrix was thinking about retiring; two weeks later, there was gossip that Condé Nast chief Si Newhouse was planning to replace her with French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld. More recently, there have been outlandish suggestions that Barack Obama is considering Anna as a possible ambassador to France or England. What gives? Who's been spreading the rumors? It turns out that the juicy bits about Anna are all connected: They're related to tense behind-the-scenes negotiations between Wintour and Newhouse over her new contract and were disseminated to the media by both sides as part of a devious whisper campaign.

In late November, the Post reported that Anna was "mulling retirement." She'd "done it all and had enough," a source told the paper, who added that Wintour had even been kind enough to provide Newhouse with a list of possible replacements. This was one of Wintour's first attempts to send a "take-it-or-leave-it" message to her corporate taskmasters, we've been told, and it came just two weeks after substantial cutbacks at Vogue had been reported, a decision that placed Wintour in direct opposition with Condé Nast CEO Chuck Townsend, who has been one of the most vocal advocates of cost cuts at Vogue and other Condé titles.

Condé made the next move. In early December, rumors surfaced that Newhouse had jetted off to Paris to meet with Carine Roitfeld, news that Gawker.com said came from gleeful "Condé Nast insiders" who were more than happy to pass along the "hot, delicious rumor." Newhouse, we hear, never gave serious consideration to Roitfeld. (Nor did he give much thought to replacing Wintour with Aliona Doletskaya, the editor of Russian Vogue, another tale that started making the rounds.) Roitfeld runs a magazine with one-tenth the circulation. She doesn't speak English very well. And she wasn't even in Paris at the time in question, telling WWD that she'd been in London working on a fashion shoot with photographers Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott. So what accounts for the Roitfeld rumor? A high-level source tells us that the Roitfeld story, which emerged as the two sides pressed on with very difficult contract negotiations, was intended to convey to Anna and the world that Wintour wasn't indispensable and that the company had other options if an agreement couldn't be reached.

Anna's retaliation was swift. To counter the impression that Vogue was underperforming, her sales numbers were reiterated publicly. Even more interestingly, our source tells us that Wintour personally began to circulate the rumor that she had other options, too. Stories soon surfaced (see here and here) that Anna was in the running for an Obama appointment, first as some sort of cultural attaché and later as ambassador to England or France. The story was first recounted by Anna and her closet confidantes to several senior execs in the fashion industry, and the word quickly spread from there. The message to Newhouse was clear: There were still a few jobs out there even more impressive than the title of editor-in-chief of Vogue.

It isn't surprising that the negotiations have turned so bitter. Anna is the First Lady of fashion. The notion that she'd have to actually, say, adjust for the downturn in the economy, make changes at Vogue as part of the general decline in magazine publishing, or not get a substantial raise over the course of a new contract? It's easy to imagine that Anna would resist such an idea and consider herself immune from the troubles affecting the rest of the industry. And yet Condé had ample evidence to back up its position. Ad pages in Vogue's December issue were down 22.3 percent; for 2008 as a whole, ad pages were down 9.6 percent, a more substantial decrease than the 8 percent average for the broader category of U.S. fashion and beauty magazines. Circulation has been an issue: Vogue's paid circulation fell 6 percent during the first half of 2008, and newsstand sales dropped 15 percent during the first six months of 2008 compared to a year earlier. Rival magazines like Elle have taken advantage of new revenue and PR opportunities like reality TV, a route Vogue never embraced. Critics have argued that the magazine has grown stale over the past couple of years. And Anna's empire has grown smaller now that Vogue Living has been suspended and Men's Vogue has been gutted.

Both sides have limited options, though, which probably explains the ferocity of the whisper campaign. Wintour cannot be easily replaced. (As Vanity Fair's Michael Roberts pointed out to the Times, the widely admired Roitfeld just wouldn't be up to the task: "There's a whole financial machine that would come crashing down.") And there are few graceful ways for Wintour to extricate herself from the situation. The idea that she's really going to become an ambassador is a far-fetched one, at least for anyone outside Vogue's offices. But it was a clever and very timely rumor, and it bought her time.

We don't know if Newhouse and Wintour are any closer to coming to terms on a new contract. But you'll forgive us for hoping that the negotiations rumble on a bit longer, if only because it's been so entertaining to watch so far.