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Champions of design: Vogue

The 122-year-old fashion and lifestyle magazine has a well-earned, global reputation for style.

In the constantly changing world of couture, one item has remained indispensable for more than a century: the fashion bible that is Vogue. Founded in 1892, the magazine has evolved constantly to reflect the area of its expertise, but its title and principles have remained unchanged: to provide its style-conscious readership with a definitive view of the defining trends in contemporary fashion.

While its roots belong in the 19th century, the make­over that defined the title took place in the early part of the 20th. Publisher Condé Montrose Nast acquired Vogue in 1909 and applied his genius for selling advertis­ing to it, before adding Vanity Fair and House & Garden to his rapidly expanding portfolio within the next decade.

In Vogue, Nast took what had been a weekly gazette aimed at the social elite and repositioned it as a monthly focused exclusively on women’s fashion. Moreover, he understood the value of placing technology at the centre of the magazine’s structure.

The importance of photography was reflected in the appointment of Baron Adolphe de Meyer as Vogue’s first staff photographer. This kick-started the regular appearance of the work of the greatest exponents of the artform on the magazine’s pages.

While Nast’s golden touch with advertising would always remain his primary gift, he also understood the importance of aiming his magazines at a very specific audience and delivering a product that reflected the appropriate image: his company pioneered the use of "bleed" printing, which allows ink to be used up to the edges of the page.

The rises in circulation and advertising revenue that were delivered over the remainder of the 20th century and into this one scarcely do justice to the legend that the magazine has created, nor to the influence it has exerted over the fashion industry.

Key to its appeal have been the larger-than-life figures who have occupied pivotal roles at the magazine. Best-known of these is Anna Wintour, its current editor-in-chief, who has ruled the roost in famously uncomprom­ising fashion since landing the job in 1988. Her legend was sealed, ironically, with the publication of Lauren Weisberger’s novel based on her time working as Wintour’s assistant, The Devil Wears Prada, and its transformation into an Oscar-nominated film starring Anne Hathaway. Despite the monstrous picture it paints of a thinly fictionalised Wintour, the Vogue editrix appeared at the premiere. Wearing Prada, naturally.

Just as influential and equally idiosyncratic was Diana Vreeland, who was editor-in-chief of Vogue (from 1963-71) and before that the influential fashion editor of its long-time rival, Harper’s Bazaar. She made a name for herself in the 60s by commissioning a series of incredibly expensive and lavish photoshoots, which sealed Vogue’s reputation for luxurious excess. She, too, saw a fictional representation of herself on the big screen: the 1957 film, Funny Face, starring Audrey Hepburn, featured a character called Maggie Prescott, played by Kay Thompson, who was inspired by Vreeland.

Vogue has entered the 21st century in confident fashion, with a strong digital presence and within a publishing house that has weathered both the most recent economic downturn and the decline in print journalism with characteristic sang froid. Given the magazine’s pedigree, one would expect nothing less.

Did you know?

  • At 916 pages (658 of them ads), the September 2012 issue of the US edition of Vogue, with cover star Lady Gaga, remains the magazine’s biggest.

  • Edna Woolman Chase is, to date, the longest-serving editor of US Vogue (her tenure ran from 1914-52). She set strict fashion guide­lines among her staff, insisting that all female employees wore black silk stockings, white gloves and a hat. She, apparently, scolded an underling who had attempted suicide by saying: "We at Vogue don’t throw ourselves under subway trains, my dear. If we must, we take sleeping pills."

  • The British edition of Vogue, which made its debut on 15 September 1916, came into being as a result of World War I. The US edition had previously been distributed in the UK via a German agency, but with this no longer possible and restrictions on shipping, it was decided to produce a British edition, which carried mostly the same content as the US original.

  • The second editor of British Vogue, Dorothy Todd, was dismissed by Condé Nast because she was a lesbian with an illegitimate daughter.

  • Famously frosty editor-in-chief Anna Wintour (above) once told Oprah Winfrey that she would have to lose 20lb before she would even consider putting her on the cover of Vogue. (Winfrey now has her own glossy title, O, and appears on the cover of every issue.)

Sector round-up

The New Yorker

Despite heavyweight rivals both online and in print, The New Yorker continues to set the benchmark for in-depth journalism and exerts a profound influence in the world of belles-lettres. It enjoys the kind of resources of which UK magazines can only dream, and manages to set the agenda across the cultural waterfront while holding up a mirror to Manhattan and beyond.

The Economist

"Leader’s Digest" was how one of its famous white-out-of-red ad campaigns described the weekly agenda-setter in business and world affairs, and it remains a relevant sobriquet. Boasting a worldwide readership of 1.5m, half of which is in the US, the newspaper (it never calls itself a magazine) has adapted admirably to life online and proves the virtues of a concise compila­tion of opinion in a world of information overload.

Wallpaper*

Canadian journalist Tyler Brûlé’s brainchild – the idea for which he conceived while recovering from being shot in Afghanistan – Wallpaper* has survived the departure of its creator and thrived, thanks in part to the rapid expansion of its online arm. Its distinctive take on style and travel has also lent itself to a successful series of city guide books.

National Geographic

As uncompromising as the natural world it has documented for more than 125 years, National Geographic is justifiably seen as the planet’s authority on reporting advances in exploration and archaeology. Its yellow-bordered cover has hosted some of the world’s most mem­orable images, and it has made the transition to a multiplatform age appear effortless.

Wired

Recently turned 21, Wired reached maturity many years ago and has offered informed and sanguine insights into the world of technology which are respected and understood by both experts and enthusiasts alike. Smart enough to see the cultural impact of technology and with a design ethos that mirrors the innovation of the world it covers, Wired has given geeks
a good name.

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More from this series

Read more about our champions of design, including Chupa Chups, Perrier, Monocle and Paul Smith. Download the book here