One gets compared to royals, the other to nannies. One shops couture collections, the other goes to The Gap. One is a fashion-correct Size 4, the other a free-spirited 14. One is cool, one chatty. One envied, one liked. One is known as the queen. And one is after her crown.
Anna Wintour and Liz Tilberis, the editors of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. They are the closest-watched competitors in their field, the Kristi Yamaguchi and Midori Ito of fashion.
And the world is waiting to see who rises and who falls as they both skate across thin ice.
Thin for Harper’s Bazaar because this isn’t just a fight for dominance, but for survival.
Once a champion, the 125-year-old magazine has lost its strength. Tumbling circulation and ad sales, and an obvious lack of imagination, have left it all but ignored by the fashion industry and by fashion magazine readers alike.
Thin ice for Vogue despite the fact that, while it and Bazaar have been rivals for years, Vogue now rests comfortably at the top of its class. It’s the crown jewel in the Conde Nast empire of luxury publications. But that domain is threatened by a weak economy, changing public tastes and the mercurial nature of the magazine business.
With the stakes so high, attention has focused on the two women at the top.
Wintour, 42, is the current darling of the fashion scene, and everybody loves a winner. Her star has been rising at Conde Nast since she took over British Vogue in 1986, then moved to New York as editor of HG, formerly House and Garden. Earlier, she had gained attention for her fashion and home furnishing pages in New York magazine.
Tilberis, 45, started her rise to the top of Conde Nast in 1970, serving as a fashion editor, executive fashion editor and editor-in-chief on her way to becoming the director of Conde Nast Publications in 1991.
Wintour actually gave Tilberis her big break. She appointed Tilberis, who had worked for her about a year, editor of British Vogue in 1987, when Wintour left to take over HG.
Tilberis’ leap from Vogue to the Hearst-owned Harper’s Bazaar--reportedly for a $1.2 million a year salary and perks--turned the colleagues into competitors.
Their rivalry became official April 1, when Tilberis took over Bazaar. She had not yet moved into her new office when Hearst publisher Claeys Bahrenburg announced her mission: Make Harper’s Bazaar No. 1.
At the moment, that seems a long shot. Vogue holds the title in a very firm grip. Its 100-year history of innovative editors, art directors and photographers has propelled it so far ahead of the fashion magazine field that overtaking it seems an impossible dream. (See story, E6)
“You get to be No. 1 by high circulation and ads,” noted Don Nicholas, editor of MagazineWeek, which reports on the industry. “But at this point, Vogue benefits from its girth. It is a very good magazine, and just as important for readers, it is the thickest.”
In theory, the differences between the two magazines are slight. Both were created in the name of high fashion, fine living and the rituals associated with refined taste.
In the early days, Bazaar overshadowed Vogue. When Carmel Snow became Bazaar editor in 1932, she created a magazine for the avant-garde, where outdoor photographer Louise Dahl Wolfe and exotic fashion editor Diana Vreeland were part of the creative team. (Vreeland later defected to Vogue, where Snow had started out.)
But Vogue showed steady flashes of brilliance, particularly when the artistic photographer Edward Steichen and the socialite Baron de Meyer turned their cameras to fashion. The magazine gained momentum in the early ‘40s when Russian-born artist Alexander Liberman joined the editorial staff and Irving Penn became the featured photographer.
As Vogue grew strong, Bazaar grew lame, relying in recent years on outdated layout themes and predictable personality profiles.
Vogue took chances, mixing jeans with couture jackets for a cover shot, poking fun at old-fashioned dictates such as “black is out,” and introducing feature stories on such serious health issues as schizophrenia.
The two magazines probably will begin to look more alike in September, when Tilberis unveils her first issue of Bazaar.
After years working at the highest elevations of Conde Nast, Wintour’s and Tilberis’ formulas for a successful magazine are all but identical. They both say you need fashion features with a sense of humor, smart coverage of social issues, a stable of terrific writers and photographers who surprise you with an added spin.
Wintour downplays the reported feud brewing between her and Tilberis.
“I was one of the first to call and congratulate Liz about Harper’s Bazaar,” Wintour said recently in an interview.
“Vogue is very bright,” conceded Tilberis in return. “It will be tough to compete with.”
Did she say compete ?
Bazaar’s attempt to take over the top spot began with a vengeance.
To lead the charge, Tilberis was reportedly offered the $1.2-million mega-salary--although Bazaar officials will not confirm it--with perks including the education of her two preteen sons. (Tilberis has denied receiving a seven-figure salary. And indeed the going rate for a fashion magazine editor’s salary is estimated at $300,000 to $500,000.)
Ten top editors got swept off the Bazaar staff as Tilberis prepared to build her own hand-picked team. The coup was not a complete surprise. With steadily falling ad pages--down to 1,051 in 1991 from 1,426 the year before--and a widely held view that the magazine has lost its identity, changes seemed inevitable.
“Bazaar was so notoriously bad they wanted to make a statement,” said Annie Flanders about the clean sweep. Flanders, now a Los Angeles-based style consultant, founded Details magazine and recently sold it to Conde Nast. “What they did was brutal. But I understand the need to get the people you like to work with you.”
Now, the new key players seem to be in place. Tilberis named Paul Cavaco, a high-powered New York publicist, as fashion director; Fabien Baron, who worked at Italian Vogue, as creative director, and his wife, Sci Sci Gambaccini as senior fashion editor.
But Tilberis’ most audacious move was to snatch Patrick DeMarchelier away from Vogue, where he topped Wintour’s short list of favorite photographers.
While things have been popping at Harper’s Bazaar, they haven’t exactly been quiet at Vogue.
As Tilberis moved to Manhattan, Wintour was heading a victory tour across two continents.
To celebrate her magazine’s 100th anniversary--as well as the industry’s No. 1 ranking in circulation, ads and popularity--Wintour hosted a party that swaggered from Milan to Paris and on to New York.
The New York bash was held in the palatial public library on Fifth Avenue and kicked off a display of 100 years of Vogue photographs. More proof that New York had become one big Vogue entourage was a window at Bloomingdale’s, dominated by a Wintour-mannekin, wearing her signature black sunglasses and brown bobbed hair.
Statistics tell the story of Vogue’s success more objectively. Vogue’s circulation is 1.2 million, while Harper’s Bazaar’s is 700,000. Translated to last year’s ad revenues, that is almost $103 million for Vogue and less than one-third that, just under $31 million, for Harper’s Bazaar.
“Harper’s is in trouble,” said Dan Foote, media planning director for Davis, Ball and Colombatto, a Los Angeles ad agency. “Once an advertiser wouldn’t think of overlooking them. Now, you easily could.”
But the fact is, Bazaar isn’t the only one in trouble. Across the country, fashion magazines face a soft economy, an increasing serious-mindedness and rising reader preference for narrow-niche publications (“I read muscle magazines first,” one Los Angeles fashion boutique owner said).
More important, advertisers are looking for alternate ways to promote their products. They’re cutting back on ads in the glossies and investing in mass market.
“Retailers don’t believe anymore that an ad in a fashion magazine will send people streaming into their store,” said Foote. “The ‘90s are the value decade. Advertisers have to get a pay-back for ads. Image has become secondary.”
At Escada, a vast fashion empire with 10 divisions under its roof, marketing vice president Sydney Brooks said the increase in options for advertisers is creating a challenge for magazines. Among the competition: cable TV, outdoor advertising and direct mail.
With so much going so wrong, you might expect Tilberis to seem worried. But perched in a taupe-and-black office at Harper’s Bazaar, she beamed with enthusiasm during a recent interview.
“I’d like to broaden things,” she said, describing her plans for the magazine. “America sees itself as supplying everything on its own. Not that I’m for international European fashion exclusively, but there is room for more of it.”
She also wants to expand coverage of arts and women’s issues.
But before any of this can be set in motion, there is that awkward matter concerning “the embargo,” as she calls it.
After Tilberis accepted her new job in January, Wintour put out an all-points bulletin to her regular photographers and writers: If they work for Harper’s Bazaar, they will be banned from every Conde Nast publication worldwide.
“We’ve had to talk severely to the photographers,” Tilberis said, as confident as a child’s take-charge nurse. “We’ll show them the magazine and let them weigh out how much they’d miss Conde Nast.”
Now that she has wrestled photographer DeMarchelier from Wintour, it would be silly to imagine Tilberis poses no threat. Rumor has it she is now after Steven Meisel, another Vogue photographer.
Despite Vogue’s tremendous lead and Wintour’s favored edge, people on the creative side of the fashion magazine business seem to genuinely like working with Tilberis.
Besides, Hearst seems uncharacteristically willing to pay top dollar for talent. When DeMarchelier chose Bazaar over Vogue, he reportedly told Women’s Wear Daily, the fashion trade publication, that the pay was very good--a considerable factor.
Tilberis is not likely to overtake the lead soon. But already she is giving Vogue a run for its money.
As the tension runs higher than last year’s hemlines in this season’s most glamorous power struggle, it would be easy to overlook other skirmishes that could change the game completely.
The fact is there are four, not two, high-fashion magazines. Elle and Mirabella complete the list. And they are all struggling to adjust to a changing world.
Mirabella, with barely more than 400,000 circulation, is in the most precarious position, although it is widely considered the best of the group. It won the award for excellence this spring in a competition sponsored by the American Society of Magazine Editors. Yet it lost about $16 million last year, and there are constant rumblings that owner Rupert Murdoch would sell if he could find a buyer.
The magazine’s editor will tell you why.
“Ultimately, it’s a numbers game,” said Grace Mirabella, who is often compared to a college president because of her natural hair and makeup, tailored clothing and intensity, all of which set her apart from the fashion fillies.
As the leading fashion magazines “readjust themselves” for the ‘90s, she predicted, success depends on who can attract a readership that advertisers want to reach. She has already placed her bet on a very specific group.
“The number of working women has changed everything,” she began, explaining her choice. “They set the fashion look. It’s not the ladies who lunch.”
Second only to Vogue in circulation, at 935,000, Elle’s energetic graphics and quick-read formula captured an audience eight years ago when the French-based magazine was launched in the States. But it has become repetitive, superficial and predictable. “If you find a winning formula, you can’t get by just plugging something into it every issue,” said Joie( Davidow, founder of L.A. Style.
So, like Harper’s Bazaar, Elle charted a new course this spring. And in the brutal tradition of the fashion magazine business, it shook up its staff along the way.
“I’m here to bring content to Elle,” said American Elle executive editor Ruth La Ferla.
“The features need to have a little more weight.”
La Ferla, who came from the New York Times Magazine about eight months ago, alluded to another perception she wants to change: “It would be wise to assume a certain amount of sophistication among (our) readers. Not to aim at the 20-year-olds, but at anyone who enjoys the glamour of a fashion magazine.
Substance is a big word of the ‘90s, La Ferla said.
So, it seems, is survival.
In the great sorting-out of 1992, Mirabella predicted, “there will be fallout.” Most industry watchers agree that the market cannot support four high-fashion magazines, all hovering around the $4 cover price.
“Of the top four, I’d be least surprised to see Mirabella go,” said Davidow, citing financial difficulties. In the same breath, she said Mirabella is her favorite fashion magazine.
Others see a long life for Mirabella.
“How do you make a magazine desirable to advertisers? You create a terrific editorial product,” said Nicholas of MagazineWeek. He predicted a strong future for Mirabella magazine, “as long as they let Grace Mirabella do what she wants.”
As he sees it, “Harper’s Bazaar could be dead in a year. It depends if Liz Tilberis comes out with something that’s off the mark.”
Who’s right? In this unpredictable market, no one knows. The only thing certain is that from superpower Vogue to re-emerging Bazaar, sophisticated Mirabella to spirited Elle, the magazine wars--led by the Wintour-Tilberis rivalry--have only just begun.