By Design : State of Grace: Mirabella Founder Writes a Memoir


It wasn't a mere meeting of the minds. It was a meeting of the names. Forbes. Mirabella. Malcolm and Grace were colluding in the lobby of L.A.'s Four Seasons Hotel when the business magazine magnate draped his arm around his companion's chic shoulders.

"Grace," Malcolm said, "you and I are the only ones who have our names on a magazine."

"What about Mrs. Lear?" Grace replied.

"It's not her name."

The club of people who were born to be magazine logos is elite indeed. And for Grace Mirabella, doyenne of her eponymous magazine, it has been a dazzling but rocky road to seeing her name up in large-size font. When the first issue of Mirabella came out in 1989, she proudly delivered it like a newborn into the arms of her Italian immigrant mother. But Mirabella's toddlerhood has been rife with problems, and after a six-month suspension, the magazine was resurrected as a bimonthly last month under new owner Hachette Filipacchi.

Mirabella's latest women's magazine has taken something of a Rube Goldberg-ish path. The kick-off came on June 28, 1988, when the editor in chief was unceremoniously kicked off her earlier high-fashion perch, Vogue, the grand dame of fashion magazines. As she recalls in her new memoir, "In and Out of Vogue" (Doubleday), Mirabella heard the news of her dismissal from columnist Liz Smith's lips during a TV news broadcast.

If that was no way to treat a lady, Mirabella nonetheless responded like one at the time. She dryly told the New York Times: "For a magazine devoted to style, this was not a very stylish way of telling me." And she let it go at that.

But now the white gloves are off. In her book, written with political biographer Judith Warner, Mirabella skewers the men who so rudely unseated her. She writes that S.I. Newhouse, publisher of the Conde Nast magazine aristocracy whose queen is Vogue, had "a history of firings [that] had made him as unpopular as a man of his enormous wealth and power could be." Alex Liberman, then Conde Nast's editorial director, had a "honey-soaked delivery [that masked] an iron will, a tin ear for dissension, and an ego the size of the Newhouse fortune." As for the much younger woman they installed in Mirabella's place, Anna Wintour was "a vision of skinniness in black sunglasses and Chanel suits," so "cold, suspicious. . . and autocratic" that her former colleagues at British Vogue had dubbed her editorship there "Nuclear Wintour."

A Vogue representative declined to comment.

Perhaps not surprisingly, book critics are calling her memoir pay-back time. "Ms. Mirabella has a number of scores to settle," said the New York Times, which also found her book "fascinating, humorous, wry and ultimately rather sad."

Mirabella, 66, brushes aside such unattractive suggestions. "I don't have to settle any scores," she says, chalking up her newfound outspokenness to life as a civilian. Even though Mirabella bears her name, she has essentially retired from the publishing fray. She appears on the masthead as "founder" and she consults with Mirabella's heirs when invited.

"I don't have to look left or right because you're protecting turf of some sort," she says.

If the book one-ups some of Mirabella's less-favorite people, it also seeks to make amends. In it, she defends the memory of Diana Vreeland, the legendary eccentric Vogue editor who also lost her job to a younger woman--Mirabella.

The colorful Vreeland, who revolutionized Vogue during the kaleidoscopic '60s, was immortalized for such aphorisms as "Pink is the navy blue of India." Vreeland's bursts of creativity would birth fashion concepts such as the name "Scheherazade," which would call for commissioning outrageous clothes that readers often couldn't buy in stores.

Stories circulated of Vreeland's frenzies of perfectionism, some of them resulting in costly disasters--the magazine once underwrote an airlift of models, photographer and hairdresser to a Peruvian mountain peak, which ended in the group climbing down in high heels and Maximilian furs.

As Vreeland's assistant, Mirabella was the Sensible One left to interpret the editor's fabulous excesses for the perturbed powers that be. And when the sensible '70s overtook the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll '60s, Mirabella was crowned editor.

Mirabella describes herself in the book as "one of Vreeland's all-time greatest fans," who "absolutely adored, with what I can only describe as the passion of a schoolgirl crush, Vreeland the woman." And she chastises other fashion potentates for reducing Vreeland to "a caricature, her humanity lost in public memory."

Yet Mirabella never spoke to Vreeland after the changing of the guard in 1971. Even though the two women's lives were once so intertwined they would talk several times a day, Mirabella didn't invite Vreeland to her wedding four years later when she married Dr. Bill Cahan, a prominent cancer surgeon . "I really was embarrassed," Mirabella says over tea in her room at the Hotel Sofitel Ma Maison. "She was not. She really was a sport. I mean, a big-time persona."

Mirabella wears her surprisingly down-to-earth demeanor on her sleeve. She's simply but elegantly dressed in her own particular "uniform," a style of consistent dressing she thinks women should adopt. Mirabella's pronounced taste for easygoing clothes--usually including pants--translates today into a black pleated silk shirt by Issey Miyake and a camel-colored wool jacket by Geoffrey Beene, the first piece of its type created by the designer.

"Style really does interest me a lot," she says. "A lot, a lot. The disparate way that women walk around reinventing themselves from Monday, Tuesday to Wednesday, I mean, every day they're a different person. Somehow everything's gotten muddled. A uniform just gives you a continuity of style."

She writes that that's different from "fashion-y games; clothes that sing and dance about themselves and prove purely unwearable."

Not necessarily what one might expect of a fashion maven. "I'm not the person who thinks that everything that happens in fashion is wonderful--I don't," she says.

The Newark, N.J.-born Mirabella's no-nonsense approach meshed nicely with the rise of the working woman who needed real clothes for her real life. By 1980, more women were working outside the home than in it for the first time. And Mirabella's Vogue was helping them dress, serious business at a time when it could "directly affect whether she's hired, fired or promoted," she writes.

But as the '80s became cloaked in new money and glitz, being sensible didn't make sense anymore in the eyes of Vogue's overlords. Mirabella did battle with them over such let-them-em-eat-cake designers as Christian Lacroix, who created pouffy confections so insensible that some of his clients had to turn sideways to enter a room.

"I always felt that Lacroix's was a profoundly anti-woman moment," she writes.

She also objected to Helmut Newton's "tawdry" photographs of seduction, exploitation and prostitution, "male fantasies" and "a terribly cheap way to show clothes."

She told editorial director Liberman, "You can't publish this kind of thing in America anymore and not have people wonder what we're doing to women," but she was left feeling "like a square.'

Vogue's mixed messages to women on the outside paralleled those to women inside the organization. Mirabella says she complained when she tried in vain to expand her role to the business side of the magazine, only to find that this empire of magazines for women had little use for them at the top.

"I had learned the meaning of the words 'glass ceiling,' "' she writes.

Liberman may finally have had no use for Mirabella's cherished stories about working women, telling her, "Women are cheap labor and always will be."

After Conde Nast dismissed Mirabella after her 38 years at Vogue--17 as editor in chief--media mogul Rupert Murdoch's News America Publishing Inc. underwrote her vision, launching Mirabella in 1989. Unlike many traditional women's magazines, fashion was only part of the pie--50%--with smart pieces for smart women covering health, politics and the arts.

But her vision for the magazine faltered under News America's criticism that it was too serious, the resulting departure of its initial editor, Amy Gross, and Mirabella's semi-retirement, she writes. Without a clear identity at a bad time for magazines, Mirabella couldn't attract enough ads to keep it afloat despite growing readership, which reached 600,000.

Mirabella was losing $16 million a year when Hachette bought the 6-year-old magazine in March. The French-based company suspended publication and retooled it as a bimonthly. The editor in chief, coincidentally and ironically, is Gross, who is also editor of Hachette's Elle.

The new incarnation has only 25% fashion, with an additional 15% beauty coverage. And the rest is devoted to the rest: The current issue has pieces on a psychiatry professor's battle with mental illness, right-wing darling Eloise Anderson and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas.

"In the press, during the change of hands, the question was raised: Can an intelligent woman's magazine survive?" Gross writes in her mission statement. "Can't we find reading matter in the genderless smart magazines? Our answer is: We can and do. But there are other kinds of conversation we want. . . . We want the quick maven-to-maven sharing of information about a mascara or a meal or a movie."

Mirabella is betting that smart women will unite behind a magazine that reflects their prismatic lives in this "non-clothes era," when women are no longer slaves but masters of their fashion fate. And that magazines for multifaceted women won't be mere fashion but new reality.

Says Mirabella: "None of us knows quite how to deal with this woman [of] today. She's smarter. Her range is greater. Her demands are greater. It's any of us who know there's more to the world than 80 pages of short skirts. And there's more to the world than 10 more diets or six more ways of putting your lipstick on."

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