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A humid mid-morning in New York and, at One World Trade Center, the vast glass-sheathed tower that the publishing house Condé Nast moved into last year, a group of young designers, art directors, copy editors and tech developers are gathered in a small room on the 29th floor. They are just some of the 53 staff working on Vogue.com, US Vogue’s online presence. All focus is directed towards a set of screens on which a miscellany of models appears grinning, jumping, dancing and cavorting for the camera.
The images are part of a story highlighting the emerging faces of the fashion scene. And the models, all coltish limbs, kooky self-expression and flawless complexions, are those Vogue.com is instructing us to become more intimately acquainted with as the new fashion season launches them on to catwalks, Instagram feeds, editorials and television screens in New York, London, Milan and Paris.
So far, project #voguemodelcasting has employed 128 models, four photographers, dozens of mobile phone chargers, another score of scribes, and a planning schedule of emphatic discipline: this one day’s work will generate not only a standalone story but also a “grunge” fashion shoot, model profiles with interviews and stills photography, a number of beauty videos, hundreds of Gifs that can used for mobile content, video that can be used on desktop, any number of Instagram images, and thousands of hashtags. None of the editorial will be seen in print.
Once merely the digital manifestation of the world’s foremost fashion magazine, Vogue.com is today a vast adjunct of the print edition it represents. And it’s a mighty proposition. Since its relaunch last August it has grown its audience figures by 80 per cent. Over the past fortnight there have been around 4m unique users. On May 5, the day after the Met Ball, the annual fundraising gala hosted by Anna Wintour which this year marked the opening of the museum’s China: Through the Looking Glass exhibition, Vogue.com had 58m page views. On the day I visited, 84 stories were posted across a site that includes sections on living, culture and beauty, as well as Runway, the reincarnation of Condé Nast’s popular show-review site Style.com, which was incorporated into Vogue.com last month. (Next year, Style.com will relaunch as an e-commerce platform for Condé Nast’s British magazines.)
Four floors — and a universe — away from the model room, Anna Wintour, editor of US Vogue since 1988 and now artistic director of Condé Nast US, sits behind a desk in her immaculate office and describes Vogue.com’s evolution. “I don’t think that there was one moment,” she says of whether she had a digital epiphany. “You just have to go to the shows and see . . . ” She gestures towards an iPhone, the tool with which the fashion world was catapulted into the public arena. “You just saw it happen and it was very fast. It became more and more apparent we needed to invest in this medium, that we needed to engage our readers in this medium, and we needed to put together a team that really lived it as much as our editors on print live print.”
It’s a significant shift from when Vogue.com was launched six years ago. “We thought, we’ll just put out the magazine online,” says Wintour. “That simply didn’t work. So you’ve seen a huge amount of change but what we’re always trying to think about is how we can talk to our readers. So, whether it’s mobile or website or through events like the Met or books or digital, we have this ability to communicate and engage our readers in so many thrilling ways.”
It’s a change noted by Bob Sauerberg, who was this week appointed chief executive of Condé Nast. The company’s president of five years will assume his new role on January 1 with a vow to transform Condé Nast’s digital assets, of which Vogue, as the most valuable of those assets, is first on his list. He emails praising the magazine’s “innovative approach to digital storytelling”, which, he says, “audiences are responding in a significant way”.
Back on the 29th floor, I meet Vogue’s creative director of digital, Sally Singer, 50, a former Vogue fashion news and features director with an air of intense gravity and a habit of pushing clumps of her hair into her mouth when she speaks. She gives me a tour of the office. Like most modern workspaces, it’s eerily quiet. Editors are hidden behind partition walls to which small clues to their editorial focus are attached: the celebrity style desk features pictures of Victoria Beckham, Kim Kardashian and Amal Clooney, while on the culture desk sit novel manuscripts and photography books. The buttercream on a delivery of cupcakes frosts further in the thermostatically controlled air.
Few of the clichés one might associate with Vogue staffers survive here — although Wintour is a whisper of a silhouette in AW15 Prada. The editors are young and less polished than their print counterparts; they look pale, like people who spend a lot of time in front of screens. There is not much sense of an office hierarchy: though the room Singer occupies is the largest, its walls stencilled with colourful graffiti-style illustrations, it has none of the composure or the grandeur of Wintour’s, with its fresh-cut flowers and precisely arranged photography. This slightly unstructured feel is echoed in Singer’s editorial practice.
“They are a very responsive and fun team,” she says. “Vogue.com and Vogue Runway [are] a digest of their enthusiasm. I trim and I edit and I nudge or redirect but I love how committed and interested they are. I like people to do what they do, and then I like to push some people a little more.”
Everyone I talk to at Vogue.com is having “fun”. And everyone is “excited”. This is important. “Happy people make happy websites,” says Ben Berentson, the site director (a role which, “with Sally”, means overseeing the “best performance of the site”). “If you’re feeling miserable, it’s going to show up in the product. We run a loose system here, like an accelerated magazine workflow,” he continues. “It goes very quickly, with very little hourly oversight.”
Abby Aguirre, the culture editor and a former features editor at the New York Times, who is wearing a floor-length floral dress from Isabel Marant, arrived last year. Her beat encompasses arts, interiors, weddings and political comment. Right now she is making the final tweaks to a feature on the return of reggae she has produced with the help of the Google News Lab, which has volunteered a thrillingly specific “sparkle chart” tracing the evolution and diaspora of the Jamaican musical genre.
Photography director Andrew Gold, a blond-haired 26-year-old with the waxy complexion of an Edgar Allan Poe character, likens the atmosphere to a start-up. “I was a print fashion person. It wasn’t unexciting but this was just exploding and it seemed like a fun thing to do.” Gold, whom his colleagues repeatedly describe as a “genius”, has been instrumental in trying to reproduce online the rich visual experience readers expect from the print magazine. “Quiet imagery on a cell phone doesn’t stick out,” he explains, “it has to be in your face. You have to grab people.”
Hence, most fashion shoots are now shot as moving images, whether on video or as Gifs (which work better on mobile). “I was talking to a designer the other day who said that the way we were shooting clothes would change the way they design,” says Singer. She is increasingly convinced that all the images on the site should have an element of animation — “so you might see a curtain moving in an interiors shoot”.
The vast majority of the clothes they shoot are already on sale, and the site provides click-through links to stores. Are they inclined to feature more items at lower price points bearing in mind the comparative youth of the average digital user? Absolutely not. “Vogue has always, in whatever media, celebrated high and low,” insists Wintour. “We look at all levels. We’re Vogue.”
“Most of the stories we shoot are because we get fixated with things,” says executive fashion editor Jorden Bickham, who describes herself as a “30-year-old mom” and speaks in so dry a manner it’s near impossible to imagine she gets excited about anything.
The word “obsessed” is used a lot: shared obsessions are a matter of editorial urgency. Aguirre is obsessed with the presidential debates. Singer is obsessed with the fur-lined Gucci loafers that she’s wearing despite the 90-degree heat outside. Edward Barsamian, style editor, is obsessed with the blush-pink Prada dress Dakota Johnson wore on the red carpet at Venice last night.
The internet needs obsessive, opinionated voices that can stand out in the cacophony. “If you don’t have a take, you get hosed,” says Aguirre. But how independent can they really be within an editorial environment that has traditionally been overseen by Wintour’s all-commanding editorial rule? Is there an online voice and a print one?
“I think that there is a language online that’s more immediate,” says Wintour. “You’re reporting on fashion in real time. It’s more personal also by the merit of what it is. Obviously our content is much more diverse than it was 15 years ago but we’ve always covered politics. We’ve always covered theatre. Yes, first and foremost we’re a fashion magazine but we also report on the culture in a very stylish way.” She continues. “Both online and print have the authority and voice of Vogue. We discuss everything together. We are a bigger group than we used to be but we are one group and that’s very important to remember.” The freedom and facility to commission so much original content is contagious. What journalist wouldn’t whoop to find Anne Johnson, social media manager, ready to write curated social-media links to every story, “optimising content for all the platforms used by our 30m social media followers”? Who wouldn’t want Neha Singh, senior director of product, late of Google and now running an in-house team of five producers and two product managers who are sitting round the corner, on hand to write the necessary code to facilitate a story that might include 10 videos, a pop-out slideshow, drop-down lists and a 2,000-word essay? “We push new code to the site almost every day; we’re constantly tweaking things,” she says of her mission to make everything “faster, easier and more enriching for the reader experience”.
No one will discuss budgets, and while Vogue.com has clearly received considerable investment, Berentson insists the staff are efficient. “The team is very responsible. All the section editors know how much they have to spend on manuscript. Everyone understands the basic framework.” And they’ve found novel ways to be thrifty. Model Karlie Kloss was persuaded to do lo-fi recording of her abdominal- and butt-toning workout routines at a local gym. “There was recently a male model doing push-ups over there,” says Berentson, waving across the desk. “All of our offices have been prop-styled to look cooler and more interesting.” There’s a unique cachet in shooting on-site, he adds. “People want to see inside Vogue.”
People do want to see inside Vogue. And they really want to see Anna Wintour, who could easily provide enough traffic for a dedicated site of her own. “73 Questions” is a regular Vogue.com feature in which a starry contributor answers a volley of seemingly innocuous questions; the one featuring Wintour went viral. “They had to drag me kicking and screaming to do it,” she says of the film that found her in trademark sunglasses discussing her wake up time (5am), favourite flower (tuberous), and phobia of spiders. “For a month after it went up, everywhere I went people had seen it.” The site has drawn on a more playful side of Wintour’s personality: she has exchanged “texts with Rihanna” and spent time backstage with Zoolander. “Well, you have to be humorous,” shrugs the woman famed for her glacial froideur. “Fashion is quite humorous.”
Vogue.com is not the only digital voice of Vogue: there are 20 international editions of the magazine, each with a site. As Alexandra Shulman, editor of British Vogue, observes, “British Vogue’s digital arm had 2,004,748 unique users according to Google Analytics in June, and Facebook and Twitter followers of around 2.8m — stonkingly brilliant numbers on much smaller resources!”
For Vogue.com, the investment appears to be paying off, with growth in digital advertising described by Susan Plagemann, Vogue’s publisher and revenue officer, as “exponential”. So how has a brand that places such a high premium on its print supremacy got its advertisers online? Addressing the subject from under a mantle of Balmain denim and in the opaque language of corporate discretion, she says: “When we first launched the website I wasn’t going to have a digital team and a print team, so I told everyone, ‘We’re going to sell all things Vogue.’ To me it wasn’t a choice. We had to get our heads around it, we weren’t going to fear it. We embraced it.” And in a market where even as the ratio between print and digital advertising is changing, print is still king, Plagemann points out that “our share in print is gaining momentum”.
Lynne Greene, president of Clinique worldwide, one of the most important advertisers in magazine publishing, describes the new marketing landscape: “Vogue is making a good effort to be in the digital world and Vogue.com readers are loyal. We all know that digital is the future, so we are learning how to engage with an exciting proposition which can be used in a very synergistic way.” For now, however, Greene is in no doubt that digital is an additional, not an alternative, area of investment. “But,” she says, “talk to me in two to three months and that may have changed.”
While every Vogue editor speaks of their pride in the brand’s authentic voice, one also wonders how Plagemann deals with the creeping presence of sponsored content — where stories are paid for by an advertiser and produced in-house. “Well, what is sponsored content?” Plagemann barks when asked about its place on the site. “When you figure that out, call me. That’s my answer.” She softens. “We don’t sell editorial. There are links — we work with clients all the time on that sort of thing. But we don’t sit our editors down and say, ‘You’re going to write this for so and so.’ That’s not to say we wouldn’t connect a client to someone who could do that for them.”
Currently there are no plans to put Vogue.com behind a paywall but Plagemann is aware of the commercial potential of Runway’s treasure trove of archive images and show reports. “Incorporating Runway into our coverage has been fantastic. The numbers are ridiculous, it’s a natural match,” she says.
So why not charge for it? “Trust me,” she says with a clap of her hands. “There’s all sorts of things to come. This will be part two of your story! Next year’s story!”
Jo Ellison is the FT’s fashion editor
Photograph: Grant Delin