I bought Vanity Fair for the first time at the end of last year – primarily as an alternative to killing myself during a four-hour wait at Atlanta airport. At the time, its principal attraction was that it contained some quite long articles, and – frankly – there was only so much time I could spend rereading the copy on my burrito wrapper.
For a reason I can’t explain, that magazine has hung around my house ever since– just in case I find myself procrastinating so intensely that I want to read “When Margaret Thatcher Wore the Pants in England” or wondering just how sassy Matt Damon really thinks Scarlett Johansen is.
But the thing that has slowly hypnotised me is the magazine’s sense of self, which is reified by almost every piece of writing, every picture, every advert. It’s a master-class in inhabiting a brand. The tone, the content, the glossy Annie Liebowitz photography combine to give the feel of an Upper East Side bluestocking, the kind of girl who might jot poetry in her leather Smythson notebook: bright but not sarcastic; stylish but above fashion; a lover of art who goes to see Leonardo di Caprio films; and – above all – the type to take everything very seriously, but who just might be secretly having a laugh.
For starters, it’s called Vanity Fair. The original Vanity Fair, in Pilgrim’s Progress, was a never-ending sale of meaningless tat, where the pilgrims had a really bad time. It’s the sort of name that wouldn’t get past a focus group these days, let alone on to the newsagent’s shelf.
For seconds, its editor is a man called Graydon Carter, whose hairstyle is a homage to 1980s Margaret Thatcher and who writes sentences like, “Christopher [Hitchens] was the beau ideal of the public intellectual.”
For thirds, it covers an unusually broad range of topics: from celebrity galas to the decline of the Murdoch empire, by way of loooong articles about the Kennedys in the Hamptons and interviews with movie stars. And it uses the same tone for all of them. The cover of this month’s edition bears the baffling “LET US NOW QUIZ LEADING MEN” over a picture of George Clooney, Daniel Craig and Matt Damon. It’s like the strapline to a High Church game show – transfixing in its portentous meaninglessness. An article on Lucien Freud describes the subject of a painting as having “vivid streaks of yellow in his right hand, rust and blue at the naughty bits” – like art history through the accidental gaze of John Inman.
In some ways it’s reminiscent of the tiny C19th print of the New York Times, or the Harvard graduate I used to work for, who wore a Homburg hat and couldn’t believe English people with degrees watched EastEnders. But in others, you suspect it might just be having some fun.
My whole reason for writing this is because of the following extract from an article about Ladies Who Lunched. It’s set largely before Second Wave feminism sent the lovely hairstyles of the rich and famous off to work, featuring remarkable photos of socialites with names like “Babe” and “Slim” and “Gayfryd”. It ends on an uncertain note, like an episode of The Simpsons that can be interpreted a dozen ways. And I honestly couldn’t tell if the following was serious or satirical, but either way, it made me laugh out loud.
“This past summer in Southampton, Donna Karan had Peggy Siegel round up 50 women … for a lunch. … ‘Today, it’s very rare that ladies just lunch … Ladies lunch for a reason, for a cause.’ … Before we could eat, Karan spoke at length about her mission, which was inspired by her father’s death from lung cancer 10 years ago: ‘I started Urban Zen because I had so many women I was dressing, but I realized what I needed to do was ad-dress them. It wasn’t what we were wearing on our outside but what we were wearing on our inside … We can no longer sit around and have lunches as we used to. Our lunches have to be proactive, and let’s get things done.’
Karan then introduced Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman, the yogis who run the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy Program at Southampton Hospital … As the waiters bought out bowls of burrata mozzarella and cherry tomatoes, Saidman announced, ‘I’ll just lead you through a little bit of meditation. Set both feet on the floor …. And then maybe, for the first time today, actually go inside and realize you are in fact breathing.’
And at the end of the meal, Karan had a small fashion show of Urban Zen’s latest clothing line, which consists mostly of tank dresses, pajama pants, and tunics in shades of brown, olive and gray. She herself was wearing a khaki-coloured stretch-wool dress, gladiator sandals and a huge necklace made of leather tassels and African masks. ‘My fashion philosophy is: If you can’t sleep in it and go out in it, I don’t want to know from it,’ she pronounced.”
It’s like a ray of sunshine from Planet Zoolander: the clink of Karan’s necklace of African masks heard just above the sound of “real breath”, while everyone lolls around in mud-coloured $800 leisure wear, talking about how they “really have to do something”. I also like to think Karan might have said, “Do you see what I did there?” after her dress/address pun, “I’m playing with words.”
But perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Perhaps there’s no ambiguity and it’s a straight bit of reportage from the frontline of the super-rich. But I don’t think a proposition that ambiguous would survive in the UK, and it certainly wouldn’t be allowed to take itself seriously or address such a range of issues in such a bizarrely antiquated tone.
And I’m not recommending for a moment that anyone else do the same – I mean, there’s already a Vanity Fair – but it’s a great lesson in editorial vision and brand execution, and a reminder that confidence and firm rules of engagement are often the best license for breaking the rules.