Not every morning starts with a rare grin and cheerful “good morning” from American Vogue’s 30 year reigning Editor in Chief Anna Wintour. But this particular Thursday morning in Chelsea did. Nearly 500 attendees piled into the penthouse floor of Milk Studios, most sitting in neatly organized rows, others posted on benches against the windows, several standing in the back by the film crew. This is only the magazine’s second year hosting the Vogue Forces of Fashion Conference but with panelists and guests including Clare Waight Keller of Givenchy, famed photographer Annie Leibovitz, Vogue’s own International Editor at Large Hamish Bowles, and Instagram’s Director of Fashion Partnerships Eva Chen, the conference is only picking up speed for the years ahead.
Like any other weekday afternoon of intentional procrastination and avoidable boredom, I flipped through the pages of Vogue’s September 2018 issue, a memento my mother surprised me with the morning she left for home as I began my new life in New York City. About midway through, a simple page with clean lettering caught my attention which was still ogling the previous Calvin Klein ad. It announced Vogue’s second annual Forces of Fashion Conference in New York City on October 11th and prompted a link where tickets to the event were sold. I scrambled for my phone, minimizing and opening and deleting tabs at a new personal speed record to get to the ticketing page. My heartbeat slowed, not because I finally bought my ticket, but because they were only a cool $3,000 a head. So before I got my hopes stomped on again, I closed the webpage and kept flipping through the magazine.
Fast forward a month and I am patiently waiting with Vogue’s daily agenda in my hand and for Anna Wintour to give her welcoming remarks. Thanks to an extremely generous discount provided by both my school and Vogue, Forces of Fashion quickly became a reality I was a part of.
The warm lights dimmed as an unmistakable brown bob walked onto the stage, sans jet black sunglasses. Her voice was amiable and a proud British accent hugged every word she spoke. A fixed gaze fell over the crowd and it felt like one of those moments you could be stuck in the rest of your life and be content. It may sound cliché or overdramatized, especially within the realm of fashion, but there really is nothing to prepare you for being in the same room as the woman who has set the pace in the fashion industry for decades. Anna’s opening was short and concise, nonetheless awing, and the first panel of the day quickly commenced. A once in a lifetime opportunity never felt so literally once in a lifetime until then.
Here is a sparknotes version of the nearly eight hour day. Pierpaolo Piccioli, Creative Director of Valentino, and Hamish Bowles, International Editor at Large for Vogue, took seats across from each other and engaged in what felt as a very candid and intimate conversation delving into the difference of couture and street cool and where the lines are beginning to blur. Soon after, infamous Vogue photographer Annie Leibovitz and Jonathan van Meter, contributing editor for Vogue sat down and dug into how the past five decades of her photography has transformed the era, and shared some personal anecdotes from behind-the-scene outtakes. Small fifteen minute breaks between talks gave time for quick coffee refills, great people watching, and hurried photo ops with people-less backgrounds. One chat that thoroughly surprised me with regards to both speakers and content was the discussion between Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Andrew Bolton and Emmy-winning screenwriter, director, and producer Ryan Murphy. Touching on the overlap of each of their professions, the talk heavily focused on the upcoming May 2019 Met Gala and it’s intriguing, yet potentially confusing, theme of “camp”. What is “camp”, you may be asking? Until I looked it up online during their physical discussion, I didn’t know either. “Camp” is the term used when something in fashion is so ugly it ironically becomes hugely desired and classifies as high fashion. Strange. But will prompt for some compelling outfits on the red carpet (think Rihanna, Lady Gaga, maybe even Madonna?).
One of the most anticipated chats of the day, in my biased opinion, was when Eva Chen of Instagram (I’m the biggest fan of hers) and Clare Waight Keller of Givenchy (also a big fan, she has a great name) had their one-on-one talking everything from female empowerment, the importance of voting in today’s society, and staying true to your individualistic style. One of the most hard-hitting things Clare stated on the topic of following what you believe in was, “Passion will carry you through the hard times.” Those words spun over and over in my mind like a broken record and the upheaval of memories and past challenges all seemed crystal clear. In a more extreme and permanent scenario, the phrase also seems like an idyllic tattoo somewhere. The Givenchy visionary also noted the importance of finding something personal that carries a weight only valuable to you, not just something that is “in style” or “trendy”. After designing Meghan Markle’s wedding dress that debuted royally in May, hearing humbling words and witnessing a grounded personality is a breath of fresh air in what seems like an uptight, demanding, and relatively conforming industry.
Unsurprisingly, what seemed to hold majority interest for the events of the day quickly became prevalent as world famous models Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Ashley Graham, and Paloma Elsesser took their seats front and center. Like what I had seen from interviews, their responses were honest and thorough, but felt hardly candid. Other than Ashley Graham being the hero we, especially young girls, need, I felt content after their talk but not genuinely fulfilled. Similarly, family ties proved strong as Kris Jenner closed the evening with an attentive crowd, even seven hours later. Seemingly scripted and the expected Kardashian-Jenner publicity protocol, nothing new was offered in the last forty-five minutes of the conference but I did see lots of amazed faces and even more cell phones held in the air videoing for Snapchat and Instagram. While I may hold the unpopular theory that the Kardashian-Jenner appearances were speculatively for exploited exposure, I do give them credit for their professional personas and mature conduct.
One aspect of the day that was left a complete mystery was who the special guest would be. Potential ideas circulated: Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian, Chrissy Teigen, or possibly Emily Ratajkowski? Until her five foot ten frame slinked through the guest seats, nobody had expected Zendaya to be in attendence, or part of the program nonetheless. Zendaya delivered a powerful message to the audience about the means of being a powerful and influential role model in today’s society, growing up and finding her voice as a young woman of color, and learning how to find individuality in a world that feels like it lacks it at times. Being only three years older than me, Zendaya is mature beyond her years. She radiated true class and poise, knew how to command a room and knew the power of her presence, especially when addressing the women in the room.
For how new and innovative Forces of Fashion is within the Vogue reputation, there were moments I witnessed that felt very telling to the stereotypical Vogue reputation (cue The Devil Wears Prada). All morning, it was hard not to constantly glance over to where Anna Wintour was. After all, I was in the same state as her, the same city, on the same street, in the same building, on the same floor, in the same room, at 50 chairs distance. I promise I didn’t count. A luckily timed look caught Ms. Wintour handing a plain, paper coffee cup to an assistant on her left. Then that assistant proceeded to pass it to another assistant, then to another assistant, and then two more assistants, until it had moved through eight different people’s hands until it made its way out the door into a trashcan presumably. Did I think about going to track down the cup, stash it in my purse, sell it on Ebay, and pay off the next three years of tuition? Absolutely. Would Anna Wintour somehow find out it was me and never permit me in the Condé Nast building? Also absolutely. It was a very Vogue moment and one I couldn’t help but smile about. Not sure if it was because it felt like a Miranda Priestly scene potentially scrapped before the movie’s release or finally being able to visualize the dominating power of the ever-so elusive Anna Wintour.
Regardless of the inspiration and genuis in the room, eight hours was a long time to spend sitting and listening with a full attention. The rain splatter on windows was a constant background noise and the natural lighting quickly shifted from being uplifting and bright to somber and draining. But maybe the most surprising, humbling, and genuine constant of the day had nothing to do with the atmosphere, but instead the one who created it. Despite the ominous esteem surrounding her, Anna Wintour stood off to the side a majority of the day. Between sunglasses on and sunglasses off, Anna perched against the media booth with unbroken attention during every discussion. No drama, no scenes, no overbearing ego. Even in four inch Manolo’s, her endless hours of standing made me feel guilty for snagging a highly-coveted chair. An unexpected surprise to say the least, but also nothing short of admirable.
While Vogue may only be heading into their third year hosting the Forces of Fashion Conference, this event is what will change the fashion industry in the long run. The importance of having discussions based on pressing, realistic, and dramatic topics in current society between people of great capability and influence only sets the precedent higher for those around to become involved. Tickets may still be a lofty $3,000, and it may only be a lucky few that get to experience the conference in person, but that does not mean what comes out of the event is unreachable for everyone else. I have sincere respect for Vogue in what their aiming to accomplish by putting on this conference. While I do wish it was not so exclusive for the rest of the population, it gives them room to grow their platform with tools readily available for everyone to witness. With fingers crossed that I’ll be spectating Anna’s opening remarks again next year, Vogue’s Forces of Fashion is a concept that is just gearing up for a future of innovation, inspiration, and copious amounts of influence.