Anna Wintour speaks out about Vogue's controversial Kamala Harris cover

'It was not our intention to diminish the importance of her incredible victory'

Tyler Mitchell vogue anna wintour kamala harris vice president 
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris photographed for Vogue's February digital and print issues Credit: Tyler Mitchell/Vogue via AP

The February issue of American Vogue was intended to be a celebration of America’s first black, female Vice President-elect. Instead, it has become a flashpoint for discussion about the world’s most famous fashion magazine and its treatment of women of colour after the image selected by Anna Wintour was dismissed as ‘washed out’ and ‘lacking fashion’. 

On Tuesday, Wintour responded to the accusations for the first time. “Obviously we have heard and understood the reaction to the print cover,” Wintour told the New York Times, “and I just want to reiterate that it was absolutely not our intention to, in any way, diminish the importance of the vice president-elect’s incredible victory.”

Vogue commissioned black photographer Tyler Mitchell to capture two portraits of Harris, one for the magazine’s cover and another for the inside feature. The former California senator styled herself for the photographs, which were supervised by black sittings editor, Gabriella Karefa-Johnson.

In one she wears skinny jeans, a black blazer and Converse (the trainers which area key part of her signature style) and is standing  against a pink and green background, representing the colours of her Howard University sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. In the other shot, Harris is more formal, in a powder blue trouser suit by American designer Michael Kors which she wears with a pearl necklace, another symbol associated with her sorority. 

The more relaxed image was chosen to feature on Vogue’s cover and was leaked on social media before the magazine's official announcement on Sunday afternoon. The picture, which depicts Harris in the cool, casual pieces which are familiar from shots of her on the campaign trail, has been deemed disrespectfully laidback, more like a test shot than a carefully posed portrait to mark a moment in history. 

It has been suggested that Harris and her team were expecting the blue suit image to feature on the cover, though Vogue has emphasised that no approval was agreed.

Kamala Harris in her signature style: a blazer and trainers Credit: Shutterstock

“There was no formal agreement about what the choice of the cover would be,” Wintour added, in a statement given to the newspaper’s Sway podcast  for which the Vogue editor-in-chief has been interviewed  this week. “And when the two images arrived at Vogue, all of us felt very, very strongly that the less formal portrait of the Vice President-elect really reflected the moment that we were living in which we are all in the midst - as we still are - of the most appalling pandemic that is taking lives by the minute. 

“And we felt to reflect this tragic moment in global history, a much less formal picture, something that was very, very accessible and approachable and real, really reflected the hallmark of the Biden-Harris campaign and everything that they are trying to, and I’m sure will, achieve.”

From Wintour’s perspective the easygoing image chosen for cover is “joyful and optimistic”.

“I cannot imagine that there’s anyone that really is going to find this cover anything but that,” she said in the interview with Sway recorded before the row erupted, “and positive, and an image of a woman in control of her life who is going to bring us with the President-elect the leadership that we so need.”

Kamala Harris on the cover of Elle magazine's November 2020 issue Credit: Elle Magazine

Those words now seem to have come back to haunt Wintour, a longtime Democrat supporter who was made Chief Content Officer at Condé Nast in December. Her promotion came following a year of challenges, including accusations of racism in the wake of last Summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. After statements about employees of colour being mistreated and black women overlooked in the magazine’s pages, the Vogue editor-in-chief issued an apology.

“I want to say plainly that I know Vogue has not found enough ways to elevate and give space to black editors, writers, photographers, designers and other creators,” she wrote. “We have made mistakes, too, publishing images or stories that have been hurtful or intolerant. I take full responsibility for those mistakes.”

A cover story celebrating America’s first black Vice President, photographed and written by a team of black creatives should have been a milestone in Wintour’s reparations. Somehow though, it has turned into a public relations nightmare. Kamala Harris is yet to make any comment on the furore or post any images from the shoot to her own social media accounts.