By Cary O’Dell
Next to “wearable” and “practical,” her name might be the two most controversial words in fashion today. When it is spoken—if it is spoke at all—it’s often whispered. Such is the still lingering pall over her.
From the day she was named the controversial successor to Diana Vreeland as editor in chief of Vogue in 1971 until her departure from the magazine in 1988 (to make room for Anna Wintour), through the lifespan of her eponymous monthly “Mirabella” to her current life, Grace Mirabella has often inspired a certain amount of disrespect.
Andy Warhol called her “middle class.” Vreeland was once alleged to have dismissed her as “the secretary.” And her era at the helm of the fashion bible is sometimes today degradedly referred to as “the beige years,” named for the middle-of-the-road color of paint applied over the shocking colors that once adorned Vreeland’s office after Vreeland vacated. (There is actually some controversy whose idea the beige was—Mirabella’s or someone at Conde Naste’s. But, regardless, no one ever seems to mention the color of Anna Wintour’s work walls.)
Granted, some of the Mirabella backlash has been brought on by the lady herself. In her very informative, entertaining 1995 memoir, the aptly titled In and Out of Vogue, Mirabella doesn’t hold back. Within its pages, she has some very blunt and not so kind things to say about Anna Wintor, Polly Mellen, Christian Lacroix and others. Perhaps as bad, Mirabella dared to not worship at the Cult of Diana. Not that she says anything negative about the incomparable Vreeland, only that the Vreeland Mirabella presents in her book is focused on the woman and not the image Vreeland carefully crafted around herself. Actually, if anything, Mirabella’s recollections about her former boss/predecessor are the probably the most fascinating remembrances of the great fashion doyenne ever put down. That Mirabella was excluded from the recent Vreeland-related work “The Eye Must Travel” is probably that book and film’s most egregious short-falling.
But, as tough as she might be on other, Mirabella is equally candid about herself. She bemoans her own occasional passiveness and her life-long reluctance to play the fashion game. She also bravely charts the moment she knew that her idea of fashion was no longer in keeping with the culture. After witnessing a 1980s Met gala where all the women were outfitted in outrageous Lacroix confections, Mirabella observed:
[O]ften they were tortured: their crinolines didn’t permit them to sit down and they had to turn sideways to fit through doorways. When I saw this, and the glee with which so many women swallowed it up, I realized that it wasn’t Lacroix, it was I who was falling out of step with them.
Throughout her career, Mirabella was never the archetypical fashionista. She was never a size zero. And even Vreeland, her one-time mentor, considered her too “approachable,” not possessing of the regal air that both DV and Anna Wintour either possessed or carefully cultivated. Furthermore, Mirabella hailed from New Jersey, not the exotic locales that other up-and-coming editors either came from or, in the case of Vreeland, pretended to come from. She was the daughter of two working class parents, not a debutante. She worked her way up the ranks in fashion and at Vogue, slow and steady, gaining respect for her diligence and common sense. Probably only in fashion can someone’s solid work ethic and practical nature be held against them.
When Mirabella was named editor in chief of Vogue in 1971, after the firing of Diana Vreeland (who had been in the magazine’s driver’s seat since 1963), she was not only attempting to fill a pair of larger than life shoes, she was also about to embark, with the book, into a challenging new epoch, perhaps one of the toughest eras ever for fashion.
By the dawn of the 1970s, the “ladies who lunched” were giving way to women entering the workforce. The rise of second-wave feminism (temporarily?) marked fashion as the enemy. If bras weren’t necessarily being burned, then surely most of the Vreeland-sanctioned fantasies that “Vogue” had been showcasing up to that time were being rapidly discarded. Fashion was at a crossroads.
Mirabella bravely took on the challenge and broadened the magazine’s focus, introducing more text into the publication and elevating its overall content. She ran stories on women’s health, politics, the then pending ERA and other topical issues.
But fashion was not excluded. Mirabella just strongly believed in an easier more effortless (and dare we say it?) American type of style. Under her tutelage, “Vogue,” along with continuing to celebrate the work of YSL and Ungaro and other masters, also became an early advocate of Halston, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and, early in his career, Isaac Mizrahi.
Mirabella’s Vogue also helped to redefined (or revived) the American beauty standard by giving steady exposure to a host of American-bred beauties like Lauren Hutton, Karen Graham, Patti Hansen, and Lisa Taylor. It was also during her tenure that “Vogue” placed its first woman of color on its cover; model Beverly Johnson became that inaugural cover girl with the August 1974 issue.
If some of the fashion-flock objected to Mirabella’s evolution of the magazine, consumers didn’t. During her almost two decades in the editor’s office, circulation of the magazine rose from 400,000 to 1.2 million. Hence, when Wintour took over in 1988, she inherited a very healthy vessel.
Meanwhile, the changes Mirabella imposed in fashion journalism have remained. No fashion monthly today limits itself to just clothes coverage. They assume—rightfully—that their readers are interested in fashion AND the world around them.
I won’t go so far as to say that fashion would have died if Mirabella hadn’t come along when she did. But I do wonder if Vogue would have survived the 1970’s without her. And, yet, today, despite her powerful Vogue legacy and the subsequent artistic and philosophical success, if not long term financial success, of her own Mirabella magazine, which was on stands from 1989 to 2000, Grace Mirabella’s contributions to fashion seem regularly ignored or dismissed by many. She is not seen on the red carpet of the Met’s annual fundraiser. She has yet to be feted by the CFDA, though other lesser luminaries have already been honored. And, as mentioned before, she has been largely excluded from any Vreeland retrospectives or tributes, though few knew Vreeland better or worked with her longer. And except for a February 2012 fete hosted at The Mark in New York in her honor (attended by Isabella Rossellini, Carmen Dell’Orefice, Mary McFadden, Vera Wang, and others), few other appropriate tributes truly celebrating the revolutionary now 83 year-old former editor or her contributions to fashion. Perhaps too many contemporary fashion power brokers are not aware of Mirabella’s mighty influence or are too scared to potentially vex Anna Wintour, the woman who poached Mirabella’s “Vogue” perch back in 1988, to pay proper homage.
In any event, regardless of multiple career accolades or none, even in the mercurial world of fashion, Grace Mirabella’s influence as a style arbiter and magazine visionary will be felt for decades to come, if not in perpetuity. We are still very much operating and existing within Grace’s world, whether we choose to acknowledge her by name or not.