Grace Mirabella: This is the legacy of Anna Wintour’s predecessor at Vogue

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Grace Mirabella attends the Paul Smith New York 25th Anniversary celebration on March 14, 2012 in New York City (Getty Images)
Grace Mirabella attends the Paul Smith New York 25th Anniversary celebration on March 14, 2012 in New York City (Getty Images)

Grace Mirabella, the former editor-in-chief of Vogue who is best known for overhauling the magazine in its approach towards working women in the 70s, has died at the age of 91.

Mirabella stood at the helm of the iconic fashion magazine throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s, transforming the publication from the psychedelic, colourful pages beloved by her predecessor Diana Vreeland to focus more on the new generation of career women that had blossomed in that time.

The pragmatic Mirabella, who grew up in the suburbs of Maplewood, New Jersey, under the watchful eye of her Italian-descended parents, rose to the rank of editor-in-chief by surprise. She had started at the magazine in 1951 as an assistant in the merchandising department, and moved to its editorial staff several years after. Later, she was eventually appointed to the position of associate editor-in-chief under Vreeland.

But as the magazine entered the 70s, things were not looking good. According to The New York Times, the magazine’s circulation and advertising figures were spiralling downwards, as Vreeland’s flamboyance grew out of touch with women of the time’s interests, which were becoming broader and more connected.

In fact, Conde Nast’s firing of Vreeland in 1971 came so abruptly that Mirabella was only notified that she had been promoted to the role during a photo shoot in California. Mirabella said of Vreeland later in her career: “It was very difficult to work for her. But you can get along with someone who is difficult if you admire them. And I admired Diana Vreeland – for all of her style and know-how, which she was about.”

I’m a firm believer that the key to dressing well, the key to style, is that you don’t have to reinvent yourself every day

Grace Mirabella

Mirabella’s utilitarian influence quickly swept through the magazine’s inner workings. According to Vogue, she replaced Vreeland’s red and leopard-print office with beige walls, signalling the shift from the kaleidoscopic 60s to a more down-to-earth focus on hard-boiled women climbing their career ladders. These women’s desire to progress were buoyed by a slew of newly-amended laws – such as the 1963 Equal Pay Act, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1979 Pregnancy Discrimination Act – as well as feminist periodicals like Ms Magazine, which was launched in 1971 by Gloria Steinem.

It was in these women that Mirabella saw the need for clothing that would help them in their career-minded journey. She thought of clothes as a uniform, and once described herself as someone who was “not a clothes girl if it means talking about them all the time”, adding: “But I think they’re interesting, and I have quite a lot of them.”

She dressed herself in elegant clothing from the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani and Donna Karan, among other designers. Vogue quotes Mirabella as saying: “I’m a firm believer that the key to dressing well, the key to style, is that you don’t have to reinvent yourself every day.”

In her autobiography In and Out of Vogue, Mirabella wrote: “I didn’t want to showcase women who had no other credit to their name but their names. I wanted to give Vogue back to real women… I wanted to give Vogue over to women who were journalists, writers, actresses, artists, playwrights, businesswomen.”

In describing the quintessential 70s-era Vogue woman, she said: “She gives off this little bit more easy-going, healthier, approachable look. It’s a certain kind of good looks, it’s not over-polished.” The magazine also saw sections on the arts, fitness and health, and beauty during Mirabella’s time as editor-in-chief. Having married a staunch anti-smoking lobbyist, surgeon William Cahan, in 1974, Mirabella also led a campaign to stop women smoking.

With her steering the ship, Vogue became a powerhouse. According to the magazine, its circulation rose from 400,000 in 1971 to a soaring 1.2 million under her keen eye. However, as 1980s maximalist fashion became the darling of the catwalk, bringing with it the cone-shaped bra, neon graffiti prints and acid-fuelled collections, Mirabella admitted she felt increasingly out of touch.

I wanted to give Vogue over to women who were journalists, writers, actresses, artists, playwrights, businesswomen

Grace Mirabella

She wrote in her autobiography: “The 1980s just were not my era. I couldn’t stand the frills and the glitz and the 40,000-dollar ball gowns.”

By 1988, Mirabella had been replaced by Anna Wintour, who remains at the top of Vogue’s hierarchy as chief content officer and global editorial director. Mirabella went on to launch a magazine after her own namesake in June 1989, which she said “focused on style rather than fashion”. However, after a promising start, readership and revenue faltered and Mirabella exited the magazine in 1994. It was eventually shut down in 2000.

She went on to conduct lectures, write a style column for New York’s Quest magazine and launched an online magazine called The Aesthete. Her autobiography was published in 1995, and in it she described Wintour as “a vision of skinniness in black sunglasses and Chanel suits”.

Following Mirabella’s death on Thursday, Wintour said: “Grace guided Vogue through a momentous time in American history – emancipation, sexual freedom, and vital and hard-won rights for women. She made that time come alive on the magazine’s pages.

“She eschewed fantasy and escapism in favour of a style that was chicly minimalist and which spoke clearly and directly to the newly liberated ways we wanted to live. Grace showcased Helmut Newton at his most daring and championed so many American designers: Ralph, Calvin, Donna, and [Geoffrey] Beene.

“She has always exemplified the best of America in her vision and values, and she changed Vogue in ways which still resonate – and which we are profoundly thankful for – today.”

Grace Mirabella is survived by her stepsons Anthony and Christopher Cahan, as well as seven step-grandchildren and three step-great-grandchildren.