Standing in the sculpture court in the south wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a recent Friday morning, Alexandra Kotur, the style director of Vogue, was craning her neck up this way and then that way toward the soaring glass ceiling, studying the natural light.
On Monday, May 4, the museum will swell with celebrities, socialites and fashion flotsam for its feverishly anticipated Costume Institute Gala, this year with the purist theme “the Model as Muse.” Ms. Kotur is leading the advance team, making sure that no floral arrangement blocks that perfect shot of this sweeping couture gown flowing up the main staircase along with the starlet of the moment, or that felicitous collision of Diane von Furstenberg with Justin Timberlake. She is also in charge of a fashion shoot for the magazine right before the ball, during which the photographer Arthur Elgort will snap models graciously leaping through the museum like gazelles, expensive fabric billowing behind them.
“I see them just kind of running through here,” said Ms. Kotur, motioning with her hands between the grand sculptures. “And light is just so important.” She walked over to the chairs by the glass wall facing Central Park, sat down and took a deep breath, eyes scanning the space again. “I could really just sit here all day.”
If Vogue is the high temple of fashion—its foundation somewhat cracked by its cheesy portrayal in The Devil Wears Prada and a nasty takedown by The Times’ Cathy Horyn—Ms. Kotur, 39, is its chief abbess. At a moment of confusion for fashion, when the landscape is littered with cheap reality shows and stylists run amok, she offers a refreshing constancy; a sense of standards upheld. Every day she boards the elevator at 4 Times Square, in an impeccably ironed white blouse, dark slacks, flats and no makeup, a thoughtful little smile on her pale face, her coif parted precisely down the middle and neatly pulled back. She glides rather than walks (according to colleagues, she has a medical condition that affects her gait, though she declined to discuss this with The Observer), and she speaks in quiet yet declarative sentences.
Ms. Kotur has been at Vogue for 13 years, rising from assistant to associate editor to senior editor–special projects—“which basically just meant that I do a lot of things,” she said—to her present appointment, in 2006. In addition to editing the magazine’s front-of-the-book section—including the columns of editor at large André Leon Talley and society writer William Norwich as well as pages like It Girl and Overheard—she is responsible for overseeing much of the magazine’s portrait photography: conceptualizing how first ladies and socialites should look in the magazine. Recently, she has worked with photographer Annie Leibovitz on the historical shoot of Michelle Obama in Narciso Rodriguez at the Hay-Adams Hotel; White House Social Secretary Desirée Rogers in Oscar de la Renta at the National Gallery of Art; and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in a Jil Sander suit at the Rockefeller Center.
“I trust her with all sorts of important sittings,” Vogue editor Anna Wintour told The Observer. “She’s very attuned to when moods in the social or popular culture are changing and how Vogue should address that. She’s almost like an old-school Vogue editor because she’s very much of the world of our reader, but she can set herself apart and judge it and come up with opinions. I don’t mean old-fashioned in any way, but she is a sweetly old-fashioned, correctVogue editor. She’s very calm, she’s very meticulous, she’s very precise and she’s incapable of being anything but completely polite and completely correct in the way she deals with everyone. She embodies everything that we try and maintain at the magazine.”
TO THE MAGAZINE BORN
Ms. Kotur grew up on the Upper East Side (and still lives there), attending the Chapin School for girls. Her mother, who is British, was an illustrator for Condé Nast in the ’60s (her late father, who was from Ohio, worked in market research). Close family friends included Andrea Robinson, a beauty editor at Vogue under Grace Mirabella, and former House & Garden editor Mary Jane Pool. Her older sister, Fiona, designs handbags. (Ms. Kotur carries an elegant black handbag, resembling a Birkin bag, that bears her sister’s label, Kotur, on the metal clasp. “People always think I got it engraved—like I would have the time to do something like that!” she said.)
“That was our world, and so I thought maybe it was too obvious,” said Ms. Kotur of her career choice, sipping tea in the Condé Nast cafeteria a few days before the museum trip.
After transferring from Columbia to Middlebury College and a brief flirtation with pre-med, she decided to major in art history. “I knew what I was good at, but I fought it for some reason,” said Ms. Kotur. “Then it just all made sense.”
Upon graduation, she moved to London to work in the PR department of Ralph Lauren and soon got a job at British GQ as an assistant to fashion director Jo Levin. “My Auntie Mame,” recalled Ms. Kotur. “She said, ‘Get your pad and pencil out, I am teaching you!’”
But after British GQ editor Michael VerMeulen died from a drug overdose in 1995, Ms. Kotur decided to return to New York and go for Vogue. After nine months of “knocking on the door,” as she described it, Ms. Kotur got in as an assistant to European editor Hamish Bowles and celebrity editor Kimberley Ryan.
“There was nothing wide-eyed about her,” Mr. Bowles said during the last New York Fashion Week. “She was entirely unflappable. She is an extremely serene, calming presence in an environment that is sometimes prone to more extreme emotional manifestations. It was only incrementally that I came to understand how she was the core of a certain kind of a Manhattan social world.”
Ms. Kotur traveled with Mr. Bowles to Europe and covered various fashion and society parties for Ms. Ryan.
“At first I thought, ‘Oof, go to a party by myself?’” Ms. Kotur said. “But for six years, I went out every night and I learned so much. It was the whole time when Rachel Feinstein and Amy Sacco and Yvonne Force were just coming onto the scene, and there was the story.”
One day, Ms. Wintour called Ms. Kotur into her office to inform her that Vogue would be collaborating with Annie Leibovitz on a photography book called Women, and she wanted Ms. Kotur to be her “point person” on it. The following week, she and Ms. Wintour got into a Town Car and headed to Ms. Leibovitz’s studio, then located on Vandam Street.
“We walked in, and there was Annie sitting around the table with Susan Sontag and her agent,” Ms. Kotur said. “You can imagine how I felt.”
For the year or so that it took to complete the book, Ms. Kotur worked intimately with the photographer, doing research, assisting and learning her process. When Women was published, Ms. Kotur was invited to a party at the White House that the Clintons threw in honor of Ms. Leibovitz. By then it was clear that Ms. Kotur had—to the envy of other editors—figured out how to work with Ms. Leibovitz, known for being, colleagues say, rather particular.
As a sittings editor—“It’s an old-fashioned term, in the ’30s a Vogue shoot was a sitting,” she explained—each time Ms. Kotur prepares for a shoot, she researches her subjects exhaustively: checking their previous photographs, coming up with an original way to portray them and studying such minute details as the length of their hair, how they like to dress, their hobbies.
“People think that you just arrive and take the photo, but it’s not like that. Everything is very thought out by the time we get there,” Ms. Kotur said.
AN ENIGMA IN PURPLE
Unlike some editors, who seem to positively hurl themselves in front of the lenses of party photographers (bonjour, Plum!), the enigmatic Ms. Kotur seems to hail from a lost time when people who worked on a magazine had little interest in seeing their own names in boldface. (Indeed, getting her to submit to an interview turned into almost a yearlong courtship.)
“She’s very shy and in the background, but she really makes things happen,” Vogue’s fashion director, Grace Coddington, said. “Alexandra is really an unsung hero. It’s the people that don’t have their name on the page that are doing the work, and the last person to get her name on the page is Alexandra. I think she doesn’t require the celebrity that so many other people do who actually don’t have anything to say or do.”
Asked about Ms. Kotur’s long-term ambitions, Ms. Coddington said: “I don’t know because she’s so quiet about everything! But I feel like there is a lot more in her yet to come.”
Of course, this has not been a good year for Vogue. The recession threatens to make the coverage of couturiers and socialites vacationing in Dubai seem crass and irrelevant. Ad sales are down, as they are everywhere. And last December, Ms. Horyn, The Times’ fashion critic, wrote an article addressing rumors that Ms. Wintour was to be replaced by French editor Carine Roitfeld, charging the magazine with being stale and predictable, its editor out of touch.
“I just fundamentally disagree,” Ms. Kotur said fiercely. “I think Anna is an amazing editor. Only if you work at Vogue can you understand what it’s like—how talented these women are that make up the team of Anna’s staff.”
She continued: “Look at André, Hamish, Grace, Phyllis [Posnick, executive fashion editor]—we’ve been here a long time, and I don’t think we all think about it. Then when the movie and all these articles come out, we’re like, ‘What’s all this analysis?’ We just carry on and do what we do. If someone wants to report on it, fine, but just let me do what I do.”
Continuing the magazine’s tradition, Ms. Kotur is known to take an interest in the younger employees.
“I see them sometimes in the fashion closet, and they are just brimming with enthusiasm packing up shoes. You can just see it, you recognize it,” she said. “I try to teach them some of the things I learned, which is that it’s O.K. to be an assistant. Sometimes people come out of school right now and they immediately want a job doing something. And there’s nothing wrong with just listening and learning and watching.”
Ms. Kotur was modest when asked about her own future at the magazine.
“I don’t have five-year plans,” she said, sitting outside of the Met. “I just like to do what I do and that’s as much as I can say about it.”
The style director’s style may be somewhat reserved during the daytime, but in the evenings, she can often be seen in floor-sweeping Carolina Herrera dresses (she wrote a tribute book to the designer in 2004), austere cocktail dresses and elegant blouses with flattering necklines.
For the Costume Institute Gala, Ms. Kotur will wear an original design, sketched especially for her by Ms. Herrera’s design director, Hervé Pierre. The purple dress with an empire waist is still in pieces at the moment. “I don’t think I’ve ever worn purple at night,” she said, “But Carolina said, ‘Wear purple,’ so I said, ‘O.K., I guess I’m wearing purple!’”
Ms. Kotur attributed her look to her mentor, Ms. Levin, who upon her arrival at British GQ told her to throw out everything and invest in one beautiful cashmere sweater. “She said, ‘I don’t care if you wear it every day, just make it a good cashmere sweater,’” Ms. Kotur said.
“I think a closet full of things would actually stress me out. I just think this whole thing about not wearing anything twice, I just don’t understand it. I think things should be worn. You should bond with your clothing. It should be yours. If you’re in this industry and you’re looking at clothes all day, I sort of just want to stay neutral. I respect trends because that’s our industry and I enjoy it, but for myself, I’m just not really interested.”
And she seemed amused at the idea that she was a beacon of self-effacement in a world of tiresomely popping flashbulbs.
“I’ve never really thought about it,” Ms. Kotur said. “Maybe that is sort of the old-school way of doing things, but I just really like what I do, so that’s all I care about. I don’t think you lead your life thinking someone’s recording it.”
"Diligence is the mother of good luck," Benjamin Franklin once said. At first glance, one would consider Alexandra Kotur’s career — working as a senior features editor at Vogue and publishing Carolina Herrera: Portrait of a Fashion Icon as her first book — an indicator of very good luck. Diligence, however, is the reason behind Alexandra’s success.
Alexandra’s path to professional achievements, though ultimately successful, was not without challenges. It was filled with bittersweet lessons that are tough to take at the time, but show their true value years later.
Alexandra began at Chapin in 1974 as a Kindergarten student and graduated 13 years later. The study skills she learned and academic hardships she weathered here prepared her for her career in ways that still benefit her today.
In Middle School history, for example, Alexandra acquired a note-taking style that she still uses when researching a subject for Vogue. She always adheres to former teacher Mrs. Putnam’s rule forbidding the use of the word “lifestyle,” and she learned in Class 12 physics that science, one of her main academic interests, offered incredible opportunities for creativity.
For Alexandra, academic success was not always immediate. “I was devastated in Class 8 when I learned that I would have to repeat algebra,” she recalled. “I am so grateful now that I repeated that subject, since algebra has helped me enormously with my job at Vogue.” The principles she learned taught her how to simplify complicated situations and helped her to process information from her story research.
The rigorous Chapin curriculum, coupled with encouragement from faculty, fostered Alexandra’s diligence and instilled in her the confidence to persevere through challenges. She said her physics teacher, Gene Gardino, now the school’s director of counseling services, was especially supportive: “Mr. Gardino taught me that I could do anything if I put my mind to it, and for that I will always be grateful,” she said.
Alexandra transferred to Middlebury College after one semester at Columbia and went on to graduate with a degree in art history. She had known even as a teenager that she wanted to work as an editor at a magazine, but she spent two years working through a difficult program in economics and pre-medicine before realizing that these subjects were not for her. Once she became an art history major, she began to flourish in a creative environment.
An honor student during her junior year, Alexandra graduated in 1992. She found a job as a fashion assistant in London at GQ magazine; having had a mother who was a fashion illustrator in the 1960s and 1970s, the position was well suited to Alexandra’s interests. She worked with an editor who taught her a lot about photography and portraiture and led her from the deserts of Pakistan to the mountains of Colorado in pursuit of great photographs.
After working in London for three years, Alexandra moved back to New York and with luck on her side, she got a job in the features department at Vogue magazine. As a senior features editor, Alexandra works mostly on the visual side of the magazine and her assignments at Vogue have included visits to the Clintons and Bushes at The White House, time with Nicole Kidman on the set of Moulin Rouge in Australia, and contact with numerous politicians and celebrities. In August 2003, she traveled to Afghanistan for a story about the opening of a beauty school.
Her latest feature was the recent debut of her first book, Carolina Herrera: Portrait of a Fashion Icon; she hopes to write another one soon. In the meantime, she will continue her work at Vogue and will travel to Hong Kong to visit her sister, Fiona Kotur Marin ’84, and Fiona’s two young sons.