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, correct Vogue 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.”
“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.