Joan Juliet Buck: The American Behind Vogue Paris

Vogue Paris is turning 100. On this occasion, rediscover our profile of Joan Juliet Buck, the first – and to date, the only – American woman to have helmed the French magazine.
Joan Juliet Buck photographed for Talk Magazine, 1999. © Jean-Baptiste Mondino

In April 1994, Joan Juliet Buck was appointed editor-in-chief of French Vogue. Recommended by the editor-in-chief of American Vogue Anna Wintour, she was the first American woman ever to hold that job. Heading the publication for eight years, she modernized its aesthetic and created an “educated and cultured” magazine that readers could identify with. She looks back on this episode of her life in her autobiography, The Price of Illusion.

Joan Juliet Buck refused the Vogue job offer in Paris on two occasions. When she first visited the magazine in 1970 – dressed in suede overalls and an Ottoman turban – the 22-year-old journalist was met by an editor in a Courrèges sweater and a canary-yellow suit. Writers wore kilts. The magazine was “depressing, overrated and outdated,” recalls Joan Juliet Buck. It was not until the spring of 1994 that Buck finally accepted Condé Nast International’s offer. She left New York and took control of the most glamorous women’s magazines in France. The big names of Parisian fashion were scandalized.

As soon as she arrived in Paris, Joan Juliet Buck parted with Helmut Newton, the fashion photographer famous for his nudes and suggestive shoots. She replaced him with young impertinent photographers – including a “wild” young American spotted by Andy Warhol, David LaChapelle – and hired six young journalists away from Glamour magazine, another Condé Nast publication. Elegance and culture became the magazine’s new buzzwords. “It’s too easy to use sex instead of culture to present women’s fashion,” says the editor-in-chief. “Rather than perpetuate the stereotype of women as objects, Vogue should treat women with respect.”

Raising the Magazine's Standards

Joan Juliet Buck grew up in Cannes, Paris and London; her father was a movie producer and her mother an actress and model. She was fascinated by the Comtesse de Ségur and the feminist writings of Anaïs Nin. At London’s Lycée Français and later at school in Paris, she was impressed by the erudition of French women. As the head of Vogue, she sets out to offer female readers a magazine that they would find accessible. She tripled the text section of the magazine and launched special issues on culture, art, sports, and science. She got rid of the “frills” and put emphasis on concision. She had the “straightforward and cliché-free” texts of American journalists translated into French. Michel Braudeau, future editor of the Nouvelle Revue Française, joined the magazine as a literary critic. A gardening column was entrusted against all expectations to Christian Louboutin, the designer!

© Jean-Baptiste Mondino

Joan Juliet Buck oversaw her first issue in September 1994. Dedicated to “the French woman,” it showcased “clothes that women can afford”: the little black dress, a striped pantsuit, and a red trench coat. The issue broke the magazine’s sales records. Immediately afterwards, the editor-in-chief introduced more color in the clothing selection, and banned photos of cigarette-smoking models, a cliché image of the French woman dreamed up by the American press.

“A Big Party Full of Stars”

In December 1994, Vogue celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Lumière Brothers’ first film. Joan Juliet Buck, herself a former film critic, had the Russian author Maxim Gorky’s essay L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat translated for the occasion. She had models pose on sets that recalled Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The photographer David LaChapelle was put in charge of recreating Blade Runner – with a futuristic décor, flashy colors, and red raincoats. A photograph of the shoot shows an android character on the phone with a Chanel sandal glued to her ear.

By the late 1990s, the magazine had become “a great big star-studded party.” Yet Joan Juliet Buck insisted on putting “anonymous women” on the cover. She was dismissed in 2001. Back in New York, she became American Vogue’s television critic, and conducted interviews with Marion Cotillard and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. In 2011, her profile of the wife of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, considered too favorable, caused a scandal. Joan Juliet Buck’s Vogue contract was not renewed.

Buck now lives in Rhinebeck, a small town in the Hudson Valley. The former Vogue editor-in-chief no longer wears Prada. She wears a mauve cotton scarf, silver jewelry, and a black wool coat. Last February at New York’s Frick Collection, she appeared in Les Acteurs de bonne foi, a comedy by Marivaux. “I always preferred costume to fashion,” she notes, sipping a cup of Earl Grey tea with lemon in an Upper East Side diner. “I feel uncomfortable wearing Galliano. If you have a trained eye, it’s easy to dress at a second-hand clothes shop or at Uniqlo.” She hasn’t attended a fashion show in 16 years.

The Price of Illusion
by Joan Juliet Buck, Atria Books, 2017.

Article published in the May 2017 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.