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Did British Vogue Miss The Mark With Its 'Real Women' Issue?

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Photo: Dave Kotinsky/Getty Image.
Imagine what it’s like to be Alexandra Shulman. Imagine editing the world’s most influential fashion magazine for a quarter of a century. Imagine steering it through global recession, size zero scandals and the dawn of the digital age. And then imagine coming out the other side – to find a changed world, where everything your magazine stands for is under threat.

And let’s be clear, Vogue, the fashion bible, the institution, the brand, is under threat. It’s under threat from the burgeoning UK independent publishing industry whom it competes against on the newsstands. It’s under threat from social media. Yes, it’s even under threat from those "desperate" bloggers. And as the internet gets better at telling us what we want, what do we need this fashion dictatorship for? When an algorithm can tell you what’s hot and what’s not, what, really, is the point in Vogue?

Everything, of course. For 100 years it’s been a supremely important publication that attracts the best writers, photographers and editors in the world. It’s been a creative trailblazer. But now as physical magazine purchases dwindle, how does Shulman help it compete in a noisy online world? Well, if the November ‘Real Issue’ is anything to go by, the answer is simple: stop leading the way and jump on the bandwagon instead by swapping models for ‘real’ women and doing what every other populist brand in the fashion industry is doing. Give up being a creative powerhouse and simply do as most of the internet does: giving people what it thinks they want.

So yes, the November issue. With its real themes and real women and real people. Why then, everyone has asked, is an actress on the cover? The magazine still needs to sell in newsagents and I for one know I’d be much less likely to pick up a copy with a woman’s face on it that I didn’t know. You can’t underestimate the importance of the cover star in our purchase decisions.

And really, if we stop being huffy for a moment, we could even entertain the idea that Shulman’s choice of cover star in Emily Blunt is actually quite good. I had the pleasure of interviewing her a couple of weeks ago – she’s thoughtful, intelligent, and yes, very ‘real’ (ridiculous description as it is, but more on that later) and she occupies that publicity sweet-spot of being a genuine top tier A lister and also a ‘relatable’ human being. Sure, she may have spent three hours in makeup to get her “looking this real” but to their credit Vogue used that quote proudly – which is entirely in keeping with the issue’s themes. Honest, transparent, the ‘genuine article’ as Shulman’s Editor’s letter puts it.
Landing a Vogue cover has long been a rite of passage for supermodels and superstars alike. Where Vogue’s real (sorry, that word’s going to get used a lot) problems lie is that those covers have mostly been dominated by white women. Blame casting agents for not signing a diverse enough pool of models, blame designers for not having enough diversity at their shows, blame Vogue: the lack of diversity on the cover is both an indicator and a cause of the industry’s diversity problem.

In January 2015, Jourdan Dunn was the first solo black model on its cover for 12 years. 12 years! Before her it was Naomi Campbell in August 2002. And sadly, diversity doesn’t seem to be a big part of Shulman’s vision for this ‘real’ issue either. Flicking through the magazine, it’s a predominantly caucasian affair. That’s not to take away from the incredibly impressive women who do star in its pages – architectural historian Shumi Bose, charity director Brita Fernandez Schmidt, Hello Love Studio Creative Director Jane Hutchinson and ice-cream brand innovator Kitty Travers, a few of the extremely smart women behind London’s crossrail project. But black women are still very much in the minority, even amongst these ‘real’ women.

Which brings us back to the problem with the ‘real’ thing: how do we define real? Are models not real women? Does being real mean being representative? Does Vogue have a responsibility to be representative? Is one woman’s ‘real’ the same as another’s? Is ‘reality’ TV star turned one of the world’s most influential women Kim Kardashian ‘real’? Is the steely, well educated Shulman ‘real’?
Considering models and celebrities as ‘not real’ is arguably what got us into this mess in the first place. It legitimises a culture that fetishes the young, the unusual, the skinny, the ‘unreal’. And that’s a culture that for the last 100 years Vogue has perpetuated.

As many commentators have been quick to note ‘real’ has never really been Shulman’s bag. In a 2014 Radio 2 interview she famously said “People always say, ‘Why do you have thin models? That’s not what real people look like,’ but nobody really wants to see a real person looking like a real person on the cover of Vogue. I think Vogue is a magazine that’s about fantasy to some extent, and dreams, and an escape from real life. People don’t want to buy a magazine like Vogue to see what they see when they look in a mirror. They can do that for free.”

But wait a minute, whose fantasy is this white, skinny fantasy? Does fantasy not require imagination, and looking beyond yourself to imagine another world? Sure, looking in Vogue may not be exactly like looking in a mirror. But if you’re a super wealthy white woman it’s probably not far from it.

According to stats in the magazine’s advertising literature nine in 10 Vogue readers and Vogue.co.uk users buy premium fashion brands. But the luxury market is faltering, with sales falling into a trough in 2016. Which means less money for advertisers to spend in magazines. And as more people choose to get their fashion fix via Instagram and "desperate bloggers" – to reference last week’s U.S. Vogue blogger controversy (and sorry Shulman, no matter how much you try to distance yourself from U.S. Vogue, to most of the world Vogue is simply Vogue) – where does that leave the publication?

In the past, society valued ownership, clothes with huge price tags, and expensive cars. But economic uncertainty, the dawn of the digital age and the rise of the shared economy is swiftly changing that. Vogue’s job is to sell things but how do you sell to people who simply don’t value belongings in the way they used to?

Let’s not forget: magazines are there to sell you belongings. And the way the luxury market sells those is through aspiration. Historically that has been about aspiring for wealth and elevated status. Now, as a string of brands have recently cottoned on (H&M, J Crew and M&S have all echoed the Dove ‘real women’ effect in recent months), modern customers are aspiring to success, empowerment – and not just one singular ideal of what a woman should look like.
As Shulman says in her Editor’s letter, women don’t want to just see clothes on models, they want to see those clothes on real women. “It is just as exciting, and certainly as interesting, to see fashion worn by people who have nothing to do with the industry and whose daily lives are far removed from it,” she writes. Not least of all because if you’re an online shopper, you don’t want to see what clothes look like on a 5’10 size 8 model, you want to see them on someone who looks like you. (As Bill Murray’s fake Twitter account suggested "every Olympic event should include one average person competing for reference" – maybe the same technique could be employed for demonstrating items of clothing…?)

Magazine, brand or customer, you can’t have failed to notice the fashion industry changing. There’s a seismic shift happening and we’re in the eye of the storm. In many ways yes, Vogue are right en vogue. Fashion is becoming more about the real; the reality of what you and I wear and how we wear it in our day-to-day lives.

Though her comments were overshadowed by other statements published last week, this is something Sarah Mower touched on in the U.S. Vogue Milan round table: "Are these the real women? Is this a wider change in the fashion industry?" she asked. "Everyone has been able to relax about 'fashion.' The non-photographed interested me far more: to a woman, the pros had all packed their midi floral dresses and sandals, and that was the fashion news for me. Where had this permission stemmed from? Why, Vetements' revival of floral peasanty frocks. Yet that is a broad-spectrum, down-home, nonexclusive aesthetic that, I think, has allowed everyone to relax about 'fashion.'"

Back in the UK Shulman sings from the same song sheet. “In this issue we replace models with a series of professional women,” she writes, “and explore our abiding relationship with what hangs in our wardrobes.” Professional women. Abiding relationships. Non-photographed. Real. They’re all nice ideas, but is Vogue really about all those things? No. Vogue, outside of this issue, is about fantasy and aspiration. And no matter how many ‘real women’ issues it puts on the newsstands, as long as Vogue is full of a fantasy that is only one colour and one shape, it’s still going to be causing and reflecting, like a hall of mirrors, everything that’s wrong with the industry.

So please, Vogue, step up and challenge the fashion industry’s idea of beauty. Challenge us as fans of fashion. Paint us new fantasies. Don’t just look at what’s happening around you and give us what you think we want. Because the internet can do that just fine on its own. And really, where’s the fun in that anyway?
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