There's One Thing The Next Editor of Vogue Needs To Fix, STAT
The Debrief: Shulman might have made a lasting impact on fashion but I won't miss how she never celebrated women of colour
I collect Vogues like some women collect jeans - you know they all look relatively similar but there's always one difference to keep you going back for more. And yet when Alexandra Shulman confirmed her forthcoming departure from British Vogue, it's safe to say that the gushing admiration of her tenure made me uncomfortable.
There’s no denying Shulman has made significant strides to make the magazine more than catwalk videos and sartorial ‘how tos’. For Shulman, fashion doesn't have to be frivolous: it can occasionally be agenda-setting. From debating whether fashion predicted Brexit to interviews with political figures, its pages can be provocative and invite readers to engage with the social issues of the day. Shulman herself has acknowledged this, telling Metro last year that she's much more interested in the, 'culture of how and why we buy clothes. That's the way my mind works.' But what made me more uncomfortable, even furious, was that in a quarter of a century there have only been three covers featuring solo black models. As we're in an age where celebrating diversity is commonplace, I want the next editor of Vogue keep in step with society.
My relationship with the magazine at best is a strained one. Yes, I'd save my iconic 2001 issue of Naomi Campbell in a fire but it's hard to reconcile my devotion to a magazine that has spent so long sidelining women like me and pretending we don't exist. The current issue speaks volumes. While Dutch model-of-the-moment Imaan Hammam is featured on the cover, she's flanked alongside two Caucasian models. It's frustrating that Vogue isn't prepared to take a risk and leave her to shine on her own. And, considering she's a mix of two races (just like me) it seems to reinforce the notion that she’s not quite worthy of a solo debut - or worse, that being ethnically ambiguous can never be in vogue unless accompanied by a white face.
Last year, I decided to hit publishers' wallets by cancelling my subscription from several monthly glossies that didn't speak to me on a personal level. While I'm yet to boycott Vogue entirely, purchasing the magazine on occasion doesn't come without a side helping of guilt. As a mixed race girl who has never seen herself reflected in its pages or advertisements, I do worry that by parting with my money, I'm contributing to its lack of diversity.
And, I'm certainly not the only one - 21-year-old Fedora Abu was a keen Vogue reader as a teen, buying the magazine most months from the ages of 13 to 19. The languages student, who runs online magazine citoyenne.co.uk, stopped buying it after feeling it had 'stagnated': 'I felt their covers were too homogenous. The lack of black women is in many ways a reflection of the Vogue team, which from their documentaries appears to be predominantly white middle-class. Some magazines are better than others, but on the whole, women of colour are grossly underrepresented in fashion and the media.'
A Nigerian friend maintains that ‘nothing’ would make her buy Vogue. She says: ‘I studied art for a degree, but British Vogue just doesn’t have the ability to make me want to buy it. It’s a few fashion seasons before I see a black face on the cover. It’s the same old people looking like a cast member from Made In Chelsea.’ She instead flicks through Ebony and Essence magazines which cater to a predominantly African-American audience and while she says she doesn’t know most of the celebrities as they’re American, ‘at least I can connect to them to some extent’.
Of course, glossy magazines can serve the purpose of escapism, but surely the magazine should reflect and at least acknowledge the current world we live in? In an era where Trump has reinstated the Global Gag Rule, a Muslim registry has seen global protests, and refugees from Syria have been blocked from entering the U.S. - all which will hit women, and of course women of colour the hardest - omitting their stories simply won't cut it. It's worrying that in a year of heightened religious, race and class tensions in the UK and abroad, Vogue still chooses to commission stories that aren't reflecting this. Instead, a feature in the February issue charts the trials and tribulations of a woman who has no idea what to wear after years spent in bondage boots (yes really).
Fedora agrees, saying she is drawn to magazines who make an ongoing commitment to pushing boundaries. 'Nowadays, I tend to seek out independent magazines (but) I'm not particularly loyal to any specific publication. Spotting a black woman on a cover at the newsstand is so rare that whenever I do find one, I'm generally drawn to it. I wouldn't normally buy Town & Country, but I did when Naomie Harris was on the front.'
What's frustrating about Shulman's lack of inclusivity is that she's certainly not averse to risk-taking and incurring the wrath of the fashion establishment. Alienating fashion designers – and even some readers - over the real people issue in November 2016 is a testament to that alone. More than that, she's acutely aware that Vogue's legacy lies in engaging the new generation who are more likely to be drip fed information through their phone than popping a Vogue in their basket at Tesco. Long before D&G's star-studded clickbait show, she tapped into Generation Z's infatuation with social media stars. Forget enigmas, Karlie Kloss, Taylor Swift and Cara Delevingne weren't just mere clothes horses - their combined Instagram following would mean greater coverage and of course ££. And it worked: Vogue recorded a 12.8% increase in the digital edition last year. And I'm certainly not immune - among the Vogues I buy have one thing in common: I follow the cover stars on Instagram avidly (here's looking at you, Rihanna).
So for someone who's shrewd enough to recognise that consumers are insatiable for more than just fashion, why then in her 25-year tenure have women of colour been side-lined? Shulman herself seems reticent to change the status quo, admitting she finds it 'difficult to increase an audience without alienating the home team'. She has refuted claims that 'fashion is institutionally racist' but it's hard to take her seriously when there was a 12-year-gap between black solo cover stars. So is putting women of colour on her cover or indeed celebrating them throughout its pages really so scary that deciding to forgo their existence altogether seems easier?
And it's not simply the diversity of the models I have an issue with - the only time Vogue appeared to listen to calls for body diversity was in its real people issue. Even so, it was hardly revolutionary considering that a mere two months later, they declared that boobs had fallen out of favour.
For Jen, who identifies as mixed race, this is all too familiar - it’s not so much a diversity issue that stops her consuming Vogue: 'The representation issue is far too big to get frustrated by anymore! As a petite person who hasn’t necessarily conformed to the fashion figure promoted by high-end brands, I feel that high-end fashion hasn’t been for someone like me.’
I’m optimistic, however, that the future of Vogue doesn’t have to look so whitewashed. In the US and the UK, a host of magazines are increasingly challenging the narrative. Teen Vogue in particularly is a testament to this - interspersed with relationship and celebrity fashion, recent trending stories have reported on celebrity activists and the insidious effect of Trump’s Muslim ban. There's a clear thirst to celebrate women of colour and read about stories beyond the parameter of our privileged bubbles, celebrating all that is diverse about women across the world. It's a model that's working: online traffic has surged for the publication, proving that readers can - and want - woke content.
Could a similar revolution hit British Vogue? Perhaps so if they are committed to an active dialogue about diversity and issues that affect women of colour who are actively consuming content. Moreover, of the women I spoke to, there was a clear need for the hiring process to include women of colour to feed into content that other women of colour want to know. After all, being woke might be in vogue, but it shouldn’t be a trend.
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