A year ago, 26 editors of Vogue’s international editors came together to launch the Vogue Values program, affirming their commitment to being more socially responsible, presenting people of all backgrounds in their publications, and having a stronger voice on current affairs and global issues. With that announcement, American Vogue revealed Stella McCartney would cover the first ever Vogue Values issue. To me, a wealthy white woman with a conventionally standardised body type who is the face of a legacy fashion brand wasn’t exactly the biggest leap to the future of fashion (despite her commitment to sustainability) but to be fair they were doing a mothers of reinvention theme and subsequently announced three more covers: Ashley Graham, Greta Gerwig, and Cardi B. It was certainly a step in the right direction, but it was baby steps and not without a few steps backwards throughout the year. Remember Simone Biles’ August cover? Some people were upset about the unflattering lighting in the photographs by Annie Leibowitz, and asked why Vogue couldn’t hire a Black photographer for the shoot if Annie seemingly doesn’t know how to properly light melanated skin.
For the cover of Vogue Values 2021, they’ve brought Annie back once again, to capture curvy model, Paloma Elsesser. I still don’t love the lighting. It’s not capturing Paloma’s normally glowing skin, but it was clearly an aesthetic choice to capture her outside at dusk instead of soaking up the sun. However, unlike in Simone’s case, Paloma has been styled by a Black woman, and the writer is also a Black woman, both of whom do not fit within fashion’s “straight” sizes, just like their subject.
It’s a gorgeous cover. But it’s not the first time we’ve seen girls who aren’t sample sizes serving face on the cover of a magazine. What makes it stand out to me is that they didn’t hide her body under a trench coat, or crop the cover to focus on her face — the Melissa McCarthy treatment. How refreshing is it to see Paloma looking sexy in a Michael Kors slip dress painted to her body?
If you’re not familiar with Paloma, you should read this Vogue piece and find out how cool she is. She brings the perspective of having a multiracial background, and describes her upbringing as “hippie poor,” but her mother prioritized education, which saw her attending predominately white schools filled with the “cool rich” people of LA. She didn’t always aspire to work in the fashion industry and struggled at first because nobody wanted to hire BIPOC girls with bigger bodies, and she admits, she wasn’t doing herself any favours in the auditions with her lack of personal style. She was actually working as a music manager when she caught the eye of beauty icon Pat McGrath, launching her career.
What I found most interesting from her interview is that she struggles with imposter syndrome as she moves through the high fashion world. That part isn’t shocking, but I’d never before thought about the immediate domino effects of curvier models being included during runway season. This is what she says about why her visibility means for others:
“When a size 14 person like myself says no to doing a show, they may not put anyone larger in that show—therefore that sample doesn’t go into the editorial season; other girls my size don’t get shot in looks that aren’t lingerie or a jacket; there’s a whole cycle happening. My participation isn’t just about me.”
The article also speaks to an important shift in the modelling world which Paloma is at the forefront of: models having personality again. Paloma is outspoken on social media, not just about body positivity but other issues she feels passionately about, including support for POC and Indigenous youth, and giving back to your local community. Gone are the days of the starving model aesthetic. The “cold and emotionless, blank-stare type of modelling,” as described by Coach executive creative director Stuart Vevers in the piece. We’re returning to models with lived experience to share and a personality that draws you in. They can offer more than just a smile and pose. That’s Paloma.
“Not every part of fashion needs to focus on politics and reality—this isn’t CNN—but ultimately, we all have a level of responsibility,” she says. “What’s the downside of giving visibility to disabled people, putting dark-skinned femmes at the forefront, or prioritizing diverse perspectives?”
With everything going on in the world, consumers want to align themselves with brands that make their corporate stance on issues very clear. We want to hear their viewpoints, because some issues have a right and wrong side — period. It’s been paying off for British Vogue, which has seen growth even as magazine circulation overall is on the decline, under the helm of Edward Enninful. Which is why Condé Nast just upped him to editorial director for all of Europe, in addition to remaining editor-in-chief of British Vogue. Putting Paloma Elsesser on the cover of Vogue Values is a much clearer statement than American Vogue has made in previous years when it comes to where they stand and what they’re focused on for the future.