The September Issue of American Vogue is the hottest cover of the year and with the Met Gala moved to September and some Covid-19 restrictions lifting (at least when these editorials were being planned weeks or months ago), this season is being positioned as a fashion comeback.
Setting the photo shoot in the real Vogue offices, back at work, is what the images symbolize and the fashion industry (which has been upended by the pandemic, like so many other industries) needs this. That is what this cover is about: work. Getting back to it. And modeling is work. These particular models were chosen for how they meld their work with their voice. The cover features Anok Yai, Ariel Nicholson, Bella Hadid, Lola Leon, Sherry Shi, Yumi Nu, Kaia Gerber, and Precious Lee with story by Maya Singer.
Obviously all of these women are exceptionally beautiful because that is what Vogue does. My first instinct looking at this was… Bella Hadid and Kaia Gerber? OK.
I was fully prepared to roll my eyes at how Kaia Gerber (born with both the genetics and the connections for supermodel stardom) is “breaking beauty norms” but if you look beyond her and Bella (the standards for what a supermodel has been for so long - young, white-passing, tall, thin), the story touches on so much of what has been wrong with fashion (and society) for so long, with specific mentions of the anti-trans bills passing in the US, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and how all of that ties into how these models navigate the world, their careers and their influence. (Bella has been consistently vocal on social media about Palestine, a contentious topic she doesn’t shy away from.)
Beyond the models, the article also gives voice to designers including Christopher John Rogers (I’m obsessed with his clothes), Rio Uribe, and Becca McCharen-Tran, people who have been pushing beyond surface diversity to deeper collaboration and, as McCharen-Tran points out, respect and dignity. For them, choosing models is more of a collaboration and reflection of their brand and customer, not simply beautiful objects to look at like in a museum.
Singer writes, “That’s the breakthrough we’re witnessing; the transformation of model from object to subject. For the first time in history, she is meeting our gaze.”
Maybe it’s my age showing here, but Naomi Campbell would like a word. For YEARS, she has been spoken openly about often being not just the only Black model (she said casting agents would often point this out), but the only Black person on set, period. (American Vogue did not have a Black photographer shoot the cover until Beyoncé took over for the September 2018 issue. She literally had to take Anna Wintour’s job for a minute to get it done.) As Naomi has pointed out, there were never other Black creatives around – not the photographer or the lighting director or the creative director or the makeup artist. It was always just her. Models have more of a voice now because they have the platform, but they weren’t cardboard cutouts in the 70s, 80s and 90s, they were just treated that way.
The fashion industry once thrived on gatekeeping (the basis being exclusion of anyone not rich, white, thin – exclusion and elitism are still a form of currency), which is the antithesis of the kind of genuine connection and inclusivity young people look for on social media. Snobbery is out. Someone can become a model and connect with design houses without living in New York or Paris or Los Angeles. The collective “we” decides who is cool now, not Anna Wintour. And as the story notes, social media has also created a common kind of beauty-standard enemy with the “Instagram face” (a term coined by Jia Tolentino). As models and designers and casting agents buck against that kind of uniformity, the Vogue set also benefits from railing against a beauty standard they did not create and can’t control.
Vogue has tried the “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach with two Kim Kardashian covers but that just kind of made them look desperate. So instead of catching up to a trend, they are again trying to get ahead of the curve and reestablish their position as an influential fashion standard by highlighting a bigger group of voices. It’s strategy but it’s also necessity and as Vogue tries to catch up to where society is at right now, so are many of its readers.
As a casting director pointed out in the story, “these shifts in model casting ‘track with changes we’re seeing all across our culture’” and that is what, hopefully, Vogue is recognizing finally. To be a cultural force it has to know what the culture is and it’s not a prim Oscar de la Renta dress and gaggle of socialites who want to work at Vogue until their hedgefund boyfriend Chase proposes and they get married at their family home in the Hamptons. That once was the ethos of Vogue but that doesn’t mean it can’t evolve. Its survival will depend on it.