Fashion: to the letter

Vogue is not just the world’s fashion bible, it has also shaped global culture for more than a century, as Vision finds out

In a world of a million style bloggers, thousands of online publications and a constant stream of new lifestyle magazines around the world, there remains one inarguable standard bearer for international fashion, one publication that the entire industry looks to for leadership, and one name that is recognised by even the grumpiest of fashion naysayers: Vogue.

For more than 120 years, Vogue has been perceived as the pinnacle of fashion publishing. Its editors-in-chief are revered, its best editorials pored over for decades. Its commercial success is a bellwether for the state of luxury: when advertising is busy in the September issue of Vogue, so is economic optimism. By that measure, 2014 is going to be a good one, with advertising in Vogue up 1 per cent on last year to 665 pages.

It is not only in the economy that the magazine is a signifier: through the dramatic events of the 20th century, come peace or war, Vogue continued to report, and if hemlines seemed a frivolous concern at the time, the story it has told in retrospect is as socially important and insightful as any tale of politics or armies. Indeed, even the fact that subscriptions soared during the Great Depression and the two world wars reveals something about the importance of the magazine to its readers, and its success in reflecting their world.

Vogue was, though, originally conceived as a light weekly fashion publication for the American market, albeit one that catered for the interests of society men as much as women. The first edition, on 17 December 1892, had a débutante on the cover and was designed to report on, said its New York founder Arthur Baldwin Turnure, events, balls and the “ceremonial” aspects of society life.

Seventeen years later, it was taken over by Condé Nast, which understood that aspiration and advertising would be the key to its success, and who over the next 10 years launched the magazine in Britain, France and Italy. Today, there are 24 editions of Vogue, the most recent rolled out in Ukraine.

The presence of a Vogue edition in a country is rather a compliment, an acknowledgement of growing importance and spending power. Vogue Russia, Vogue Japan and Vogue India have been among the greatest testaments to that effect. Yet it is only the immense influences of the original titles that makes the international editions relevant. And it is the power of their editors and contributors, internationally lauded, that keeps these venerable titles in prime front-row position in a crowded market.

It is Vogue that gives us the archetype of a photoshoot, thanks to its astonishing roster of former and current photographers, all artists and all defining figures in their eras, from the exotic tonalities of Edward Steichen and the dramatic stylised shots of Horst P Horst to the ground-breaking insouciance of David Bailey and the incisive portraiture of Irving Penn. The list goes on, because Vogue has consistently been a hothouse of talent, creating visuals that define eras and influence competitors, advertisers and designers as much as readers.

The same can be said for the iconic faces of the magazine: the models. January 1990’s cover of British Vogue cemented the status of the original five supermodels, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Christie Turlington, Linda Evangelista and Tatjana Patitz, and Vogue Italia’s June 2011 issue, featuring Tara Lynn, Candice Huffine, Marquita Pring and Robyn Lawley, helped take plus-size models from the catalogue to catwalk.

Each edition has a distinctive tone and approach, guided by its editor. Franca Sozzani, of Vogue Italia, is intellectual, politically engaged, impulsive and fond of controversy – hence the plus-size issue, the all-black issue and an eco-issue that featured a Steven Meisel shoot, called Water & Oil, inspired by the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Sozzani is also one of the more open and adventurous editors, discussing her editorial choices in her blog on the Vogue Italia website, and looking beyond the old fashion capitals for new territories, such as Africa and the UAE.

It’s a different scene entirely at Vogue Paris, whose current Editor, Emmanuelle Alt, took over from the adored Carine Roitfeld in February 2011. Where Roitfeld was a dramatic femme fatale, Alt is pared-down and casual in that classically chic Parisian manner, all skin-tight jeans and Balenciaga jackets, clean, unstyled hair and barely-there make-up. The magazine is just as French: fashion is taken very seriously, and so is intellect.

British Vogue is the rather punky, unsentimental, rebellious little sister. Helmed by Alexandra Shulman, it’s all about the zeitgeist, and while it covers the arts, it bears that no-nonsense Anglo-Saxon suspicion of over-intellectualised content. Yet this edition is also the one that is most likely to debut a talent, be it a model, photographer or designer, who will go on to great things. It is, however, the million-selling mothership, American Vogue, that holds the greatest power in the fashion industry. Its Editor, Anna Wintour, boasts connections at the top, from Washington to Wimbledon, together with a formidable reputation.

Famous enough even among non-fashionistas to have been the purported model for the icy editrix in Lauren Weisberger’s book The Devil Wears Prada; nicknamed “Nuclear Wintour” for her cold manner; and instantly recognisable for her perfectly coiffed bob and giant sunglasses, the British-born Wintour has been Editor-in-Chief at American Vogue since 1988, and is now also Artistic Director for Condé Nast. Under Wintour, American Vogue has featured only stars on its covers rather than models – and true to the magazine’s form, these go beyond music and film to include the likes of Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey.

And perhaps that is the secret to Vogue’s success: from Diana Vreeland to Wintour, these magazines are as much a reflection of the personalities who make them as the worlds that they depict. And without personality, style is extremely hard to achieve.

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