Two years ago my life resembled an episode of Hoarders. I had recently graduated from high school and I don’t recall making a lot of money, but I remember spending a lot, which means that I was either very bad with managing my personal finances or I was blissfully ignorant of the value of a buck. Fortunately, I never developed any addictions to smoking or drinking or even going out on Saturday night—the usual vices that make the spending of money necessary—so I was able to direct all my earnings to something that gave me the same rush, but was more innocuous in manner (or so I thought): fashion magazines. I bought ten every month for a complete year, but when I realised that I could no longer sustain the habit I cut it down to three or four. Only recently have I been able to kick the habit completely.
At least once a week I have someone ask me: “I want to learn more about fashion. What’s a good magazine to read?” The first publication that always comes to mind is American Vogue. It is culturally significant, it served as the inspiration for The Devil Wears Prada, and, according to Kirstie Clements, formerly editor-in-chief of Vogue Australia, Anna Wintour yields a “psychological condition that causes seemingly sane and successful adults to prostrate themselves in her presence.” It’s also the cover-de-la-crème of all the September issues, which also happens to be the title of the highly-recommended 2009 documentary that explored all the magazine’s covert operations. Simply put: Vogue is a big deal.
Fashion magazines like Vogue defy (or rather deny) all sense of reality, even without the excessive photoshopping. They are not meant to be real. They keep you interested by instilling fear in your sartorial soul—buy this $4000 dress or your wardrobe will fall behind; your skin is not clear enough, your hair is not smooth enough, your boobs, ass, head, nose, toes are not the right shape. Essentially, you are not good enough. Anna Wintour’s recent cover choices demonstrate that of the estimated 1.2 million print readers, Vogue still favours a certain woman, and if you’re not that woman than you should certainly aspire to be. Rumours are now floating across cyberspace that Girls creator Lena Dunham will be featured on the cover of the February issue. My guess is that Anna Wintour is hoping to bring her publication closer to earth with a celebrity who, with her messy hair, tattoos and “fiercely real” posturing, is rather unsightly by Condé Nast’s usual standards.
However, my main problem with Vogue is not its dubious message to and about women. A critic could argue that I have no idea what the hell I’m even talking about. According to Vogue’s media kit, the magazine’s average reader is a 38-year-old, college-educated female with a household income of $60,000 a year. I’m a 21-year-old Asian-Australian Media student earning much, much less. And I’m male, if that isn’t clear by now. But even though I am not Vogue’s target reader, I have to declare that as a fashion magazine Vogue fails miserably. Epically. The visual content has become prosaic and predictable, which, short of bankrupt, is something a spearheading fashion publication should never be labelled. One of the major editorials in the January issue follows a very tired formula: David Sims photographing a top model, wearing some Marc Jacobs or Proenza Schouler, as well as an ugly wig. Have her stand in front of a solid background, jumping up and down, pulling a few silly faces and—bam!—you have yourself a very unimaginative Vogue editorial.
Aside from being a glorified shopping guide, which is more or less doomed in the world of e-tailers that can ship Lanvin ruffled party dresses anywhere in the world within three business days, Vogue is also seriously out of touch with what fashion really is. Yes, it’s about clothes—that would be the simplest definition. But what happened to the spirit behind the clothes? Fashion that has a glossed-over quality where everything is fabulous because it costs four figures is hopelessly pretentious. It is socially irresponsible for a magazine like Vogue to completely ignore the fact that over 1000 Bangladeshi garment workers perished last April so that Walmart could continue to sell $5 t-shirts. I don’t recall reading anything of the sort in the pages of Vogue, not even for the three months following this horrific disaster. What I do remember reading, however, is how to make “wildly creative salads” (May), how “American dream girl” Kate Upton became “the hottest supermodel on earth” (June), and then a cute little rhyme on the July cover: “unique is the new chic”—what the hell does that even mean? And before you ask: yes, it’s perfectly acceptable to judge a magazine by its cover.
Now I return to my initial question: what is a good fashion magazine to read? Magazines are not cheap in Australia, so if I’m going to spend in excess of $15 for a stack of bonded paper I sure as hell want to read something interesting. I want to see a fashion publication that is socially aware; a magazine that is sensitive to context; a magazine that will treat its writers with integrity and its readers with respect. Most importantly, I want to read a magazine that is sincere and won’t ignore recent woes in the fashion industry in favour of a rich nobody who decided to plant an herb garden in her country house.
This is not a call to action in disguise. I am not trying to dissuade anyone from buying Vogue. In fact, part of me is actually hoping that more people will buy magazines because there will be a job there for me someday. All I ask is that fashion magazines get more in touch with the ugly side of fashion. A very big part of the fantasy is being able to see beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes, doing beautiful things. But there is a sad, grotesque part of the fashion industry that doesn’t get enough acknowledgement by those who run this increasingly chaotic show.