The first Vogue I ever bought was the 2003 September issue. The cover shimmers goldly, Nicole Kidman standing on a backlit stage, regal and svelte like the Academy Award she had won earlier that year. (Was this visual trope an accident? I think not. And that, quite simply, sums up how and why I fell in love with Vogue, and how and why I fell in love with the tongue-in-cheek cultural referent that fashion can be.) I bought it at the Passages gift shop on the ferry between Vancouver Island and the Canadian mainland, on the first leg of a family vacation to the South-Western USA. It was as heavy as a textbook, and I studied it as if it were. I was 16 years old. I had no idea who I was, or even really who I wanted to be, and I suffered from a kind of stifled rage that I had not yet learned to identify as the chronic condition of an ambitious person who grows up isolated. I was hungry for life, and that magazine fed parts of me that I hadn’t realized were starving.
I have already spoken about the impact that Vogue magazine had on me in my TEDx talk, and so it might seem like this post is beating a dead horse. But the reality is that Vogue was never just a magazine for me, it was never merely passive entertainment. It was my teacher and my mentor, my guide and my inspiration. It provided a window into a world that I wanted to inhabit, but it also made permissible my dreams, hopes, and desires. Before the age of social media, in the pages of Vogue I found something like community: the evidence of other people out there in the world who felt that clothes meant something.
Fashion is a complicated universe, as much a home to the super-wealthy who keep couture houses alive as to the strung-out club kids who play dress-up in thrift store treasures. This perversity is one of the things that I love about fashion: there’s nothing about fashion that is easy to define. On the one hand, the pages of Vogue have always catered towards a privileged elite: the magazine promotes outfits, spa services, and travel destinations that run into the tens of thousands of dollars without a hint of irony. But alongside this, I also found content that spoke to me, which unconsciously I always thought of as the real fashion world – the freaks and geeks who develop collections out of obsessions with a feeling or an obscure historical reference, the fashion stories that speak directly to my heart and kindle an unnerving desire to explore what it means to be me, the elegant prose of columnists who can read clothing like works of great art, deconstructing meaning and history and cultural criticism all in the cut of a lapel or choice of a button. More so than the aspirational fawning, what drew me to Vogue was the permission it gave me to love fashion, as well as the language to articulate its importance.
A few days ago I went out to buy the latest issue. I had to go to three different stores, but I wasn’t deterred. I knew it would be worth it. Finally I found it, and as always, I picked it up and flipped through it immediately – there’ll be no waiting until I get home to devour its pages. And what I saw were ads. 623 pages to be exact. Out of a total 796. I flipped past a 6 page spread on socialite Lauren Santo Domingo’s summer home, a display of 1% wealth so stark that, in the age of climate disaster and homeless millennials, it felt about as out of touch as Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon. I flipped past the cover story on Taylor Swift and wondered why, month after month, it is assumed that I am invested in the minutia of the lives of celebrities I never have (and never will) meet. I flipped past a 4 page story on excessive packaging in the beauty industry, 2 pages of which are a cover photograph. And I flipped past 6 whole pages highlighting sustainable design. Mostly, I flipped past nothing that stirred my soul.
Of course, none of this is new. This isn’t the first September Vogue to offer more advertising than content; indeed, that’s been the September (and March) formula since before I even started buying the magazine. And I’ve been known to argue the merits of sustainable fashion stories in Vogue - it reaches such a vast audience, every little bit helps, at least they are even publishing these kinds of stories, this shows that there is a growing awareness and interest …
But somehow, for some reason, I just can’t do it anymore.
Louis XIV is reported to have said that “fashion is the mirror of history”, and for me, this has been so much of what Vogue does. In many ways, Vogue is not merely a reflection of the contemporary fashion system, it is the fashion system. It doesn’t report trends, it sets them. It doesn’t follow the industry, it creates the industry, from incubating fledgling brands and designers to making and breaking the careers of models, photographers, writers, editors, stylists …. This of course has always been a part of the allure for me; a copy of Vogue was like holding the very industry in my hands. It felt like access by proxy.
And as much as the fashion system is changing, due to the many people across the globe making efforts large and small to create a system that is more just, ethical, sustainable, inclusive, diverse – not to mention decolonized, culturally sensitive, even earth-honoring – if Vogue is a litmus test that can indicate to us the status of the dominant fashion system, then what this issue communicates to me is indeed a reflection of what is happening on the ground: that these efforts to fight for a better fashion system are being swallowed up by the noise of an industry that would rather fight to the death than accept that the status quo is not working. In this issue, those glimmers of what I had always thought of as “real” fashion – the cleverness, the creativity, the willingness to challenge norms – are increasingly hidden beneath layers of lackluster consumerism (even the ads have lost some of their spark, as if they too are bored of the relentlessness of their message). Increasingly, Vogue speaks to a dominant system that rather than adapt with grace is choosing to turn up the volume on an interpretation of fashion that is purely materialistic, to the exclusion of everything else that fashion is, and that fashion can be. And while this isn’t the first issue to take a commercial interest over a creative one (some would argue that’s been Anna Wintour’s mandate since the 80s) this was the first issue that made me realize I no longer want to participate.
We are destroying our planet. And while this is a deeply complicated issue, what is not complicated is that a huge part of the problem is our inability to reign in our collective obsession with needing more. Perhaps I am naive, or perhaps I am overreacting (indeed, I often hope that I am overreacting), but as I wonder what the future of this planet will look like if we do not keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius, I find that I am not willing to accept anything less than radical action by those entities that hold power to effect real change. So a story on the global environmental impacts of overconsumption in the beauty industry is something - but it is nothing when it is taken alongside 623 glossy pages compelling you to buy unsustainably made goods that you may not even really want . Publishing this story isn’t a bold move, it’s a strategic whimper to keep left-leaning millennial readers (like myself, and like a large percentage of Vogue’s consumer based) sated.
So I’m opting out. Or rather, I’m opting in to resistance.