The fashion edit: The most iconic fashion magazine covers in times of crisis – brunch feature


When most countries completed their first month of complete lockdown in April, The New York Times asked, “What is the point of a fashion magazine now?” 

Look at British Vogue’s covers during World War II for the answer. You will see how fashion magazines have always been first responders in time of crisis. With cover lines like Wardrobe Planning: Coupons, Fabrics, Renovations, the September 1943 issue came with a pattern book showing women how to make the most of fabric rationing. Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue go back well over a century; Italy’s Grazia pre-dates World War II and France’s Elle had its first issue just after the war ended. As Nonita Kalra, editor of Harper’s Bazaar India (and former editor-in-chief of Elle India) says, “Magazines have always been chroniclers of how we feel and think. Fashion is driven by political, economic and social change.” 

British Vogue’s September 1943 issue, during Word War II, came with a pattern book showing women how to make the most of fabric rationing

British Vogue’s September 1943 issue, during Word War II, came with a pattern book showing women how to make the most of fabric rationing

The reader, too, expects this. Aishwarya Nair, hotelier and fashion director of Aligne, is a self-confessed glossy lover. “Through their pages, you connect with what’s contemporary; they fuel the thought of our times,” she says.

Do judge a magazine by its cover

The June covers of Vogue Italia’s June issue this year have been drawn by kids aged between two and 10;

The June covers of Vogue Italia’s June issue this year have been drawn by kids aged between two and 10;

The April 2020 issue of Vogue Italia, with its blank white cover, made it clear that covers were about to change. Italy was then reporting more coronavirus cases than most other countries.

A colour of hope, surrender and rebirth, white is also the colour of the uniforms of medical staff. Meanwhile, British Grazia paid homage to the National Health System (NHS) with split covers featuring real-life NHS workers. Grazia India’s 21 illustration-based digital covers paid homage to fashion’s community spirit. Both Vogue India and Grazia India were first movers in making digital issues downloadable for free when concerns were raised about print distribution in the time of corona. 

“Why do we believe that beautiful imagery is not impactful or relevant? In difficult times, we need art to elevate us.”—Nonita Kalra, editor, Harper’s Bazaar India

Every magazine now has seen a surge in digital activity and subscriptions. Mehernaaz Dhondy, editor of Grazia India, says, “Our content goals have constantly been evolving to keep pace with digital media, and now that these unprecedented times have pivoted all attention towards this medium, it’s a matter of keeping all content relevant.”   

Vogue Arabia reimagined some of their most memorable covers with a digitally-added mask and Vogue Taiwan created a fully computer-driven CGI cover. As far as digital innovations go, the May issue of Vogue India really set the bar with a type and audio cover with words of hope written and voiced by Pulitzer prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri.

Somalian model Iman has shown support for Vogue Arabia’s #stayathome campaign

Somalian model Iman has shown support for Vogue Arabia’s #stayathome campaign

Being a conversation starter

The fashion industry has been hit hard by the pandemic. For instance, J. Crew and Neiman Marcus have declared bankruptcy. A three-billion dollar industry, fashion’s survival is a matter of global economic concern, and nowhere is this more apparent than in India. The textile industry is the country’s second largest employer, and “designer fashion,” a young industry, is vulnerable. As fashion journalist and author Gayatri Rangachari Shah notes, “In India, 45-60 million people are employed in the textile sector and the fashion industry has done so much to nurture and create new markets, both at home and abroad, for our incredibly talented centuries-old crafts tradition. Fashion magazines play a vital role in spreading the message that clothes matter.”

In 1992, the year of economic crisis Harper’s Bazaar came up with this modern and paired down cover for its September issue

In 1992, the year of economic crisis Harper’s Bazaar came up with this modern and paired down cover for its September issue

“In India, 45-60 million people are employed in the textile sector, and the fashion industry has nurtured centuries-old crafts” —Gayatri Rangachari Shah, fashion journalist and author

Harper’s Bazaar India’s ‘The Runway Project’ is a digital showcase of local talent, while Vogue India asked creative minds to talk about what they are dealing with in their  #InThisTogether series on Instagram. As Priya Tanna, editor of Vogue India, says, “The need of the hour is to be sensitive, show our support to local and home-grown talent and keep engaging with readers.”  

Vogue Arabia’s June issue is themed “Love Letter to Lebanon,” and on the cover is singer and UN Goodwill Ambassador Majida El Roumi, her first cover in a career that has spanned 45 years. Lebanon was in the midst of a political struggle prior to the pandemic.

Vanity Fair’s November 2001 issue was themed around the 9/11 terror attacks that shook the US and the world

Vanity Fair’s November 2001 issue was themed around the 9/11 terror attacks that shook the US and the world

The pandemic seems to have further enabled fashion magazines to address issues through their covers. Judi Dench became British Vogue’s cover girl at 85 this May. Also in May, Elle India had Dr Jane Goodall DBE, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and UN Messenger of Peace, on the cover. This period has also coincided with the killing of George Floyd igniting anti-racism protests globally. With the United States being the epicentre, many ethical issues within the fashion media have come to light there, including American Vogue’s lack of covers with “Non-White” talent.

In May, Elle India had Dr Jane Goodall DBE, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and UN Messenger of Peace, on the cover

In May, Elle India had Dr Jane Goodall DBE, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and UN Messenger of Peace, on the cover

Of course, a glossy must also provide its readers with an escape. As Kalra says, “Why do we believe that beautiful imagery is not impactful or relevant? In difficult times, we need art; we need inspiration to elevate us.” Her magazine invited 12 global female artists to create digital covers about the need to build connections while we practice social distancing. Vogue India’s June cover is an animated illustration by Takashi Murakmi; the coverline simple reads, “In This Together.”

Vogue India’s June issue features its first-ever illustrated cover by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami

Vogue India’s June issue features its first-ever illustrated cover by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami

The Future of Fashion magazines

Digital kept fashion media alive during lockdown. Now will fashion media go back to the way it was? Another reality seems likely. Vanity Fair’s June cover, featuring Janelle Monae, was shot on Zoom while some of the clothes she wore came from her own wardrobe. Harper’s Bazaar India’s Instagram cover featuring Janhvi Kapoor was shot at home by Janhvi’s sister Khushi, sans make-up and filters. 

Both, the June cover of Vanity Fair US, and the HT Brunch cover dated May 31, 2020, were shot remotely during lockdown using Zoom

Both, the June cover of Vanity Fair US, and the HT Brunch cover dated May 31, 2020, were shot remotely during lockdown using Zoom

But the fact is, magazines will need to go back to supporting the brands that are advertisers; this is a business after all. Fashion designer Gaurav Gupta says in a regular year, his clothes would be on the cover of a glossy about five times. “As things go back to normal, we would want to see our clothes on covers.”

Harper’s Bazaar India’s one of the three covers for April-May 2020 featuring Janhvi Kapoor, was shot at home by Janhvi’s sister Khushi, sans make-up and filters

Harper’s Bazaar India’s one of the three covers for April-May 2020 featuring Janhvi Kapoor, was shot at home by Janhvi’s sister Khushi, sans make-up and filters

Survival of the fittest

The feeling of fantasy brought by the beautifully-produced shoots for print cannot be brushed aside. As Shah says, “The paper versus digital conversation has been going on ever since the birth of the Internet. Do we need books in the age of the Kindle? Yes, we do. During the lockdown, I was getting my magazines and papers on my phone. It was a drag to read them that way. To feel and touch, is that not human?” 

“We do about five magazine covers a year. As things go back to normal, we would like to see our clothes on covers.” —Gaurav Gupta, fashion designer

But there is no question that digital is the future. Major publishing houses have been aspiring to become more than magazines for a while now, with digital platforms, wedding shows, award-based events and so on. Covid-19 has been, in many ways, a wake-up call for the industry. 

With all the magazines now working on their biggest issue of the year, the September issue, perhaps the covers will show what the new normal will be for fashion magazines in a post-pandemic world.

Grazia India’s April 2020 digital cover explores the Six Degrees of Separation theme

Grazia India’s April 2020 digital cover explores the Six Degrees of Separation theme

Dubai-based fashion journalist Sujata Assomull is also an author and an advocate of mindful fashion.

From HT Brunch, June 21, 2020

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