For too long, fashion magazines have been negotiating on a hyper-brilliant, hyper-produced aspiration idea – an idea that is especially confusing in today’s climate, writes Zoe Walker Ahwa for Together.
We need more glamor.
A style mantra for some, and a fitting conclusion to praising my career as the editor of New Zealand’s most iconic and now defunct fashion magazine.
It was a request that had haunted me throughout my short tenure at Fashion Quarterly – and one that has since represented, I think in part, the downfall of the traditional glossy fashion magazine.
It has been a long time coming. I say this with love and respect as a longtime fashion and magazine obsessive. It is an industry around which I have built my career for more than 15 years and a medium that I personally love. At home, my shelves creak under the weight of the numbers I’ve collected. But one day over the past two years, feeling disconnected and disillusioned, I too stopped buying them.
In April, Bauer Media shut down Fashion Quarterly, along with their other titles (some have since resurrected, but not FQ), and in July, the company shut down Australian fashion titles Harper’s Bazaar, Elle and InStyle.
It all seemed a little depressing to me. Collectively and individually, the closures were representative of a much larger story; an “account” in women’s, lifestyle and fashion media. A lot has been writing on this subject abroad – closings of titles, collective redundancies, drop in income – but in 2020, the accounts have moved closer to us.
These challenges have simmered for years, but for fashion magazines in particular, it has been a perfect storm of challenges facing print media in general, and long-standing issues in the fashion system at large.
Earlier this month a very good New York Times the story explored “how the fashion industry fell apart” (changing consumer habits, overproduction, out of touch delivery dates, etc.), and in April another asked point blank, What is the point of a fashion magazine now?.
This story questioned the role of a traditional “glossy” selling a fantasy at a time when, like everyone else, they had to deal with a pretty crappy reality.
“Fashion magazines are vehicles for luxury fantasies,” they wrote. “They sell consumers dreams of consumption, sandwiching brilliant images of models and stars between advertisements for $ 50,000 watches and $ 250 moisturizers.”
The cynic in me clapped and took a screenshot of this paragraph (then I got a little defensive).
But it’s true: some of them can be silly, doubtful, complacent. The medium has challenges – as revenues have declined, the focus has often become too commercial. It has retained its past as a seasonal buying guide, as most people now draw inspiration from a variety of sources, preferring a much more personal approach to styling (when I tried to reduce the number of shopping pages, I encountered a “no”). Sometimes they’re just extremely boring.
Magazines have also traditionally had an extremely narrow, white, and privileged perspective on who and what they represent. It is also true that the majority of those who work on these magazines have been just that. Diversity has been a valid conversation, but I think class has always been an unresolved issue in fashion and media too.
(I think it’s no good that the majority of those behind the scenes, no matter what their backgrounds, really care about making things better and creating something that reflects today’s world; I know it is. was the case with my old talented team.)
More often than not, it was the power suits upstairs that were still living by old school rules when print magazines were in their prime – the age of aspirations. For years, fashion magazines have swapped this idea of aspiration: hyper-shiny, hyper-produced, selling an unattainable dream.
Often times it has been described using words like ‘escape’ or ‘the fantasy’ – buzzwords from the mag-hag world that sometimes sided comfortably alongside extremely subtle code language.
Like when I was told “I don’t think we’re ready for this” watching a photoshoot with a black model as a potential cover image. Or the disposable but extremely disrespectful – and frankly incorrect – line “She Looks Huge” when we advocate for a model with no sample size to appear on our blanket.
This type of language was not new or limited to my little corner of the world:
– There was the Writer of Another Headline who essentially had to intimidate his editor and his team into removing words like “tribal” and “exotic” from the buying trend pages.
– The creator who was asked to update an image of a Chinese family to be “more New Zealand”.
– The artistic director who requested another “clear and bright” image, to replace that of a Pasifika model.
– Or the managing editor telling Women’s Day editor Wendyl Nissen that “Pocahontas will never sell” when she positioned Carol Hirschfeld as a potential cover star in 1998. (I remember reading that story remembered by Wendyl Bitch and Famous years ago and being shocked at my naive core)
Everyone has one of these stories.
The world has changed a lot since that era of magazines (some would say its heyday; they certainly had better budgets back then) – but unfortunately some of those attitudes remain, and some still remain in positions of power.
Despite all of this, I will fight to the death to defend the premise of fashion media and “women’s interests”. It’s too easy to think of it as frivolous, too commercial, “not real journalism”, but there’s no shame in celebrating stories about creativity, design, people, life. These things are worth covering; they are a unique type of cultural record. Correct see at the job Edward Enninful currently does at British Vogue. We deserve lifestyle and fashion media that truly reflect the new world we live in, including here in New Zealand.
AAnd so, back to glamor.
This word had been repeated so often in meetings and critiques of our imagery, with the insinuation that under my care it was so lacking in our pages, that I somewhat cynically decided to cede to the powers that be with what they thought they wanted – a “glamor,” question, for the winter. (It was never printed)
I told myself I was going to do it my way and refuse to embrace the glamorous baby boomer ideal. But looking back, I think I was losing faith in my realistic outlook and becoming conditioned to the life and thought of a magazine.
We therefore photographed the magnificent model Manahou Mackay with a few classic glam “cover hair” (done, ready, waves; some would say old fashioned although she sure looks cool).
We interviewed the godfather of absolutely fabulous fashion, Christian Lacroix.
We photographed evening dresses.
And we asked people like Judith Baragwanath and Richard Orjis what glamor means to them (that was on purpose; a way to question the idea of what glamor really is today and probably justify all the exercise for myself).
Then Covid approached, and the mood changed very quickly.
It was in the heady few days before the words levels and lockdown became mainstream, but when the uncertainty and nervous energy was almost unbearable.
An email arrived in the inbox of one of my talented writers from author Stacy Gregg – who was also my first boss when she launched the Runway Reporter fashion website in 2006. We had her asked to contribute to the article “What is glamor” and his response was rightly inflamed.
Looking back, I think it effortlessly sums up the awkward position we had found ourselves in: working on a “glamorous issue” of a fashion magazine printed on the eve of a global pandemic.
“What does glamor mean to me? Not much fucking.
This story originally appeared on Together, Aotearoa’s freshest new fashion and beauty destination, and is republished with permission.