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MediaAugust 23, 2020

The aspirational age of fashion magazines is over

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Photo: Getty Images

For too long, fashion magazines have been trading on a hyper-glossy, hyper-produced idea of aspiration – one that particularly jars in the current climate, writes Zoe Walker Ahwa for Ensemble. 

We need more glamour.

A style mantra for some, and an apt conclusion in the eulogy of my career as the editor of New Zealand’s most iconic and now defunct fashion magazine.

It was a request that had come to haunt me throughout my short tenure at Fashion Quarterly – and has since come to represent, I think in part, the downfall of the traditional high-gloss fashion magazine.

It’s been a long time coming. I say that with love and respect as a longtime fashion and magazine obsessive. It’s an industry I built my 15-plus-year career around, and a medium I personally love. At home, my bookshelves buckle under the weight of the issues I’ve collected. But one day in the past year or two, feeling disconnected and disillusioned, I too stopped buying them.

In April, Bauer Media closed Fashion Quarterly, along with their other titles (some since resurrected, although not FQ), and in July, the company shut Australian fashion titles Harper’s Bazaar, Elle and InStyle.

It all felt a little depressing. Collectively and individually, the closures were representative of a much bigger story; a “reckoning” in women’s, lifestyle and fashion media. A lot has been written about it overseas – title closures, mass redundancies, reduced revenue – but in 2020, the reckoning hit closer to home.

These challenges have been festering for years but for fashion magazines in particular it has been a perfect storm of the challenges facing print media in general, and longstanding issues in the wider fashion system.

Earlier in the month a very good New York Times story explored “how the fashion industry collapsed” (changing consumer habits, overproduction, out-of-touch delivery dates, etc), and in April, another asked point blank, What’s the point of a fashion magazine now?.

That story questioned the role of a traditional “glossy” selling a fantasy in a time when they, like everyone else, have to reckon with a pretty shitty reality.

“Fashion magazines are vehicles for luxury fantasies,” they wrote. “They sell readers on consumerist dreams, sandwiching glossy images of supermodels and stars between advertisements for $50,000 watches and $250 moisturisers.”

The cynic in me cheered and screenshotted that paragraph (then, I got a little defensive).

But it’s true: some of it can be silly, questionable, self-indulgent. The medium has challenges – as revenue has reduced, the focus has often become overly commercial. It has held onto its past as a seasonal shopping guide, when most people now get their inspiration from various sources, preferring a much more personal approach to style (when I tried to reduce the number of shopping pages, I was met with an extremely sharp “no”). Sometimes, they are just extremely boring.

Women reading fashion magazines at a New York hair salon in 1958 (Photo: Getty Images)

Magazines have also, traditionally, had an extremely narrow, white, privileged point of view in who and what they represent. It’s true too that the majority of those working on these magazines have been just that. Diversity has been a valid conversation, but I think class has always been an unaddressed issue in fashion and media too.

(I do think it’s worth nothing that the majority of those behind the scenes, regardless of their background, genuinely care about making things better and creating something that reflected the world today; I know that was the case with my talented former team.)

More often than not, it was the power suits upstairs who were still living by old-school rules when print magazines were in their prime – the aspirational age. For years, fashion magazines have traded on this idea of aspiration: hyper-glossy, hyper-produced, selling an unattainable dream.

Often it was described using words like “escapism” or “the fantasy” – buzzwords of the mag-hag world that sometimes sat cosily alongside some extremely subtle coded language.

Like when I was told, “I don’t think we’re ready for that” when looking at a shoot featuring a Black model as a potential cover image. Or the throwaway but hugely disrespectful – and frankly incorrect – line, “She looks huge” when advocating for a non-sample-sized model to appear on our cover.

That type of language wasn’t new or limited to my little corner of the world:

– There was the writer at another title who had to essentially bully her editor and team into removing words like “tribal” and “exotic” from shopping trend pages.

– The designer who was asked to update an image of a Chinese family to be “more New Zealand”.

– The art director who requested another image that was “light and bright”, to replace one of a Pasifika model.

– Or the publishing director telling then Woman’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 in Wendyl’s memoir Bitch and Famous years ago and being shocked to my naive core)

Everyone has one of those stories.

The world has changed a lot since that magazine era (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 that, I will fight to the death to defend the premise of fashion and “women’s interest” media. It’s too easy to dismiss it as frivolous, overly commercial, “not real journalism”, but there is no shame in delighting in stories about creativity, design, people, life. These things deserve to be covered; they are a unique kind of cultural record. Just look at the work Edward Enninful is doing at British Vogue right now. We deserve lifestyle and fashion media that genuinely reflects the brave new world that we live in, including here in New Zealand.

British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enniful in the front row at Roland Mouret’s London Fashion Week show last year (Photo: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images)

And so, back to glamour.

That word had become so repeated in meetings and critiques of our imagery, with the insinuation that under my guard it was so lacking in our pages, that I somewhat cynically decided to indulge the powers that be with what they thought they wanted – a “glamour” issue, for winter. (It never went to print)

I told myself I was going to do it my way and refuse to buy into the boomer glamour ideal. But in hindsight, I think I was actually losing confidence in my realist vision and becoming conditioned to magazine life and thinking.

So we photographed the wonderful model Manahou Mackay with some classic glam “cover hair” (done, set, waves; some would say old-fashioned although she of course made it look cool).

We interviewed the godfather of absolutely fabulous fashion, Christian Lacroix.

We photographed some party dresses.

And we asked people like Judith Baragwanath and Richard Orjis what glamour meant to them (that was deliberate; a way to question the idea of what glamour actually is today and probably justify the entire exercise to myself).

Then Covid crept closer, and the mood changed very quickly.

It was in the heady few days before the words levels and lockdown became commonplace, 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 also happened to be my first boss when she launched fashion website Runway Reporter in 2006. We had asked her to contribute to the “what is glamour” piece and her response was appropriately fiery.

Looking back, I think it effortlessly sums up the awkward position we had found ourselves in: working on a “glamour issue” of a print fashion magazine on the eve of a worldwide pandemic.

“What does glamour mean to me? Not fucking much.”

This story originally appeared on Ensemble, Aotearoa’s freshest new fashion and beauty destination, and is republished with permission.

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