August 21, 2010 12:41 am

The issue with September

The internet and why the biggest glossy fashion magazines of the year now want to provoke rather than to inform

I blame The September Issue – the documentary by RJ Cutler released last year about the making of the September American Vogue, aka the fattest, most door-stopping magazine of the year. After all, although September issues of glossy magazines have long had importance inside the fashion industry (thanks to the revenue they generate via their advertising pages), outside the industry, it hasn’t been an event. Not something that merited a trumpeting press release. But that was then.

Now, September issues seem to have transmogrified from the traditional back-to-work seasonal primers of pre-recession years into attention-getting opportunities. What else, really, explains the decision by new W editor Stefano Tonchi to conduct “show-and-tell” meetings about his redesigned September issue, including the decision to put eight relatively unknown actresses on his gatefold cover as opposed to, for example, the relatively well-known Julia Roberts, who graces US Elle’s cover?

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Vanessa Friedman

And what else explains so many of the glossies that have recently landed on my desk with a thud, this being mid-August and fashion being obsessed with the need to be first – even when it comes to the calendar? They may not merit their own movie, but their contents seem designed to provoke, although what, exactly, is the point of the provocation is not clear.

Consider just a few examples. There’s the latest US Harper’s Bazaar, featuring Jennifer Aniston channelling Barbra Streisand on the cover and inside. The decision to transform America’s sweetheart into America’s 1970s and 1980s diva is surprising, especially when the former is famous for her button-like nose, while the latter has made a trademark of her power profile. The point of the shoot is hard to ascertain, although presumably Aniston is attempting to change her image, the Doris Day/ingénue shtick not playing so well on actresses over the age of 40.

Then there’s Italian Vogue’s “water and oil” shoot by Steven Meisel, featuring the model Kristen McMenamy lolling around the beach covered in black slimy stuff, which raises the question of the appropriateness of fashion getting involved in political commentary (at least US Vogue, which also looked at the BP oil spill, did so through a personal memoir). And look at the September issue of Vanity Fair with its best-dressed list, starring ... Lady Gaga who, after achieving fame for her lack of dress, has become bizarrely over-dressed (although never really an exemplar of how to dress).

She’s in the magazine’s “originals” category, but original does not necessarily equate to designed-to-grab-attention (in fashion terms, it used to mean simply of independent, yet elegant, taste). It’s hard to figure out the VF criteria, aside from the politics of who the magazine wants to woo to be in their pages – or who has friends the magazine wants to woo.

. . .

Meanwhile, British Vogue has put Kate Moss on their cover yet again, making the issue her 30th Vogue cover, and her sixth September issue, thus shocking anyone who bothers to follow these things at the title’s apparent lack of faith in anyone else’s ability to sell magazines.

All of which seems more geared toward creating debate among the chattering classes of the blogosphere than providing real information about fashion. If measured in terms of cyber-chatter, the titles have been successful, with all the above sparking irate, enthusiastic and ironic commentary online, whether it’s associatedcontent.com’s critique of Bazaar – “Aniston trying to emulate Barbra Streisand ... simply looks like an average actress trying too hard and looking a little silly in the process” – or bryanboy.com’s “same old, same old, same old ... multiplied by a factor of 30” vis-à-vis Moss, or positivelite.com’s note that the Italian Vogue shoot was “a great way to get free PR for Italian Vogue. This is not a publication I routinely hear about, or have ever bought for that matter.”

Indeed, the latter point may reveal the impetus behind all the above. Consider the recent hoo-ha over the demise of the printed page, the recession-related decline in magazine advertising pages and circulation, and the rise of the virtual reader. By becoming part of online conversations, theoretically, you drive people to purchases in the real world. The problem is, to get such attention requires extremes that may make sense in the context of the digital world but are less logical in the current fashion world.

After all, many of these magazines ran – in their less-read, less-publicised July and August issues – features on the return of “real” fashion: non-extreme dressing as epitomised by exciting items like ... the camel coat! Which, read alongside the fantastical September spreads, makes for some message confusion. Unless you think of it in Saint Augustine’s terms. Then it is possible to understand the September issues as the industry version of the theologian’s famous prayer: “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.”

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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