Opinion: Fashion magazines before, during, and post-lockdown

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The impact of Covid-19 on all tiers of the fashion industry has been well documented over the past few months. But what of the fashion magazines; their base content dependent on each brand’s seasonal output? With fashion weeks, photoshoots and global travel cancelled or ‘digitally reimagined’, everything has had to be reconsidered. 

Issue 15 of System was one of the first to emerge from the initial period of social distancing. Described as its ‘biggest ever… produced entirely under lockdown’, the band holding the mag together simply says ‘What do we talk about?’. The question isn’t answered as much as it is illustrated, with 35 different covers by returning collaborator Juergen Teller.

All of the images are of tablets or phones, mid video call with the cover star. As well as screenshots, others feature the screens in situ, placed amongst surfaces strewn with random fruit or held by gloved hands – Bella Hadid is foregrounded by an oily fish and – probably  unbeknownst to her – a blackened banana to her right. This is still life photography undoubtedly of its time. Like all art made during times of adversity, the results are indicative of the context, creative approaches that were previously unimaginable or unviable.

Meanwhile, Buffalo Zine launched its eleventh issue in Spring, just as lockdown began in the UK. Subtitled ‘Buffalo Earth,’ it emerged as a hippy, sunshiney escapade, an issue full of ‘turning on, tuning in and dropping out’, skipping through the countryside, all nudist surfers and psychedelia (and with 12 different covers itself). But what of issue 12? Like System, it has been, and continues to be compiled under restrictive conditions. It will be as unpredictable as all the previous issues no doubt, but as high end fashion labels invent alternative ways to showcase their latest collections, the magazines must follow suit.

I asked Buffalo Zine co-founder and managing editor David Uzquiza how they were getting around the lockdown problem. Buffalo has an advantage in this field, it’s an unpredictable fashion magazine that’s willing to bend the rules that more conventional publications stick to. But what are the logistics of putting together a magazine in unusually distanced circumstances? Has Buffalo’s adaptability proved useful during this time? Like issue ten’s ‘unfinished-because-it’s-summer’ theme, will volume 12 be reflective of the conditions under which it was compiled?

‘We were randomly lucky our Spring Summer 2020 issue was very in tune with the unusual collective experience we have recently been living at a global level. Buffalo Earth, which we started in October 2019, was all about reconnecting with yourself, with your community, and loving Mother Nature. It launched last April, at a time when most of us were enjoying a quieter pace of life and going back to basics –  the issue was very much in that frequency.’

‘After the quite maximalist Buffalo Earth, which was big as a telephone book, this new issue will have a very austere approach, trying to keep things minimal and unfussy. But this is nothing new, since each of our issues is always different from the previous in theme, design, format, size, etc. and we always try to go in a new direction with each of them. I can’t say much about the theme of the issue we’re planning for Autumn/Winter but the spirit this time is to step out of our comfort zone. And it will definitely reflect our current circumstances.’

Of all the fashion magazines stocked at magCulture, British Vogue is undoubtedly the most traditional. While Buffalo and System are capable of reformatting at the drop of a hat, the 104 year old Vogue has rarely deviated from its standard design, only occasionally marking special or unusual events – and only then with cover stars rather than daring editorial choices.

Designed in April and May and printed in June, the July volume was no different – but rather than a high profile celebrity adorning a single cover, this lockdown issue consisted of  three separate covers (above), a female key worker gracing each one: Narguis Horsford, a train driver on the London Overground, Rachel Millar, 24, a community midwife in east London, and Anisa Omar, a 21-year-old supermarket worker in King’s Cross.

Subtitled ‘The new front line’, the issue featured a 20-page spread celebrating ‘shopkeepers, postal workers, nurses, cleaners, epidemiologists, carers, teachers, ambulance drivers and volunteers from the fashion community and beyond.’ The shoot took ten days to produce, with photographer Jamie Hawkesworth cycling to each location armed with a face mask and camera.

In this case, the covers were the perfect approach. Unlike Buffalo and System, Vogue is highly distributed and can be found on newsstands throughout the UK. It meant that the gesture was more than just that – the moment of thanks to key workers was visible all over the country.

As editor Edward Enninful wrote online in June – ‘I can think of a no more appropriate trio of women to represent the millions of people in the UK who, at the height of the pandemic, in the face of dangers large and small, put on their uniforms and work clothes and went to help people… Vogue proudly waves the flag for fashion, in all its empowering, escapist, lavish and identity-affording capabilities… But this moment required something extra special, too: a moment of thanks.’

While this cover was undeniably successful, the latest issue has already been met with controversy. In a surprisingly conceptual turn for the magazine, 14 different covers featuring 14 different landscape photographs have been shot by various artists and subtitled ‘Reset’. One in particular drew immediate criticism –  a photograph by Carmen Danae of a beach in the Dominican Republic strewn with litter (above). British Vogue’s Instagram was swamped with comments condemning the choice to use the nation as a poster-child for pollution, despite the 13 other covers depicting landscapes of countries with far larger carbon footprints.

The magazine responded with five other images by Danae – all of mangrove trees and clean water – in an attempt to defend the previous cover. A caption stated: ‘This is not the Dominican Republic’s issue. This is a human issue. We’ve all used plastic water bottles. We’ve all opened packages filled with styrofoam. It’s my fault. It’s your fault. It’s humanity’s fault. And it’s our shared responsibility to fix it.’ But the comments weren’t kind there either, with many Dominicans sharing the same sentiment: ‘The damage is done’.

Slip ups are inevitable – unlike Buffalo Zine and System, Vogue is published monthly, meaning that the team has a limited amount of time to produce creative solutions to socially distanced covers and content. Vogue’s largest annual output, the September issue, is looming, just as the fashion industry has gone more digital than ever.

It’s a double-edged sword – while increasingly innovative problem solving from fashion houses is exciting to watch, it does not necessarily translate easily into magazines as rigorously formatted as Vogue. I have no doubt that newer, biannual magazines will approach this time with flexibility, but as the future of the pandemic is still mired with unpredictability, I think it is clear that ‘traditional’ magazine-making may be forced to adapt in new and inventive ways.

Already, creative directors, photographers and stylists are busy across the world’s photo studios preparing the AW20 issues.

What will they be?

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