What do you think when you hear the magazine title “Vogue”? A fashion magazine with a great and storied history? The pinnacle of the fashion industry? A publication with very expensive items that cater to a certain crowd? An advertising spectacle plastered with a monthly celebrity on the cover? Maybe the question that we should be asking is this: “What does Vogue think of when it hears the magazine title “Vogue”?
Let’s start with a bit of their history. Vogue was founded in 1892 in the United States. Originally created for the purpose of being “a dignified authentic journal of society, fashion, and the ceremonial side of life”, it has evolved over time into a respected compendium of knowledge about all things fashion. If a model in the fashion industry is booked for a Vogue cover, she (or he) has the potential to be catapulted into an instant star. Many magazines have existed over the years that have concentrated on the subject of style and trends, but none have managed to eclipse Vogue as of yet.
But, there’s nothing saying that this will never change. If we take a look at the magazine’s current trajectory with respect to advertising and how the brand has represented itself as of late, we can see what story is being relayed to the public about the continued fashion value that Vogue currently brings to the industry.
With regards to fashion magazines, the size of September issues is a fair indicator of the health of each publication. Vogue, according to a Business of Fashion article originally printed in the New York Times, saw its September issue decline in size from a record-high 916 pages in 2012 to 774 pages in September of 2017. The September 2018 issue had 646 pages. This can be partly attributed to a decline in magazine ad sales overall, to be sure, but with Vogue having other dilemmas that it is facing, that can’t be the whole problem. What’s going on, then?
There are a few places where we could start. They’ve become a magazine bathed in celebrity culture, to the point where one could be forgiven for mistaking Vogue for a Hollywood circular. Percentage-wise, 88% of Vogue’s past 100 covers have been held by celebrities. For a publication that wants to leave the impression that it is a haven for luxury fashion, it is failing at weaving this brand story for its consumers. Modern celebrities, by definition, are in existence to be entertaining to the average consumer – irrespective of any interest at all in the field of fashion. If you are a magazine that prides itself in being a source for fashion, it should be a very scary thing to draw in people that care nothing whatsoever for your mission or what you profess to represent. That brings us to our next point.
Vogue is seemingly trying to be all things to all people. Whenever any brand does this, it is at the peril of alienating the clientele that truly gets what it’s about. While it is understandable that there is a need for brands to pivot when times get difficult, it is absolutely essential to maintain the narrative that was begun at the time of conceptualization. This is why it is crucial to construct an authentic and compelling story from the time that your business gets off the ground. What is your purpose? Why do you exist, and what do you have to offer? By losing control of its brand story, Vogue is ceding ground to celebrity culture. That is likely not in its best interest.
It is entirely possible that Vogue is having trouble articulating its purpose in an ever-changing media landscape. Look at the rise of social media platforms, blogs, and online fashion publications. The digital landscape is entering the print world like a tornado and leaving devastation in its wake. If one doesn’t adapt, it is possible that your print magazine will no longer exist. One could say that Vogue is being pragmatic by giving in to celebrity worship and doubling down on its digital footprint. But – but! – print magazines still have a major place in the discourse of fashion, and one would be remiss to completely set aside the importance of maintaining credibility in this medium.
An 88% rate of celebrities on the cover of one’s high-fashion publication is both shocking and dismal. It is almost as if Vogue does not have faith in its own product. It is as if the magazine does not believe that the discipline of fashion itself is interesting and captivating enough to draw in readers. If one does not believe in the story that its brand has to tell, then why should anyone else? And if it is so easy to discard the brand story for the next trendy subject that comes along, then how authentic was it to begin with?
To be fair, Vogue magazine has not entirely abandoned its mission. If you pick up a magazine and ignore the cover star entirely, the fashion articles inside are quite engrossing. The issue, though, is this: despite the old saying that we have all heard ad nauseam, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, most people do it anyway to a certain extent. This is certainly done in the realm of fashion, an industry that thrives off of external appearances. Consider that if a magazine has a celebrity on the outside and fashion on the inside, it is a reflection of the magazine’s priorities. Fashion comes second (if that) after Hollywood stars – and for a fashion magazine, this is a perfect example of shooting oneself in the foot.
When crafting one’s brand story, it is very important to keep control of the way in which your brand is perceived by the public. How do you want to be thought of? Are you accurately portraying what you have to offer? If faced with conflict, are you going to maintain the integrity of your offerings? Is your product one with which the consumer can connect?
That last point is important because, if the present-day world of marketing is any indication, customers love a good story. Not only do they love a good story — they want a story with which they can relate. For example, let’s say that you were choosing a beer to drink after work (assuming, of course, that you drink). There are plenty of beers out there, so why would you choose one over the other? Most, if not all of them, would serve your desired purpose of relaxing after a hard day.
You’ve had many different brands of beer before, so how do you choose? Perhaps you choose by type – a lager vs. an IPA. Or, maybe, it’s something deeper than that. There might be a certain brand out there that connects with you on an emotional level. It is probable that branding has something to do with this in some way, shape, or form. The label could display art that transports you back to childhood memories of playing with your friends in the woods. The commercials could make you feel that you, too, are cool enough to attract members of the opposite sex. This example may seem a tad stretched, but the point is that brands that are able to relate to their potential customers via the art of storytelling are always going to win. Just remember to have a quality product to accompany that stellar branding!
To go back to the example of Vogue magazine, the emotional connection between it and its readers once existed. With the move toward celebrities in recent years, however, the magazine has not been able to maintain its loyal base. It is difficult to continue building that connection when a brand uses other entities exclusively to tell its story for them as opposed to telling it on its own. By relying on others to direct your brand narrative instead of simply collaborating with them, your brand is absolving itself of the responsibility of remaining true to your authentic story. Once your brand loses that control, it is very difficult to regain it.
In terms of magazine content, Vogue has become pretty socially and politically aware in recent years. For example, it endorsed a political candidate for president for the first time in 2016. Social and political awareness is nothing to feel bad about at all. However, Vogue’s venture into the political realm hasn’t resulted in more success for the publication – nor has it resulted in improved business for the fashion world as a whole.
When the current US president won his race in 2016, many designers in the fashion industry said that they would refuse to dress the First Lady. Many magazines and websites said that they would refuse to cover the First Lady’s fashion choices as they have done for every other first lady in current times. This jumping into the political climate by the industry looked, image-wise, as if it were motivated by the need to be trendy and not lose readers. The First Lady, it should be noted, is a former fashion model, which further underscores the political motivations of these statements by the industry – and by Vogue.
The previous two paragraphs emphasize the fact that Vogue’s brand story has gone off of the rails. Fashion has become of lesser importance than catering to mass media’s hunger for celebrity culture and political theater. While this would be fine if one’s mission was to report news in all forms, it is not fine for a brand that has stood for high-fashion ideals for well over a century. It betrays its lack of a strong purpose, and shows the perils of caving to profit over purpose.