For 25 years, the December issue of French Vogue has been “guest edited” by a distinguished succession of personalities, from Jeanne Moreau, Federico Fellini and Marlene Dietrich in the 1970s, to Zeffirelli, Hockney and Miró in the 1980s, while the 1990s have so far included the Dalai Lama (I’m not joking), Nelson Mandela and Martin Scorsese. This month, however, the home team are having a retrospective of the past 75 years. The anniversary issue is a kaleidoscope of high style that must give any glossy magazine editor or publisher pause for thought.
It includes such dotty features as an article on handbags by someone called São Schlumberger (“Les sacs de São”); a six-page gallery of portrait sketches by Pierre Le Tan turned into a game of naming 103 creators of fashion; a photographic tribute to the pooch as fashion accessory (“Dogues En Vogue“); and an especially daft image ostensibly captured in a labour ward, showing a model sporting gold sandals as she gives birth.
Since 1920, when Condé Nast launched the Paris edition – always referred to in the New York offices as “Fr-ogue” – although it never made as big a profit as the American or British magazines, it has become the powerhouse of Vogue style. The photographic studio provided the background for the best work of Hoyningen-Huene, Horst, Beaton and later Irving Penn, Henry Clarke and Helmut Newton: “Our mission at Vogue,” declares this month’s editorial, “has always been to define beauty.”
The Vogue illustrators were profoundly influenced by the Surrealist movement and this remains today a strong part of the attraction of the magazine. An eight-page fold-out gallery of covers from the past shows some of the innovative artwork by Giorgio de Chirico, Lila de Nobili, Miguel Covarrubias, as well as Vogue artists-in-residence Eric, Benito, Lepape and Keogh. There is a slight air of menace, even in still-life shots of vegetables, which takes such potentially ordinary subjects as food shopping or makeup away from the predictable towards the futurist.
The photographs, predominantly in black and white, still have a simplicity that transcends quick changes of fashion. Richard Avedon once likened fashion workers to circus acrobats, rehearsing and perfecting a trick for years to get it right. There is a sense of tension and drama in the work of all the great Vogue photographers – as well as a surprising amount of humour, for instance in Helmut Newton’s shot of models in bathing suits, one of whom is spitting a jet of water down a colleague’s cleavage.
If the world of glossy magazines is in turmoil – Condé Nast itself has just closed its other three French titles – it must be in part because they don’t put enough trust in the eccentricities of their creative teams. Looking at the startling images from Vogue’s past, fashion photographs, illustration, and portraits of the rich and famous, it is clear that only by such a single-minded course, not pandering to momentary crises, can a magazine achieve such allure.
There is, of course, a high degree of snobbery about it all. But what distinguishes French Vogue is its natural assumption that the reader must have heard of these beautiful people already. And if we haven’t? The implication is that that’s our misfortune, and the editors aren’t about to busy themselves helping us out. These pages of crazy-looking people at fancy dress balls, whether it’s Madame Munoz as Nefertiti, Edmonde Charles-Roux and chums doing the conga “chez Etienne de Beaumont”, or the current editor-in-chief, Joan Juliet Buck putting her feet up with Karl Lagerfeld at his own Venetian ball, are presented as interesting or eccentric in their own right, without the necessity of redefining them for the hoi polloi.
Avedon’s circus analogy is brought home by Man Ray’s 1926 photographic feature on the trapeze artist Barbette. At the end of her act, this slim, blonde girl would swing down from the high wire, advance to the footlights, then tear off the wig to reveal a man’s bony scalp.
Fashion is an illusion, and in admitting that fact while celebrating it, French Vogue still beats everyone at the game.