Italian Vogue Black Issue

The lone cover line on the July issue of Italian Vogue, "A Black Issue," is a double entendre and an apt one. It refers to the cascade of names that appear under it – a roll call of 18 black models from fashion moments then and now – as well as the situation that inspired the magazine's direttore responsabile, Franca Sozzani, to dedicate the lion's share of its editorial to those models and all things black and au courant.

The "situation" is the lack of black models on the runway, and by extension, in fashion editorials and advertising. It became a cause célèbre in fashion circles after Bethann Hardison, a prominent African-American model of the '70s-turned-talent manager (she discovered black male model Tyson Beckford and guided him to a barrier-breaking contract with Ralph Lauren) invited a group of Manhattanites to a symposium, Out of Fashion: The Absence of Color, in fall 2007, with more to follow.

In 2004 I resigned my post as editor-in-chief of Flare and moved to Manhattan to be the launch editor of a fashion magazine Suede, shuttered two years later. Suede's spin was hip hop-meets-haute couture. The magazine was targeted at African-American women, who, consumer research shows, typically spend a much larger percentage of their income on fashion and beauty than other women, although this is not equitably reflected in mainstream media or advertising.

At one of the first events I attended, the opening of Jay-Z's 40/40 Club, I bumped into Iman, who spoke insistently about why Suede was not just a magazine, but a much-needed venue for women of colour to be represented in non-stereotypical ways in fashion as well as a vehicle for black models to work and get the type of editorial coverage that leads to lucrative commercial contracts. Yes, stars like Liya Kebede and Naomi Campbell get those opportunities, but not quite as often as their caucasian counterparts. Young black models just do not get a chance.

Glib excuses, such as "Russians are in," were beginning to wear thin, and, to put it mildly, Hardison was mad as hell.

The result has been a flurry of press addressing the issue in WWD, the New York Times and notably, American Vogue's July issue. They give it eight pages in a 162-page issue, quite a bit of real estate.

But with Italian Vogue dedicating at least 90 per cent of its editorial in a 346-page issue – which sold out instantly in Toronto when it hit the stands last week – they make the most emphatic statement yet. The fact that the all-black issue is the July edition, where editors tend to place minorities because sales are not expected to be high anyway, is a point only a cynic would make. Especially since Italian Vogue is not known for its mass-market appeal.

And, in this case, the medium is the message. Italian Vogue is the ne plus ultra of fashion publications, its influence on fashion insiders outsized compared to its relatively tiny circulation. Unlike North American fashion magazines that dabble in edginess but are about relatable, albeit heightened, reality, Italian Vogue adopts forward, hardcore views, often fraught with innuendo, either sexual or political or both. Like the couture, its pages are a laboratory for the world's best fashion photographers, stylists and makeup artists to fantasize and create memorable, provocative pictures with the most beautiful clothes and models as raw materials.

This editorial, overlay of blackness and the cultural signifiers they choose to reference makes for interesting viewing.

The upfront section crackles, with pieces on Michelle Obama; Spike Lee's new drama, The Miracle At Santa Anna; a photography exhibition The Black List, by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders; Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday; and a feature on the leading lifestyle magazines for African Americans, Ebony and Essence, a gracious nod to those in the trenches.

The shoots are typical Italian Vogue, which are not typical at all. The first editorial, "You Have A Go-See," (Italian Vogue often uses English for headlines, though the stories are written in Italian) features eight new models, all black, with the layout designed to resemble a comp card, with stats such as height, weight and shoe size. It's a charming riposte to the claim by many casting directors that there are just no new black models to hire. Then the shoots start treading in deeper waters.

The beauty section, which amusingly features stories "Hair So Frizzy" and "Tan Boosters" – when in Rome, I guess – is kicked off by a powerful '80s shoot that evokes Grace Jones and her signature look. The theme is colour blocking, and the liberal application of black makeup over the model's face, fully or in geometric abstractions, evokes blackface. It makes for a dramatic effect but brought to mind discussions raging among American talking heads about who is and who is not allowed to use the n-word. If a black model is in blackface, are the connotations skewered and diffused or are they perpetuated?

The magazine's fashion, well-photographed, mostly by Steven Meisel, is kicked off by "Modern Luxe," which showcases the models named on the cover, as well as a degree of diversity within its black models. Ages vary – from models in their 50s (Iman) and 60s (Alva Chin) to teenagers such as Chanel Iman – and, perhaps more important, so do skin tones.

Of course, Naomi appears in a 16-page extravaganza, "there is only one Naomi," looking surprisingly serene, followed by a model-as-mogul piece on Tyra Banks. I couldn't help but think of their notorious rivalry of the '90s, egged on not just by personality clashes but by many a casting's director's refrain, "I already have a black girl."

Also noteworthy is Toronto's Yasmin Warsame at her scorching best in a 12-page shoot on elegance, "How To Dazzle," which references hits by the late Yves Saint Laurent (who famously preferred models of colour), from Le Smoking to Russian folkloric.

The pictorial on divas – Tina, Aretha, Latifah, et al. – felt obligatory (as in, no news here), but I wish I could have read the pieces on the original black models, Carol LaBrie, Donyale Luna and Pat Cleveland. Ditto a piece on the always insightful Robin Givhan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post fashion critic who happens to be African American. One can only hope she recalled the morsel handed to her by Stefano Pilati, current designer of YSL, who said he did not like using black models because, in his view, their bodily proportions do not work for the cut of his clothes. Interestingly, Naomi Campbell appears in his fall 2008 campaign. Perhaps she beat him with a cellphone.
As far as I'm concerned the most subversive layout, far more so than the issue itself, is "Champagne Furs," starring Toccara Jones. Some may remember her as the plus-size model eliminated during the third cycle of America's Next Top Model. Top Model winners (all regular model size, except for the most recent, who is plus-size) have been chosen based on their high-fashion potential; and they are still traversing fashion's base camps, while Jones, the also-ran who is as plus- size as ever, has ascended this Everest of fashion.

From Italian Vogue's perspective, they may have killed two birds with one stone, as Denzel Washington quipped the night he and Halle Berry both won leading actor Oscars. But Vogue has done more: It has made a perverse statement – if entire issues of fashion magazines can be all white in this multicultural world, why can't they be all black?

Fair is fair, right? But this all-black issue, like the New Yorker Obama cover cartoon, may yet emphasize what was not intended: Otherness, which comes with images that are so stylized, as these are, can turn the people in them into objects and a type into a fetish.

Will there be any black models in the next issue, or the one after that, or in any of the fashion magazines in the future? After all, no one wants to be a fad. In the meantime, Italian Vogue has made a point and it is well taken.

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