Covid19 forced pretty much the entire world to press the “stop” button. This obviously had quite tragic implications on so many levels. The fashion world was no stranger to this and still to this day there seem to be no clear and univocal ways as to how to tackle the situation. Here the attention is directed to a specific part of what this fashion month offers every year: the September issue covers. A little disclaimer to clear things up: I made a totally subjective selection and the ones I’ve chosen to take into consideration are the ones that I felt needed to be examined more in depth or simply spoke to me more (be that in a positive or negative way).
For the reader who may not be familiar with the subject, over the years the September issues served mainly as the most coveted space for celebrities to introduce a new chapter of their career or open up more candidly about their personal life while donning the most important fashion of the moment. This is not necessarily the case anymore. The covers are becoming more and more diverse in terms of subjects and style and this can only be seen as very positive, given the fact that, to make an example, just the Vogue franchise counts 26 editions around the globe.And speaking of the Condé Nast-owned magazine covers, 2020 has been a year of first times for quite a few of its editions.
Vogue Italia kicked off the year with an edition of illustrated covers made by a group of contemporary artists, ditching for the first time in its history the photographic medium. Then came the entirely digitally-produced cover of March, and then the all-white for the April issue, as a symbol of silence and respect for the extremely delicate and dramatic situation of medical workers fighting on the frontlines against Covid19.
Vogue Portugal took a different approach choosing to make positive and encouraging statements about overcoming fears also through art.
But just when we thought a global pandemic was already more than enough for this challenging year, the news of the brutal killing of George Floyd, just like the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, caused an uproar with protests and marches not just in the US. The perpetrated oppression against people of color is something that concerns us all, and the acts of violence sadly don’t seem to stop. Just a few days ago as I’m writing this piece, here in Italy a group of white italian men beat to death Willy Monteiro Duarte, a young black italian boy who was trying to stop a brawl.
This is proof that as a society we still have a long way to go and maybe we’ll never be able to right the many wrongs of our past. It’s a matter of unlearning, re-educating ourselves and changing a system we’re born into. And fashion, with its enormous influence on society, is a huge player in that system.
Now pardon the pop culture reference quote but, as someone once said:“With great power comes great responsibility”. It’s a quick way to explain that fashion can be a leading force for change at every level of society. You may think it’s not that big of a deal, but in an image-driven world like ours, fashion magazines and their covers can be powerful tools. An image is never just an image, and more so a fashion image is not, or should not be (in my opinion at least) just a picture of someone pretty in a pretty dress, there has to be something more in it, it should speak to you on some level (as I’ve stated in the brief disclaimer on the first lines of this piece). Actually, this is how I try to look at things in general, and so I made no exception for the September covers that will follow.
I’ll analyse the chosen Vogue editions separately from the other publications, because they decided to go with a common theme so it makes more sense to me not to mix them with the other covers.
As it was expected, and for all the right reasons this one time, most of the covers reflect the tumultuous times we’re living, in an effort to respond to violence and social injustice through beauty and stories that needed to be told.
The first one I would like to bring up is the cover of Vanity Fair US. The issue is guest-edited by Ta-Nehisi Coates and the cover is actually a painting by Amy Sherald depicting Breonna Taylor, a beautiful young black girl who was killed in her own home on March 13. The strangers who killed her claimed to be investigating a drug case but no drugs were found. Then they left their incident report almost totally blank and still to this day no action has been taken against her killers.
Sherald’s painting has a striking simplicity to it, with those light sky-blue tones that surround Breonna’s graceful figure making the image so sublimely ethereal yet impactful.
The next two covers may be more traditional as for what a fashion photograph is known to be, but this doesn’t make them less significant. InStyle and Allure respectively chose the two brightest stars of the year: Zendaya and Hunter Schafer, both starring as main characters in the HBO hit series Euphoria, to make bold statements. The headlines read: “Fashion is back. Let’s dream again” and “The future of beauty”. They sound quite cliché but there is nothing cliché neither about Zendaya nor Schafer, two multi-hyphenate young women making their mark their own way.
For the cover photoshoot, Zendaya surrounded herself with a team of black creatives, like long-time collaborator and stylist Law Roach and photography duo Ahmad Barber and Donté Maurice, and they also chose to use fashion only by black designers like Jason Rembert of ALIÉTTE(left, the newsstands cover) and Anifa Mvuemba of Hanifa (right, the subscribers edition), whose color-block pleated dress has already become an iconic piece. The pictures, as the entire photoshoot, are colorful, energetic, and Zendaya gracefully stuns as the perfect image of the powerful young woman ready to take the world by storm.
Allure is a beauty-focused magazine and in the pictures above, Hunter's face, captured by Daniella Midenge and styled by the pop visionary Nicola Formichetti, with pieces by Iris Van Herpen, Undercover and makeup by Shiseido, literally feels like a beautiful being coming from some time in the - hopefully near! - future.
Closing this first group of covers, is T: The New York Times Style Magazine. For their Fall 2020 Womens issue cover shoot they tapped model Anok Yai lensed by Harley Weir with Suzanne Koller as fashion editor and stylist. Weir’ signature colorstory couldn’t be more appropriate for the time.The blood red tone used here for the backdrop creates a powerful contrast with the shades of black of the model’s glowing skin and ruffled dress. There is a slightly unsettling undertone to the picture, with Anok Yai holding a bright yellow lightbulb while staring at the observer with a mysterious look in her eyes. The headlines read “Face forward” and “The time is now” (for the second cover). It’s a call for moving forward facing the uncertainty of the changes that reality puts on our way in order to grow. And “fearless fashion”, like a modern day armor, can help us navigate these troubled times.
Now it’s time to talk about some of the Vogue covers that stood out from the bunch, but not always for the best reasons.
The Vogue franchise, for the very first time in its 128-year history, decided to go with a common theme across all the 26 editions, unifying the publications under the macro-theme of “hope”. I think we can all agree on the fact that is the most human and universal sentiment, especially in these hard times. Hope for a real change on so many levels and different scales, for us individually as well as for humanity as a whole.
This is of course a beautiful and noble concept but when it comes down to translating it into an image or, more specifically, a magazine cover, the result may not come across as effective.
The common initiative kicked off with each editor in chief of the 26 editions of the magazine sharing an image that they felt represented the idea of hope for the future.
Here we’ll focus instead on the actual magazine covers, which were conceived as a further exploration of the theme.
When I mentioned earlier the fact that sometimes the message may not be translated perfectly into an image, I was thinking mainly about the Vogue Czechoslovakia one (below). The picture shows a group of models dressed in Chanel and styled with the same hair and make-up, standing in line as in a protesting guise while stopping a car on the street. Photographer Michal Pudelka shot the picture and his slightly twisted and dark touch is recognisable but this time it just doesn’t feel right. And on top of this, the “Dior-inspired” slogan (“We should all be feminists” was the original, which was actually the title of an essay by writer and feminist activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) across the page, even though it’s transparent, catches your eye but not in a good way. I get that it’s a way to address and show support to the social agitations but it falls a little flat and insincere. A riot in Chanel has already been done and in a more effective way, even if it was in the context of a fashion show (the Spring/Summer 2015 collection).
The US edition still retains the status of most awaited among the Vogue family, but recently I personally found their quite classic portrait formula a bit tired. So I was glad when I saw that the two covers were actually paintings of black subjects made by two prominent black artists:
In conversation with Vogue, Marshall explained the process that led to the final cover. He creates fictional characters for his paintings, and for this one he chose to replicate an Off-White evening gown by Virgil Abloh. But the main protagonist of the painting is the face of the woman he painted. In the interview Marshall stated: “I’m trying to build into her expression that she’s not dependent on the gaze of the spectator [...] I’m here and you can see me, but I’m not here for you.” It’s a strong message of self affirmation, even if it comes from a fictional character.
Another distinctive element of Marshall’s portraits is the extremely dark tones he uses for the skin. That’s his way to show that “blackness is rich and complex, within the blackness alone.”
It is quite mesmerizing to read about how he’s able to reach those deep shades while maintaining a dense and varied texture. The process begins with three different shades of black - carbon black, iron oxide black (also called mars black) and ivory black (or bone black). Then he adds other several colors such as cobalt blue, chrome green, carbazole dioxazine violet, yellow ochre, and raw sienna. These colors are stacked on top of each other and there comes the final color. “If you’re going to be painting a face as black as I’m painting them, they can’t just be a cipher, like a black hole. They have to be mysterious but available”, Marshall explains in the interview. “If you say, ‘Black is beautiful,’ you have to show it. And what I’m doing is showing it to the extreme. Yes, it is black—very black—and it is very beautiful.”
A beautiful presence, in her own right and her own space, and the fact that what she’s wearing rarely has a life other than on the runway, makes her an interesting figure and the whole image even more significant.
Jordan Casteel approached the task differently. She chose Aurora James as her subject. James is the creative director of the NY-based brand Brother Vellies but, more importantly, she recently made a huge impact with the launch of her program in support of Black-owned businesses called 15 Percent Pledge. She’s paving the way for a much deserved change for black people and creatives in particular, so it felt right to Casteel to participate and pay her a tribute with her portrait. James is depicted sitting on a wooden stool on the rooftop of her place in Brooklyn. She’s in a rather classical pose, gently holding a sky-blue Pyer Moss silk piece that is draped over her body. And that sky-blue blends perfectly with the tones of the actual sky in the background; “I think of the sky as being full of endless possibilities [...] A lot of hope lies within that. The two birds next to her are a moment where I think of flight - the opportunity to move into new spaces. Most of the windows have the same blue that is in the sky. I like the idea that the hope of the sky came inside this urban building-scape, that whoever occupies that space within is also seeing the sky.” Then she goes on breaking down Aurora’s pose: “I think about her foot being pressed against the ground. I purposely chose this active foot that feels like it’s propelling her upwards into the world above her—she’s stepping into the space of real possibility. Those are some of the things I thought about in making this portrait as it relates to hope and all the things that can exist beyond where we are right now. To create a better future, not only for ourselves but for those we love and those who will come after us.”
There is no need to add anything to Casteel’s genuine and truthful words. I’ll just say that the sky-blue that permeates the entire picture, through the words of the artist, really feels like a breath of fresh air and leaves hope for the future editorial direction of the magazine.
This actually brings us to another personal little disappointment among the various covers. It’s hard to admit this as an Italian but I still cannot fully appreciate Vogue Italia’s choice. I’ve tried to elaborate my discontent and possibly change my mind about it but, compared to others, I wasn’t able to do so. Vogue Italia is pretty up there with American Vogue in terms of popularity and impact, and it has a history of even more risky, bold and revolutionary choices, especially thanks to the brilliance of the late Franca Sozzani. Current editor-in-chief Emanuele Farneti has been doing great work and the idea behind the September issue this year is very good (we’ll get to it in a minute), but on the visual aspect it comes off a tad underwhelming, to my eyes at least. Farneti, explaining to Irene Ojo-Felix of Models.com how they conceived the cover shoot, compared the effort to an artistic performance. In fact, they shot 100 different people for 100 different covers, with each “cover star” coming in the New York studio every 20 minute in order to respect social distancing guidelines. It’s a bold, unprecedented and record-breaking move, but also “a love letter to print”, as Farneti said.
The covers were shot by the legendary Mark Borthwick (a personal all time favorite) and styled by Carlos Nazario with mostly Prada AW 20 pieces in neutral shades of blacks, greys and camel browns. The amazingly diverse cast of women was put together by Piergiorgio Del Moro and Samuel Ellis Scheinman and ranged from models, actresses, human rights activists, social media influencers, artists, writers, to everyday people such as healthcare workers and Uber drivers.
Their presence and their voices are the representation of the concept of hope for the Vogue Italia team and I couldn't agree more, also because it actually made me discover a lot of brilliant women or find out more about those I already knew and followed. I was very glad to see women like Indya Moore, Paloma Elsesser, a glowing Agyness Deyn, the stylist Carlos Nazario’s grandmother (and philanthropist) Efna Plaza-Merritt adding an even more personal connection and commitment to the stories they wanted to share; Julia Nobis, an elegant Saskia de Braw who looks like she’s slow dancing with her coat, Freja Beha Eriksen and many others. And obviously the effervescent Pat Cleveland. Her facial expression alone is the purest portrayal of joy, and it’s quite contagious!
Now you may wonder… Why did I write that it was a little disappointing to me? Here is why.
Even though I love Borthwick’s work and and aesthetic in general, and I also love the people portrayed on the cover, I personally wouldn’t have associated the idea of hope and celebration of life through the beautiful stories of powerful women, with such a muted palette of colors for both the setting and the garments. And instead of 100 covers (to be blunt, I think the idea of possibly collecting all the 100 versions is a bit of a stretch), I think it could have worked well, for the sake of the message, to really go the extra mile and have all the portraits together on the cover (somehow like in the picture below), collecting all the stories all in one exquisitely curated hardcover coffee table book-style volume that really shows the relevance and ever evolving possibilities of printed media and at the same time acts as a tangible and durable document for this surely singular year.
Ooops! I think I just described what British Vogue and The LOVE Magazine did instead.
Yes, I’ll admit it was intentional. The purpose of this piece was not to make a chart of the September covers from worst to best though, so these two are not the “winners” in that sense.
I just think they succeeded, more than the other titles, in identifying the best way to talk about the current situation we’re facing and to express hope for what’s to come.
British Vogue went for an elegant and essential black and white with red titles that read “Activism Now. The faces of hope”. On the main cover they put model and founder of Gurls Talk Adwoa Aboah, and Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford standing by her side. The cover comes with a special fold-out (above) where editor-in-chief Edward Enninful placed the portraits of 20 other changemakers by the likes of Prof. Angela Davis and Jane Elliot, Janet Mock, Joan Smalls and Alice Wong among others. The black and white portrait style may appear too classic and serious but compared to the overall somber vibe of the Vogue Italia covers (that actually reminds me of a classic gloomy and rainy autumn day in Milan, not exactly the weather one hopes for ever I think) it felt simple, strong and right to the point.
Then comes The LOVE Magazine. Being one of the younger and more “independent” children of the Condé Nast family, it already differs from the Vogues and all that. Here we have included it within the September issues because even if it’s actually a semestral publication, their latest issue was published at the beginning of August in the form of a two-parts volume named “LOVE Diaries” with initially four different covers. But then they doubled down, releasing five other limited edition covers that hit the newsstands in the first days of September.
Sama Kai Sundifu was documenting the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in London on 6 July 2020 but, among all the striking shots, the image of Marley Billing-Delapenha, a young high-school student from West London, marching with his fist up in the air, clearly stands out from the rest. The rich shades of black and white in the picture obviously help adding a kind of historical feel to it, but what makes the photograph even more iconic to me is Marley’s entire look. I don’t know if that was intentional but the amazing afro he’s rocking, the roll neck sweater and the black jacket and pants (I can’t exactly tell if it’s velvet or a similar fabric), look precisely like what his predecessors in the late 60s and early 70s were wearing on the streets protesting for civil rights. Angela Davis, for example, will always be associated with her beautiful and big afro and her turtleneck sweater. They became her uniform in a way, and her impact helped establish that uniform as one of the defining symbols of Black history and the civil rights movement. Hopefully Marley will continue carrying her legacy.
On another cover, photographer Jahmad Balugo gets personal celebrating his mother Denise, a strong and beautiful woman living fully and happily while battling with cancer. On the cover she poses like a true queen, with a fierce look in her eyes. She wears an elaborate blue dress with details in coral and a matching headdress that she made herself. In her interview with Ben Cobb she reveals that while working as a secretary for most of her life, she always used to make her own clothes taking clues from the pages and patterns of Vogue, and most of the garments you see in the photoshoot was created by her. The idea of taking photographs of her also came from her. This gives an idea of the extraordinary personality of this woman and the photographs show that perfectly. I strongly recommend reading her and her son Jahmad’s interview and to see the other pictures.
Indigo Lewin has two covers (below) featuring her photographs. The London-based artist pulled them from her personal collection and the raw intimacy they communicate doesn’t need a long explanation. In a state of lockdown and social distancing such as the one we were into, even for the loner souls - and Lewin surprisingly describes herself as one, but I can also subscribe to that group - seeing that kind of picture was an instant shot of nostalgia for the times spent hanging around with your friends and close ones. Interviewed by Ben Cobb, Lewin cites the work of Nan Goldin as seminal for inspiring and developing her own practice, and it’s very visible the visual connection between the two.
The next cover (on the left below) presents a dried sunflower caressed by soft strokes of what looks like a pale morning sun ready to rise. The flower is shot from below, graciously standing out with its curved and frail stem. Davey Adesida took the picture as part of a series of juxtaposed portraits of nature and some of his black friends and models. In his interview with Amelia White, the Black photographer explains that these pictures act as means to communicate unity on a much deeper level: “I tried to mix it because that’s something that I do want. I want unity. I want Black people to be seen in a softer manner because we’re seen as aggressive and dramatic most of the time, and I want the world to see us as something calmer, more therapeutic. The images are something that people can relax their mind to, like listening to classical music.”
A similar atmosphere can be found in Donavon Smallwood photograph on another one of the limited edition covers (on the right below). He took the 19th century classical portrait style and canons and reinterpreted it through the Black experience. The result is a series of colored photographs of beautiful black women “[...] placed in pastoral idyllic scenes, posed or lost in thought [...]" paired with black and white pictures of flowers or natural settings. Another poetic but very appropriate way to address the moment.
Next, I would like to consider the last three covers shown below as a group because they all revolve around spotlighting extremely promising young creatives.
The significance of the first one (from the left) goes even beyond the mere picture. It tells a story of overcoming struggles and incredible talent that makes dreams come true.
It’s not just a great picture with beautiful black girls wearing gorgeous gowns.
For photographer and creative Rasharn Agyemang it’s the moment he was waiting for after many years of working towards trying to be noticed by the industry. The spread that features his work is titled “Faith” and it’s a rendition of Agyemang’s experience as a black gay boy grown up in a quite strict and religious Ghanaian family, through pages with glamorous and bold fashion. The photo chosen as cover displays three stunning and amazingly extravagant dresses by recent CSM graduate Sohee Park. But I think “Faith” is also what Agyemang held onto in the past years, never ceasing to believe in his own talent that eventually brought him an historic cover of one of the most impactful new fashion magazines.
The future is definitely bright for Agyemang. And a bright future is also what photographer Campbell Addy and the genius that is Ib Kamara see even after trying times like these. The two worked respectively on the last two limited edition covers for this number of LOVE and the focus was on family, friends and talents. They reunited with some of their favourites, by the likes of Ottawa Kwami and King Owusu who star on the cover (in the centre above). It was the first time shooting for the magazine for Addy so, with that being also his first post-lockdown work, he decided to grasp the moment and challenge himself and try new ways to take pictures, ditching what he’s known for (intense close-ups), trusting Kamara’s vision and going for strongly dynamic and captivating full figure shots. Kamara then worked also on the last cover (on the right). Another close friend of his (and another personal favourite of mine) was involved: Tim Walker. Together they took it to the streets to spotlight the most recent CSM graduates who didn’t get to show their final collections due to the restrictions imposed.
The cover in itself is pretty simple and not even that elaborate for Tim Walker's standards. What makes it special is the explosive and colorful styling of all the pieces. At first glance it may feel like a hodge-podge of stuff piled onto each other but actually every piece is able to stand out in its own unique way. Talking to Pierre M’Pele, Kamara stated: “[...] We wanted to give a feeling of total freedom of expression." Simple as that can be, this sounds like hope to me.
With these two particular volumes Katie Grand, Ben Cobb, Pierre M’Pele and the entire team behind LOVE, gave the world (not just the fashion world) a true masterpiece for printed media and a monumental testament to our times. And it’s not a matter of dimensions (almost 900 pages for a two parts hardback beautiful monster). Its magnitude lies in its arresting authenticity. Flipping through the pages and reading the various contributions it’s evident the deeply personal connotation of each of them, but that’s what makes it universal. And as they state in the introduction, “This is not a fashion magazine. It’s a book of photography and words. Two volumes filled with four months of chaos, emotional extremes and fleeting moments of hope. [...] the beginning of a new beginning [...] LOVE is not a fashion magazine. LOVE is a work in progres.”
Really a labour of LOVE - pun intended!
In conclusion, I think it’s fundamental to acknowledge the substantial diversity displayed not only in the casting choices but also in the aesthetic quality of all the covers. It was a much needed breath of fresh air and let’s hope it’s not something temporary but instead the definitive push for actual change in the system.
We do not own the rights to any of the pictures in the article. All the rights go to the authors of the pictures.
List of the sources: