Vogue’s September issue: Boosting the spirit and economy in one fell swoop

August 28, 2012

At 4 pounds 10 ounces, Vogue’s September issue has weight. Its heft carries some hope, a sign of economic life, a pulse that subverts the flat-lining CBO numbers. This single edition of one magazine suggests that even in bad times, someone is up for a good time.

The fashion magazine announces right there on the cover that it’s putting out “916 pages of spectacular fall fashion for all.”

The operative word is the last one. Everybody’s invited.

If you delve inside this 120th-anniversary issue and play the hyperbolic game of finding the highest price for a single garment, you will doubtless be reminded of some glum moment when money of this kind could have been used to solve a real problem. “Spectacular” is the other keyword. The magazine suggests that you should allow yourself to be transported by spectacle — and the joy ride will cost a mere $5.99.

Here’s a novel thought in this election year: An American institution is prospering, encouraging the wealthy to spend rather than merely be taxed, to reward innovators instead of regulators.

In the pages of Vogue, the forecast is always a little sunnier. The furs that can protect from this winter’s chill will be color-blocked! And that straw-hatted farmer in Levi’s standing in his vegetable patch? That’s really Thomas Keller at his gastronomy mecca, the French Laundry, interviewed by another eminence, Jeffrey Steingarten.

Besides actual clothing, fashion magazines sell ideals and aspirations, which can seem more valuable when economic conditions deem them less affordable. After four years of peril, these titles are all suddenly thriving, from the avant-garde (W has 412 pages) to the moms-and-proms (InStyle at 652). “The only trend I can say is that high-end women’s fashion magazines are doing much better than magazines as a whole,” said Steve Cohn, who edits the Media Industry Newsletter.

These magazines make money because they elevate the eye and sometimes the spirit, take the reader someplace special. These fantasy tomes feel a boost during economic distress — like liquor and ice cream and movie ticket sales.

Of Vogue’s 916 pages, 658 are ads. As the magazine’s rate card for advertisers explains, one single page can cost as much as $165,232, though many ads are sold in discount packages. The weighty result gets compared often to a doorstop and then sometimes, tellingly, to a murder weapon.

Anna Wintour herself, in the 2009 documentary “The September Issue,” speaks to the hidden menace people project on her brand. “There is something about fashion,” she said, “that can make people very nervous.”

Reflecting new roles

Wintour has worked on Vogue for a quarter-century. For three years, I worked for her as she extended Vogue into the men’s market. By fall 2008, ours was one of many fledgling titles that had earned more admiration than advertising, and the Men’s Vogue staff joined the nation’s jobless. But many of us came away with a sense of how to stand up to a punishing economy, to find strength in Vogue’s singular vision and flair for risk.

“I’m as practical as Bloomingdale’s,” the late Diana Vreeland says in “The Eye Has to Travel,” next month’s documentary on her lavish Vogue era, the 1960s. As editors, Vreeland and Wintour can be seen as both ambitious and sensible. However, for all Vreeland’s declarations about being maaaaddd for this or that, Wintour is not one to fulminate over cerulean blue or this season’s hem length. Women’s lives have become more demanding, and her magazine reflects new roles and responsibilities in the workplace or the world.

The most colorful statement in this September issue is not merely about dying your hair neon colors, it’s about showing up for work with neon hair. The storied stylist Grace Coddington, known for her own orange plume, teamed with photographer David Sims to show Karlie Kloss, the statuesque catwalker, vamping her way to work in clothes that befit a lawyer, a broadcast journalist, even a CEO. The headline? “Her Brilliant Career.”

Every turn of the page is meant to surprise. Each photo by Mario Testino or Annie Leibovitz poses a question: Doesn’t Stella Tennant, the well-born British mother of four and environmental advocate, look as vibrant as a model in her 40s as she did in her 20s? Can you bring Edith Wharton’s world convincingly to life through group portraits in the Berkshires and words by Colm Toibin? Have you ever seen Chelsea Clinton look so happy? (Yes, yes and no.)

Deliberate details

Throughout her tenure, Wintour has kept models in business but offered the cover to actresses, athletes and women of different sizes and varied accomplishments. Hillary Clinton sat calmly inside the Red Room for the December 1998 Vogue cover, during the doldrums of the Starr report. Later, in her first months at the White House, Michelle Obama posed for the cover, with an inside spread that included J. Crew.

The daughter of a London newspaper editor, Wintour has become an American citizen and a prominent fundraiser for President Obama. The magazine has shone a warm glow on conservative politicians, too, with a very prescient look at Sarah Palin’s rising star and, more recently, Nikki Haley’s.

This September’s Lady Gaga cover is as stately as a caryatid, a shapely column holding up the entablature that is the magazine’s masthead. Every detail is deliberate, like the anniversary banner swimming among the letters.

Any anniversary issue can seem a nothingburger, to use Helen Gurley Brown’s term for blah. Is such an odd anniversary — “Happy 120th, Vogue!” — a sales ploy? For sure.

The September issue is a preview to the fall’s fashion shows, which Wintour has single-mindedly boosted. Fashion’s Night Out, the opening soiree of New York Fashion Week, is essentially an Anna Wintour production, generating retail sales and tax revenue and all sorts of goodwill, despite the traffic jams.

It’s one night of irrational exuberance than even Alan Greenspan could applaud. This is not trickle-down economics that lifts all boats, just a blast of commerce and giddiness for one highly productive sector of a not-so-productive economy.

And by hanging at home with the magazine that corrals it all, anyone can enjoy a Fashion’s Night In.

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