Deeper Meaning Below A Glossy Surface

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 26, 2008

The fashion industry has always struggled to burnish its image as something more than a vessel for insecurities, pretentiousness and superficiality. At times this struggle must seem particularly Sisyphean for editors of fashion magazines -- with their wrinkle creams, in-and-out lists and miracle diets -- who are trying to make a case for their social awareness and desire to do more good than harm.

A duo of small but influential Italian fashion magazines may be making more headway than the American behemoths.

American fashion magazines have always grappled with a wide range of issues, from women's health to politics and social activism. But mostly, what people remember are the pages and pages of luxury clothes worn by gazellelike young women.

In the past year or so, the industry has been paying particular attention to the question of diversity: the lack of it on the runway, as well as behind the scenes. Glamour magazine was confronted with angry calls and e-mails after a white staff member -- since departed -- speaking on behalf of the publication, voiced her disapproval of Afros in the workplace during a presentation at a law firm.

In response, the magazine hosted several panel discussions bringing together a variety of viewpoints on the subjects of race, beauty and friendships across ethnic lines. This spring, members of the New York fashion community raised concerns because black models had been banished from the runway thanks to the prevailing preference for an Eastern European aesthetic. In July, American Vogue ran an article discussing diversity in the industry and also featured several black models in fashion spreads. And then there was Italian Vogue. The July edition of the magazine was called "A Black Issue" and all the editorial pages, as well as the cover, featured black models.

The special issue of Italian Vogue caused the largest stir in part because it was an Italian magazine and the Italian runways have not, in recent memory, been emblematic of the kind of joyful ethnic diversity that one might find in a Benetton advertisement. But it was also significant because Italian Vogue has a reputation for devotion to aesthetics above all else. It is not interested in depicting the more practical, realistic elements of the fashion industry. It is unconcerned with being commercial. Its philosophy revolves around the high concept. Other, more commercial magazines might not go where it leads, but Italian Vogue provides inspiration.

The issue of Italian Vogue created significant interest in the United States, Britain and Italy. The reaction, said editor Franca Sozzani, who is Italian, was "98 percent positive. It was 5 percent crazy people who send e-mails."

Now Sozzani has decided to risk angering the verbal flamethrowers again. The November issue of L'Uomo Vogue, the men's fashion magazine that she also helms, will be dedicated to Africa. And half of all the advertising revenue will be donated to Africa-related charities, no small consideration in these financially stressed times.

We tend to think that ground zero for the issue of diversity is located in the United States. And certainly it is a complicated part of our history. But Sozzani, from her perch in Milan, has been able to address diversity, particularly as it relates to the fashion world, in ways and with an ease that would be nearly impossible in the United States. If we are lucky, more folks will follow her example.

Because of her willingness to take a risk and because of her overall influence within the fashion industry, she was one of the honorees at the Fashion Group International gala Thursday night in New York.

The idea for the Africa issue was sparked by conversations Sozzani had with the actor Forest Whitaker and the French author Bernard-Henri Lévy, who served as a guest editor. She wanted to focus on people, projects and ideas. She did not want to make an aesthetic statement about Africa. So she didn't fill the magazine with images of Western models in overpriced vaguely ethnic frocks. And unlike a recent issue of India's Vogue magazine, which sparked outrage among activists and humanitarians, this one won't show peasants posing with $5,000 handbags.

Sozzani's approach to L'Uomo Vogue has been to avoid using models altogether. "I think it's ridiculous to see a 16-year-old wearing clothes he'll never afford at his age," she says. Instead, she photographs men -- and some women -- in their own clothes and showing off their own style. The issue includes images of Whitaker, Quincy Jones, John Legend, Matt Damon and even Michelle Obama all expressing their affection for and their personal connection to Africa.

In an essay, Lévy talks about the pessimism and cynicism that for so long defined his understanding of the continent. It was hard for him to see beyond Rwanda, Darfur and the AIDS epidemic to the children. It was hard to be hopeful. But optimism breeds optimism, and so his experience talking with activists such as Bob Geldof changed his view. Is that really content for a fashion magazine?

"Fashion is not only about clothes," Sozzani says. She broadens it so that it speaks to the vague and all-encompassing notion of identity.

To be fair, other fashion magazines have covered such weighty topics. Mariane Pearl, for instance, regularly writes about the lives of the underprivileged and the endangered for Glamour. But it's rare to find such weighty topics dominating a fashion magazine.

Sozzani has an advantage. She runs magazines that are notable for their political incorrectness. They do not engage in aesthetic affirmative action. She is not dutiful. "I do this from my heart and my stomach," she says, "not with my head."

And while the circulation of L'Uomo Vogue is only about 80,000, it is an insiders' magazine. It speaks to designers, photographers, creative directors. In short, it speaks to the community of people who can make a difference in the way that ethnic groups, communities and cultures are perceived. It speaks to the folks who define beauty and who then tell us whether we meet those standards.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company