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Why we are (still) talking about Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s Vogue cover

Those who pay little attention to the fashion industry may be perplexed as to why the release of a magazine cover with an attractive, famous couple locked in a loving pose could lead to such intense controversy. Even subscribers to Vogue, which released its April cover Friday featuring Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, seemed a little shocked at their own responses.

Arguments reverberating around the Internet over the last few days have largely focused on this central question: Does Kim Kardashian deserve to be on the cover of Vogue?

Anna Wintour helped redefine the notion of a cover model during her tenure with the century-old publication. The former editor in chief and current artistic director at Conde Nast led the transition from super models, who monopolized the front slots through the eighties and nineties, to celebrity images on the cover. What began as a sprinkling of starlets over the past two decades became a permanent shift in the early 2000s, and the Lauren Huttons, Giseles and Kate Mosses of the world were relegated to inside spreads.

Most of the women featured (Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Charlize Theron, Penelope Cruz, etc.) were actresses or ‘it’ girls nearly interchangeable with the models they displaced. However, the transition from models to actresses underscored the idea that the cover model role was significant –an acknowledgement of accomplishments ranging from break-out roles to notable awards.

The selection of Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Rodham Clinton as cover subjects (October and December of 1998, respectively), cemented the idea that the position was one of honor. A Vogue cover celebrated women with poise and confidence who had made a contribution, if not to the world of fashion, then to the world at large.

That’s the largest fault that long-time subscribers have found in the choice of a reality star and her rapper fiance. For all of the Sienna Miller and Blake Lively covers (who fill more of the waif super model position than role model) Vogue has also featured first ladies, Grammy winners and Meryl Streep.

Yet, Miller has been nominated for two BAFTAs and a Golden Globe, and Lively has a half-dozen film roles and a fashion-focused TV show under her belt — accomplishments that encompass a palatable sense of worthiness for Vogue to push to readers.

Does a reality TV show and an impressive social media following rise to this bar? Is Vogue telling people that a sex tape and a gig with E! are desirable goals for young women? For better or worse, many commenters on Vogue’s platforms have expressed that these merits do not fit with their sensibilities.

Another area of debate has centered on whether “Vogue-worthiness” is dependent on ethnicity and size. Vogue, like much of the fashion industry, has been criticized for a long-standing lack of diversity and a reliance on white, willowy women to sell magazines. Is the West/Kardashian cover — a month after Rihanna graced the cover — at all an acknowledgment that the pale waif is an outdated standard of beauty? One should hope.

But if the point was in part to diversify, why not look to more obvious choices, such as Kerry Washington, Lupita Neyong’o and Mindy Kaling, who haven’t yet been Vogue cover models. Washington has even been the center of  media campaigns for a cover.

West, too, has waged a cover campaign of sorts and that may be the ultimate point of contention for Vogue loyalists. Like a vice presidential bid, one does not openly lobby for a major cover. Even more gauche, allowing your significant other to do it for you.

West has admittedly pushed Kardashian into the world of high fashion — cleaning out her closet, introducing her to his stylists and friend Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy, and ensuring her presence at the 2013 Met Gala. He has also been on a public campaign for the fashion industry to take her more seriously, calling her the “the most intriguing woman right now.”

West followed that statement, which he made on the show On Air With Ryan Seacrest, by saying “She’s got Barbara Walters calling her like everyday … and collectively we’re the most influential with clothing. No one is looking at what [President] Obama is wearing. Michelle Obama cannot Instagram a [bikini] pic like what my girl Instagrammed the other day.”

Whether or not Wintour caved to West’s pressure, which she states she did not in the April editor’s letter, is beside the point. Kardashian has relied on West and their collective money-making prowess to advance her status in the fashion ranks, a cardinal sin of the industry.

The topic is apropos in the wake of L’Wren Scott’s death last week. As critic Robin Givhan noted, one of Seventh Avenue’s most enduring prejudices is celebrity, and Scott was afflicted with the curse of reflected glory for being Mick Jagger’s girlfriend.

That hindrance seemed to make Scott work even harder in her career. She ultimately produced desirable clothing and dressed some of Hollywood’s most prominent women, earning her spot as a respected designer and stylist.

For a woman to rest on her fiance’s ambition and connections, and still make it to one of the most coveted spots in pop culture is the insult to injury for those who expect more from the ‘fashion Bible.’

Kim Kardashian, Kanye West are the world’s most talked about couple. Vogue says so.