Instagram v monthly fashion magazines; catwalks & meal tickets: Absolutely Fashion – Inside British Vogue

My starting salary at Condé Nast’s Vogue in London in November 1978 (aged 18) was £2,500 per annum, plus, crucially, “luncheon vouchers to the value of 60p per day”. I was reminded of the luncheon vouchers whilst watching the first part of the documentary Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue (BBC2), having finally caught up with it on BBC iPlayer. The second part is broadcast tonight.

Fashion director Lucinda Chambers mentions the luncheon vouchers whilst chatting with the world famous photographer Mario Testino, after a cover shoot with Edie Campbell, the top model. Chambers – who the documentary maker Richard Macer takes delight in pointing out, has been at Vogue for 36 years (I remember her joining) – explains how she and Mario first met. ‘We both lived in squats when we were young,’ she says. ‘Mario used to come to the office … because in those days we were given luncheon vouchers … and Mario had no money, so I used to share my luncheon vouchers with him.’ ‘Those luncheon vouchers fed me and kept me going,’ adds Mario. Same for me, Mario. In fact, at the very same time and on the same fifth floor at Vogue House, Hanover Square, I was at the other end of the corridor, scoffing away, refusing to share my luncheon vouchers with anyone …

This two-part documentary has been pitched as a film following British Vogue for a year, ‘seeing how the magazine is put together’. The first part only showed how the fashion pages and the cover are put together, however – the more glamorous side of the business – and I imagine tonight’s episode will be more of the same. The camera, perhaps understandably, seems to linger around the fashion department and editor’s office, and it never ventures off down the corridors to find the commercial and marketing teams, the production and promotions departments, the classified and display advertising sales executives, or the circulation and finance staff. But I guess that wouldn’t make very exotic TV. It would be like any other office. It would be like … well, The Office.

Richard Macer says in the first part that editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman wants the magazine covers to appeal more to the ‘Instagram generation’. Shulman herself admits that her biggest task is to balance the ‘iconic model image’ of Vogue with the ‘democratic [Instagram-style] conversation’ of the present day.

With London Fashion Week starting tomorrow (until Sept 20), ‘social media versus monthly fashion magazines’ is a big issue, and getting bigger every day. Years ago, I believe it was the fashion retail chain Zara who first exploited digital photography and video during the catwalk shows of the major Italian and French designers – even before ‘social media’ was invented. Suddenly, they could photograph and film the new collections and then immediately send the images back to their own factories – to then not exactly ‘copy’ the designs, fabrics and patterns, but certainly ‘immitate’ them. Within weeks (sometimes days), the cheaper and more ‘accessible’ versions of top fashion designs would be available in the Zara stores. It was the key to their incredible success – and many other high street chains have followed suit.

The top designers themselves, of course, have also fought back. In the Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue documentary, there is a moment when the Italian designer, Stefano Gabbana, explains to Alexandra Shulman that during his catwalk show, ‘We have an application, and the girl/model [on the runway] will shoot a selfie, and [the image] goes straight onto the web … ’

‘Very clever… yeah … you love your web,’ replies Shulman. But I’m left wondering if she’s wondering what I’m wondering: how long before the fashion designers don’t need the magazine, any magazine, to get their designs and messages out there …

So far I’ve found the two-part documentary, officially to mark the centenary year of British Vogue, a little superficial – but that’s down to Richard Macer, and certainly not Shulman or Chambers. A whole host of ‘star-studded events’ have been lined up to commemorate the year, including a huge exhibition of Vogue photography at the National Portrait Gallery. As well as Stefano Gabbana, Hugh Jackman and Victoria Beckham also appear in ‘cameo’-style roles, whilst Macer thinks ‘that Anna Wintour uses Snapchat and Karl Lagerfeld might be on Twitter’. Wow, golly, imagine that. Nothing seems particularly well researched by Macer, either – and his interview with Kate Moss (although she does say she hates being interviewed) is banal, despite her standing there in a stage-suit once worn by Mick Jagger. For me, it doesn’t match the excellent September Issue – a film about the making of US Vogue’s biggest edition of the year, ‘starring’ Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington. Back to Macer’s documentary, apparently Patsy and Edina from Absolutely Fabulous give their views on British Vogue’s legacy in tonight’s episode, which might be a little risky …

Having said all that, there’s no doubt that Alexandra Shulman is a brilliant editor – and I know that from past and part-experience. She was our features editor on Tatler, if I recall correctly, and then she also edited and transformed GQ before taking on British Vogue in 1992. By then I was in Madrid, where I’d been sent to ‘help’ on the launch of Vogue España, before staying on to run Condé Nast in Spain and also launch Spanish GQ. I’d coincide with Shulman and Chambers at various catwalk shows in Paris and Milan, and so I know how hard they work – and I also know how difficult and correct Shulman’s cover decisions were in the first part of the documentary. You only get 12 covers a year on Vogue. She was so right to turn down the jingoistic Union Jack cover version of Kate Moss, despite her entire team thinking otherwise  – and even more astute to swap Moss for Rihanna to beat US Vogue by a month. And I imagine there’ll be something in the episode tonight about HRH The Duchess of Cambridge gracing the cover of this year’s June issue … the official edition to celebrate Vogue’s 100 years … and a great coup by a great editor.

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