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We can do better than Vogue

By Sinem Bilen Onabanjo
13 June 2020   |   4:06 am
As Black Lives Matter movement rages on in the USA and beyond, two weeks after the murder of George Floyd, long-established norms and oppressive systems are finally being called into question globally.


As Black Lives Matter movement rages on in the USA and beyond, two weeks after the murder of George Floyd, long-established norms and oppressive systems are finally being called into question globally.

Statues of racist figures are toppled, legacies of war heroes questioned, comedy shows featuring ‘blackface’ and racial appropriations cancelled, and perhaps for the first time white people in positions of power are acknowledging their white privilege.

One such person admitting to unconscious – possibly even conscious bias – earlier this week was Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue US, who admitted that Vogue had been “hurtful and intolerant” — and not done enough to promote black staff and designers.

In an emotional note to staff, Wintour wrote: “I want to start by acknowledging your feelings and expressing my empathy towards what so many of you are going through: sadness, hurt, and anger too.

“I want to say this especially to the Black members of our team — I can only imagine what these days have been like. But I also know that the hurt, and violence, and injustice we’re seeing and talking about have been around for a long time. Recognizing it and doing something about it is overdue.”

Well, at least Vogue US has black staff to apologise to, as opposed to the British Vogue pre- Edward Enninful. In the final edition celebrating the end of her 25 years at the helm, editor Alexandra Shulman posed with her team. What was unashamedly on show was a homogenous workforce of upper middle class white British women. The image posted by Naomi Campbell on Instagram with a call for more diversity under Edward Enninful’s editorship went viral. The image was not much different than Huffington Post editor Liz Heron’s not so #humblebrag on diversity with a misguided, tone-deaf tweet, “Notice anything about this @HuffingtonPost editors meeting?” featuring a photo of editorial team of white women who looked like clones of each other, except the token Asian editor.

During Shulman’s 25-year reign, out of 306 covers, only 11 featured women of colour. Of those, six featured supermodel Naomi Campbell. The remaining five were of celebrities such as Beyoncé and Rihanna.

In 126 years, the one black photographer to shoot the cover of Vogue US, Tyler Mitchell, was not chosen by someone on the staff, but the person on the cover, Beyoncé. Cover choices are not much more encouraging either. In 2019, a data journalism company The Pudding analysed the Vogue US covers of the last 19 years. Sadly, they found out, in an astounding example of tokenism, when different skin tones were laid out on a spectrum, at the end of the darker shade is Lupita Nyong’o, who has appeared four times in recent years, single-handedly filling in dark skin representation. Joining her were Michelle Obama and Serena Williams.

In contrast, at the lightest end of the spectrum, there were seven different white women on the covers such as Jessica Chastain, Amy Adams, Claire Foy and more.

Possibly worse yet, when the same black model was featured on the cover over a number of years, in earlier editions, their skin seemed to have been edited to appear lighter. The Pudding looked at Rihanna as a repeat model from the years 2012-2018, who seemed to gradually grow from lighter to darker, which the company identified, may be as a result of changing attitudes and emergence of conversations on colourism.

Following Wintour’ apology #VogueChallenge trending on social media has seen people of diverse skin colours post their on images as Vogue covers in a bid to criticise decades of ‘whitewashing’ and to showcase the beauty of diversity.

Ironically, in my opinion, with a new social media trend, we are just giving a fashion behemoth more leverage to remain relevant.

In 2009, we set out to create Nigeria’s answer to Vogue, and possibly the middle class Nigeria’s answer to the more elite Arise magazine – FAB Magazine. We didn’t have the reach and the network to have Ozwald Boateng visit our offices or Naomi Campbell to guest edit for us, but we set out to create an African fashion and lifestyle publication for Africans by Africans. Yes, before you point out, I do see the irony of a Turkish woman heading an African publication, but the difference is I share the same idea and the same passion with two Nigerian men I was fortunate enough to work alongside.

Once on the newsstands in the UK, and recognised as the leading publication out of Nigeria, I had many staff members telling me of chats with Nigerian friends, who would ask why they should buy FAB instead of Vogue or GQ? How could we justify them parting with their £3 to invest in a black African magazine?

I would have thought the answer was clear: an African publication that offered no tokenism, with page after page after page of celebration of African creativity at its best. At our best, we had black and African talent contributing from all over the world from fashion designers, to stylists to make up artists and photographers. It wasn’t just the models on our covers, it was the whole photo shoots; as best as we could and our budget allowed we adhered to our unspoken rule that at least 80 per cent of the content had to be African, and likewise at least 80 per cent of any work published had to have been of black and African creatives. We wanted to show the world, if you knew where to look, African and black talent was everywhere.

And yet, issue after issue, “Why FAB?” Sadly, this also included countless advertising agencies for the same multinational brands, who would pay Vogue and the likes up front for the year, but would delay payment to African publications for months, effectively forcing many to run at a loss. At the end we had to make the decision to shelf FAB – maybe Nigeria, so Vogue-hungry and clamouring for a Vogue Africa, wasn’t ready for an African owned fashion publication.

Sadly, those calling out for diversity in Vogue US will in a few years’ time once again clamour for Vogue Africa again. If you find yourself falling into that trap, remind yourself:
Africa is not a country
We can do better than Vogue