Fashion Magazines and Fashion

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The driving force behind the publication of fashion magazines is, of course, fashion itself - an industry characterised by most, if not all, of the economic properties (nobody knows, motley crew, A list/B list, and so on) outlined by Caves (2000: 3-9) in his comprehensive study of creative industries. Like the magazines that derive from its existence, fashion is also both cultural product and commodity, and thus addresses multiple audiences, some of whom are there to show off clothes, others to buy them, and yet others to create a buzz around them. These audiences include what Davis (1995: 146-9) has called the ‘fashion leadership’, consisting most notably these days of celebrities from the film, music and entertainment worlds; fashion buyers, chiefly from large department store chains (see Entwistle’s article in this volume); and the international press, including fashion magazines, which reviews and comments on each season’s collections, and brings new trends to general public attention. To understand fashion, we need to understand the interconnections between its production and consumption, between the ideals of fashion and how clothes are actually worn, between what Entwistle (2000: 236) has referred to as ‘discursive, textual and lived bodies’. It is each country’s fashion magazines that help us in this quest.
Because of the inseparability of fashion magazines from the fashion industry, monthly editions closely follow the latter’s seasonal calendar. It is normal for an editor-in-chief to make use of the seasonal discourses of fashion to prepare a general outline of her magazine six months in advance. The March and September issues of most magazines (there is some seasonal adjustment in Japan because of a title’s early publication date each month) are devoted to the latest spring/summer and autumn/winter collections shown in London, New York, Paris and Milan. Usually, one or two trends in particular are picked out for focus in a following issue. Each season’s shows are then generally followed by one special issue devoted to beauty, as seen in runway models’ make-up and hair styling, and by another focusing on fashion accessories (in particular, handbags and shoes, which themselves may simultaneously be run as a video during the showing of a collection).[i]
The remaining four issues tend to follow pre-established patterns, some of them related to other aspects of fashion: for example, love, romance and Valentine’s Day in February, often leading to lingerie specials; swimwear specials or what to wear on holiday in July/August; and gift giving (accessories, jewellery, fragrances) in December. These make use of seasonal trends to put across the chosen theme, and have given rise to the presentation of related commodities as themselves constituting ‘collections’: from lingerie and swimsuits to watches and jewellery, by way of mobile phones and chocolates as fashion trends (Figure 1). The commodities featured on its pages - either as text or as advertising - themselves become ‘fashion’ items, subject to constant and regular cycles of change.
Although there have been indications in recent years that the traditional two season fashion system is giving way to more fluid, continuous production schedules attuned to consumer demands and the technological ability to supply them, the spring-summer and autumn-winter seasonal distribution of clothing remains very important for fashion magazines on a number of related accounts, both cultural and economic. Firstly, it imposes order on a potentially chaotic mass of clothing that needs to be shown and described to magazine audiences. At present, readers are more or less reassured by the fixed seasonal boundaries within which trend changes take place. Secondly, that very order is an essential part of magazines’ production processes since, without it, they would be obliged to forego their current fixed annual structure of issues and devote far more time and energy to the planning of more content-varied monthly editions. This would make it difficult for a magazine title to maintain a regular monthly publication schedule on the basis of its existing personnel and financial resources. Thirdly, it structures conveniently the solicitation of advertising material which itself forms the financial base influencing a publisher’s decision to launch, maintain or cease publication of a particular title. Since magazines are very important to the fashion world, it would seem, in the long run, to be counter-productive for the traditional seasonal structure of the fashion industry to be completely put aside - unless those concerned decide that they want a very different kind of medium in which to publicise their outputs.
Textually, fashion magazines’ raison d’être lies in the monthly ‘fashion well’ – somewhere between 40 and 52 full-page colour photographs of the latest designer clothes, uninterrupted by advertisements, and featuring well-known designers, photographers, and models (as well as makeup artists, hair stylists and so on, whose renown is more or less circumscribed by the fashion world). Ideally, a fashion well’s photographs should be edited in such a way that the clothes shown fill between 60 and 70 per cent of the page, with background amounting to 30, at most 40, per cent. The fabric, too, should be clearly shown, although this is by no means always the case (cf. Aspers 2001: 7).[ii]
The clothes themselves are lent by fashion houses, which are more or less cooperative and/or fussy, depending on the status of the magazine asking to use them in a photo shoot. Magazines use preferred fashion house names, based on advertising placed in their pages, and they ring the changes as best they can to ensure that all are represented over a season, or - failing that - a year. But what is included in a story and what not also depends to some extent on what is popular among readers and sells well in the country in question.[iii] Magazines thus propose ways in which fashion may be transformed into the kinds of clothes worn in readers’ everyday lives. Without the clothes, without the images with which fashion is portrayed, and thus without the magazines themselves, there would be no ‘fashion system’ as such. It is the fashion magazines that bring together producer and consumer, supply and demand, by means of a host of intermediary figures (Figure 2).
The fashion well is usually made up of around half a dozen ‘stories’, each ranging from four to as many as eighteen pages in length, and using visual images to illustrate some new fashion trend (for example, Paint the town to illustrate ‘the power of colour’).[iv] In international editions of the same magazine title, however, a ‘story’ can change quite radically in translation. For example, A Fashion Without Frontiers (Une mode sans frontiers) in the French edition of Marie Claire (March 1997) was given the title In Search of Real Value (Honmono no kachi o motomete) in the Japanese, and From the Village (in English) in the Hong Kong, editions of the same magazine (both April 1997).
Lack of space, or the need to include local stories in local editions, may also bring about changes affecting the narrative structure of a fashion story as first conceived and shot. Quite often, a series of photos originating in New York or Paris will be cut from twelve to six or eight pages in Hong Kong. At the same time, pictures may be placed in a different order from the original, and reversals take place when, as in Japan, the magazine opens from right to left, rather than from left to right as in Western language magazines.[v] This is not always the case, especially when magazines are using the work of well-known photographers who insist on retaining the original form of their story worldwide, in spite of an art director’s well-reasoned objections.[vi]
Ideally, each issue’s fashion well should mix up colour and black and white photos to create its own rhythmical beat.[vii] Each story should link with the others to fit into an overarching theme and create a ‘flow’ that runs through each month’s issue of a magazine (see Moeran 1996; McKay 2000: 143). Accompanying text (or ‘by-lines’) includes anything from a bare description of the clothing shown to details of price and retail outlets at which items are available for purchase. Ideally, by-lines reinforce the fashion ‘story’ told by the visual images.
The stories published in each month’s issue of titles like Vogue and Elle stem from the biannual collections in New York, London, Milan and Paris (thereby reinforcing the point made earlier about the industry’s need to maintain the two-season system).[viii] Fashion editors and stylists from all over the world attend as many as 100 collections each season. There they pick up on certain ‘moods’ and proceed to imagine the clothes they have seen as ‘themes’ which are then expressed as fashion ‘stories’:

“The idea of a fashion story is a very difficult concept to explain. In the first place, there are all the clothes I see in all the shows during the different fashion weeks. Together they create inside me a certain seasonal mood, I suppose. Most designers have a message that they want to put across in their shows. This they may have got from everyday events. Or from reading books of one sort or another. Or, most often, from travelling somewhere exotic like north Africa or Japan. Somehow they manage to transform things they’ve seen into clothing. Of course, they’re all sorts of different themes as a result. This means no season is ever totally monotonous in mood, even though to some extent the fashion business may control what’s put on display in terms of colours and materials.
“Anyway, from the clothes I see on the runways I get some ideas and come up with themes like A new way to dress up, or Monotone dress-up style, or Elegant but rough - things like that. I may have in mind something John Galliano did in his show for Christian Dior. Or I may say I want something more specific - like Grace Kelly-like fashion, or the pictures Irving Penn took of so-and-so in a particular magazine in a particular year. Or I might just hint that I want a Burberry look, of the kind you find in their current ad campaign…
“These ideas are then taken over by a stylist[ix] who carries out the shoot and who usually has her own ideas about which clothes, models, photographer, makeup artist, hair stylist, and so on to use. I may agree or disagree with her choices and make counter-suggestions, so it’s really a matter of discussion and negotiation between us before we arrive at a finished idea.
“All this is then given a further twist by the photographer. I think photographers tend to start from a different standpoint from ours. They often have a visual image they want to work on and then look for particular clothes to illustrate it. I mean, a photographer may want to capture a mood depicted in a Gauguin painting, for example. Or he may feel like returning to David Bailey’s late 60s camera style. Or he may want to recreate the image of Jane Fonda in Barbarella. All that sort of thing. This means a story can change again before it finally gets shot in the studio or on location. For me, though, as fashion editor, I start with the clothes, move to a story idea, and then come back to the clothes to illustrate that idea. Probably every editor and stylist in the business keeps in mind all the clothes they see in every collection and are able to match them to different stories that come up. That, really, is what their job is as professionals.”[x]

This matching of designer clothes seen on the runways to fashion stories looked at by a magazine’s women readers usually takes place immediately after each season’s collections. Magazine staff engage in intensive discussions over the course of two or three days, before fixing on certain keywords (‘romantic’, ‘sexy’, ‘power’, and so on) as overarching themes based on the different kinds of materials, colours and clothing styles presented at the shows.[xi] These may figure as appetizers in the opening fashion pages of an issue: for instance, Sparkling Diva, Blue Symphony, Retro Graphics and Bohemian Rhapsody.[xii] They are then incorporated as the guiding principle of an issue - Myth and Magic,[xiii] The New Volume[xiv] and bold moves[xv] - and magazine editors set about informing their readers of the ‘latest fashion trends’, praising their qualities and what makes them ‘different’ from preceding trends, showing how they are actually worn by celebrities, and hinting at how best readers might incorporate them in their own everyday lives.
Although particular keywords are repeated globally in different fashion stories (‘volume’, for instance, or ‘power’ in the spring-summer 2005 collections), different emphases are brought to bear, so that there is no necessary thematic consistency in fashion wells, either between different editions of the same title, or between different magazines published in the same country.[xvi] There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, every magazine title competes for readers and advertisers among other titles in a magazine market. It needs to differentiate itself as a product from its nearest competitors to achieve this aim. A worst-case scenario is for it to publish an issue whose thematic contents and/or images are in places identical to those of a competing title. Secondly, individual personnel are also competing among themselves as producers to come up with the most successful image formulae, since such success enables them both to maintain their current positions and to seek better positions in other (generally higher status) magazines.
The net result of this double process of differentiation (which is reinforced by the differentiation inherent in the products of the fashion system itself as presented in the magazines) is that, as Arnold Hauser (1982: 433) remarked of art, fashion comes to be defined as what is now consumed as fashion. It is the fashion magazines that in large part contribute to this definition.

[i] Many glossy magazines now have computerised templates which set story length and picture size in advance, standardise typefaces, headline sizes, picture credits and other aspects of design that make up what is known as the ‘furniture’ of a page (McKay 2000: 122).
[ii] Interview, Misao Ito, Editor-in-Chief, Harper’s Bazaar Japan, November 19, 2002.
[iii] Interview, Mitsuko Watanabe, Fashion Features Director, Vogue Nippon, September 21, 2004.
[iv] Vogue USA, March 2005, described on its cover as ‘The Power Issue’.
[v] Interview, Shōko Matsuzawa, Deputy Editor-in-Chief, Elle Japon, November 22, 2002.
[vi] The description given here builds on that provided by Aspers (2001: 17-18), but differs in one or two important respects such as the role of the photographer in the final appearance of a fashion story in a magazine.
[vii] Interview, Yasushi Fujimoto, Creative Director, Vogue Nippon, September 22, 2004.
[viii] Like art gallery openings (Plattner 1996: 145), collections are essentially occasions created to manage business and social relations.
[ix] A fashion editor is responsible for creating a distinctive fashion well, for coordinating the personnel involved in a story’s production, and for editing the photographs. The job of a stylist, on the other hand, is ‘to put the “right” clothes on the models, steam the clothes, and make sure that the right clothes are chosen, picked up and returned. The stylist, in short, takes care of everything related to the clothes’ (Aspers 2001: 83).
[x] Interview, Kaori Tsukamoto, Fashion Director, Vogue Nippon, November 20, 2002.
[xi] Interview, Mitsuko Watanabe.
[xii] Elle Hong Kong, ‘first look’, March 2005.
[xiii] Vogue Nippon, April 2005.
[xiv] Vogue UK, March 2005.
[xv] Vogue USA, March 2005.
[xvi] Compare, for example, Myth and Magic (Vogue Nippon) with Deluxe & Relaxed (Harper’s Bazaar Japan) and Spring chic is my way-ism (Elle Japon, all April 2005).

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