By letterhead | September 2, 2008
Vogue has caused a bit of a stir with the August issue of Vogue India.
The issue contains a fashion spread with pictures of destitute Indians posed with exorbitantly priced luxury goods, like this child in a $100 bib from Fendi… probably about three months salary for the woman holding him. (Yep… three months salary just for the kid to spit-up on it.)
The views of Vogue’s critics are best summed up by Pavan K. Varma, a former diplomat and author of ‘The Great Indian Middle Class,’ who told the UK Independent:
“People [in India] who have money or who aspire to have money become totally immune to the deprivation around them. The problem is that the wealthy in our country have become blind to the poverty. To use people like this shows a complete callousness to genuine suffering. These people have been used as commodities to sell fashion.”
The editor of Vogue India, Priya Tanna, responded with two points, telling The New York Times:
“Lighten up,” she said in a telephone interview. Vogue is about realizing the “power of fashion” she said, and the shoot was saying that “fashion is no longer a rich man’s privilege. Anyone can carry it off and make it look beautiful,” she said. “You have to remember with fashion, you can’t take it that seriously,” Ms. Tanna said. “We weren’t trying to make a political statement or save the world,” she said.
And she told the Independent:
“For our India issue we wanted to showcase beautiful objects of fashion in an interesting and engaging context. We saw immense beauty, innocence, and freshness in the faces of the people we captured. This was a creative pursuit that we consider one of our most beautiful editorial executions. Why would people see it any other way?”
GIVE THAT MAN A BURBERRY UMBRELLA
Well actually Priya, fashion is a rich man’s privilege — especially the fashion that Vogue is selling. That’s the whole friggin point of luxury goods isn’t it???
And when you put a $200 umbrella in the hands of a pauper who can’t afford teeth… the image is a political statement in and of itself. Duh.
As for extreme poverty being an “interesting and engaging context” with “immense beauty, freshness, and innocence”… I was under the mistaken impression that “primitivism” went out with the 1930s. Civilized, educated people no longer idealize and romanticize the lost innocence of the natives.
In fact, let’s do a test. Can a NYC bum “carry it off” with a Burberry umbrella?
How about a “Ladies of Appalachia” photo spread for Hermes or Coach?
No? Not interesting or engaging enough? Not innocent enough? Don’t look happy enough about being poor? The poverty not charmingly “foreign” enough?
What if I could find you some smiling American bag-people with striking silhouettes who wouldn’t prick your conscience by frowning? Would they be fashionable enough for Vogue?
In the NY Times piece, Nick Debnam, chairman of KPMG’s consumer markets practice in the Asia-Pacific region is credited with the following enlightened views:
The idea of being able to afford something but not buying it because you do not want to flaunt your money reflects a “very Western attitude,” he said. In China and other emerging markets, “if you’ve made it, you want everyone to know that you’ve made it,” and luxury brands are the easiest way to do that, he said.
Oh personal restraint is just soooo… Yankee.
Like the Washington lobbyist who wraps her gifts in money? (Yes folks, real dollar bills that she buys in sheets from the U.S. mint and cuts up like wrapping paper.)
The Western world… from ancient Rome, to the kings and queens of old Europe, to the titans of American capitalism (and lobbyists too)… is just the epitome of restraint. No opulence. Nary a hint of indulgence. Because Las Vegas would NEVER want to flaunt anything, least of all its money.
Vogue’s critics are just guilty of western cultural chauvinism by trying to deprive the natives of their natural custom to flaunt their wealth by buying shiny objects… fueled by aspirations of mimicking a western luxe lifestyle that hates showy expressions of wealth?
Do I have that right Nick?
Because I really can’t figure out what the fuck you’re saying with that bullshit contradictory quote of your’n!
DISCLOSURE: I LIKE MONEY TOO
I live in NYC, how could I not? You gotta make a boat load just to pay rent and still be able to splurge on a peanut butter sandwich once in a while.
I also kinda like fashion; I’d have a whole closet full of Paul Smith suits if I could afford it. And I get up early twice a year, just to get to the head to the line for the Barney’s warehouse sale. (Hey, I was raised a New England Yankee with a penchant for good-stuff-cheap.)
What I don’t have is patience for stupidity.
The fetishizing of money – and the callousness it engenders towards other people and the common good – is one of the chief sins of the West, yet it’s one of our chief exports to the developing world.
That’s what Vogue is selling with this photo spread, and it’s precisely what Vogue’s critics aren’t buying.
They see the crisis of consumption we face here at home — the ravages of financial irresponsibility, the sheer physical destructiveness of gluttony, the numbness of mind that comes with the overcommercialization of everything, our reactionary aggressiveness when our entitlement is threatened — and they are rightfully scared.
SPIN HAS CONSEQUENCES
It’s the theme of this site. And in this little dust up half a world away we are concerned with BIG-spin. Cultural spin.
Not a cover up of some diddling company misdeeds. Not a shoddy press release. Nor a bloated quote from some corporate gas bag.
The issue here is much bigger. Mr. Debnam (a gas bag to be sure) may have been a little more revealing than he intended when he said of the poor:
“Most of the luxury companies don’t consider these people,” when they’re thinking of selling products, he said, “and even the consumer product companies don’t look at them.”
Yes, he’s right.
And what happened in this Vogue incident is that they got called on it. Vogue used these un-named non-people… put them front and center to exoticize their products, forgetting that some people don’t take the poor for granted… that some people can’t look at them (the way Vogue does) and not really SEE THEM.
On the one hand:
For now, the Indian middle and upper class — and the companies that aim to cater to it — are just getting used to having new money, said V. Sunil, creative director for advertising agency Weiden & Kennedy in India, which opened its first office here last September. “No one thinks they need to do something deeper for the public,” like address India’s social ills, he said. (NYTimes, emphasis added)
Yet at the same time:
An Indian company like Aravind Eyecare, which is the largest ophthalmic hospital system in the world, does more than a quarter-million procedures a year… and does 60% of them for free.
And in a new book on globalization a senior executive of India’s Tata Group says, “The Tata Group’s fundamental belief is that you have to create wealth in the communities you serve.”
Say the book’s authors: “Many executives in [emerging market countries] deeply believe that they are working for the good of their countries and for their future.”
So, Messrs. Debnam and Sunil be damned. And Ms. Tanna to boot.
They are wrong. And not just in a small pr-spin kind of way. They are wrong in a big cultural-sense kind of way. (And isn’t it funny how it’s three spokespeople from a western fashion magazine, a western management consultancy, and a western ad agency all telling us we shouldn’t be concerned about how Indians feel about their poor?)
Says Pavan K. Varma: “Right now in India money is fashionable…”
The big question, and danger, for much of the “developing world” is whether they will buy into Ms. Tanna’s spin, and whether her brand of empty-headed, self-indulgent, callousness will become fashionable along with all the money.