Kirstie Clements, the ‘Vogue Factor’, and not trying hard enough

Posted: August 12, 2013 in Uncategorized
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This review appears in this month’s Marylebone Journal, but they’ve taken the book reviews off the website, and I think the issues matter – so:

I’ve never had a huge amount of time for high fashion, or Vogue and its ilk, and so Kirstie Clements’ memoir of her twenty-five years at Australian Vogue (thirteen as editor) was probably never going to really impress me with its glamour and excitement. The ostentatiously glitzy lifestyle (international travel! expensive restaurants! champagne! chandeliers! jewellery!) and lavish events costing millions of pounds for products that often never make the market I find faintly nauseating rather than enticing. We live in a world where millions are dying in poverty and you expect me to read about the roller disco held in a spaceship specially built in a Tokyo park without raising a cynical eyebrow as to how the money could have been better spent? Good luck with that.

Lest such an opening seem uncharitable, let me point out now that Kirstie’s trajectory is fascinating, her writing engaging and humorous, and the self she presents likable and attractively direct. Her detemination and commitment to fashion journalism with intelligence and integrity is not in doubt. But if there’s one thing that comes out of Vogue Factor, it’s how monumentally, utterly fucked up the fashion industry and its assorted hangers-on are – and by extension, it’s difficult to absolve Clements of her dedication to its perpetuation. If you know your models are exhausted from starvation and spend half their time as in-patients, stop using them. Instead of wailing about how you can’t do that because the sample sizes designers send are minescule (to the extent that in one particularly shocking anecdote a ‘fit model’ to whom samples are cut spent most of her time in hospital on a drip), showcase the work of other designers who make clothes for human beings. You’re Vogue, create the damn market – you have the platform, and your readers have the demand. The repeated excuse that clothes ‘don’t hang right’ off non-skeletal bodies does not, to me, suggest the employment of anorexic twelve-year-olds to ensure the requisite proportions, but that designers should damn well learn to cut clothes for healthy bodies, and the ‘industry standard’ should be some approximation of physically functional. You know, girls with breasts who menstruate.  It’s really, really hard to come away from the Vogue Factor not raging – and although Kirstie details  her ‘horror’ at the shattering levels of body dysmorphia amongst her colleagues and her ‘complicity’ in what ‘the industry was covering up’, that doesn’t let her off the hook for allowing the ‘fashion department’ on whom she blames the obsession with thin to have their way, issue after issue. She details the slide from showcasing ‘a healthy, toned Australian [or UK] 10’ to permanently dieting, skeletal girls who acquired ‘mood swings, extreme fatigue, binge eating and sometimes self-harming’ to replace their lost kilos, and her ban on models under 16 – and a single fashion shoot with a size 14 model – really don’t seem to cut the metaphorical mustard in terms of combating the problem. Even Vogue’s much-vaunted 2012 Health Initiative – banning models under 16 or those suffering from eating disorders – seems somewhat like using a sticking plaster to stem a brain haemorrhage, all the more so given that, as Kirstie says, the ‘no eating disorders’ bit is incredibly difficult to police. (And, one would imagine, difficult to enforce when fashion houses are using regularly-hospitalised anorexic patients to dictate their clothing sizes.)

The Vogue Factor is a stimulating, fascinating read, and if you’re interested in the real-life experience of a jetsetting lifestyle full of free luxury and socialising with royals, Gwyneth Paltrow and Armani, it’s probably a godsend. But by far the most notable aspect of the book is the terrible price we as a culture pay for fashion – and no amount of glamour is ever really going to cover that up.

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