How the Fashion Magazine Cover went Activist

The covers of fashion magazines – as well as their internal content – are becoming less fixated on fashion, pivoting to project activist values. A new generation approves.

These days, it’s less about what you look like and more about what you do. The global warming emergency and the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement have inspired fashion magazine covers worldwide, while a flurry of covers since early 2020 have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The trend gathered force back in April 2020 during the first wave of Covid-19, reflected in Vogue Portugal’s cover of two people kissing through their masks. That same month, an intensive care doctor posed for the front page of Grazia UK, and a lung specialist for Vanity Fair Italia. A few months later, British Vogue’s July multiple cover stars included midwife Rachel Millar, train driver Narguis Horsford and supermarket assistant Anisa Omar.

The transition in cover content had started earlier. In 2019, we saw environmental activist Greta Thunberg on the cover of i-D, holding a badge to her eye that read ‘Save Our Climate’. Meanwhile, GQ Portugal shared closeups of women, tongues out, with bold text: “If you abuse women, please do not buy GQ.” 

Skip to 2021 and American Vice President Kamala Harris the first woman and the first person of colour to serve in the role has posed, in nonchalant style, for the cover of Vogue US. In July, Dazed relaunched under new editor-in-chief Ibrahim Kamara, with a striking set of seven covers and a global point of view. One cover features an image of a visor-wearing vaccinator and a Gucci-wearing vaccinatee; another explores cultural coexistence and diversity in Guangzhou, China.

Something’s going on here. Fashion titles of all genres are starting to echo a different rhetoric. The rhetoric of a new generation, of the young and the engaged, a generation that wants inclusivity, equality, sustainability and transparency – and wants it now. 

 But while the evolution of the cover reflects a shift in the mind-set of the industry, it can be hard to differentiate between honesty and tokenism. Who is really guiding this change?

 “In the face of justice, activism has re-emerged from the margins and taken a hold of the mainstream,” says Edward Enninful, editor-in-chief of British Vogue, speaking in a Vogue Digital video. In September 2020, when all 26 editions of Vogue worldwide focused on the theme of ‘hope’, Enninful brought together 40 activists for British Vogue, including footballer-turned-crowd-funder Marcus Rashford, model/campaigner Adwoa Aboah and award-winning author Reni Eddo-Lodge. Enninful’s issue paid homage to George Floyd and the BLM movement. 

This year, Enninful has invited Nobel Peace Prize winner, activist, campaigner and survivor Malala Yousafzai to grace the cover of the July issue, reflecting on her decade-long fight for girls’ education and pondering her plans for the future, with Apple CEO Tim Cook.

How times have changed at British Vogue, notes Andrew O’Hagan, author, journalist and editor-at-large of Esquire. “I remember being asked to join a forum at Vogue in, like, 2000. Alexandra Shulman was editor. It was a panel of men… Alexandra wanted us all to discuss whether size matters in fashion. When I think of it now, it seems like a discussion from prehistory. I tried to argue that heavier women were beautiful – I had a size 14 girlfriend at the time – and that Vogue had a political responsibility to get plus-size women on the cover, or at least in the fashion pages. The notion was laughed out of court. The others spoke about it as if it were ludicrous.”

He’s pleased about the progress. “That just couldn’t happen now. Glossy magazines became aware, about ten years ago, that a much-delayed zero tolerance had arrived, and that all-white, all-straight, all-skinny models were part of a huge problem in terms of representation. It’s still not right, it’s far from perfect, but young people, as in the consumers, have made it clear they won’t tolerate the old ways and that’s had a direct impact on the market and on fashion journalism.”

Since his appointment as editor-in-chief of British Vogue three years ago, Enninful has diversified content and broadened the magazine’s horizons, while using his platform to discuss matters of social crisis and social justice. “Edward Enninful has transformed the publication to represent a global audience. He’s delivered some of the most inspiring and diverse covers in the history of fashion,” says Darnell Strom, head of the culture and leadership division at United Talent Agency.

The internet has proven to be a positive force in holding up a mirror to fashion, revealing its blemishes, inadequacies and exploitative tendencies. We’re more aware of sweatshops in Bangladesh or Leicester, England. We’re hyper-alert to exclusivity and discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality or size. Fashion communicators are responding by driving positive agendas to mediate necessary change. 

 The new mood for activism is driving changes in the media. O’Hagan says: “Magazines are an appendage of the commercial world: what the market tolerates, they will tolerate. That’s what happened to journalism. It used to be that the journalism would lead the change – think of the miniskirt – but it was the market that responded to the new activism. I love magazines but I expect them to lead fashion, not just reflect it.”

When Marie Claire US produced its first sustainability issue in 2018, editor-in-chief Anne Fulenwider said, “In order to stay relevant, we need to be on top of sustainability practices.” Three years on, the comment has a puzzling whiff of tokenism about it. As if content is all business strategy rather than editorial sincerity.

Campbell Addy, a fashion photographer and filmmaker, says: “It’s great to politicise work, but only if you are involved in said politics. There is this huge trend to make work political, but like… are you down? Are you really down with the cause?”

As the ratio of activism to escapism recalibrates, we are seeing new faces on magazine covers, a refreshing explosion of independent mags, editorial shakeups, and an exorcism of those who don’t care. Publications like It’s Freezing in LA! and More or Less have been launched by young founders, promoting sustainable values at their core. Bricks Magazine, founded by Tori West, 27, promotes young queer talent while challenging long-established fashion institutions. Campbell Addy, 28, has created Nii Journal to explore empowerment and representation surrounding race, gender and sexuality.

A new wave of young fashion journalists approve. “I’d much rather hear from younger creatives working their way up, actively making those industry-defying changes, than a bunch of old editors who can’t relate to the vast spectrum of people that fashion entices because they’re too comfortable in their shiny offices to go out and see what is going on in the fringes,” says London freelance fashion journalist Ellie Goodman.

Fashion isn’t all about politics and activism, and we love it for the same reasons we always did. But, now we need more from it. Urgently.

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