Many Of Us Don’t Buy Magazines Anymore

Or, why the issue of one particular month of the year no longer clicks


US Vogue September 2019The latest issue of Vogue’s unusually thin September issue

By Boh Chin Swee

Big, sadly, is no longer better.

U.S. Vogue’s September issue used to be the queen of September issues. They practically created the year’s biggest and, detrimentally to wrists, the heaviest magazine—so much weight that even the commemorative tome of the Met’s annual fashion exhibition in May seems as light as a paperback novel. Ten years after the 2009 movie, The September Issue, that went behind the scene to see the making of Vogue’s usher-in-fall 2007 edition, and also if editor-in-chief (EIC, but better referred to as “editrix”—think dominatrix and you’ll get the gist) Anna Wintour was the editorial terror that she was reputed to be, the September issue seems to have lost its legendary lure and, quite possibly, become diluted in its fashion lore.

For me, Vogue’s issue for the first month of autumn is no longer a yearly must-buy, or part of a monthly habit, panacea to urban humdrum. Like many people, I stopped picking up the magazine since the birth of the now-defunct, a waiting-to-be-reborn site that offered more fashion than any I knew at that time. Vogue, by then, had become too formulaic and lost a sense of immediacy—it weakened and waned against an online media climate it could not positively challenge nor cleverly embraced. I eventually committed to one purchase yearly—the September issue, not due to hunger for its pages, but to keep the buying of the magazine that I once read religiously, alive. As for the issues of the other months, I get my fix—if I needed to have it—at the magazines-galore PS Café.

The truth is, I have lost my near-addiction to the title—completely. I still love print; I still buy books, and I do read the papers, but fashion news in print form has, as we are well aware, overtaken by much that’s put online, good or bad. I was a very regular reader of Vogue, and used to devote my meal budget to both British and the US versions on a, more or less, monthly basis. One of my best friends have been buying and collecting Vogue—every month without fail—since the ’70s, during his undergraduate days in Australia. I have even visited his veritable library, so expanded it made Basheer Books looked like a corner newsstand, when I needed to research on pseudo-academic stuff I used to write for leisure, from Yves Saint Laurent to Yves Klein.

US Vogue September 2019 P2.jpgThe stack on the floor as seen in Kinokuniya shortly after the magazine was released locally

I gleaned a lot from them Vogues, just as I did from Harper’s Bazaar,  Interview, Vanity Fair, (and, as I remember now, everything Truman Capote had written, even years after his death in 1984), during a time when magazines not only offered more long-form writing than newspapers, but also writing that were informative and, dare I say, fun to read. Online titles were still not the comprehensive publications some of them are today. Google Search was launched, coincidentally, on September, in the year of 1997, when Linda Evagenlista wore a fur coat on that biggest issue, which proclaimed “The Thrill Is Back”. But then, Google Search was not quite the convenience and instant gratification of today’s search engines, and not the AI quickness and, gasp, acuity that it now is. Vogue, together with others, also filled the huge gaping gaps inadvertently or, perhaps, deliberately offered by spurious fashion titles of local publishers, such as the now-nearly-sixty Singapore Press Holdings flagship Her World—gaps that were there because it was assumed readers didn’t care as much about fashion as they did the disloyalty, affairs, and shenanigans of their lovers or husbands, or the best ways to deal with the office back-stabber.

The current September issue of Vogue is now in my hands. It has been exactly a year since I last purchased what was once often dubbed as “the fashion bible”, distasteful as that might have been to regular church-goers. Weight gain may not be something Vogue encourages, but its own mass, up or down, has never been an issue. This month, it weighs 1.1 kilos, compared to the 2.3 back in the September of 2007, now thirty one years since Anna Wintour’s first U.S. Vogue cover. Weight reduction means page-count contraction too. In 2007, the magazine boasted on the Sienna Miller cover “extra-extra large… biggest issue ever… 840 pages” (although the largest would be five years later, fronted by Lady Gaga, at 916, minus the front and back covers). It was the first time I had to use a bookmark for a magazine. This year’s big equals 596 pages—just 65 percent of that most gargantuan. The dwindling number, however, no longer receives a blurb on the cover. In fact, since 2017, on its “125th Anniversary Collector’s edition”, there was no mention of the page extent, a marketing habit initiated by Ms Wintour back in 1996, if I remember correctly. Then, it was 700 pages, and the count, in subsequent years, continued to climb, until the peak of the cover of 2012. It has since seen a recurring dip. After that 125th year issue, Vogue no longer blatantly prides itself with the number of pages that can equal the big fat novel’s.

Once, the size of Vogue was a major eye-opening thrill, but now no one even looks for those three digits on the cover anymore. Do words matter then? I am not sure I am enticed—not since 2007, I recall. From 2000, these were the adjectives, adjectival phrases, and nouns used to describe the fall fashion offerings: super, fabulous, all-out glamour, polished, spectacular, unforgettable, dramatic, fearless, brilliant, stylish and smart, sumptuous, extravaganza, spectacular (second time), fabulous (again), spectacular (third), wildly wonderful, fantastic fearless (sounds familiar?), global, and, this month, radical. Is radicalism in fashion still making news? Am I—are we—still seduced?

US Vogue September 2019 P3The unnecessary second cover in the gate-fold

Does the latest then really welcome me, or, as it urges, to “come on in” to 596 pages of fashion magazine spell or what non-editrix editors would call pagination hell? I am not sure Taylor Swift pointing at me somewhat insolently is invitation to enter, but I am, to be sure, not a fan, nor a member of her now-inert Girl Squad, so her appeal, even in Louis Vuitton (mostly obscured), is extremely limited. Past the cover, there’s another. The gatefold-as-entrance-way that’s mostly the extended Yves Saint Laurent ad of their new fragrance Libre has one page of the cover girl in a Farrah Fawcett-esque hair and pose. I don’t know why I need to look at the retro-looking Ms Swift again on the recto (with masthead again), a layout that sees her sharing the page to her left with the far much more attractive, also-singer Dua Lipa. Was Yves Saint Laurent not willing to pay for that extra space? Ms Swift may have a hit song Style, but she, to me, is hardly embodiment, and not quite iconic enough to necessitate two covers in one magazine, however thick.

It then takes me 186 page turns—saliva-ed index finger aside—before I could get to the Letter from the Editor, and another 16 more before I can read the second of the two-page tedium to finish what Ms Wintour has to say. She may be fashion’s sharpest and fiercest mind, with decided opinions, but she’s not the editorial voice that can be compared to the fellow Brit who was once considered by the media as her rival—Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair (1984 to 1992) and author of The Diana Chronicles, biography of the late Princess of Wales. All through her 36 years at Vogue, Ms Wintour has not been known as the epitome of wit—hauteur perhaps, but not quite the cleverness of phrase that can match her fierceness or gumption. In fact, she hardly writes, if not for the two-pager that precedes what she deems fashion dispatch of the month.

After crossing the threshold (or the inevitable advertising behind the cover), it is 238 pages later before I arrive at the first read in the section called Upfront (how, now, I appreciate hyperlinks!). And 457 pages to ride out before I land on the fashion spreads. Along the way, through familiar hallways and rooms filled and decorated with the usual Nostalgia and intros to newish stuff, are the meek editorial bits that precede the fashion chunks of the issue, which opens with the poorly-punned poser “Wear do we Go from Here?” “We’ve been having big conversations, emotional conversations, about fashion lately,” wrote the unnamed staffer who penned that page. In the present, when the comments of influencers on their IG posts are big conversations and the poor naming of a celebrity’s “solutionswear” elicits emotional conversations, it is a little over-the-top that Vogue’s discourse on the current state of fashion, already dissected thoughtfully elsewhere, is thought to be massive. Weightier, perhaps, would be to place where the magazine stands, now that it has brought it up, on the issue of “our overflowing wardrobes”, even when they “peruse the possibilities of a Burberry trench or a satin tuxedo from Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello…” while “attuned not simply to their immediacy but to their longevity—and to the notion that, perhaps, we might keep them circulating in the system by selling them on to someone else”, from one overflowing wardrobe to another overflowing wardrobe. Or, longevity in someone else’s wardrobe as long as it’s not mine!

US Vogue September 2019 P4Where, indeed, Vogue?

Many of us come to Vogue for fashion or, specifically, the fashion pages. At least we used to. Their fashion spreads now infrequently effect a narrative that can inspire us, or to the point that we can, as per their fave editorial hope, dream. I look at this issue’s six, all shot outdoors save two (and a partial), and I was not sent to the moon; over the vale perhaps, but only to encounter a reprise of the ridiculous headgear that Beyoncé wore on the cover of the last September issue. Why? Because the photographer is, again, Tyler Mitchell? Vogue can be lazy with other months, but not the September issue.

I know it is no longer imperative that a fashion magazine show clothes that can be viewed in great detail. No one requires to see the softness of silks or the exquisiteness of embroidery. A pleated skirt need only give the impression of pleats, not show the definite edges that are associated with, say, knives. Vogue used to impress with clarity and detail, but now that you can easily zoom in on photos online, the magazine may have thought that it is pointless to go beyond creating a mood or showing a look since your fingers can’t pinch or expand on paper for the same effects that you can get on a touch screen. Perhaps that explains why, for example, the fashion spreads don’t compel you to stop and really look, not especially those pages featuring Gigi Hadid jumping childishly on a trampoline, dispensing with any piece in the coordinated looks appearing with enough focus for the reader to discern its design value. But, perhaps, that does not matter. Don’t you trust Vogue?

Shortly after finishing the S$22.90 magazine in about 20 minutes, I spoke to a friend working in Hong Kong who is a regular Vogue reader. Did you buy the September issue, I asked. “It’s the only one I buy,” she replied, “but immediately regretted.” When I asked why she felt that way, she gave me one answer, which, as it turned out, was already my guess: “boring”. Which also means, to the rightfully expectant us, not an inch in the whole magazine is inspiring. Or, as Ruth Reichl told James Truman, Condé Nast’s powerful former editorial director, what she thought of the stories in Gourmet (Vogue’s once kindred publication that has closed) before she excepted the job offer to be the epicurean mag’s EIC, “I’m sorry, but they put me to sleep”.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji