Trouble At Vogue SG

Will there be a second exit?

The latest issue of Vogue SG, out just today, with Jackson Wang on the cover. Photo: Jim Sim

Is Vogue SG not destined to enjoy longevity here? Or a glorious life? Will the comeback publication meet with the same fate as its former self? These questions followed media reports (even in Malaysia) that the validity of its license to publish has been halved—from its current one-year permit—after the publishing of a quartet of editorials deemed unsuitable for Singaporean consumption. According to The Straits Times this morning, the Ministry of Communication and Information (MCI) stated that the Singaporean edition of the global fashion title “had breached the content guidelines for local lifestyle magazines on four occasions within the past two years, for nudity and content that promoted non-traditional families”, despite what ST called “a stern warning”. MCI also disclosed that the license of Vogue SG was, in fact, revoked with effect yesterday, but the magazine—finally a monthly this October (they were, since the launch, a bi-monthly)—reapplied and was granted the six months. Publisher of Vogue SG Media Publishares (former Indochine Media Ventures or IMV), has not responded to the media reports.

Before the news of this breach emerged, the word buzzing about last night in media circles was that Vogue SG’s editor-in-chief Norman Tan has resigned from his position. He would be, we heard, heading for the Big Apple to join Apple (we were not able to independently verify this, but he was in New York last month for NYFW and he could have taken time off to do something else?). As the news of the magazine’s recurrent infraction began to be quickly shared, we were sent, together with links to the news stories, the burning question: “Could this be one of the reasons Norman Tan decided to leave?”, with others adding, “coupled with the fact that he knows the title is not doing well?” A media old-timer also chimed in: “It is going to be hard for them to get brand support if they really have just six months left to operate.” When Mr Tan was appointed as the EIC in 2020, Vogue SG’s socialite-publisher Bettina von Schlippe told the media that his “rich expertise in journalism and publishing makes us confident that he will present a new and exciting vision for the title, while upholding the values of the brand.” She made no mention of upholding the values of the nation and its people.

Norman Tan, right, with Condé Nast’s global chief content officer Anna Wintour. Photo: musingmutley/Instagram

Norman Tan’s appointment at Vogue SG was, at that time, a surprise to some in the publishing industry. Mr Tan, a former lawyer, was editing two IMV titles prior, Buro and Esquire SG. He had not, until Vogue SG, directed the content of a woman’s magazine and yet he secured the post in what many (still) consider a “fashion bible”. Some observers thought he was handed the job because IMV wanted to choose from within, rather than hire someone more experienced and, inevitably, expensive (this was when COVID-19 would soon become a pandemic, affecting many editorial budgets) from outside. Moreover, Mr Tan is an eager and prolific social media user, a position that stood him in great stead, as magazine editors were expected to have conspicuous and well-followed online profiles. And he did create a Vogue SG that seemed to appeal to those who are digitally aware, who live their lives digitally, too. Last September, the magazine offered a pair of covers that were available as NSTs and this month, a virtual lounge Club Vogue—the Metaverse from the start, in fact, a recurring theme.

But has it been one Vogue that we could proudly call our own? Was there an identifiable—and relatable—identity? No one expected Vogue SG to look like the more-than-six-decades-old Her World. Mr Tan seemed to prefer a visually more edgy magazine—high on style, paltry on substance—for the market, with covers that have often been experimental (blue hands on face?) or over-styled, and unconventionally lit, sporting almost no blurb. In the ‘Editor’s Letter’ of the latest issue, he quoted Ms Wintour deferentially: “Vogue is always looking forward”. To lean that way, he picked “icons” and “mavericks” and, as MCI noted, near-nakedness and the “non-traditional” (could one of the stories MCI found objectionable be ‘Four LGBTQIA+ Advocates Share their Experiences Growing Up in Singapore’?). A former magazine journalist said to us, “it seems he’s creating a magazine for his friends, for his followers, but how much of the market do they make up?” On Instagram, Mr Tan has 27.5K followers. Is that large enough? One gripe we keep hearing is that the visually-focused magazine seems to be shaped by “angmo hands”. The EIC is, in fact, a Chinese-Australian from Melbourne, and the president of Media Publishares is the publishing veteran Michael Von Schlippe, the husband of Bettina Von Schlippe.

October issue of Vogue SG with two different covers on the rack in Kinokuniya. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

Mr Tan is inclined to Vogue-speak, calling his editorial charge in this October issue “a barometer for what’s round the corner”, just as Condé Nast has been labelling Vogue a “cultural barometer for a global audience”. It is possible that Mr Tan took “global audience” very seriously so that he could go beyond the shores of this sadly too-small island market. Condé Nast announced last August that this year’s “September issue of Vogue is centered around the idea of ‘new Beginnings’—an initiative that brings together all 27 editions of Vogue (ours is the 27th) as a powerful and emotive mark of unity (shared editorials are part of their cost-cutting measures) and message of hope for Vogue’s global community, looking ahead to a post-pandemic world.” How much of the Vogue SG identity, if it were ever established, was sacrificed for this “unity”? A marketing consultant told us, “When I read Vogue Thailand, I feel they are communicating with Thais, but when I read Vogue SG, I don’t sense that they are talking to me.” Is it erroneous then to ask if Vogue SG is an influential fashion and lifestyle magazine? Who really reads Vogue?

At Kinokuniya this morning, the latest (local) mouthpiece of the “global fashion authority”, as Condé Nast describes its most famous title, had just arrived. With most other publishing houses, an October issue out in the middle of the month is considered late—very late. The current month of Vogue SG comes with two covers: one with Jackson Wang (王嘉尔) and the other, CL (aka Lee Chae-rin), with, strangely, no accompanying story while Mr Wang is given one page to talk about his new album Magic Man. The magazines had just been placed on the five-tier rack when we visited the store; they were yet to be flipped, all in a pristine state. A massive carton of the said title, still unboxed, sat in the middle of the aisle. A staff came by and we asked, pointing to the magazine: “does our Vogue sell well?” She happily replied in the affirmative. Really? “Yes, we expect this issue to sell out,” she enthused. Really? ”Yes, because of the two stars on the cover.” As a Facebook post on the Jackson Wang Malaysia Fan Club page considered, “这次的杂志不买来收藏真的对不起自己 (if this issue of the magazine is not bought for collecting, we’ll do ourselves a great wrong)”. What about the other issues, we wondered. “Oh,” she hesitated, then said, ”not so.” We turned the final question to ourselves: Six months later, will we be writing the obituary of Vogue SG?