Read: Vogue SG, March 2023

Under a new editor-in-chief, the local version of the American title stakes not quite everything, preferring a strong soulless digital touch

In Desmond Lim’s first Editor’s Page for Vogue SG, the EIC wrote, “I have co-designed a series of the three covers entirely created by artificial intelligence.” One senses a certain pride—and satisfaction—in that declaration (and the reduction of employable human models?). EICs, who are former fashion stylists who continue to style (or co-create) covers, are not new (British Vogue’s Edward Enninful and, before she left French Vogue, Carine Roitfeld, just to name two). Mr Lim, however, could be the first to put an AI-generated image on the venerated covers of Vogue. He has been behind the covers of past issues of the SG edition, and his desire to continue is not surprising. But what boggles the mind is the choice of the model, “Faye”, who could pass off as the bride of Yondu (Guardians of the Galaxy). The question on so many lips when the photos of the latest covers—there are three of them—were circulated: “Put out with Anna’s blessings?” One veteran fashion editor was bemused, “Seems like Vogue SG works independently. Or has gone rogue.”

It is not known what information or data was provided to spawn the alien with an Asian face (and her other exotic sisters). AI imaging tools are, of course, getting more sophisticated than what our eyes can discern as natural. However hard Mr Lim tries to convince readers that this is “guided closely by the words tradition and future”, the effect offered neither. This is essentially ‘deepfake’—synthetic media, matter of the metaverse, or what The Guardian called “the 21st century’s answer to Photoshopping”. It is not real, nor the tradition it purports to underscore. Even the names of the “avatars” (there are nine of them) are “fictional”, the magazine makes known. Correspondingly, the fashion isn’t real too, except one Ferragamo dress and one Prada top, even then, we know they are simulated. Deepfakes have a dark side too. They are largely associated with pornography. There is even a “network of deepfake bots” on Telegram that, according to a 2020 report by security firm Sensity, create, when requested, naked images of women. If not sexually explicit stuff, there are last week’s AI-created photos of a Donald Trump violently arrested or the now-gone-viral pictures of the Pope in a puffer! Even with the employment of specious species on the Vogue SG cover, we are told that the issue is about “roots” (we’re glad there is no more pretentious fonts such as the inaugural comeback issue’s ‘triptych’). Is that imaginary too?

This is essentially ‘deepfake’—synthetic media, matter of the metaverse

We have been asked, “why the creepy blue make-up?” We wish we could say that it has anthropological links (out of the three cover outfits, two are blue!). This is not Mr Lim’s first cover with Na’vi skin. Last year’s May/June issue was graced by a pair of very blue (the theme of the month) hands. And if blue make-up is not applied, then there would be a patina of blue, as seen in the issue of the following month, when Cardi B was the cover girl. Or, as in this issue, blue eyes and blue dress of the other computer-generated South Asian-looking lass “Aadhya”. Mr Lim tells us that he “notice(s) a huge shift in the way the current generation is embracing culture and heritage.” How the young are accepting them, he does not say. But with his covers , does he suppose his readers do not interact with the substantive when it comes to what clothes are really saying about the world we live in? Or, has fashion become so immaterial for magazines now that so much can be gleaned from social media? Perhaps these days, as one designer pointed out, what Mr Lim refers to as the “current generation” no longer asks, “Can I see myself in it? Is it relevant?” Another designer asked, “Do they care?”

We concede that magazines serve different functions these days. Readers are not looking to periodicals for the same gratification they enjoyed before the great digital takeover. Gone are the days of the glossies. Heritage titles—such as Vogue—have mostly banked on their names than compelling content to propel themselves forward. The digital version is more important than a physical copy. And the better print appears to be shaped by digital hands, the more glorious. Vogue SG has always been proud of how they are so tethered to the digital world. Mr Lim proudly informs us of their future-tech initiative From Blockchain to Love Chain on, as well as how he’s “looking forward to engaging the Vogue Singapore community further through the Vogue Club Membership—which bridges lifestyle, fashion, Web 3,0 and technology”. In tandem with our nation’s determined Smart Nation push, harnessing technology in all aspects of our lives to make them better?

The three covers of this month’s Vogue SG available at Kinokuniya

One senses that as long as the masthead reads Vogue, the EICs can do whatever they desire and readers will still come forth to grab an issue. But a magazine isn’t just the masthead and what/who is positioned beneath it. As a read (and not just at the hairdressers’), the refreshed Vogue SG (with the curious double-registration nameplate), seems to us, a tad more local than it was under the watch of its previous EIC. While it is still leans obviously on its Asian positioning, it now accommodates more stories that we can call ours, or at least native. While some of the usual suspects are featured, ‘The Collectors’, for example, showed that there are serious, astute fashion consumers on our island even if you rarely see them on, say, Orchard Road. While the story is skimpy on the minutiae of collecting, it does put at least three faces to the fashion bought and worn, when brands would normally not divulge who their big spenders are. It is also noteworthy that interjected in the pages are the relatable and enjoyable essays by Roland Barthes-quoting Paralympian Toh Wei Soong and the kaku-in-speech writer Azrin Tan. By contrast, the fashion spreads—some 52 pages— are totally forgettable.

Last October, Vogue SG ran into licensing trouble. 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”. After initially revoking their license to operate, MCI gave Vogue SG six months to continue upon publisher Media Publishares’s reapplication. That the magazine could put out a March issue (although late), may mean that they were given the chance to endure. Vogue SG will live, for now. In fact, the magazine seems determined to avoid the previous breaches, egregious or not. Much of its content now could be deemed safe, devoid of alternative lifestyles (that got them into trouble) even when they advocate the “altiverse”, with the corresponding images to augment its alt-positioning. Did The One, Gabriel Yulaw, not say that the universes of the multiverse are “irrational, sloppy”? Vogue SG has leapt outside the circumscription of the frankly-quaint fashion magazine, and what it projects has minimal for the readers’ selves (what would Patsy Stone say?!). When it headlines with “a spectacular cover story that, needless to say, is ridiculously cool”, it sets itself, quite honestly, for heated ridicule.

Photos: Zhao Xiamgji

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