Death of the Fashion Editorial

As magazines struggle to compete with independent bloggers and fashion films, the time has come to take stock of, and assess, editorials.

by Emma Segal
July 2012 marked an important ‘first’ for Elle UK magazine. It announced that it was publishing its first solo male fashion editorial, starring David Beckham and shot by Doug Inglish. The majority of us will remember the images (a topless Beckham emerging from a pool, a-la James Bond, is difficult to forget). But, how many will remember the pair of Dior Homme trousers that Beckham wore? How many will go out to buy a pair because of the editorial? Do they still work, or is their continuation a result of an archaic publishing business model? Moreover, will they be able to exist in an age of declining circulation and increasing digital consumption? By 2016, CISCO estimates that web video alone will account for 55 per cent of all consumer Internet traffic globally, a fact not lost on designers or magazine editors themselves.

A natural starting point in defence of editorials is often found in the creative or artistic justification. Iconic fashion images have a unique ability to use narrative in order to capture and crystalize a moment in time. From reacting to the environment around us (see Vogue Italia’s August 2010 ‘Water & Oil’ editorial, which took inspiration from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill), to commentating on trends in our collective behaviour (as was the case in Vogue Italia’s controversial July 2007 ‘SuperMods Enter Rehab’ spread), they can be thought provoking, if this is in fact their raison d’etre.

By extension, as artistic pieces, they can afford to be even more conceptual. Style Directors, Fashion Editors, Stylists and Photographers are lauded for their ability to transcend the formalities of a shoot to craft a story. Industry leaders include Nick Knight, Olivier Rizzo, Katie Shillingford and Grace Coddington; the latter was even the unlikely star of documentary film ‘The September Issue’). Vogue Nippon’s May 2010 ‘The Girl From Atlantis’ and UK Vogue’s December 2008 ‘Unbelievable Fashion’ are just two examples of successful conceptual editorials. As a consequence, they have become iconic in their own right.

So goes the artistic/creative argument. Yet, to claim that editorials are not connected to the commercial world would be incorrect. It is because of this fact that, for some, the creative argument fails. Editorials are not, and can never be, a completely independent form of artistic expression. Speaking to The Guardian in 2008, Vogue UK’s Editor Alexandra Shulman described the difficulty of balancing editorial and advertising concerns. ‘’They’re [advertisers] not going to place £100,000 a year and then say ‘Feel free not to use any of our goods’. Life’s not like that. So, although there is this feeling sometimes that creatively it’s not pure, well - magazines are a business. You’re not sitting there writing poetry’.

So, for editorials to be viable, they must satisfy business needs in addition to creative sensibilities. Perhaps, then, the editorial can be saved if it can be shown to successfully highlight and champion innovative design. AnOther Magazine’s S/S 2009 ‘Future Fashion’ spread, featuring a statuesque Tilda Swinton and shot by Craig McDean, was instrumental in the breakthrough of young designers such as Mary Katrantzou and Mark Fast. Furthermore, profiles of slightly more established designers (such as Peter Pilotto) were raised by the AnOther editorial. The thinking goes something like this; a raised profile makes for an increase in sales potential. Therefore, from a designer’s perspective, the editorial can in principal achieve the same result as an advertisement, but in a less obvious (and costly) way.

The fact that an editorial offers the potential to increase sales should therefore be enough to ease the qualms of the opposition. The aim of advertisements is undoubtedly to raise awareness and increase sales. However, like editorials, they cannot completely guarantee results. If an advertisement has failed on this count, it has failed full stop. By contrast, editorials’ extra layer of creativity enables couture and conceptual fashion to be presented in a way which advertisements simply cannot. I doubt that Hussein Chalayan designed his A/W 2000 coffee table skirt with the intention of selling it en masse; but the attention it (and he) received following its feature in several high profile editorials was probably something he welcomed.

The question now becomes: Which is better for business and sales? Advertisements? Editorials? Or neither? Some brands now run their own blogs and even make their own magazines in an effort to cut out the associated costs involved in outsourcing these tasks to PR and Advertising agencies. A high profile example is Acne, which publishes it’s biannual magazine, Acne Paper. New York Magazine recently profiled the rise of this particular trend, quoting Alice Litscher (a Fashion Communication Professor at the Institut Français de la Mode). “Why spend €40,000 a page to advertise something in Vogue’, she asks, ‘when, for the same amount of money, you can publish an entire magazine?”

It is difficult to tell what the future holds for the magazine industry and editorials. Many have professed the imminence of ‘the decline of the print press’, but Vogue US’ circulation rate remains at a steady 1 million (give or take) per month. Designers and PR Account Managers still broadly agree that editorials are important in raising designers’ profiles, if not for producing direct sales. However, there has been a nuanced shift in focus. Editorials are now one of many important sources of exposure and revenue, as opposed to being THE source. Talk PR in London, for example, has set up its DigiTalk ‘Special Intelligence’ Unit to ensure its clients (including Holly Fulton and Michael van der Ham) benefit financially from digital developments like social media and online film.

The conclusion? Editorials are useful, beautiful, and at times truly iconic; but designers can no longer afford to focus on them too closely.