“Did you see that Italian Vogue is having a black issue?” “When are you going to write about the all-black issue of Vogue, Bella?”
I can’t tell you how many versions of that message I got when Stephen Meisel’s smoldering photographs hit the internet. And oh, are they ever amazing. Seeing those photos took me back to my childhood, when flipping through the pages of my sister’s magazines offered an aspirational reflection of women who looked like me (or who I thought I could perhaps someday look like, if only my body frame were half its size).
I remember flipping through magazines and being like, “that’s me!” “No THAT’s me!” with my school friends in those days. Funny to look back on that time of my life — I definitely remember looking at an old magazine with photos of Iman and Beverly Johnson, Veronica Webb, Naomi and Tyra — funny enough, the classmate I most clearly remember doing that with went on to be a real-life beauty queen and place respectably in the Miss Universe pageant. Vogue was a mainstay in the lobby of every hairdressing salon I went to as a child. But somewhere along the way, the fashion bible lost my interest. Completely.
This happened after the decline of the supermodel era, after those glorious George Michael videos I adored so much, long after Naomi appeared on House of Style with her face covered in zit cream — does anyone remember that? It was a change in me as well as a change in the magazine (and I guess in the fashion industry) — I started wanting to read magazines I could legitimately identify with more. I stopped buying Teen and Seventeen and started reading Sassy. I looked forward to filching my sister’s Marie Claire’s (oh, I loved when we’d occasionally luck into a UK Marie Claire, the articles seemed so much more interesting and the models looked so much more real. I’ve always had a penchant for UK and international versions of mainstream mags). And it was around this time that my mother started taking me to fashion shows by Trinidadian designers, like Meiling and Heather Jones. But mostly Meiling’s.
At her fashion shows, there were stunning local models of color — most notably Miss Universe contestants Wendy Fitzwilliam and Michelle Khan, and of course, the apparently ageless Sharon Imbert, of whom I couldn’t find a photo online. I didn’t need a magazine or television show to find beauties for me to aspire to be — they were close up and accessible. I still to this day remember with a fluttering heart, when Trinidadian model and jewelry designer Jeneile McCarthy complimented me on my lipstick at Meiling’s Kapok store. It was Copper Sunset, by Sacha Cosmetics. I was a teenager! And all these years later, I still remember.
Where I’m from, the fashion, much like the overall demographic breakdown of the country itself, reverses the typical racial ratio you see in America and Europe. To see what I mean, click here to see Meiling’s latest collection, M Squared, which will be sold by Trinidadian retail store Micles (it’s kind of like an Isaac Mizrahi for Target kind of thing). Although the designs aren’t as glamorous as Meiling’s usual designs (which steer towards the classic and elegant), they do represent the typical Caribbean fashion show experience. The shows tend to be bright, fun, flowy (as the weather would indicate), and most of the models come in every shade of brown you can imagine. The best part is, not only can you imagine yourself wearing the clothes; you can also imagine yourself on stage. In fact, now that I think about it, it’s entirely probable that immersing myself in Caribbean fashion led to the final straw between me and Vogue magazine — after experiencing glamor I could see, touch, and almost afford, a fashion shoot of a crop of alabaster, cookie cutter models in clothes that cost way too much simply left me unmoved and uninspired.
It took me forever to figure out why it was taking me forever to write about the new issue of Italian Vogue. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to read about it — aside from being covered by every newsoutlet I can think of, every blogger I adore wrote about it and posted lush slide shows, and I’ve been eagerly reading them all. Most notably, Make Fetch Happen has been doing stellar coverage, alongside Jezebel, and Stereohyped, which asked the question that was bothering me all along — is creating an all-black issue of a magazine just a superficial way to address the deeper issues that so obviously plague the industry? Or, as American Vogue asked in their sad attempt at “who, us?” deflection — Is Fashion Racist? Is Italian Vogue throwing a one-time-only bone to placate and hopefully silence the increasingly loud chorus of complaints from people within the industry as well as the women who read and purchase these magazines? Is it in fact, that dreaded T word — tokenism? Or is it symptomatic of larger change that is slowly coming around again? Now that American Apparel’s bringing Eighties Hypercolor back, can we expect a return of all things Eighties, including supermodels that women all shades of beautiful can name, know, and identify with? Now that George Michael is making a return to the spotlight, shall we wait with baited breath for him to once again make a music video that calls upon the current crop of pretty young things, including Jourdan Dunn, Chanel Iman, Arlenis Sosa, and the gorgeous Sessilee Lopez — who has her own blog? I don’t know. And it’s not that I don’t care, I just feel like Iman does — Why are we still talking about this in 2008?
Although — to quote Iman again, my main concern with this issue of Italian Vogue is that this will be a one-off special — “They’ll think, ‘Okay, we did it.’ And then they’re done with it, and we’ll have to wait till next year” — I will definitely purchase it. I’m actively seeking this magazine out so I can buy a copy, and I hope it sells out around the world, to prove to the Anna Wintours and other such myopic tastemakers that yes, black models can sell covers, fashion, and so much more. But American Vogue will continue to sit untouched in any hair salon or spa lobby I happen to be in. There’s no motivation for me to pick up the old mag at the moment, not when I can get my fashion fixes and beauty inspiration from forward thinking fashion blogs, like The Fashion Bomb, Black Style Central, The Budget Fashionista, Style Chile, Black Pearls, and I Like Her Style. I get my Caribbean fashion fixes from hot sites Popstyle Jamaica, Fashion Over Style, and Au Courant in the Caribbean.
And what’s this? Looky here — little ol Caribbean Fashion Week has been getting international play, and admiration in the likes of Paper Mag and The New York Times fashion blog — complete with shout-outs to my classic Trini inspirations Heather Jones — check out her models in that photo from the NY Times — Claudia Pegus and my longtime favorite Meiling, who was honored with the Caribbean Fashion Master award this year.
Caribbean fashion will always be bright and flowy, but some hot new designers are making their names on the Caribbean scene — designers from Barbados, Guyana, and the French-speaking Caribbean got folks talking, and everyone admired the work of Jamaican crochet queen Minka and Trini designers Zadd & Eastman made a big impression — click here to see their collection. I love their candy striped dress! So as far as I’m concerned — to use a Jamaican turn of phrase, fiyah bun Vogue and any designer who claims they can’t find a diverse array of models to walk down their catwalk. My money is better spent elsewhere.
What say you, bellas?