Has the pandemic made the glossy fashion magazine cover irrelevant?

Pages of photoshopped models, far-flung locations and luxury clothing now jar in the face of a global crisis

'American Vogue' used a rose photographed by Irving Penn in 1970 for its June/July 2020 cover. Vogue / Instagram
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Vogue Italia started the trend when it ran its April 2020 issue with a plain white cover. No photo, no headlines, just the title on a pure white page, as a tribute to the victims of Covid-19.

Then American Vogue used an image of a single red rose on its June / July 2020 cover, under the headline "Our common thread". The image was shot by Irving Penn in 1970.

Does this mean that the traditional fashion magazine cover – all glossy and glamorous – is shifting towards something less predictable, less hard sell and far more "authentic"?

But first, what is a traditional fashion magazine cover? It is a professionally taken image of a model or celebrity, wearing clothes put together by a stylist, and with hair and make-up by dedicated professionals.

The location can be in a studio, with lighting that took two assistants three hours to set up, or out on location, somewhere wistful and fabulous, that required either a long car journey or plane ride to get to.

The resulting images are the work of a team of people, endlessly hovering, constantly checking and adjusting bits of clothing here, a stray hair there, to get the best possible result. Once taken, the image is then retouched to remove any perceived flaws – from spots and dark circles under the eyes to creases in clothing.

It is, in effect, an entirely artificial image, polished and buffed to an unrealistic sheen. As supermodel (and mother to fellow model Kaia Gerber) Cindy Crawford once famously said: “Even I don’t look like me when I wake up."

Covers featuring celebrities often have faces blurred with Photoshop or lifted and tightened with cosmetic tinkering, offering another artificial vision of beauty that seemingly no mere mortal could obtain.

But then, as the full enormity of Covid-19 began to unfold, these shoots stopped almost overnight, as flights were cancelled and people chose to socially distance themselves. Far-off locations were suddenly unreachable, as were models and photographers, scattered across the world.

The fashion magazine is a symbiotic extension of the fashion industry (neither can truly exist without the other), and with stores closed and borders shut, there followed a scrabble from brands and titles to rethink, reposition and to find a suitable "tone". Suddenly, extolling the wonders of the latest Oscar de la Renta gown or new Gucci handbag felt a little, well, off the mark.

This weekend, the former editor of French Vogue, Carine Roitfeld, hosted her annual CR Fashion amfAR fundraising runway show, entitled CR Runway with amFAR against Covid-19: Fashion Unites. Normally playing out as a lavish catwalk event, watched by guests who had donated large sums to the charity for the privilege, this year it was a very different affair.

With models now all stuck at home and clothes unable to be delivered, the show became a gaggle of famous faces (think Halima Aden, Winnie Harlow, Natasha Poly and Karlie Kloss) doing their own make-up and donning their own clothes, before strutting up and down their living rooms, hallways and kitchens.

Being models, the make-up and clothes were all still inevitably fabulous, but it showed a very human side to these normally perfect women that was endearing to watch.

Similarly, as part of the recent One World: Together at Home online music event, artists including The Rolling Stones, Elton John and Lady Gaga performed from their own homes, emphasising the human connection, as we glimpsed flashes of famous houses and were privy to mistakes, something conspicuously absent at large-scale events and glossy fashion shoots.

Now, as the new reality of a post-coronavirus world is starting to tentatively unfold, and we are mindful of proximity and the use of hand sanitiser, are we searching for something more meaningful, more relatable, more authentic?

Are we tired of seeing Botoxed celebrities, underlying our own flaws and imperfections with their plastic symmetry? Instead, do we now crave seeing people who are as lost, nervous and unsure as ourselves?

No one has a magic ball to predict what the future holds, but what is starting to become apparent is that the world we all had, pre Covid-19, is now gone, perhaps forever. And while we wait nervously, perhaps we are craving glimpses of real people, without artifice and trappings, unafraid to show their vulnerability.

How the glossy fashion cover will fit into this new world remains to be seen, but there is a strong chance that while it may be images of models, they will be wearing normal clothes, in a normal environment, and wearing little or no make-up. As we look for answers to what comes next, perhaps we will find some solace in not aspiring to be something we are not, but instead becoming comfortable with who we already are.