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In My View by Eric Musgrave: Pretty as a picture: How relevant today are ads in glossy mags?

Eric Musgrave
12 January 2022

The golden years of the glossy fashion magazines are surely gone, never to return. With dozens of communication options offering sound and motion on everyone’s mobile phone, the still images in the glossies seem a curious reminder of a pre-digital time.

It is interesting therefore to reflect how popular print media still seem to be as advertising vehicles for the biggest brands.

Settling down over the holiday with the January issue of British Vogue, I was pleasantly surprised at the confidence and optimism displayed by many of their major advertisers.

January's British Vogue

I have been a fan of fashion mags for almost 50 years. I used to devour my girlfriend’s copies of Honey and 19 in the mid-1970s. They were windows to a glamorous and exciting world I was not part of but wanted to join. They were at once escapist and informative, inspiring and exciting.

Back in my late teens I had no idea that my career would bring me into similar worlds, sometimes as a menswear fashion shoot stylist and in 1985 as the launch editor of For Him magazine, one of the first modern style magazines for men. After editing the first three issues in 1985-86, I returned to guide the title during 1990 but I always preferred working in the trade press.

For Him found much greater success when it was subsequently converted into FHM by Emap but even that mighty title has disappeared along with many other long-established favourites, especially in the women’s sector.

A few glossies are still with us, however, trying to find their relevance in a digital world.

Consumer mags rely largely on advertising revenue for survival. I always liked looking at the ads as much as the editorial. I was wondering just who advertises – and how they do it – today so I bought the latest Vogue. The sticker advertising the “special price” of £2 tells its own story, but to my surprise, I was favourably impressed by many of the ads in the 252-page issue.

The general idea of advertising for major brands is to sell an image or a lifestyle while selling actual product.

Léa Seydoux in Louis Vuitton

Looking good in this respect is Louis Vuitton, whose current campaign shows French actress Léa Seydoux, aged 36, in an art gallery. LV has the cover fold-out in Vogue, giving it four pages in all, but I liked that half the pages show only paintings, not product.

Léa, who looks both brand-appropriate and age-appropriate, wears the same white mini skirt, black top and cream coat in two photos, but has a different handbag in each.

With accessories the entry point to a brand for many consumers, they feature consistently in central roles, of course.

In your face styling at Chanel

Following a similar formula to Vuitton is Chanel, which has two consecutive double-page spreads. With styling much more in-your-face than Vuitton’s, it loads its four models with earrings, necklaces, bracelets, belts and handbags as well as garments.

As is normal and to me slightly amusing, the model is called on to hold the main star product in an abnormal position so we can see that double C logo.

Just as an aside, Chanel Jewellery has a double-page spread in the magazine that looks like an upmarket advertorial, while Chanel Parfum has another spread for No 5 that has yet another look. The only common link between the three is the Chanel logo – an odd diversion from brand consistency, I would say.

Soft focus at Dior

Taking a somewhat more ethereal approach to the visuals are Dior and Prada, which each have walking models slightly blurred in their images. This is more about selling a vibe rather than actual products, although the chunky Dior trainers are in focus.

Dior’s shoot is in the Temple of Zeus, Nemea in Greece (as a credit helpfully identifies). Prada’s appears to be in a wintry snowscape. Both images are striking enough to have made me stop and look at them rather than flicking the pages over, so that must count as a sort of success.

I was less impressed by Gucci’s rather contrived image of one female model kneeling in front of another in an obviously subservient and erotic role – she appears to be fastening the standing model’s Gucci shoulder bag.

Gucci does Fashion with a capital F

This is part of the considerable promotion campaign for the Gucci Aria collection, which is designer Alessandro Michele’s offering for the Italian house’s centenary year. It is backed by an erotically-charged video of over-the-topness that you either love or don’t love.

I am in the second camp here (and there is a lot of camp in the shoot, funnily enough) although I can appreciate the colossal amount of work (and budget) that must have gone into producing this campaign.

It is the extravagant take on Fashion with a capital F that certain Italians do best.

At least the ad for Gucci Guilty fragrance is on the same tack as the clothing pages.

Simplicity at Celine

Diametrically opposite to Gucci’s overly-styled extravaganza is Celine’s simple square portraits of an androgynous model. The black-and-white shot has the model in an evening suit, complete with bow tie, while the colour shot on the facing page promotes jeans, a fluffy jumper and, predictably enough, a strategically placed handbag.

Good as these images are, there is nothing in them that you could not have seen 30 years ago in the era of the supermodels. What is noticeable, and different from even five years ago, is how models of colour are now prominent in the big budget campaigns.

In its fashion shots Chanel has a black model with three white ones, Aspinal of London has a young black woman with an East Asian one (both with handbags to the fore!) while Miu Miu (using US actress Kiki Layne), H&M, London retailer Couverture & The Garbstore and furniture site Sofa.com have only Afro-Caribbean women to represent their brands.

This is good to see and a reminder that the world is full of beauty in many forms. Do more black women buy into these brands because of the models, I wonder? Perhaps unfairly and maybe erroneously, I always think the use of East Asian models is to appeal directly to well-heeled Chinese consumers.

On the same topic, it surprises me how few women who look to be of Indian, Pakistani and Middle Eastern heritage feature in big fashion campaigns.

Does anyone have any thoughts as to why that should be?

Marc Jacobs "Perfect as I am"

While “inclusivity” is banged on about by every editor and stylist who is asked about it, virtually every model in the ads I viewed look like, well, a model. One of only two ads that has someone above a size 6 or 8 is for Perfect Marc Jacobs Intense fragrance. It uses a full-figured black woman with a great sense of style who convincingly reflects the campaign’s tag line “Perfect As I Am”.

Another well-worn device in advertising at this level is to roll out a celebrity. In the latest Vogue, which features 56-year-old American model Kristen McMenamy on its cover, I saw the good and the bad in this genre.

Couturier Yiqing Yin for Vacherin Constantin

 

I was impressed with Swiss luxury watch brand Vacheron Constantin – it is hard to find a watch under £20,000 on its website – employing Yiqing Yin in its ad. She is a Chinese-born, Paris-based couturier, so makes a great fit for the brand. And at 37 years old, she represents an age-appropriate consumer for Vacheron Constantin.

Also ticking all the boxes is Tiffany, which features Jay-Z and the fabulous Beyoncé, who is the second woman among the ads who is definitely not a size 10. These two form the most powerful and influential celebrity power couple of the age. The shot features an artwork by the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, just to up the coolness factor.

Jay-Z and "the fabulous" Beyoncé for Tiffany

At 52 and 40 years respectively, Mr and Mrs Shawn Carter are very much age-appropriate for Tiffany. And bravo to the New York jeweller for making the reader peer very closely to spot the merchandise on the couple. Less is more here.

Jumping back to watches, Breitling elegantly if rather obviously ticks the multi-racial and age-appropriate boxes by featuring blonde movie star Charlize Theron (46), African-American ballet dancer Misty Copeland (39) and Chinese actress Yao Chen (42).

Kaia Gerber for Omega

I cannot recall any celebrity endorsement ever encouraging me to buy any product but I can see why the concept is so popular. Certainly these three women have reached lofty heights in their chosen professions and easily fit the idea of worthwhile role models.

Conversely, I am not sure what 20-year-old Kaia Gerber has achieved, apart from having the luck to be the daughter of supermodel Cindy Crawford and US businessman Rande Gerber. Nevertheless Omega has her endorsing its Constellation Collection this season.

Who reading British Vogue is going to be influenced by this advertisement, I wonder? Any ideas?

Brooklyn Beckham for Superdry

Along the same underwhelming lines is a monochrome ad from Superdry, which sits on page 93. As part of its rebuilding strategy the brand has put together something it describes as “our sustainably developed collection, constructed from recycled, organic and vegan materials”.

Superdry is unusual among the ads I reviewed for putting any explanatory text on the image. It boasts about “43.9 million recycled bottles used in our outerwear padding”.

I explained my scepticism about sustainable fashion as an idea in this column back in April, as you can read here.

I struggle to understand why Superdry feels the 22-year-old Brooklyn Beckham, who like Kaia Gerber is well-known only because of famous parents, in anyway underscores or strengthens its sustainability campaign. Am I missing something here?

One final point regarding the Superdry ad: while the production values of the other ads I looked at were excellent, it is never a smart idea to shoot a dark garment against a dark background in black and white.

Finally I would like to applaud Archive by Sanderson Design for an arresting double-page spread featuring a female model who must be in her eighties. Does anyone know who she is? The British interiors firm has produced images that are far more impactive and engaging than most of the fashion campaigns in this issue.

I very rarely buy or even read new magazines these days so my little Christmas diversion was quite enjoyable.

I continue to appreciate all the hard work, talent, creativity and money that goes into producing the ad campaigns in magazines but I am most struck by the comments of my twentysomething kids who tell me they never rarely look at this type of print media - online is where they get their information and influences from.

Oh well, long live print!

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