Vogue India: Art or Exploitation?

Vogue India’s August issue featured a photo shoot which sparked enormous controversy. Was this shoot an opportunity for designers to take advantage of a new emerging market? Or, simply an opportunity for designers to take advantage of the conflicting demographic, for “art – for – arts sake”? However, the photograph in question did not  spark controversy because it depicted emaciated models draped in haute couture and expensive jewellery in front of a breath-taking Indian landscape, instead it showed impoverish looking citizens accessorized in items which they would never in their lives have seen, even heard of and definitely not get the chance to hold before this.

A woman with no front teeth holds a child wearing a Fendi bib costing $100 with a sad looking girl in the background, another shows a man with a $200 Burberry umbrella. Many have branded this photo shoot as ‘tasteless’ and even ‘vulgar’. A columnist for India’s Mail on Sunday newspaper, Kanika Gahlaut claimed that; “Putting expensive necklaces around these poor women is like spitting in the face of the poor. Some Indians now live in bubbles, celebrating their wealth and totally de-sensitised to the poor.” In a country where there is such a divide between the affluent and impoverished it seems insensitive to portray people with items that they’ll never hold again.


The shoot raised the question as to whether the fashion industry is exploiting people in their quest to remain ‘edgy’ and ‘alternative’. Many fashion magazines contain images of stick thin models surrounded by local children in third world countries, dressed in high end clothing, while the children stand in rags. What has this got to do with the promoting of designs? Yes, fashion is as much of an art form as any other, and as an industry it thrives on creativity and new ideas, drawing on inspirations from all areas of the globe. From Galliano’s homeless inspired collection to Vivienne Westwood’s catwalk show using gypsies as models, the fashion world has a habit of using ideas that some claim to be not representative of reality. But isn’t that what art is all about? Art is meant to be thought provoking and it’s meant to be an object for debate. The question is: have they taken it too far?

 Despite protests against this particular shoot Vogue India has defended themselves. Priya Tanna, editor of Vogue India, maintained that it was a shoot “that we are extremely proud of and consider to be one of our most beautiful editorial executions”. In some ways it does seem that the fashion industry can’t win. Size zero models cause outrage, as does the fact that plus size models in our eyes are not plus size at all. Society demands real people with real bodies, but when real people such as those in the India shoot are used there is a public outcry. If Vogue India portrayed only the rich would we object that they were not actually representing India as a whole? It could even be argued that the shoot raised awareness of the conditions that some of the population have to face every day. It seems that this was not the desired effect, with Tanna adding: “You have to remember with fashion, you can’t take it that seriously. We weren’t trying to make a political statement or save the world.”


Regardless of money, I don’t think the photographers have malice intentions; their ‘visions’ may appear to some to be misguided but are they really doing any harm? My own experience of children in third world countries is that of young kids eagerly posing for a stream of photos and then giggling as they see their image flash up on the screen. Admittedly one of the images shows a sad looking girl, yet the another shows a woman laughing while the man looks on smiling. With lives that we would consider incredibly hard, what is one day of fantasy? One may claim that these images let us forget the realities that these people face, however, one could just as easily argue that they remind us of the problems. The juxtaposition of the poverty, with the extravagant designs surely draws our attention to this, even if it wasn’t the intention of the photographer.

Furthermore, it’s not just the locals who appear in the shoot itself that benefit. The latest issue of Vogue saw a team fly to Mongolia to do a shoot and, rather than the typical 5 star experience, the group stayed in traditional Mongolian yurts, sampled the local cuisine, and travelled with a guide, allowing them to familiarise themselves with the different types of culture for the short duration of the trip. Photographer Tim Walker was eager to represent local people from various walks of life which were instrumental in helping to create such gorgeous images.

High price clothing may only be available to a privileged minority but it seems that everyone can play a role in creating works of art in fashion.

Ellis Schindler

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  • Plus Size news and fashion roundup for November 27, 2011 | Fat Chic
    28 November 2011 at 05:00
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    […] editorial on Vogue India’s recent issue showing actually non-wealthy citizens of India is not directly plus-size related but a)it’s a slow news week and b)it raises the questions we […]

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