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Fashion, Image Editing and the Human Connection

The world of fashion is symbiotically linked with the world of fashion magazines. If the former generates new ideas and new products, the latter translates them into understandable language for the masses and popularizes what would otherwise be just esoteric, artistic concepts with little in common with us, the paying public. In many ways, the fashion media (magazines, e-zines, apps etc.) are responsible for the democratization of fashion. And the most recognizable part of the fashion magazine, the front cover photo.

Figure : 80 years of Vogue. (From Top Left): 1939, 1947, 1954, 1964, 1977, 1987, 1995, 2009, 2019, 2019

Over the years the front cover of a fashion magazine has become a micro-world of creativity in its own right. This art form dates back to the 1930s when the iconic fashion magazine Vogue phased out illustrations in favor of photographs after 40 years of existence, marking a shift in the way it wanted its readers to view its visions- as concepts centered around “real” people instead of purely in the abstract1. From the beginning, the cover photo was designed to inspire wonder, from the careful assembly of models, clothing, background and accouterments in a variety of design styles. This “image editing” became easier with the advent of the digital photo and photo editing software.

No doubt image editing acquired something of a bad name especially in the 1990s with some results of image editing leading to embarrassing, even offensive results. In the vast majority of cases however, digital image editing helps the artist realize a vision. The vision need not be realistic, or even have universal appeal- it just needs to be a true representation of what the artist wants to convey, even if the message is an escapist one.  One might even say by making execution easier image editing actually helps the artist’s creative process.

A lot changed in 2020. As the Covid-19 pandemic overran first the new fashion centers of Shanghai and Tokyo and then the old world fashion capitals of Milan, Paris, and finally New York, the world’s focus seemed to change overnight. Carefully constructed photos of airbrushed models in the backdrop of exotic locations just didn’t seem that important or even appropriate. In the aftermath of the probably first truly global crisis in human memory, some of the best aspects of the fashion industry began to emerge. Hundreds of fashion, apparel, footwear, and retail brands, from Gucci and Prada to Nike and Old Navy donated millions in cash and kind to supply hospitals, healthcare workers, underprivileged communities with much-needed food, supplies etc. The talented designers and perfumers that are also part of the fashion industry were some of the first suppliers of reusable masks, bulk donators of N95 medical masks, sterilizing equipment, and PPEs as the crisis got worse.

In the midst of the sea-change that the pandemic has been to everyone in the world of fashion, three trends emerged which are likely to be the directions fashion magazines and image editors will take even as we all realize the pandemic and its effects are going to be with us for a long, long time:

vogue cover

  • The sober face of austerity

The April 2020 issue of Vogue Italy featured a blank cover with just the brand name “Vogue” printed in the classic font:

Figure 1: The White Cover of Vogue Italia, April 2020. Vogue put out a statement saying it chose the cover because “it was impossible to speak of anything else”.

Calling “White the color that means many things” including “homage, purity, rebirth”, this cover in April 2020 when Italy became symbolic of the Western world’s struggle against the pandemic will always be a symbol of the resolve in an atmosphere on somber austerity.

This cover has “image editing” written all over it- from the retouched photos of the supermodels themselves (masked images with smoothened skin cutout and repasted in a layer over the “Vogue” logo) to the evenly blurred background. Yet, the retouching just helps bring focus and clarity to a powerful image that is meant to draw attention to three beautiful models from three different parts of the world.

  • The defiant face of unity

In the same month that Vogue Italia was highlighting its sentiment through a blank cover, the US version of Vogue decided a global pandemic was a perfect backdrop to continue to promote the universal sense of beauty through diversity and inclusion, especially in the stark irony that humans continue to see differences between themselves even as a virus sees none!

Figure 2: The “Unity of Beauty” theme of Vogue US

  • The creative face of the Renaissance 2.0

The Renaissance or “rebirth” was a period of extraordinary creativity and intellectual awakening in the 16th century, after a millennium of middle-age “darkness”. We think the post-COVID period will see a very different world, with new challenges, new opportunities, and new sensibilities, but with an explosion of new creativity- a so-called “Renaissance 2.0”. Unfortunately, the risk of virus spread and the accompanying social distancing may be with us for some time to come. That means no travel to exotic lands to take photographs that might grace the covers of our favorite fashion magazines.

The answer might lie in increased use of the manipulated images, “composite” images made up of stock photos and self-photographed models, and increased elements of Computer Generated Imagery, or CGI. The signs are already here:

  • This year’s annual CR amfAR fundraising fashion show, generally a glitzy, expensive, exclusive catwalk event of exclusive supermodels viewed in person by an even more exclusive audience had a distinctly different look this year- supermodels doing their own makeup, dressed in their own clothes and doing the catwalk in their own living rooms and hallways, streamed live over their own smartphones and tablets!
  • For the first time in its 130 year existence, Vogue (this time Vogue Taiwan) opted to feature a 100% CGI artwork as the cover art to its May 2020 issue titled “Future in Transit”. This is as much a visual commentary on the ongoing forced social distancing as it is on the coming-of-age of CGI. No doubt with this barrier broken we may see a whole new era of human-CGI hybrid images that are as distinct from the erstwhile photoshopped cover images as the photograph was from the hand-drawn illustrations that featured for the first 40 years of Vogue’s existence.

Figure 3: A new era of cover images? Vogue’s first 100% CGI cover art for its April 2020 Vogue Taiwan issue

Of course, it is impossible to accurately predict the future of the fashion, fashion magazine and image editing worlds. However, one thing is for certain, and thus the title of this week’s post- fashion, as old as the sense of human aesthetics itself, will surely adapt to the new world in the post-COVID world, but it will continue to be a fountain of creative genius, and photo editing and its more sophisticated version, CGI will feature even more, not less in the pictures of the future. Ultimately fashion, style, and the AV medium is just one more form of the expression of the creative side of us. It is a testimony to the enduring will of the human connection.