Kirstie Clements was unceremoniously dumped from iconic fashion magazine Vogue after 25 years’ service; 13 in the editor’s chair. She wasted no time in signing a book deal to have the last word on the incident, but this is no bitter autobiography. As she says in one of this book’s many quotable quotes “How you conduct yourself on the way out is more important than how you went in” – and The Vogue Factor shows Clement to be a perfectionist and consummate professional. This colourful memoir of a brilliant career has much to teach young players about the history of publishing in Australia, the frantic nature of the fashion industry and what it means to have focus and dedication to a brand and employer. Unfortunately it also left me squeamish and utterly conflicted about the tension between appreciating high end fashion as an art form and the sad social repercussions of the sheer excess that accompanies it.
Vogue has been incredibly influential as a brand – making and breaking the careers of models, photographers, stylists and their teams, not to mention setting the tone of global fashion with the mere shift of a colour scheme. Even if you don’t buy into the importance of designer fashion, some of Vogue’s innovative photography is gallery-worthy on its own, putting the paparazzi trash that now passes for photography to shame. The change in standards of fashion journalism, along with the print-to-pixel publishing progression, all form part of Clements’ dissection of her professional life, making this a must-read tome for anyone with an interest in the media.
Clements’ writing style is a pleasure to read; sparse and unsentimental. Stories of family and childhood are there to flesh out the human being behind the magazine, but the emphasis is firmly on Vogue. If you’re looking for name dropping, you won’t be disappointed as Clements has rubbed shoulders with the world’s glitterati. A lengthy walk behind the scenes on a photo shoot with Crown Princess Mary and Prince Frederik of Denmark is revealing; whilst Aussie fashion icons like Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman had very different interactions with Vogue on Clements’ watch.
Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed this book, the cynic in me simply couldn’t help hearing Eddie and Patsy in the background of this story: “Chanel, Dior, Lagerfeld, Givenchy, Gaultier, darling. Names, names, names!” To truly be swept up in Clements’ story, one has to buy into this world where names, labels and images matter above all else; and I’m afraid I’m not quite there. In no way do I wish to diminish Clements’ achievements as a business woman, but the price we pay for all this glamour, as described by Clements, left me cold. There’s the obvious body image conversation which is hard to avoid, but also the ostentatious and wasteful nature of the industry. Am I being a philistine to worry that you could feed the third world on what it costs to keep Karl Lagerfeld in private jets? But, says Clements, a negative attitude towards fashion “speaks volumes about a person’s self-esteem” – so clearly it’s me with the problem. I firmly believe that the world needs aesthetes as much as it needs doctors, and I do appreciate the skilled artistry involved in fashion design, but I can think of better things to spend my money on than million dollar handbags.
Clements comes across as utterly fatigued by questions about whether fashion magazines damage women’s self esteem. I take her point that magazines are not solely responsible – clearly it is a far more complex issue than that – but her flashes of defence and explanation are full of contradictions. The blame is partially laid with misogynist designers, who use skeletal ‘fit models’ (who spend half their lives being drip-fed in hospital – literally) as the dressmaker’s dummies for their seasonal designs. If the original masterpieces fit waif-like figures, then the catwalks, stores and fashion pages will only ever be sent teeny sizes to put on display – ergo, magazines have no choice. In the next breath however, Clements adds that “It cannot be denied that visually, clothes fall better on a slimmer frame…” And so, the models continue to eat tissues to help them feel full and collapse before the end of shooting, and women around the world continue to envy them. Clements obviously acknowledges the tragedy in this, but doubts much will change because “beautiful people improve life enormously”.
This is a captivating memoir by a formidable woman but it’s not without some troubling values.
The Vogue Factor is published by Melbourne University Press and I thank them kindly for my copy, via NetGalley.
This review will be linked to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.