VOGUE: The online transitioning of “The Fashion Bible”

VOGUE: The online transitioning of “The Fashion Bible”

By: Valentina Salazar

  1. Introduction: 

The word Vogue carries a weight of its own, recognized as the most influential fashion magazine in the world, the publication has grown into a cultural phenomenon admired by fellow media outlets, referenced in pop culture and supported by the real life influence on readers and creators that turn Vogue into a publication that does not merely replicate the fashion conversations to its readers but actively creates new ones, taking upon itself the discovery and endorsement of new talent and trends.

The history Vogue is a history of transformation and leadership, with its 128 years of circulation and 24.4 million readers globally, Vogue magazine has also managed to certainly stand its ground thought the passing on the years, maintaining an impressive survival of its printed content in the era of digitalization, continuing the expansion of he brand in different countries and platforms. 

These characterizing features have been translated into the digital world, managing to survive the challenges of the changing climate and the demands of an ever-evolving society but also bringing an element of novelty and innovation into their online strategy that has been emulated by its competitors and that have brought the magazine millions monthly readers, launching of new editions and an impressive social media impact for a traditional media outlet. 

2. Origins and evolution

In order to understand the challenges and environment of the adaptation of Vogue magazine into the digital world, it´s key to trace the origins of the publication and follow its transformation into the established brand we now know. 

Vogue magazine was first founded in 1892 by American businessmen Arthur Baldwin Turnure as a weekly newspaper targeted to “men of affairs”. The publication centered itself on the lifestyle  of the New York Upper class, covering topics like clothing and etiquette for women and sports and leisure activities for men.

In 1905 the newspaper was purchased by the American publisher Condé Monstrose Nast that established its recognizable look and transformed it into a fashion and lifestyle magazine dedicated to women and extended its publication overseas, leading up to the birth of British Vogue and French Vogue during the 1920s that would be followed by 15 other international editions before the 2000s.

From this moment on, Vogue characterized itself for aiming for an editorial quality look that quickly challenged the established quos for the existing publications of the time, by establish collaborations with the best illustrators and featuring topics regarding the world of arts and fashion from a closer more privileged look due to the access of the magazine to collaborators like painter Savador Dalí and the funding of Condé Nast. 

First color photograph on a Vogue cover – July 1932

In 1932 a decision that would set the tone for Vogue as well as for all the other fashion magazines was the publication of the first color photography on the cover of the July issue taken by Edward Jean Steichen, depicting a full body picture of a woman catching a beach ball. 

This turned out to be a groundbreaking decision for the magazine  since it opened up the doors for a better showcasing of the fashion designs, a key point of interest for fashion designers that struggled to make their creations be depicted with accuracy just by the use of illustration or black and white photography, making Vogue the most desirable collaborator, improving its popularity and financial gain and establishing the solid relationship between fashion magazines and advertisers in the future.

The next decades for Vogue were marked by social and cultural changes especially regarding the position of women in society. The new perception of the new femininity and what it meant to be a woman required a reevaluation of the magazine model. Bringing with it a period of transformations for the magazine marked by the leadership of the seven different editors.

The changes ranged from the visual aspects down to the written context, with the magazine in the 1960s catching up to the aesthetic interest and topics of the “sexual revolution”, that lead the magazine to venture into more risqué topics and the inclusion of art and literature commentary. 

Vogue in the 1960s

This is an era in which the magazine forged one of its trade features: having a clear opinionated voice that took stances on social and political issues with coverage of high profile figures and open discussions on beauty ideas, due to the new interests of women that were entering the work space and weren’t interested solely in clothes anymore. 

Some of the examples of these deeper conversations came with the first cover featuring an African-American model under the direction of Grace Mirabella in the mid 70´s.

In the late 1980´s the rise of a more carefree magazine model came into the fashion environment with the publishing of Elle magazine, forcing another shift in the Vogue headquarters with the arrival of Ana Wintour as chief editor in 1988, a role she still holds to this day and that elevated the success to the magazine with a fresh more modern approach based on combining the interests and fashion of the high and low culture. 

“It endorsed a democratic new high/low attitude to dressing, added some youthful but sophisticated raciness, and garnished it with a dash of confident energy and drive that implied getting somewhere fast. It was quintessential Anna.”

Grace Coddington, creative director of American Vogue 
Wintour´s first issue – November 1988

The leadership of Wintour throughout the course of the four decades she’s spent in the position  has gone beyond the role of just an editor and it has been characterized by challenging the expectations of the readers. An approach she took from her inaugural issue whose coverage depicted a full body photograph that showed an eclectic combination of haute couture with casual pieces that abandoned the convention of representing a close shot of the models face that has turned predictable and highlighted the importance of the styling and the artistic expression of the magazine that would set its status as a trendsetter.

3. The “Vogue Effect” 

One of the aspects that make Vogue an interesting example to examine the evolution of media outlets and what determines its success in adaptation to the online world is the fact that from its early years the magazine already counted with a inherent viral nature, leading up to the adoption of several innovations for fashion magazines.

Some of these innovations did not only affect the world of fashion magazines, in fact, many of the big transformations in he world of fashion has been habilitated by Vogue´s leadership as explained by fashion historian Caroline Webber that states that “It [Vogue] has pioneered a host of aesthetic, technological and commercial advances, virtually all of which inform the fashion media and industry as they exist today”. (Weber 2006)

This fact presents itself as an interesting scope to evaluate media at large if we consider the traditional values followed in journalism that are generally based by objectivity, neutrality and fairness. For Vogue it´s not about communicating the norms, it´s about making the calls and this gives it a clear validating effect.

This validation  goes a step forward not only influencing the fashion world but society at large. Caroline Webber explains another big shift in fashion magazines came in the shape of the beauty standard for women during the 1960´s  tasting that the “the curvaceous models of the previous decade with lanky, androgynous teenagers quickly “became the new standard.” (Weber 2006)

The “Vogue” look started to be emulated by other publications and soon enough the depiction of femininity were attached to this look picked up by Vogue itself. This power to change perceptions has a deep influence in readers and creators, affecting the birth of new trends as well as purchasing habits, making the relationship between media and people a lot more symbiotic, Vogue is as inspired by creators as vice versa.

In the era of social media in which audiences have become for the most part in creators on a smaller scale, this level of interconnection plays in favor of the magazine and for these reasons, it  focuses a huge part of its resources – physical and digital – in the maintenance of the figure of Vogue as a cultural commander.

An example of the financial support and connection with creators in the name can be seen through the CFDA/ Vogue Fashion fund where Wintour serves as a matchmaker between creators and brands choosing and recommending designers to work on the industry. 

Filmmaker R.J.Cutler who worked with the magazine for their The September Issue documentary famously stated about the influence of Vogue “You can make a film in Hollywood without Steven Spielberg’s blessing, and you can publish software in Silicon Valley without Bill Gates’s blessing, but it’s pretty clear to me that you can’t succeed in the fashion industry without Anna Wintour’s blessing.” 

While the declaration of Cutler comes with a clear dramatization there is something to be said about a media outlet being able to hold such a position inside of their industry while also managing to maintain the rates of engagement and loyalty in its audience.

This “Vogue Effect” provides some context about the aspects that facilitates the presence of Vogue into the digital world and what separates it from other traditional outlets that don’t hold the same type of presence online. 

4. Vogue then vs Vogue now 

Taking the year 1995 as a reference point we can establish some key differences from what the  publication was back in the day in comparison to today and analyze how the changes in the journalistic context and the digital environment have affected the look and content of Vogue magazine in matters of channels, editorial policies, and audience. 

One of the clearers points of comparison between both years is in the visual aspects of the magazine, looking at the covers published in 1995 in relation to the ones published in 2020 we can observe that the covers from 1995 have a much more free use of color and different typographies, however, a lot of elements are shared since all covers are under the direction of Wintour that incorporated the more dynamic compositions on the cover and the maintenance of a consistent header that had already become the main icon of the brand. 

On the other hand, when observing the 2020 ones we can see a much more curated use of colors, the colorful headline can still be an option but it´s used with a lot more discretion to play with the composition, but never taking the focus out of the photograph and keeping a much more consistent cleaner look to the cover and to the brand with the neutral color typography, opposite to the use in 1995 where it plays a much more stellar job most likely due to the lack of quality of the photographs that required designers to play with the other elements to make the cover look a lot more eye-catching. 

On another note the variety of women featured on the covers its a lot higher on the most recent issues, showcasing not only women of different ethnic backgrounds but also with different occupations. In 1995 almost all the women on the cover were models who fell into more strict beauty standards, nowadays getting a Vogue cover has a lot more to do with cultural impact than looks, although they’re still a factor.

Regarding content a look at the covers also reveals a shift in the focus on how the magazine wants to be perceived, while stories about fitness, beauty, and fashion are still very much a quintessential part of what Vogue is the approach of the cover stories aims to highlight the most cultural side of Vogue, giving it a more elevated look. 

This focus on more artistic, cultural and social conversations also makes her way through the inside of the magazine with the discussion of deeper topics and the emphasis on giving voice to its collaborators, the most notable example is the September Issue of 2018 featuring Beyoncé not only as an artist but as editor of the issue, but it can be perceived by series like “73 questions” “Beauty Secrets”  or vlog formats like “Diary of a model” and “24 Hours with” in which the approach to the stories is a lot more personal, clearly influenced by the world of Youtube tutorials and Instagram influencers. 

Outside of the world of celebrities Vogue also incorporates smaller voices of activists and creators and makes use of different formats, either videos, podcasts or written coverage following these more personal stories. 

This political openness and social pledge also take the shape of actions outside of the magazine like the Fashion Night initiative started to boost the economy during the financial crisis of 2007 as well as several political involvement in issues like the inclusion of minorities in the US and open endorsement of political candidates from the democratic party notably in the “Runway to win” in 2010 a fundraising event in support of the election of Barack Obama.

Further into revamping the fashion niche for younger generations the magazine has also taken innovative measures in the physical world with the celebration of several events. An interesting example of this is the Teen Vogue Summit a yearly event celebrated in New York City, created to guide teenagers into real-world issues, providing career advice, cultural, political activities and style activities on a multifaceted event including a party, conference, performances and personal advice from big industry personalities. 

These tactics are reminiscent of some of the events carried out on influencer marketing with the well-known brand workshops, parties, and conferences. With the added value of coming from the most influential magazine in the industry.

Regarding changes in the audience, Vogue has expanded its international editions and platforms greatly since 1995 up to today and more plans of expansions are still on the way.

The magazine counts with a total of 23 international editions, with 17 of them being established after 1995 with the latest one Vogue Hong Kong being established just last year in 2019, opening up the gates for a bigger more varied audience, especially in Asia which has grown to be a much more important fashion market in the recent years compared to 1995.

The target age and genre of the demographic have also changed with Vogue being targeted towards women between 20-40 during the 1990´s meanwhile right now the range is a lot broader with the establishment of Teen Vogue in 2003 and the inclusion of menswear into the site after the fail attempt of starting Vogue men which was launched on 2005 and had its final issue only 3 years later, proving that there is a higher demand for a unified Vogue that assimilates the male content rather than separate it. 

4.1. Transitioning to the net

Vogue´s website was first launched in 2010 but didn’t manage to fulfill it´s potential and got little to none success leading Ana Wintour and creative director for digital content Sally singer  to attempt to reinvent the site with a digital version of Vogue that in the words of Wintour would have “the authority and the vision of the print magazine”.

The new site launched in 2014 and managed to gather a lot more audience with an increase of 80% drawing 3.3 million visitors a month thanks partly to its more responsive design and cleaner look with collaboration with reword photographers and the creation of original content that wouldn’t simply copy the printed edition like the 2010 version but instead it focuses on the creation of new stories supplying content for all its different sections like living, culture, beauty and runway, reaching up to 80 stories in one single day.

However, the real transforming decision for the website was the concept of erasing the hierarchy between the printed version and the digital one, as expressed by Wintour that states that both versions share the voice and authority of Vogue and operate collaboratively all through all its platforms. 

The magazine seems to have the ability to turn everything into content, a photoshoot that in the past would have only sufficed the publication on the printed version now can double up as a behind the scenes video, an in set interview with the model, a series of instagram stories, a reportage on the styling process and everything in between.

Ben Berentson director of the site described this desire to be as efficient and resourceful with content “People want to see inside Vogue” they take this quite literally, with a lot of the content being shot inside of the offices of the One World Trade Center where the headquarters of the magazine is established. 

Apart from the content, there is an important emphasis on the how it is presented. A quick look at the website will reveal the commitment of the magazine to incorporating all types of moving images either gifs or videos to create added value with content that would be impossible to include in the printed version. 

Another important addition to the page is archive sections that includes the digital issues from 1892 and forward for subscribers in its totality as well as the Vogue Runway, a complete collection of all the fashion shows displayed at fashion week, a tool that makes of the magazine a place for research and consult for both fashion enthusiasts and professionals involved in the fashion world.

The openness of Vogue in an industry that can often be rather secretive has resonated deeply with its audience which is why the magazine has invested in challenging the idea that fashion is unapproachable and bring it to the people. 

The magazine was also complemented in 2016 by two apps: “Vogue” that displays the content of the website in a mobile-friendly way with options of customization and interaction like a social media platform and “Vogue” Runway dedicated specifically to the fashion shows that on top of the regular content found on the website also provides notifications on news related to fashion.

Another key aspect of Vogue popularity is that the content on the main magazine is international, covering trends and topics of interest of the fashion world at large instead of over-focusing on the US, while the international editions offer a more in-depth coverage of their geographical area. This decision has maintained the popularity of the original Vogue on an international scale instead of making it compete with its international editions.

5. Vogue’s social media strategy 

Beyond their website another resource used by the magazine has been social media, especially the Instagram platform, due to the visual and cultural nature of the magazine that matches the best with Instagram´s content and way of interaction.

Despite the natural pairing of the two, the beginnings of the magazine on the platform back in 2012 were below the desirable impact expected by the brand and a look at the numbers when  compared to the current figures reveals a huge improvement in the social media strategy. 

To this day Vogue has managed to grow a community of 27.2 million followers on their main Instagram account, and a total of 84 million globally. Figures that become a lot more impressive when compared to the metrics of the closest competitors like Harper Bazaar´s that has a total of 4,7 million followers and the Elle magazine that has 5 million. 

Vogue has identified the power behind influencer marketing. People are more likely to listen to a real life person than a brand. Hanna Ray head of social strategy and storytelling of Vogue International with explains how Vogue took this even further to increase the performance of the magazine’s account with a special focus on the engagement of the community rather than in the numbers. 

According to Ray the mistakes made by brands is to enter the Instagram space with the mentality of a brand and not as a user – “Instagram was made for people, not for brands. And a lot of media brands struggle with this idea of ‘how do I act like a person’?

For Vogue the answer to this question was to give real people a voice and provide the platform, combining the regular fashion magazine content with real life stories of smaller creators and activists to tell their stories first hand.

This stand aligns with Vogue´s more open content regarding politics and social issues and manages to shake things up a bit departing from the expected content from the magazine to give collaborators complete control over their stories and spark conversation over topics younger generations are passionate about like body positivity, sustainable fashion and seek of identity.  

Some of the formats by which this is achieved are the “Vogue Backstage” “Vogue +1” and “Vogue First Look”

This again continues the “vogue effect” supporting new creators that will not only enrich the environment but maintain Vogue in the conversations. By giving real people a voice inside of the platform the brand creates a sense of belonging and loyalty that increases its engagement, with the philosophy that a brand shouldn’t use social media to redirect traffic to their products but to connect and interact with its readers. 

Furthermore, showcasing regular people gives the page authenticity, keeps it fresh and rich in content. The people featured are excited to be in the magazine and will reflect that energy to the audience.

In 2017 another social media strategy would boost the magazine even more after Condé Nast started the project called Vogue International that unifies 43 Vogue instagram accounts to work in unison with the purpose of boosting the impact and engagement of the smallest editions and increase efficiency altogether.

The collaboration between editors came accompanied by other innovations that lead the magazine to be recognized as pioneers amongst the industry starting series of synchronized stories between accounts. In fact, according to Ray the stories are actually key metrics to measure engagement for the brand since they are where the real interactions are tested and separates the silent followers from the engaging ones. 

The brilliance of the strategy is that by spreading and amplifying the content between all the accounts it encourages followers to follow all of them. This way the accounts stop being viewed as competition or replacement goods and they become an expansion to get the full “Vogue experience” 

“The idea has been to bring [Instagram accounts] together as a family of Vogues and not competitors with each other, which might have been the case in the past,” – Hanna Ray head of social strategy and storytelling of Vogue International

Looking at the results two years later the strategy has certainly paid off tripling the traffic and achieving a higher click ratio on adds increasing publicity profits, as well as for the selling of their physical copies and online subscriptions. A clear example was the 2018 September issue that got quickly sold out after a campaign on stories that also had a direct impact on the increment of 20% in new subscriptions for the website. 

To maintain the feeling of spontaneity most of the content was shot from smartphones or edited to look more natural as studies regarding Instagram engagement have proved that overly elaborated content comes off as less appealing for users. Especially in the case of an entity like Vogue the feeling of intimacy and complicity makes it look attainable instead of out of touch with its audience.

6. Conclusion 

The case of Vogue and its journey into digital adaptation represents a unique example of innovation, the power of investing in social media, and making the most out of the new resources. Given the particular position of the magazine into its own industry, this process might not apply to every single media outlet, but it is a conversation starter about using the advances of the world of communication as tools that will challenge and ultimately improve the relationship between the readers and the media.

It also represents a lesson in audience studies, arising questions about how media should take advantage of the internet to truly adapt to the way people communicate in the current times instead of perceiving it as a threat to traditional publications.

As we have seen in this report one expected factor for both society and the world of communication will always be changing, what was the rule yesterday is not the rule today and will most likely not be tomorrow. The publications that will properly succeed in these changes are the ones that learn how to interpret the world around them and deliver it to the audiences through a common language.