imomus (imomus) wrote,

Vogue India and "runner-up-ization"

Here's a photograph that appears in the August edition of Vogue India. The photograph -- and the controversy it's sparked -- is discussed in this New York Times article (thanks to Lord Whimsy for the link).

Although India's economic boom is decreasing its poverty levels (even as it raises the Gini coefficient which measures inequality), the nation still has some of the world's poorest people. According to the Wikipedia Poverty in India page, 75.6% of the Indian population are living on less than $2 a day (that's worse than sub-Saharan Africa, where 72.2% live on less than $2 a day). The richest 10% in India hog 33% of the nation's income.

It was probably the emergence of this rich 10% which led Conde Nast to launch Vogue India in October 2007, which in turn led to the August 2008 fashion shoot by Paris-based photographer Jean-Francois Campos. Here (left) is the cover of Vogue India's first issue, and (right) a page from Campos' shoot for the latest edition, featuring a child modeling a $100 Fendi bib.

The first thing to note is the racial hierarchy; Vogue India's first edition looks a bit like an Olympics dias in which a blonde caucasian woman who's apparently won the gold medal is flanked by two Indian women -- runners up, it seems, with silver and bronze. The Indian women wear coloured contact lenses and sport Western styles, but at least the ethnicity of the target market is represented: Vogue Nippon (like Numéro Japan) seems to have banished Japanese women from its covers altogether.

When Vogue India shows Indian women, it restyles them to look as Western as possible. A cover feature on Bollywood film star Gauri Khan saw her radically restyled; her usual bindi spot and traditional Indian fabrics were replaced by a little red mini dress and notably whiter skin shades (though her hair did darken a few shades, perhaps to emphasize this new pallor).

I think Jean-Francois Campos' photos in the current Vogue India are an advance on the bling values expressed in their transformation of Gauri Khan. You probably know by now how I feel about bling, and about Western values. I think our culture is an aesthetic and spiritual laggard. I think the world's poor dress, in general, better than the world's rich, whether it's the Tlicho people dressing better than most of my friends on Facebook, or the Turks in Neukolln dressing better than the affluent conformists in Prenzlauer Berg.

Campos is an interesting photographer: he seems to make it his trademark to juxtapose rich Western fashion models with poor developing world street people. Here are some shots from his portfolio at Michele Filomeno, the agency that represents him:

Now, these juxtapositions are provocative (they're what the New York Times article is all about), but they're also teasingly polysemous. Personally, I find the luxury products placed in these poverty contexts the least interesting things there. I'm not looking at the $200 Burberry umbrella, or, if I am, I'm noticing how remarkably similar to a $2 umbrella it is, and how seamlessly it fits into a cheap outfit. It certainly isn't stealing the show.

"The subjects of the Vogue shoot are the people that luxury goods manufacturers might hope to one day become their customers," the New York Times suggests. I totally disagree with that; who on earth would want to work their way "up" from a $2 bib or umbrella to a $200 bib or umbrella that looks and functions exactly like it? What would be the point? Who would benefit?

One possible answer appears in the Wikipedia entry on poverty in India under the heading The Developmentalist View. It's a process I'd call "runner-up-ization". Far from helping India to wealth, the British Empire set it back, industrially, by a century or so. "In 1830, India accounted for 17.6% of global industrial production against Britain's 9.5%, but by 1900 India's share was down to 1.7% against Britain's 18.5%... Not only was Indian industry losing out, but consumers were forced to rely on expensive (often monopoly produced) British manufactured goods, especially as barter, local crafts and subsistence agriculture was discouraged by law. The agricultural raw materials exported by Indians were subject to massive price swings and declining terms of trade... Those parts of India which have been longest under British rule are the poorest today".

No wonder Japan wasn't that keen on opening up to trade with the West! (Here, by the way, are two images of Japanese traditional dress: a young Kahimi Karie with her grandmother -- taken from her post-materialist MyLohas blog -- and my favourite image from the Style from Tokyo blog we discussed yesterday, showing artist Kuniyoshi Kaneko.)

A "developmentalist view" of what Vogue India seems intent on achieving, then, would see it displacing Indian ethnic role models to second and third positions, and encouraging a consumer appetite for much more expensive consumer goods imported from the West.

But I think other things may be at work. While Vogue India's shareholders and backers and editorial team may indeed be invested in "runner-up-izing" India, it's possible that a photographer like Campos has a different agenda. Being based in Paris, it's likely that Campos (who incidentally made his first breakthrough at a particularly pivotal moment of the "triumph" of the Western system: he photographed the collapse of the Berlin Wall) shares the French love of orientalist exoticisation, and is trying to make the magazine less bling, and more attuned to its local context.

That strategy is unlikely to play well to the magazine's newly-affluent Indian readers, who're undoubtedly trying to distance themselves as much as possible from the urban poor. But it does sit well with the post-materialist syndrome I reported a few years ago in an essay called Mongoloid.

That essay was triggered by a campaign Michiko Kitamura shot in Mongolia for Cocue. She dressed nomadic mountain tribespeople in Cocue clothes, mixing them in to very much the same effect Campos has achieved in India -- making very expensive clothes look like very cheap ones, and very cheap clothes look very expensive.

I expounded two ideas in the Mongoloid piece. Both proposed the circularity of materialist and post-materialist aspiration cycles -- like the Grand Old Duke of York, aspiration marches its armies to the top of the hill only to march them down again.

"Capitalism," I wrote, "builds an industrial base, blights all beauty in the process, then, finally, gets rich enough to make luxury products which re-capture the lost beauty. Most of us must live ugly and contingent lives in offices and traffic jams in order to afford the occasional glimpse of beauty. Many abandon the idea of beauty altogether on the way. It's just too grim trying to hold onto it when you're surrounded by toxic industrial amusements (speeding cars, football matches). But a few tender souls do cling to the hope that beauty and dignity may still be possible on this planet. Instinctively, they search for it in two places: at the very bottom and the very top. In that which is unworthy of capitalism, and that which transcends it."

Having posited the idea that beauty could exist amongst the very rich and the very poor (but rarely in between), I asked:

"Will these photographs cause a Japanese tourist influx into Mongolia? And if so, how will the Japanese react when they see the ugly chemical works of Ulan Bator? How will these tourists react when they see the urban and slightly more affluent cousins of our friends in the Cocue advertisement dressed in the ugliest synthetic sportsgear, pirated Nike and Tommy Hilfiger? And how many generations will pass before our nomad cousins climb the ladder of consumer sophistication high enough to want to enter a Cocue store and buy exactly the clothes their ancestors wore decades or centuries before?"

I answered my own unanswerable question with faux-scientific precision: "The correct answer is, of course, 4.8 generations given a 6% annual rise in GDP." But a sadder answer -- given the developmentalist view, and ongoing runner-up-ization, is "never". The Grand Old Duke of York will never reach the top of the hill, will never realize that the view is over-rated, and will never march down again. Instead of a marcher-up he'll be -- if the British effect on India is anything to go by -- a runner-up, forced to pay more and more for the same basic items, and to see himself confined to the edge of the picture rather than at its centre. Wearing coloured contact lenses.

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