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Vogue India’s Portrayal of Society Receives Negative Reviews

September 03, 2008 07:54 AM
by Anne Szustek
The magazine’s August issue featured impoverished locals adorned in designer finery. Some in the country are calling it cruel mockery of India’s growing income disparity.

Vogue India’s Fashion Shoot: Fashion Democracy or Social Derision?

Images of a family of three piling atop a motorbike, one member clutching the much-coveted Hermès Birkin bag, and a toothless, shoeless man toting a $200 Burberry umbrella covered 16 pages of last month’s issue of Vogue India.

But with some 456 million of India’s population—just under half of the country—subsisting on less than $1.25 per day, according to World Bank statistics cited by The New York Times, many are criticizing the photo spread. The Times quoted Kanika Gahlaut, a columnist for local paper Mail Today, calling the piece “not just tacky but downright distasteful,” and pointed out that thousands of farmers in India have committed suicide over the past 10 years due to debt struggles.

The people featured in the magazine spread were unnamed—a point that critics say is evidence that the shoot was using them more as props than as models. Indian columnist Parsa Venkateshwar Rao was quoted by British paper The Daily Telegraph as saying, “The poor are always used as props, not as real people, which is why they haven’t even been named in the magazine. … Would they use homeless or hard up people in London for this kind of shoot?”

Priya Tanna, editor of Vogue India, dismissed criticism of the spread. The Times quoted her as saying, “Fashion is no longer a rich man’s privilege. Anyone can carry it off and make it look beautiful.”

Background: India’s study in contrasts

Worldwide, the advent of designer lines at discount retailers such as Steve and Barry’s, Target and H&M has put shoppers of various financial strata on the same fashion playing field.

And India’s burgeoning economy, powered in large part by its highly skilled IT sector, has made the country nearly synonymous with outsourcing.

With Indian citizens taking 53 slots on Forbes magazine’s most recent “The World’s Billionaires” list, high-end brands are all too eager to entrench their brand in the mindset of India’s nouveau riche and rising middle class. As is the case in other emerging market nations, “if you’ve made it, you want everyone to know that you’ve made it,” Nick Debnam, the chair of accounting firm KPMG’s consumer markets unit in the Asia-Pacific region told the Times.

Labels such as Gucci and Jimmy Choo are popping up in boutiques in the country’s five-star hotels and luxury shopping malls. India has its share of homegrown fashion designers gaining worldwide recognition; about 70 of the 150 buyers in attendance at the March 2008 Fashion Week in Delhi were foreign, according to The Economist.

Indian-designed apparel accounted for some $50 million to $250 million in sales—a fairly small portion of fashion sales worldwide, however. Local designers’ work appeals largely to women looking to keep a traditional Indian look while giving some sort of nod to modern trends.

But for many Indians, high-street fashion is far out of grasp. One of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s main policy drives since taking office in 2004 has been his “New Deal” plan—economic empowerment for all citizens. Yet it “has still to bear fruit,” writes the BBC.

In addition to the poverty that nearly half of India’s population suffers, religious violence remains a higher priority for many in the country than Dior’s latest collection.

Sectarian violence broke out in Orissa province last week after extremist Hindus blamed Christians for the assassination of radical Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati. As of Friday, at least 13 people had been killed and thousands more displaced. Reports circulated of mobs allegedly sympathetic to Saraswati raping Catholic clergy members and burning down Christian-founded orphanages.

In 2002, more than 1,000 people, according to the BBC, most of them Muslim, were killed in riots in Gujarat province following the death of several Hindu pilgrims in a train fire.

Long-standing tension between Muslims and Hindus in the disputed Jammu-Kashmir region near the India-Pakistan border flared last month. Since June, at least 15 have died in violence stemming from protests over appropriation of land near Amarnath Cave, the home of a Hindu shrine. Staple goods and medicine were in short supply and Muslim truck drivers took to the streets in a strike from work.

Opinion & Analysis: Fashion shoot and backlash skirt social issues

Although the incongruity of a destitute Indian peasant wearing a $100 Fendi bib may at once puzzle and offend, even many people born and bred in economically prosperous fashion capitals such as London and New York could not fathom spending thousands of dollars on fashion accessories. The Cut, New York Magazine’s fashion blog, quips about Tanna’s statements, “Right—$10,000 Birkin bags are every man’s privilege. That’s why we have seven.”

Taking into account economic inequalities within the borders of developed nations, blog Jezebel argues that there’s some hypocrisy in American outrage over the Vogue photos, as “most magazines have problems with ‘real people’ and luxury goods.” The blog cites a recent shoot in the U.S. edition of Vogue that featured a $64,000 Fendi coat made of mink and 24-carat gold. “True, they didn’t shoot the coat on a woman from Ziebach County, South Dakota, but maybe doing so would alert readers to the fact that Ziebach County, South Dakota is the poorest county in the U.S.? In any case, the number of Americans who can afford the coat is marginal.”

Related Topic: The emerging market of China

The Beijing Olympics served as a prime excuse for retailers looking to tap into the 1.3 billion potential consumers in China’s tiger economy. Nike’s sponsorship of Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang and Adidas’ official backing of the Olympic Games kept the athletic shoe brands in the national consciousness among upstart young consumers. Coke and Pepsi launched a new wave of the “cola wars” in a bid to entice budding soft drink enthusiasts—many of whom before had never before had a cola beverage—in the face of cultural prohibitions against consumption of cold liquids. China’s growing market is also providing opportunities for multinational companies to make inroads—quite literally. General Electric, for one, has taken in some $700 million in sales from infrastructure projects in the Beijing vicinity.

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