Saturday, January 8, 2011

Vogue and our schizophrenic Indian lives

Vogue vagueness
New year, new article by me – this time in the Vogue magazine. It is a profile of the British Indian restaurateur Geetie Singh. Unfortunately, it is not a terribly good article. It seems I had a particularly bad bout of my on-again-off-again sickness COMMAtitis and littered the copy with all sorts of misplaced commas. As for the magazine’s copy editor? Perhaps, he is a fellow sufferer.

So I am really hoping that most women pick up the issue for the same reason that I ever buy the magazine – to look at the ads. I remember my first look at the British edition around the time the buzz around Vogue’s possible entry into India was growing. I was transfixed – but mostly by the advertisements. Beautiful women in the most gorgeous clothes and accessories made by brands I had only ever seen as fakes in India: Donna Karan, Hermes, Chanel, Calvin Klien.

The articles were as visually stunning as the ads and referred pretty much to the same brands – in fact, it was difficult to tell apart the articles from the ads. It rendered a visual consistency to the magazine and converted it into a stunning temple to fashion. So much so, that by the time I turned the last page, even I – a girl so stubbornly proud of her frizzy hair, kurti, and baggy jeans – was feeling a deep yearning to be slim, beautiful and Chanel adorned.

But this is where I find the Indian Vogue diverging from its international counterparts: its incredible paucity of beautiful ads. To begin with, of the 67 full page ads in its latest issue only 3 refer explicitly to clothes – Levis, Monisha Jaisingh and Ritu Kumar. The largest chunk of the ads, 17 to be exact, belong to Indian jewellery stores: the Manubhais, Nothandasses, Gehnas, Shristis etc etc. And no, the ads don’t show smart, modern everyday wear. It is all heavy, traditional, stone-studded, ready-for-wedding wear. Jewellery is followed by watches (9), furnishing (6), skin products (5) and hotels (4). After this it all goes random with whiskey, chocolates, mid-range Australian wine, hairbands, yachts and even realty companies all finding a corner in this Indian temple to fashion.

What makes the magazine experience surreal is that articles and photo shoots – especially, the photo shoots – continue to refer to D&G, Nina Ricci, Christian Louboutins, Roberto Cavalli and gang as if the Nanubhais and Nothandasses never happened. 

To me this gap between the ads and the articles of Vogue says a lot about the wide gap between the reality, pretentions and aspirations of middle class India, and the resulting schizophrenia. We already believe that we are a world superpower without acknowledging the illiteracy, poverty, dirt, pollution and corruption endemic to our lives. Instead, we simply ensconce ourselves in air-conditioned bubbles inside our flats, cars, offices, malls, restaurants, hotels and nightclubs dreaming our rose-tinted dreams of a time when Nina Ricci and Christian Louboutin will be just down the road.

Maybe, that time will arrive. I only hope that the road leading to these stores will not be jammed with traffic, beggars in tatters, dust and pollution.


jaimit said...

Actually the magazine is not meant for middle class India. We in Mumbai believe we are middle class but in effect we are the cream of India. To put matters in perspective, some minuscule percentage on India pays tax (just about a single digit). Even if I include the farming population, then also, most of us easily breach the highest tax slab by earring a few lakhs per annum. In Mumbai middle class lives in chawls, does not have a toilet attached and is typically in a joint family.
Vogue is read not by the middle class which is loosely used as a term, but my guess (I don’t have stats) by the upper class in India. We possibly look at all those people richer than us and call ourselves middle. We are possibly the middle of the top slab.
But it isn’t that we are confused. We know what we want to buy. We want those high end diamond sets. Possibly the journalists in India are confused. I don’t think the standards of journalism is too high in India and so far I haven’t come across too many writers who have been the leading thought generators as far as trends, fashions or anything else is concerned. When I read my wife’s magazines I am stunned by the absolute lack of any substance in the magazines. To me they are perfect fodder for waiting areas in dispensaries and salons. To buy them is a complete waste. Every article seems paid for and every advertisement seems empty. Ditto for the gadget / car magazines targeted at the men. A few like Time Out seem to attract decent set of writers. So possibly the marketers have got it right with the advertising and the journos just need to see their own magazines and realise what seems to be working for the advertisers. Again not that the advertisers are smarter but if hard nosed business men like jewellers are advertising then some returns might be coming in. Who knows?
As far as your article, don’t bother about the commas. You may fret over them, but most of us (me included) wouldn’t care less and would not even know the difference. And who the hell buys Vogue for reading it. Me thinks that these articles are there to make these magazines ‘look’ intelligent. Its like – having a strong logical reason to eat chewing gum. It’s never really the case but it’s a good rationale.

And yes, some day we will have all the brands and the roads to them will be clean. The disparity is too much today.

Anonymous said...

It's also possible that, as ads are seasonal, there are more jewellery than fashion ads at the moment because it's wedding season.

globalbabble said...

@Anonymous: Yes, that is true. I still think that just three clothing ads in a the first issue of the year is perplexing, if fashion is as big in India as the magazine implies.

@Jaimit: Giggle - yes, it has always been terribly difficult to assess who exactly is middle class in India. I could have never imagined myself as the upper class, and yet I had so much more than most people - including a toilet that I exclusively shared with my sister. Such luxury.

On Vogue - It is supposed to be aspirational. I am still struggling with that notion and its consequences.

On intelligent writing on fashion: Uhmm.. I don't know, but them I am not a terribly intelligent writer myself so don't want to comment on others.

Girish Shahane said...

You have to say, though, that Vogue worked. Your frizzy hair and baggy jeans are gone, and you are slim, beautiful and Chanel adorned.

globalbabble said...

Thanks G.

But I must protest that I am not Chanel-adorned... yet.

Girish Shahane said...

I did have doubts about that one, but threw it in anyway, as we media people tend to do. Anyway, some Chanel-like perfume, you're not old enough for no.5... yet.