Class and Compassion are not in Vogue in India

fendi bib and a bad attitude.jpg

I saw it myself and then a few of you blew up the tip line (thanks, Taara), my twitter and my skypager; on Sunday, the Grey Lady featured an article about Vogue India’s…interesting choice of models, for one of their recent editorial shoots. The “creative” (and by creative, I mean not at all) direction the magazine (which I still can’t procure in DC) stumbled through raised your threaded-eyebrows as well as some of your hackles, and rightly so.

Giving impoverished people $10,000 bags, Burberry bumbershoots and Fendi bibs for their children reeks of an appalling level of arrogance, an utterly clueless infatuation with “edginess”, and a heartless disregard for those for whom India does not yet shine. But let me tell you how I really feel, as I fisk the NYT article freely:

NEW DELHI — An old woman missing her upper front teeth holds a child in rumpled clothes — who is wearing a Fendi bib (retail price, about $100).
A family of three squeezes onto a motorbike for their daily commute, the mother riding without a helmet and sidesaddle in the traditional Indian way — except that she has a Hermès Birkin bag (usually more than $10,000, if you can find one) prominently displayed on her wrist.
Elsewhere, a toothless barefoot man holds a Burberry umbrella (about $200).
Welcome to the new India — at least as Vogue sees it.

Way to keep it classy, VI. Also, just so you know, the text on that picture says, “Baby’s Day Out: It’s never too early to start living in style.”

Vogue India’s August issue presented a 16-page vision of supple handbags, bejeweled clutches and status-symbol umbrellas, modeled not by runway stars or the wealthiest fraction of Indian society who can actually afford these accessories, but by average Indian people.

Many fashion magazines (and this is lamentable, in my opinion) prefer to use celebrities instead of models to display designer wares; surely some contact-lens-sporting ingenue would have happily offered her services? And also, agreed to appear in this “vision” of label whoring? Actually, they could have kept the spread only moderately offensive by replicating what many of their vestern sister publications do, and having said “model” out amid the grittiness of poor people, who, if we are to believe VI, are the new black. That’s hot.

Perhaps not surprisingly, not everyone in India was amused.

Not just India. Everywhere people have functioning hearts and brains.

The editorial spread was “not just tacky but downright distasteful” said Kanika Gahlaut, a columnist for the daily newspaper Mail Today that is based here, who denounced it as an “example of vulgarity.”
There’s nothing “fun or funny” about putting a poor person in a mud hut in clothing designed by Alexander McQueen, she said in a telephone interview. “There are farmer suicides here, for God’s sake” she said, referring to thousands of Indian farmers who have killed themselves in the last decade because of debt.

Um, like, Kanika? Who, like, cares? If I can’t see it, it, like, doesn’t exist. So yay, no farmer suicides! Yum, this sand tastes good!

Vogue India editor Priya Tanna’s message to critics of the August shoot: “Lighten up,” she said in a telephone interview. Vogue is about realizing the “power of fashion” she said, and the shoot was saying that “fashion is no longer a rich man’s privilege. Anyone can carry it off and make it look beautiful,” she said.

takes earrings off and smears vaseline on face

Bia…don’t even GET me started on how you be hawkin’ that shameful skin lightenin’ bullshit in your magazine. Hie thee to iTunes and get thee some Tupac. The joint’s called “Keep ya head up”. It would’ve been an apposite selection for your shoot, but I’m more interested in imprinting the following on your mind, one time: “The blacker the berry the sweeter the juice, I say the darker the flesh then the deeper the roots…”

“You have to remember with fashion, you can’t take it that seriously,” Ms. Tanna said. “We weren’t trying to make a political statement or save the world,” she said.

What kind of statement were you attempting to make? That it’s AWESOME to exploit poor people? That having a gaping black hole in your chest where your heart should be is teh new hawtness?

Tell me, Ms. Tanna, did these “models” get fed by craft services or whatever the hell usually provides caffeine, barf bags and celery sticks to those who are working hard? And isn’t it amazing that many models the world over starve themselves to attain unrealistic physical dimensions while many of your models don’t even have the chance to make such a heart-breaking choice? They starve because they don’t have enough. But don’t let that ugly truth get in the way of your vulgar logo-hawking.

Nearly half of India’s population — about 456 million people — live on less than $1.25 a day, according to World Bank figures released last week. But as any well-briefed luxury goods executive or private banker knows, India also has a fast-growing wealthy class and emerging middle class that make it one of the world’s most attractive new places to sell high-end products.
The juxtaposition between poverty and growing wealth presents an unsavory dilemma for luxury goods makers jumping into India: How does one sell something like a $1,000 handbag in a country where most people will never amass that sum of money in their lives, and many are starving? The answer is not clear cut, though Vogue’s approach may not be the way to go.

You think?

Look, I’m no fool. I know that there have always been filthy rich people in India who consume conspicuously while sighing with relief that they have gates around their compounds to keep out the even filthier beggars.

I know that the West isn’t much different either, that people in Manhattan who wait two years on a list for the chance to drop $14,000 on a Birkin often don’t feel guilt about such an acquisition nor some need to balance out such a purchase with a commensurate contribution to help those whom they, too, step over or otherwise ignore.

This isn’t new, in either part of the world. But that doesn’t make this creative “vision” right.

The subjects of the Vogue shoot are the people that luxury goods manufacturers might hope to one day become their customers. Companies are attracted to emerging markets like India because of the millions of people who are “coming from no income and rising quite fast,” said Nick Debnam, chairman of KPMG’s consumer markets practice in the Asia-Pacific region.

Uh…call me a cynical elitist, but I doubt that any of the people featured in that editorial shoot are going to drop rs. 4500 on a logo-ridden snippet of cloth, for their babies to puke on…they just might have other needs to prioritize. Shocking, but true!

The idea of being able to afford something but not buying it because you do not want to flaunt your money reflects a “very Western attitude,” he said. In China and other emerging markets, “if you’ve made it, you want everyone to know that you’ve made it,” and luxury brands are the easiest way to do that, he said.

Jigga wha? Many people in the West happily flaunt their purchasing power, even if they’re miring themselves in debt to do so. Meanwhile, most of my cautious, traditional, “sober” and “boring” DBD Aunties and Uncles drove Toyotas, never bought designer clothes, lived in modestly-decorated homes…and then paid for their children’s educations in full AND socked away hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings. I never attributed that lifestyle to their “western attitude”. Ever. I was always taught that that was part of their “Indian-ness”. Remind me to call my Mom and chew her out for misguiding me like that…

This bit is what angered me the most, too:

Not taking a close enough look at the “real people” is drawing criticism for Vogue, too. “The magazine does not even bother to identify the subjects” of the photos, said Ms. Gahlaut, the columnist. Instead, Vogue names the brands of the accessories in the captions, and says they are worn by a lady or a man.

They’re just props. Why recognize their humanity or ask their names? Oh, right…because decency should always be in fashion.

127 thoughts on “Class and Compassion are not in Vogue in India

  1. When I see comments like the one above I have to wonder what super exclusive housing colony the author lives in. Stop trying to write off ABDs as interlopers and be aware that at least 10% of us are only one generation removed from this type of life. India is extremely poor and that fact can’t help but be top of mind as a descriptor even amongst those who are inclined to be Indophiles. Keep pointing out how you see homeless people in Manhattan & Appalachia, all that shows is that you don’t understand the concept of “degree”. Keep it up and pretty soon Prema will have made a new friend ;-)

  2. When I see comments like the one above

    Clarification, I was referring to #99 and others like it

  3. Disgusting and arrogant. The people in those pics are not given any value. The bib is worth more than that baby.

  4. Actually, come to think of it, I don’t put it past at least some of the clueless rich in India to now avoid the Fendi brand simply because of its association with the “poor people”.

    Kind of like why some nncles in the USA are Republican-they are the party of the rich and successful aka “nice” people. I’m not making this up. Based on real life encounters by this DBD uncle.

  5. These photos, in my opinion, represent far more than the economic disparities in India alone. They are a sad reminder that in this world, there exists an unfathomable disparity between those who have and those who have not. Someone in an earlier comment stated that these photographs should be in a museum. You know, if they had been put together for a museum, I think I would have been okay with it. I think the disgusting part is that these pictures are being used to sell these items. While models, too, are props for fashion accessories in magazines, I, personally, am very uneasy about impoverished peoples doing the same.

  6. I for one enjoyed how ugly and fake the products looked against the unpretentious people.

  7. i’ve seen plenty of photoshoots in western magazines where models wearing expensive clothes have been photographed in african villages, rajasthani villages and in busy urban streets in asia and africa with poor people in the background. this photoshoot is better because at least the people in the picture got paid.

  8. Mine is a minority opinion here, but i have to say that i think that the obscenity of the Vogue photo spread is perceived, not real. I think the intention of the shoot was not to juxtapose extreme poverty and objects of desire that are extravagant for the average consumer anywhere, but to mix consumerist objects with human mood.

    If the first thing we want to do when we see this juxtaposition is vomit because it seems distasteful–i’m sorry, but this (a) says something about how we perceive people who are not just like us, people who we intuit cannot afford the objects they’re brandishing (b) we are projecting our discomfort with having to confront the inequity of our trendoid consumerism in the face of world poverty because really, it’s so much easier to pretend that these people DO NOT EXIST.

    This is not to imply that Vogue India is attempting to redress social inequities (that Priya Tanna sure sounds like a twerp), but rather that it is the reminder of our own complicity in the way the world works that offends us most of all. The models themselves seem cheerful enough–i love the shot of the bashful Rajasthani woman with the purse–and i’m going to hold on for now to what Dangermouse (# 108) said about how the products look fake next to the grandeur of people being themselves.

  9. I hate whenever something hit me in this manner. An utter disregard and almost humor in their attitude to what we construe as real people. As I have before, we should, I believe – write to the publisher and express our disapproval – for those of us who that is the case. Every time we do so, there is more of a chance of there being an attitude shift. What is that about really? I don’t want to try to put it into words.

  10. 109 · maya said

    If the first thing we want to do when we see this juxtaposition is vomit because it seems distasteful–i’m sorry, but this (a) says something about how we perceive people who are not just like us, people who we intuit cannot afford the objects they’re brandishing (b) we are projecting our discomfort with having to confront the inequity of our trendoid consumerism in the face of world poverty because really, it’s so much easier to pretend that these people DO NOT EXIST.

    Kozhandai, you know I lowe you (and your adorable bebes, too!), but I totes disagree. :) The first thing I wanted to do when I saw this was write an “Oh, no they DI’NT”-post, not vomit. I don’t think this is liberal guilt (which some now-deleted commenter was frothing about earlier along with testicle-sniffing…wow, there’s a visual), I think this is just plain old common decency. Would American Vogue put John Lobb shoes on a man begging atop a subway grate? No. I think the people who are saying “lighten up! these models probably had fun” are the ones with…interesting reactions, reactions which speak volumes, in certain cases.

    You know what would’ve been sly and kind of funny? If they had asked the people what they thought of the items. A one-liner about how that umbrella was nice, but wouldn’t withstand a monsoon…something. Then they could’ve said, “Well, we still think it’s fabulous” and that would’ve been that. That would’ve acknowledged that they are real, and more than mere props utilized for shock value. No, models don’t get asked for their opinion, but these are “real people”, not models.

    How do I perceive people who are not like me? As people, who don’t deserve to be exploited or used in some condescending manner. I perceive them as human beings who deserve to be recognized as such, not treated like anonymous backdrops for luxury accessories. I stated it, in my post– what angered me the most is that these “real people” weren’t even allowed the dignity of their real names (vs a man, a woman). For all those who pointed out that it’s not common to name a model in the blurb which contains relevant brand and pricing information, is it common to say “A woman wears…”? That’s all I meant to say and if I didn’t convey that, that speaks to my failings as a communicator or blogger.

    As for your second point, no. I do not pretend that these people do not exist and my being confronted with their visages in Vogue doesn’t result in the projection of anything, except for disgust at Tanna’s remarks and disappointment that this was her “creative vision”.

  11. Poverty in India is appalling. Poverty in America is also appalling (and very very very real). I just got off commenting at another blog, where a person earning in the top 1-5% of the population said they would rather give to charity than pay tax to the government, to discourage ‘free-loaders’ !!!!
    Equating the poverty in India to the poverty in America is dishonest and obscene. Visitors to India looking at the mind boggling inhumane conditions there cannot help but conclude that it is the most callous, least charitable society on the face of the planet.

    Two separate problems. Is it MORE obscene for the Indian elite with less resources to tolerate and exploit mass poverty or for the American elite with so much money it doesn’t know what to do with it to step over homeless people and not provide health care to poor Americans (and exploit poor Indians)?

    It’s not really the question, is it? The obscenity is in the tolerance, support, and exploitation of inequality – not just in photo shoots neither.

  12. Anna,

    Both of those are wonderful ideas–naming (thereby humanizing) the models, and having them opine on these objects (thereby empowering them). Clearly Vogue India does not have visualizers of your caliber :) .

    If you can imagine Vogue out of the equation, the photographs by themselves do accomplish the second thing–the wariness with which these Western objects are being handled turn these overpriced pieces into weird, useless, unknowable Western artifacts. I think that’s interesting and could be empowering. Equally, there is, i think your point, which is that they are being turned into mute backgrounds. So it could be about perception. Theoretically.

    The vomit now, that was my own visceral reaction to what i thought the spread was about. Because (a) i didn’t realize that the models are not starving people, merely relatively less well off people. (b) It reminded me of a time when i consumed so carelessly and indiscreetly that i bought Rs. 800 ($20) worth of beanie baby clothes for a favorite niece, and the security guy at the Delhi Mall at checkout told me he could have bought his son clothes for the winter with that amount of cash. That has stayed with me, so that today in the age of Heifer and Kiva, spending on anything non utilitarian seems wasteful.

    The future does not look good for Vogue in India. When spending extreme and obscene amounts of cash on non essentials, people do not like to reminded that they could be doing better things with their money.

    On another note, I always have thought the Domino Pizza slogan in India: “Hungry, kya?” was obscenely disrespectful in a country teeming with hungry millions. A friend at Ogilvie and Mather said it was okay because the hungry millions–being illiterate–can’t read the signs. What would you say to that?

  13. And also, there was no failure at blogging or commenting. As if! ;)

    What you wrote needed to be voiced. I was merely mining my own reaction.

  14. I’ve only been able to see two of the photo’s from the editorial spread and actually enjoy them. I enjoy the contradiction in common Indian people modeling designer fashion.

  15. Azim Premji’s eldest son and wife (of Wipro) run huge charitable organization. Are they of the scale of Gates, No. But are they absent, absolutely not.

    but maybe they might get there soon (though this is not to say that what the premjis are doing is anything less – seems like they are not just devoting money, but their time and effort, as well). it was not very long ago that, despite being a billionaire, gates was giving far less – absolutely and as a percentage of his income – to charity than those with far lower incomes, such as ted turner. now gates, gates is the top charitable contributor, but this practise of his started well after he became a billionaire, so perhaps, so, too. will others, and not just in india. part of what got this practise started in the US on a larger scale was the compilation of a list – essentially to ‘goad’ people into giving more.

    but that’s not going to stop me from wishing that an Indian movie star or billionaire would actually do a psa on caste, gender, religious, class etc problems.

    your wish is somewhat fulfilled by some – e.g. aishwarya rai’s campaign for eye donations.

    Anyway, a good first step would be if someone could get the U.S. and the IMF and the WB and the EU and others to STFU about what developing countries ought to do with their industrial / economic policies. And therein lies the connection to what I’ve been calling “imperialism.” Applies to all developing countries.

    while i agree that it sucks, many of these dictates and advice come in circumstances in which aid or loans are being given. if you’re asking for a loan, you can’t be the one to dictate the conditions (or lack thereof). admittedly, many of these mandates are unusually harsh and dictatorial (and do represent the new form of imperalism), but some of them are very valid – esp. when they have to do with efficiency and corruption/transparency. on the other hand, the more india and other countries develop, there will be potentially fewer opportunities to be in that position.

  16. Great post ANNA!

    Question though…does anyone know if the models (such as the grandmother) received a copy of the magazine where they were featured?

    Also, does this strike anyone as making the brand seem “ordinary” as in no longer a luxury brand?

  17. while i agree that it sucks, many of these dictates and advice come in circumstances in which aid or loans are being given. if you’re asking for a loan, you can’t be the one to dictate the conditions (or lack thereof). admittedly, many of these mandates are unusually harsh and dictatorial (and do represent the new form of imperalism), but some of them are very valid – esp. when they have to do with efficiency and corruption/transparency. on the other hand, the more india and other countries develop, there will be potentially fewer opportunities to be in that position.

    Short version: you need to look at productivity growth, not GDP growth; additionally, if you acknowledge it’s imperialistic, then ask yourself why imperialist institutions would ever support policies that would help undermine their base of power.

    The long version:

    This is along the lines of what my economics professor would say:

    Efficiency can operate in many ways – but the neoclassical idea of efficient allocation of resources says very little about industrialization, particularly in a situation where the formal market is not just imperfect, but not yet really built–there is still a lot of primitive accumulation happening. There are two economic things that industrialization requires: long term investment in infant industries so you can become globally competitive through productivity increases; and disciplining of the firms so that they actually do engage in that. What is less pertinent than ideology (neoliberalism or socialism or anything else) is whether these are pragmatically pursued to the extent possible given political, social, and other limits (again, strictly from an economic vantage point in promoting industrialization). The IMF prescriptions actually debilitated the countries affected from being able to do this, and instead pushed them into industrial policies on the basis of a static understanding of comparative advantage theory that involve reliance on low-growth, low-productivity growth labor intensive industries (like extraction, garment production, etc.). The countries that have fared the best (like China and India) are the ones that were able to resist this theory for as long as possible. Where they haven’t (like India’s pharma industry since it signed the global IP agreement) particular industries have actually gone backwards. The trick is to give lip service to the global ideologies that will get you money while you do what you need to do internally (again, strictly from an economic vantage point – industrialization is a very violent process and the question of whether you should endorse it is not a simple one).

    Corruption is a red herring, given the lack of any empirical evidence that corruption is correlated to long-term convergence of growth rates/GDP, though, yes, it has certain transaction costs. But, rents as a whole amount to a very very small percentage of GDP. What is more relevant is how the corruption is used – for examplle, South Korea had a lot of corruption, but it didn’t interfere with extremely high productivity growth in the 1960s. Additionally, there is “corruption” in wealthy countries too through legalized means like earmarks or pet projects – political rent seeking exists everywhere. So the real question is, if a corrupt bureaucrat demands money or a police officer takes a bribe, what do they do with the money? Does it impede any of the two basic strategies laid out above?

  18. Wasn’t this called slumming? … where the rich and wealthy would go to the impoverished areas to get a little dirt on them but in a safe and controlled way. In this case the rich can browse thru magazines at items they own or desire and feel a little comfortable in their “subversiveness”.

  19. Anna said

    I’m just saying that what Vogue India did to stoke desire for such frippery was heartless in my humble opinion, not edgy.

    Anna, if you remember many, many, many years ago Tibetans used to come down to Delhi to sell their yak wool sweaters on the pavements.

    Today, they have disappeared. They have been replaced by cheap sweaters mostly made in Prema/Vyasa/Valmiki’s home land.

    Don’t you wish there had been a Vogue photographer who had draped a Tibetan sweater on an anorexic model and made it “chic”.

    Just another way at looking at the same situation.

    Still think your heart is in the right place though.

  20. Two cents from an MBA student who feels strongly about development issues. Vogue could have done a much better job, by using proceeds from selling these products to improve the lives of these people in some tangible manner. The best products and services also serve as good PR for the company. Vogue has just reinforced the impression that it’s thoughtless.

  21. 62 · PS said

    worst journalistic cliches possible with no real analysis…its easy to say whats wrong but not to explain why. I reread the article and I’m not sure what you are talking about – maybe I’m just missing something. I saw the article showed the different points of view – one person saying “no we are not discriminating by caste” to “caste is discriminating the aid effort” – I can see how the title is misleading b/c it doesn’t show these different points of view though and I didn’t like the last line but overall I thought it was a good article. Are you saying that the article doesn’t explore other structures that lead to discrimination like feudalism? I’m sensitive to s.asians in this blog giving huge generalizations about our character w/o qualifications that lead to sterotypes. I understand your concern. Did you find the post article totally inaccurate? ……

    Thanks for your revert PS. Not totally inaccurate (to the extent that what happens on the ground was captured in a roughly accurate manner), but if the correspondent had managed to dig a bit more, he/she would have found several levels of complexity (eg. rise of Dalit politics/identity, logistical problems per se) that are hard to ignore while doing a story like this.

  22. Maybe Vogue India had Danish artist Nadia Plesner’s Darfur images in mind….? Of course V.I. can’t claim what Plesner hopes: “to use my art to raise funds and awareness for crisis situations/areas throughout the world, especially where children are the victims.”

  23. I just now saw SM featured on NDTV 24×7 news channel here. There had a news item about the Vogue India and this post was highlighted with various comments shown….like #1 and #15 by SpottieOttie… Just fyi, folks.

  24. As someone who has never bought Vogue or the name brand products being advertised, I fail to see what all the outrage is about! The two pictures shown in the NYT look interesting and I would not have been able to recognise the brand name products, unless someone mentioned that to me or if the pics had not been captioned. I would have thought it odd that a quintessentially Indian picture of a cute kid with her grandma had a western style bib on (bibs are not common in India). Though, someone would have had to point out to me that it was a bib and not part of the shirt design. The other pic with a man holding an umbrella and his colorfully attired wife would have evoked Rajasthan to me and nothing more. Those two pictures to me show traditional middle class people in Rajasthan, NOT poor people.

    What is outrageous to me is that, that bib is priced at $100 and someone would buy it for $100 because it says (I am guessing here) Fendi on a little flap on the inside or that umbrella costs $200 for a label on the inside that says Burberry (I have never heard that name before)! What is more outrageous to me is how ordinary everyday use products are converted into ‘chic’, ‘trendy’ and ‘aspirational’ stuff with a lot of money spent on building the name-brand!! What is even more outrageous to me is that people (albeit with some money and perhaps a little insecure in their skin) would fall for this propaganda and actually pay these outrageous amounts for these products, especially of all places in India!!!

    What is interesting to me is that by using those products as props in pictures of traditional middle class Rajasthanis, how do they expect to brainwash the ‘aspirational’ Indian money class to buy these products?

    The most outrageous thing for me was the fake outrageous and indignant tone adopted by this NYT article and ‘wtf moments’ from comments like,

    The idea of being able to afford something but not buying it because you do not want to flaunt your money reflects a “very Western attitude,” he said.
  25. Hmm. Why is such a scene being made out of this? The people shown in the pictures are not naked and starving. Why is the shoot perceived in such a negative manner? I don’t think the people in the shoot even CARE to get a fancy bag or shoe. They have their own sense of style. They’d prefer clothing they like and are used to. I really liked the shoot when I saw it. It was awesome. It was almost like giving fashion to people who don’t get awed by it, or care for it. It almost made me feel stupid for lusting after stupid expensive things. They know MUCH better to than to be bothered about keeping a bag or a shoe.