A report from our Berlin correspondent on design and society.
Should poor people appear in fashion shoots for expensive clothing? What’s the difference between a $2 umbrella and a $200 umbrella? What’s the role of a magazine like Vogue in a nation where more than 75% of the population lives on less than $2 a day? Can cheap clothes enhance — even trump — expensive ones? Do couture items look cheap mixed into a poor person’s outfit?
These were some of the questions raised by an article by Heather Timmons in Sunday’s New York Times. Vogue’s Fashion Photos Spark Debate in India described — and showed — a photo shoot by Jean-François Campos which appeared in the August edition of Vogue India.
Since its launch last October, the Indian edition of Vogue has tended to concentrate on glitzy, aspirational images; Western models appear alongside Indian models whose styling (colored contact lenses and lightened skin tones — the subject of another New York Times article) nudges them in the direction of Western norms. Campos’s story — featuring impoverished Indians sporting a Fendi baby bib, a Burberry umbrella and a $10,000 Hermès Birkin bag — departs, provocatively, from that line.
Glance at his portfolio at creative agency Michele Filomeno and you’ll see that this provocative juxtaposition of luxury and poverty is something of a Campos hallmark. In shot after shot, fashion models and expensive clothes are set against backdrops of urban poverty. Personally, I find the images thought-provoking and beautiful. They free the fashion world from its ivory tower isolation and allow it to circle ethical issues — without forcing any particular conclusions on the viewer. They also raise the question of whether the beautiful artifacts of a traditional culture like India aren’t a match for the most expensive couture. Which raises, in turn, the worrying idea that, by thinking this way, we may be romanticizing (and therefore justifying) poverty.
When I wrote about the Vogue India controversy on my own blog, Click Opera, the South African artist Candice Breitz sent me some images by veteran New York artist Martha Rosler. Revisiting Bringing the War Home, a set of Vietnam War-themed images she made between 1967 and 1972, Rosler created a montage series in 2004, which imagined fashion shoots taking place on the streets of Baghdad.
“Assembled from the pages of Life magazine,” Laura Cottingham wrote in an essay, “…Rosler’s montages re-connect two sides of human experience, the war in Vietnam, and the living rooms of America, which have been falsely separated.” The Campos images, with their uncomfortable beauty and ambiguous juxtapositions, may be making the same point about the “false separation” between luxury and poverty — with, perhaps, more seductive subtlety.