Vogue India has created a brouhaha over its controversial spread featuring poor citizens styled with luxury items. The editorial has stirred enough emotion and debate to be carried across several oceans and into the pages of the New York Times and countless fashion blogs.
The main contention seems to be that in a country where many people live on less than $1.25 a day, it is distasteful and vulgar to pair a $10,000 Hermès Birkin bag with a peasant who may never amass that sum during the course of her life.
Commenting on the story, Vogue India Editor Priya Tanna told the New York Times,
“Lighten up.” 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.
“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.
It's easy to see both sides of the issue. One on hand, it does seem in bad taste to dress up poor locals for the amusement of the wealthy. At the same time, if the argument is that the shoot is distasteful because of the vast povery in India, then the condemnation would seem unjustified.
Fashion and luxury is by nature exclusive and aspirational. Even the clothes, jewels and accessories featured in American Vogue are only available to a tiny select group while the vast majority of readers will hope to incorporate a few elements, if any, into their wardrobes. Most professional models can't afford the clothes in which they're styled either, but no one cries foul play. In the same vein, what waiters in the most exclusive restaurants could afford to dine in the same establishment?
The editorial is so powerful because it breaks down the barriers between rich and poor. Fashion has become global and is accessible to many more people than ever before in history. Fashion is also and has always been both controversial and transformative. In portraying both the former and later, Vogue India was ultimately successful. At the end of the day, it's also a business like any other and you can bet that this issue will likely follow in the steps of Vogue Italia's "All Black" issue in being hot on the newsstands.