Vogue Italia’s ‘Haute Mess:’ Racist, Ignorant, or Brilliant?

All images courtesy Vogue Italia

By Fashion Correspondent Joseph Lamour

That’s right: what you’re seeing above is actually something that’s in the world’s current fashion bible. Vogue Italia’s March 2012 issue features this spread, aptly titled “Haute Mess”, and features a bevy of the world’s most beautiful women obscured by everything but the kitchen sink.

I’ve got to say right off the bat that Coco Rocha is one of my favorite models in the entire universe–I often gasp in Minnie Riperton octaves when I come across her (and this is one of the reasons why) but, until I read the credits, I had no idea she was even in this spread. The same goes for models usually familiar and amazing like Joan Smalls and Jessica Stam. Fashion most of the time is supposed to enhance or highlight the beauty of the wearer, but sometimes–like in this spread–it’s trying to challenge what your idea of beauty is. But does this shoot succeed or offend? In looking at this shoot, I couldn’t decide whether or not it included subtle or overt racist tones, if it was ignorant to the message it would provoke…or that it so beautifully over-the-top it was actually brilliant.

The title page seems to recall 90’s era kids logos, like Super Mario Brothers, Looney Tunes, and other cartoons. I really like the implied allusion to the Kreayshawn element, a love of cartoon characters. Looking at the a few of the images, I feel this editorial is focusing on a certain type of woman: one who would wear a skin tight dress and platform heels while 8 months pregnant; or, would display her love of pops of yellow and Twix bars anywhere she went; or, would be a woman in a five-figure outfit changing a baby in a diner bathroom. I’m mildly enjoying how brilliantly ridiculous some of these images are.

I feel an intentional theme running through the shoot is overconsumption, perhaps by a perceived notion of the American poor. Mountain Dew, Ruffles, Lemonheads, and Doublemint gum (all American companies) adorn the borders of some pages, and junk food is commonly referred to as lower-class fare. In the image to the right, a woman poses in a diner with the words “deep fried” on the window behind her, in clothes that likely cost more than the diner’s rent. Is this a meant to ridicule excess, or is it saying something offensive about a certain type of person? I feel that “ghetto fabulous” culture and style or perhaps Jersey Shore may have been chosen as a jumping point for the images. For instance, the hair brings to mind Lil’ Kim’s heyday, yet its not presented in an obviously derogatory manner.

The magazine says that their inspirations for this shoot are the “messy” side of drag queen culture– think less Tyra Sanchez and more Dr. Frank-n-Furter, for example; Divine, drag queen and John Waters icon; and Paris is Burning, a film that explores drag culture. The way Vogue phrases “messy drags,” however, makes me cringe a bit. I do see the eye makeup in a lot of the shots as clearly a Divine influence, and I especially see the drag influence in the shot on the above right. However, RuPaul is also listed as an inspiration, but she’s one of the most pristine drag queens working today, firmly categorized as a glamour queen. And in Paris is Burning, a lot of the queens are as glamorous as RuPaul is. The ladies in this shoot have neck and facial tattoos, gold teeth, and wigs made of money. I’m doubting those listed were an inspiration, except perhaps Paris’s Pepper LaBeija. Maybe inspiration came from another source, like this, perhaps:

The image above is from Fail Blog’s Poorly Dressed. I wonder why the magazine didn’t cite this (he said, sarcastically). It doesn’t seem malicious because its not something that appears mocking, at least in the Vogue image. But to include something from “ghetto fabulous” culture that is one of the most infamous posts of Poorly Dressed, has to be tremendously inept or quite savvy. Still, with this obvious allusion, I still found Italia’s Skittles model pretty, like maybe Meisel was trying to show that beauty exists in all cultures of fashion. I was beginning to think the Internet rumblings could be an overreaction …

… at least, until I got to the above image. Good golly miss molly, Vogue is implying the woman above is a urinal.

This intensely misogynistic image transcends race and brilliance and lands right into the “What were they thinking” bin. This is the one of two images of cover model Joan Smalls in which she appears as the star. Vogue released the cover about a week before, along with a few animated gifs from the shoot, and Joan was enjoying some publicity for being the first black model on the cover of Vogue Italia since The Black Issue in 2008. All that good grace for not diversifying for so long was thrown out the window the moment they decided to publish the cover model in this way– with Tweety Bird and Spongebob Squarepants as the image border for an exceedingly disturbing juxtaposition. And frankly, my eyes will never unsee the toenail situation. But then again, is this just a display of how ugly displaying your money on yourself can be?

A lot of these images remind me of an old classmate, Ryan Trecartin, a video and performance artist who’s characters solely of wildly absurd individuals. His work is all an absurd look on consumption, the Internet, and life today. Did Meisel have a similar message in mind, or did he just want to take high-class wares to an aggressively salacious place?

My goal in looking at the images was to be as impartial as possible, taking each at face value until the end judgement. But, what I notice here is gold accessories appear frequently throughout the shoot. But is merely showing an abundance of gold racist? Of course not, but pairing it with chola brows, the oft recreated and symbolic teardrop tattoo, the fringe jacket, the exposed weave tracks, and her expression makes it hard for some not to see it that way.

Whether its racist, ignorant or brilliant is up to the general public to decry, or if it’s brilliant, prop up. I, for one, feel that “Haute Mess” gave me an impression of ignorance– with a spot of brilliance, to be honest. If you decide to obscure some faces (including a baby) like an episode of Cops, show unattended weaves in doorways, bathroom stalls and hand dryers, and include multiple images of toenail press-ons, you must not care about the distaste you’re going to bestow. Frankly it begs the question why so many of the images were included. If this was edited town to the moments of brilliance and not those few images that went too far, is could have been a crazy fabulous 8 page spread. But this, 16 spreads in all, and upwards of 40 separate images are too much.

There’s an abundance of a lot of things in this, including messages. There were some brilliant notes in there, as Meisel is a fine photographer. I think I’ll chalk this up to something that pushes the boundaries of good taste, which was their point, but every now and again it just went a touch over the line. And this statement comes from someone like me, who’s line is much further into entropy than most people. If not (overtly) racist, take into consideration the amount of direct classist mockery in the shoot. I think imagery like this is better served in another format, rather than a magazine that really is trying to sell the clothes they’re wearing. Does a lot of this spread really make you want to go shopping, ladies?

I mean, lot of the shoot is actually pretty solid fashion imagery. To me, brilliance almost won out. This doesn’t mean I love the whole spread but can pick out certain parts where a model transcended the insane, or everything in an image just fit. Cupcake hats are more a Harajuku reference than anything and, while it may not be for everyone, circus fashion has a place in the world.

However, you’d have to be pretty foolish to think that a woman with her legs all akimbo in front of a urinal isn’t going to fill your mailbox with complaint letters, or that it best serves the clothes to present them as if they’re much cheaper than they really are. You’d have to be pretty ballsy to still go ahead with an idea that will surely fill your browsers with articles asking if you are racist–again. That’s not to say we should censor ourselves when we have artistic ideas that might offend people, but there’s a difference between an artistic commentary on capitalistic consumption and what looks like, to some, as a dig against “ghetto fabulous” women. I can’t honestly say one of those is clearer in the pictures than another.

It makes you think of how they’re going to respond if and when the backlash waves come crashing on Italia’s shore, again. And, guys, this time it’s no typo. Also, I know that I’m being fairly critical of Meisel’s work, an artist whom I truly admire. The cover on the right, from the magazine’s December 2007 issue is by him, and I loved it from when I first saw it. So, as you can see, he knows how to join photographs and models in today’s topics and still have it be beautiful. Perhaps this time all he wanted was to push boundaries–and with that, he succeeded.




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  • Anonymous

    It’s brilliant in its racist ignorance.    

  • http://www.facebook.com/galiotica Nejasna ちゃん

    Racist, ignorant or brilliant  – how about a theft? 

  • http://www.morningmidnight.com/ m clark | morningmidnight.com

    I think the comment about Trecartin (and other similar artists, as well as the current crossover between drag and hip hop and art and internet culture that’s going on now, especially in NYC — Mykki Blanco comes to mind, LE1F, Ghe20 Gothik, SSION, etc) is on point, and part of the problem and partially at the root of the ambivalence here. I think that a lot of what’s going on here is “high fashion”/Vogue/Meisel picking up on the aesthetic of what’s going on elsewhere, and appropriating it because of its visual appeal, but thereby losing a lot of the nuance, irony, and commentary inherent in the original source.  

  • http://www.morningmidnight.com/ m clark | morningmidnight.com

    I think the comment about Trecartin (and other similar artists, as well as the current crossover between drag and hip hop and art and internet culture that’s going on now, especially in NYC — Mykki Blanco comes to mind, LE1F, Ghe20 Gothik, SSION, etc) is on point, and part of the problem and partially at the root of the ambivalence here. I think that a lot of what’s going on here is “high fashion”/Vogue/Meisel picking up on the aesthetic of what’s going on elsewhere, and appropriating it because of its visual appeal, but thereby losing a lot of the nuance, irony, and commentary inherent in the original source.  

  • ……….

    See the video : http://www.vogue.it/en/magazine/cover-story/2012/03/over-the-top

    It’s paired with Bueno Vista Social Club’s Chan Chan. There is no question that this spread is racist and clumps together minority cultures.

  • Anonymous

    One thing is for sure: I am becoming a huge fan of Joseph Lamour as he makes me see fashion with completely different eyes. 

  • Emazndesigns

    I Love it! The best form of flattery is immitation. We r a culture who pushes boundaries, live outside the box! These are great partygirl looks. Thank u Vogue Italia for comin to my hood!

  • http://twitter.com/TheSuperAmanda Super Amanda

     Ok, forgive me but how many times are we going to be surprised about how racist and archaic Vogue magazine (any edition)  is? As an anti-Racist I decided  to look elsewhere for beauty and fashion a long time ago. Simply because a magazine is pro-Gay and hires many Gay men and features Gay designers does not make it in the slightest way progressive.

    Meisel by the way, in my opinion, is a talentless dolt and a perennial racial and class fetishist whom  exploits lower class people and people of colour in his work so none of this is surprising.  He is  also one of the
    forerunners of what I like to call “AK-47 photographic retouching” where
    instead of a person you are given a near fraudulent, waxy retouched image.  Meisel and Madonna, stole HUNDREDS of  obscure images from people such as Bettie Page who was still a cult
    figure in the early 1990s and not yet a mainstream icon brand as she is today thus a good 2/3s of
    Madonna’s “SEX” book which he helmed was all stolen from her work with Irving &
    Paula Klaw. I don’t think he’s done anything original in his entire career.