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This fall, Palais Galliera, Paris’s fashion museum, marks the 100th anniversary of the iconic French edition of Vogue magazine with an exhibition, “Vogue Paris 1920-2020.”
It is a birthday worth celebrating, not only because Vogue Paris is almost a synonym for French fashion, but also because its identity is so unique that it is the only edition in the international Vogue galaxy to bear the name of a city and not of a country.
Born in 1920, hot on the heels of British Vogue (first published in 1916), the Gallic edition initially was little more than a translation of the original American publication. Affectionately nicknamed “Frog” (contraction of the words Vogue and French) by the Condé Nast staff, the publication started to develop its own personality when Michel de Brunhoff became editor-in-chief, in 1929.
Throughout his tenure, which lasted until 1954, de Brunhoff worked with a tight knit group of journalists hailing from the same circles as the French target audience of the periodical: wealthy, cultivated and cosmopolitan. It was all about couture, of course, and a rarefied ideal of beauty.
For several years, de Brunhoff favored fashion illustration over photography, even after Vogue in the U.S. had dropped it completely. It was a tradition hailing from the gazettes de mode of the 18th century, but de Brunhoff boosted it by asking well known artists and illustrators to contribute, raising the bar of what was until then considered a minor art.
The show gives a glimpse of the creative process at work behind every issue, with originals of letters exchanged between de Brunhoff and his American bosses. It is clear he was given a very wide editorial berth, most likely because the magazine was incredibly successful. Everyone, from the most famous designers to the glitziest celebrities and socialites, wanted to be featured in Vogue Paris.
One of the most poignant of those exchanges occurred in 1940. The war had strained the editorial world, with shortages in paper and other printing materials, but de Brunhoff managed to put together one last edition before the German occupants raided the Vogue offices and the magazine halted all publications. It would take until 1945 for a new issue, a special hors-série, to appear, but a regular schedule would not resume until 1947.
1947 was a fateful year for fashion, thanks also to de Brunhoff, who embraced joyously the New Look by Christian Dior, one of his protégés. Because the Vogue editor in chief kept an eye out for talented designers, he proved instrumental also in another young talent’s career: Yves Saint Laurent. Spotted while he was still living with his family in Algeria, de Brunhoff recommended him to Monsieur Dior who was looking for an assistant.
By the time Saint Laurent launched his own brand in 1962, de Brunhoff had retired and been replaced by Edmonde Charles-Roux. The magazine underwent a rapid change, almost as rapid as French society. Next to the glossy fashion and beauty spreads, appeared articles on culture and societal topics. The ideal Parisienne by then was not only glamorous, she was also an intellectual: celebrated artists and writers became regular contributors, and the target audience younger and more daring.
The show does not mention why Charles-Roux left, abruptly, in 1966, but it is rumored it was over a disagreement with the publishing company leadership in the U.S. over the proposal to use an African-American model on the cover. Her left-leaning political sympathies may actually have played a bigger role in her dismissal, but it is true that Vogue Paris would wait until 1988 to put Naomi Campbell on its cover.
By 1968, Vogue Paris, thanks to its new editor-in-chief, Francine Crescent, saw new, daring photographers become a fixture of the publication: Helmut Newton, and Guy Bourdin were presenting a new image of the Parisienne, in synch with the feminist movement. She was, of course, fashionable and beautiful, but in a sassier, more sensual way. She was also a professional, with her own spending power.
Despite these changes, the circulation of the magazine became stagnant. Not even a change at the helm, with the arrival of Colombe Pringle in the late 1980s, and the introduction of new talents like Peter Lindbergh and Steven Meisel, kickstarted the growth in sales.
As an extreme measure, in 1994 the first non-French director, Joan Juliet Buck, was put in charge. She finally succeeded in increasing sales, thanks to a complete revamp of the publication: more text, more high-brow topics, and in general a new look that would be less joyous and more serious.
However, the Americanization of the editorial board did not last long, and Carine Roitfeld, the former creative director who became editor in chief in 2001, brought back a very French verve. Emmanuelle Alt, her successor in 2011, followed in her footsteps.
This birthday anniversary show retraces the extraordinary life of Vogue Paris, with a copious selections of drawings, photographs and articles. Most come from the magazine’s archives, with several additions sourced from Palais Galliera’s permanent collections. There are very few clothes on show, which may disappoint some fashion lovers. I, however, found that this curating choice adds depth to the exhibition, because it underlines how much the printed image and the editorial choices that bring it to life shape our definition of what is in fashion and what is not.
It is a very different exhibition to the one dedicated to Harper’s Bazaar by MAD Paris back in 2020. That one relied on the clothes to tell the story of the magazine. Here, the Vogue Paris 100th anniversary show lets the images speak for themselves. The tale they weave underlines how much fashion, the women wearing it and the society they inhabit, have evolved since 1920. As such, it makes for a fascinating discovery for everyone, and not just for fashionistas.
“Vogue Paris 1920-2020” is on at Palais Galliera, Paris fashion museum (10, Avenue Pierre Ier de Serbie, 75116 Paris) until January 30, 2022.
Lead photo credit : Vogue Paris 1920-2020 at Palais Galliera (C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong