The 400,000 images no doubt constitute the world's most glamorous picture library – but subscription comes at a price.

Dory Carr-Harris, PSFK
  • 22 december 2011

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This article titled “Vogue launches online archive of every American issue in its 119-year history” was written by Jess Cartner-Morley, for The Guardian on Friday 16th December 2011 16.28 UTC

In 1988, when the printers received the image for the November issue of American Vogue – the first under a new editor – they telephoned Vogue House in Manhattan because they were concerned there had been a mistake. The model in the photograph was wearing jeans, which had never before featured on a Vogue cover. The new editor, Anna Wintour, confirmed that it was indeed the image she had chosen, and printing went ahead.

In the 23 years since, Wintour’s many controversial editorial innovations at Vogue – from mixing high street with designer clothes on shoots to featuring celebrities on the cover – have been hugely successful in boosting the profile of a magazine that is now 119 years old.

This week, Vogue has made another eyebrow-raising move. Every page of every edition of American Vogue, since its debut in 1892, has been installed online, in a searchable archive that constitutes undoubtedly the world’s most glamorous image library. But the archive comes with a pricetag that even affluent Vogue readers may balk at: a year’s subscription costs $1,575 (£1,015).

Once past the paywall, you can search the site’s 400,000 images by date, brand, designer, photographer and model. It is possible, for example, to search for all images featuring Kate Moss wearing Alexander McQueen photographed by Mario Testino – a search that might have taken weeks of painstaking research using paper archives. The archive is being marketed as a business-to-business resource, aimed at design professionals. A limited version, the extent of which is not yet clear, will be made available to Vogue’s subcribers in 2012.

The strategic importance of the move goes beyond the revenue the paywall will deliver. “This is Condé Nast waving a flag about what the Vogue brand could be,” says Douglas McCabe, media analyst at Enders Analysis. “What they are saying is: Vogue is absolutely the authoritative player in this field. There aren’t many magazine brands that could line up behind this and copy what they’ve done. That’s one of the points Vogue is making.”

The two-year project to create an online archive is a sign that the fashion industry is increasingly focused on a digital future. Condé Nast already has 50 smartphone and tablet apps, with more than seven million downloads. Jeremy Langmead, whose own career illustrates this shift – last year, he was poached from Esquire to become editor-in-chief of online mens retailer Mr Porter – believes “it is a shame that so few people will be able to access this incredible archive. What’s wonderful about fashion is that it is not just an elitist pursuit, but a democratic interest, and ideally the Vogue archive would reflect that. But the dilemma is that while everyone wants to make content widely available, getting this archive online will have been a lot of work, and that work needs to be paid for.”

However, some are in full support of the subscription fee. “The moral outrage people feel about being asked to pay for content is misguided. Actually, I’m surprised the price is so low,” comments Chris Sanderson, co-founder of trend forecasting consultancy The Future Laboratory. “The archive is clearly being marketed to creative professionals. The searchability gives it real value, because you have the ability to drill down into content and locate exactly what you need. So for example, if a client says ‘I want a mid-70s Bob Richardson feel’, this archive will give you instant access to the images, to understanding the scope of his work, the locations he used, the models.”

The broad appeal of the archive is a reflection not just on the status of Vogue but of fashion itself, which is more prominent in popular culture now that at almost any other time in history. Anna Wintour’s comment that “a great fashion picture reflects its time just as much as a New York Times headline does,” is a notion which has gained traction in the public consciousness. “Fashion permeates so many creative industries now” says Langmead, “that the archive will be relevant to people working in furniture design or vehicle design, as well as in fashion.”

McCabe believes that the pricing of the archive reflects the fact that historical fashion images do not have mass appeal. Within the fashion industry, however, they are essential.

Langmead agrees. “In fashion we are constantly looking back to look forward, and this is particularly true in menswear. At Mr Porter, finding brilliant retro images of well-dressed men is essential, because men feel more comfortable being inspired by men from the past than by their contemporaries. I suspect this is because our egos are fragile, and therefore we don’t like being compared to other men unless they are dead.”

A review of the archive in the New York Times pinpointed an additional niche market for the upscale subscription. The digital archive – in which each issue can be viewed page by page – may be a hit with wealthy magazine buffs. “Paradoxically, for those nostalgic for the way magazines used to be before the internet, [the digital archive] may be worth the price,” says fashion writer Eric Wilson. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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