It's not the first time a natural disaster has been used as inspiration for a fashion magazine spread, but has Annie Leibovitz's latest work come too soon?
As a wave crashes on to the bow of a US Coast Guard boat, three models strike a pose, gazing serenely across the choppy waters in barely there dresses. It’s an arresting image, as is that of the National Guard delivering food parcels to a nearby hospital while supermodel Joan Smalls leans on an infrantryman’s shoulder and shows off a Proenza Schouler leather crocheted jacket and skirt. This is American Vogue’s Storm Troupers shoot, inspired by – and featuring – members of the emergency forces. And it has not gone down too well, with many commentators calling it tasteless.
The editions of Vogue around the world have form for devising their photoshoots with, shall we say, “current affairs” in mind. There was the 2007 Italian Vogue shoot inspired by the Iraq war, featuring models grappling with soldiers in a scene that Guardian writer Emine Saner described as looking like “prostitutes brought to an army camp as entertainment”. Italian Vogue was also responsible for a 24-page spread in 2010 that saw models doused in “oil”, in the spirit of the Deepwater Horizon spill. That’s not to mention the photoshoot in Vogue Paris featuring children in makeup, or women being throttled by men in Vogue Hommes. So you see, with the Storm Troupers shoot they’re just at it again, aren’t they?
Or maybe not.
Of all the global disasters to choose from, the fashion industry has been particularly drawn to Hurricane Sandy. First, it’s a relatively apolitical disaster. Celebrities risk nothing by coming out in support of the cause. The Re/Create New York project, for example, offers “a charitable platform for creators to give back”, which roughly translates as “the rich and the famous offloading their old trainers to be auctioned to the highest bidder”. Marc Jacobs and Donna Karan are among the designers who have donated, as has Kate Moss, who signed a book about herself with the words “Fuck you, Sandy” (current bid $2,358 (£1,475) if you’re interested). With its sleek, sober website featuring the handsome headshots of our planet’s A-Listers, Re/Create didn’t just come up with a way for celebrities to get involved in the cause without actually doing anything, they made it the place to be seen.
Another reason the fashion world has been so drawn to Sandy is the American fashion industry’s actual proximity to the hurricane’s path, resulting in a number of initial drives to donate clothes or sales profit to the Sandy charitable funds. Fashion Girls for Humanity raised more than $120,000, while the LVMH Group donated $1m to the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City.
Which brings us back to Vogue. Unlike previous controversial shoots, there is more meaning behind Annie Leibovitz’s images than first meets the eye. They are not scenes of catastrophe with a model hitching her skirt in the general direction of devastation. That was left to Brazillian model Nana Gouvêa , who looked out of the window, saw some crushed cars, thought: “Hello Mr Opportunity!”, and staged an impromptu fashion shoot mid-disaster for the aptly titled online magazine EGO. As she found out in the subsequent furore, getting your pose on next to some wreckage will only make people wince.
But while photographing Karlie Kloss on the Bellvue neonatal ward might seem incongruous, the picture does at least include the medical staff who work there. All the pictures include members of the emergency services, and their stories about how Sandy unfolded for them.
The reaction to Vogue’s shoot suggests that people think the fashion world has no business getting involved in a situation as serious as Sandy. But this isn’t a drive-by interest on the part of Vogue; while working with the CDFA, the magazine helped to raise $1.7m (£1.06m) for the relief effort. If it wants to photograph the Air NYPD and put those men in its magazine, it has earned the right.