British Vogue made headlines on Thursday for its “disappointing” February cover. The magazine’s third “Hollywood special issue” stars Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie (for one of the various covers for the month), as well as a striking line that refers to an article in the magazine: “Why we need to talk about race.”
As noted by The Independent, the article is head-scratching due to the “predominantly white line-up.” Vogue has unveiled its other February covers, which include an additional handful of predominately white celebrities, leaving some to question just how diverse the #NewVogue era – under the direction of newly-appointed editor-in-chief Edward Enninful – really will be.
An additional point of interest for some in connection with the Kidman, Robbie cover came a few hours later, when it was revealed that the Juergen Teller-photographed and Edward Enninful-styled cover was the same as the covers for two other Condé Nast-owned publications’ February issues. According to an Instagram post from W Magazine, the cover and “W’s Best Performances portfolio was produced in partnership with [fellow Condé Nast-owned publications] British Vogue and French Vanity Fair.”
Cover-Sharing: Fashion Faux Pas?
The sharing of covers is not entirely unheard of in fashion. For instance, in 2011, Vogue Japan and Marie Claire Australia made use of the same cover image, one of a Mario Sorrenti-shot Kate Moss in a Chanel Spring/Summer 2011 feathered dress, for their respective May and November issues.
Later that same year, Madison Australia released its January 2012 cover, featuring another Sorrenti-lensed Kate Moss photo. The cover was noteworthy, as the same (but slightly differently edited) image had appeared on the cover of Vogue Paris’ June/July 2010 issue.
Still yet, right around the same time, the same photo of actress Carey Mulligan in Chanel couture appeared on three separate magazine covers: Vogue’s October 2010 issue, German Glamour’s December 2010, and French Elle’s November 2011 issue.
What’s the (Legal) Deal?
The legality of such occurrences is intriguing in some of these instances. The most recent case is straight forward since all of the publications at play – British Vogue, W, and French Vanity Fair – fall under the Condé umbrella, thereby enabling them to share imagery and in theory, cut down on production costs by staging one shoot, as opposed to three separate ones.
Things become a bit murky, however, when we look internationally in connection with the earlier cases, such as when the same image was used by Vogue Japan (a publication owned by Condé Nast) and Marie Claire Australia (a glossy that is not actually owned by Hearst Corp., which is the parent to the American version of Marie Claire, but by Pacific Magazines).
Given that the image was used across two differently-owned publications, the implication (since it is not likely that rival publications "collaborated" on covers) is that Condé Nast never held exclusive rights (read: copyright) in the image to begin with. Instead, the media giant's magazine likely licensed the image from the copyright holder, the photographer: Mario Sorrenti, and then Pacific Magazines did the same.
With that in mind, there were almost certainly terms in the contract between Sorrenti and Condé Nast that specified the limitations on exclusivity (i.e., how long until Sorrenti could legally license the image to another publication), and potentially even in terms of geography, limiting the markets in which the image could subsequently be used. It is noteworthy, after all, that Far East editions of Marie Claire did not make use of the image that appeared on Vogue Japan's cover.
The presence of contractual timing restrictions makes sense if we look to the Carey Mulligan covers. The covers of the two Condé Nast-owned magazines, Vogue and German Glamour, were released within two months of each other. The French Elle edition – a publication that falls outside of the Condé Nast network of publications – was released nearly a year later.
Failure or the Future?
With such legalities out of the way, the final question that has been raised in connection with the recent cover-sharing by British Vogue, W, and French Vanity Fair: Is this the beginning of the end for even more of Condé’s fashion titles?
It is hardly a secret that the media conglomerate has been undergoing widespread changes, including a year of layoffs and structural reorganization under the watch of former AOL executive Jim Norton. The latest round of layoffs, which was expected to be completed in November, saw the New York-based media giant let go of roughly 80 staffers, or “about 2.5 percent of its 3,000-person workforce.” The New York Post has since announced that more job cuts are expected to follow.
As for changes to its titles, the publisher announced that its buzziest title of the past year, Teen Vogue, will go from 5 print issues per year (down from 12, as instituted in 2016) to operating in an entirely digital capacity as of this year. Other titles are getting cut down in terms of the frequency of print publications, as well. As WWD stated late last year: "GQ, Glamour, Allure and Architectural Digest will go from 12 annual print issues to 11, while Bon Appétit will go from 11 issues to 10, and W and Condé Nast Traveler will now have 8 issues, down from 10."
Add to this, the reportedly “terrible year” Condé had in 2017, including a loss of about $100 million.
Yes, it is against this background – and the fact that cover-sharing allows for notable cost-sharing and thus, cost-saving – that some are questioning the timing and motive behind the February cover “collaboration.”
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Meanwhile, it seems that Condé Nast is not the only publishing giant that is aiming to cut back on costs by repurposing content. Rival Hearst has embarked on its own efforts, which see the parent of Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, and Seventeen magazines, recycling content online.
The media conglomerate has, for some time now, been posting the same articles across the board on many of its sites. The titles are changed very, very slightly from one platform to another – literally one worded added here, another swapped in there – but the content of the article is exactly the same whether it is on Elle or Esquire.
In what appears to be an effort to cut down on the resources it takes to run a fully functioning network of websites, this is part of a strategy that Hearst Digitial’s Editorial Director and Senior VP of Content Operations, Kate Lewis, introduced when she came on board in January 2014. Under her watch, Hearst’s sites have begun putting forth content that works on not just one of its sites – but across many of them.
“Ultimately, the goal is to have 20 percent of a given Hearst site’s content coming from another Hearst property,” Lewis said in late 2014.
Whether these efforts by the industry’s biggest title-owners are a sign of financial doom-and-gloom for traditional fashion publishing, or whether it is them taking advantage of more efficient spending is still up for debate. As for the seemingly incessant job cuts and the endless restructuring of publications, that, my friends, is rarely a good sign.