I first saw the statement on Trevor Stuurman’s Instagram. Trevor is a South African photographer whose unique perspective and contemporary aesthetic has earned him the following of more than a hundred thousand people the world over — myself included. Over the past week, Stuurman was in Nigeria, shooting at Lagos’ Arise Fashion Week, on the invitation of Naomi Campbell. The enthusiasm and excellence displayed on and off the runway during the global event is what lead Naomi Campbell to call for the creation of an African Vogue.
Ecstatic responses soon flooded the internet. And I get it.
We — kids from the diaspora and celebrities of color alike — are having a moment. Anyone who has spent remotely any time exploring the contemporary scenes of African countries knows that something incredibly exciting is happening.
I like to call it the beginning of the Brave New World.
In this Brave New World, transcultural millennials are the norm. They are returning to the countries their parents once left. They are learning about their heritage, fusing it with modern aesthetics, challenging cultural assumptions and shaping the zeitgeist. What was once considered “multicultural” is now mainstream. The shift will only accelerate over the next several decades.
According to the Greater London Authority, in 2015, 44% of London’s population consisted of black and ethnic minorities, compared to only 28.9% in 2001. Minorities are becoming the majority. Campbell knows this. Last year, for British Vogue, the icon sat down with London Mayor Sadiq Khan in what was a brilliant conversation between two leaders highlighting the city’s greatest strength: its diversity.
As a media strategist schooled in England and born from a Muslim-Moroccan mother and a French-Canadian father, I watched the piece while agitating my arm in the air, Meryl Streep circa-2015-Patricia-Arquette-Oscar-speech style.
Voices like heavyweights like Campbell, a woman whose fierceness in the face of institutional racism has paved the way for hundreds of thousands of us, are crucial to take the conversation further and into spheres of power.
But as much as I respect the Vogue media brand and acknowledge its cultural weight, Africa, today, does not need it.
Stay with me.
Africa is a continent of 1.2 billion people (that population is set to double by 2050). It is the continent with the most countries in the world — 54, to be exact. It is home to over 1500 languages. Africa, they say, is the future.
Vogue on the other hand is a publication held hostage to legacy. Vogue cannot be here for the culture when their business model and marketing strategies are not adapting fast enough. Let us simply rewind to November 2017, when Condé Nast announced it was folding Teen Vogue, at a time when the publication reached peak cultural relevance under the stewardship of Elaine Welteroth.
As for Vogue Africa, what other Vogue publication represents an entire continent?
The closest thing to such a culturally diverse market would be Vogue Arabia, which celebrated its one-year anniversary last March (hello, stunning cover of Iman and new-gem supermodel Imaan Hammam).
The magazine was launched under the editorial compass of Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz — a woman of vision, intellect, global chutzpah and a innate knowledge of both Western and Eastern sensitivities. She could have helped bridge cultural gaps and bring the fashion world a deeper understanding of one another, but was replaced after two editions — exiting with this Instagram post.
Today, Vogue Arabia has the mission to cover the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa), yet most of the stories getting the Vogue stamp of approval come out of the oil-rich countries of the Arabian Peninsula.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s simple mathematics. The Vogue model still relies too heavily on advertisers — the market dictates who gets seen according to the audience who buys the products. And well, there’s probably more Qataris than Berbers rocking that new Gucci Resort collection.
If we’re going to play the game, we could also ask in what language a forthcoming Vogue Africa would be. French? English? Zulu? Arabic? Swahili? Would countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya or Egypt be included, or will we forever live with the invisible border that splits North Africa from sub-Saharan countries?
And this is where it gets uncomfortable.
But bear with me, because we need to take the time to think critically in order to move quickly. Besides, nobody gets angry at the doctor who cracks ribs to fix the heart.
This is Keira Knightley, by Arthur Elgort (US Vogue, June 2007)
Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin (Vogue Paris, February 2010)
Mario Testino (Vogue UK, January 2005)
Max Doye, Vogue Australia, December 2011
As beautiful as these images may be, we owe it to ourselves to look at them for what they really are. They are beautiful images created by first-class creatives. They are also images that display hidden realities of colonialism. The white woman standing over the Maasai. The Moroccan man portrayed as a kidnapper/rapist. The local populations used as props.
We’ve seen the story unfold in painting throughout the orientalist movement during the 19th century. The mediums may have changed, but the page of the cultural imperialist playbook is the same — reduce other societies as culturally static and intellectually undeveloped; make yours appear culturally superior and intellectually developed.
This technique is now so deeply ingrained and internalized within Western society, that not only do we not see it, we replicate it subconsciously and celebrate it as high fashion.
The good news is times are changing. The National Geographic, under Susan Goldberg, recently tackled its racist past. The New York Times, in an series entitled ‘Overlooked’, admitted it had erased women from history. These are not the last mea-culpas coming from the world’s most respected media institutions.
Meanwhile, Edward Enninful is doing masterful work over at British Vogue. Virgil Abloh, storyteller-in-chief, is now artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s men’s wear collection. Lena Waithe is the April cover story of Vanity Fair. And icons like Naomi Campbell are inviting young talents like Trevor Stuurman to Lagos Fashion Week. His work, to my utmost delight, was published in British Vogue.
People from a variety of ethnic, religious, sexual and socio-economic backgrounds are now telling their stories through their own lens, challenging the elitist power structures of the past. Mapping this context is important if we are to pull the slingshot further.
Oprah (who has unknowingly been on my Personal Board of Directors for years) once said that “luck is the meeting of preparation and opportunity”. Children of immigrants are prepared. We are born with the notion that we must work harder. It is in recognizing opportunities that we need to dig deeper.
The late Donald Newhouse Sr, founder of Condé Nast and its parent company, Advance Publications, was — like many of today’s transcultural millennials — the child of immigrants. He built his empire by being laser-focused on one thing: buying bargain-priced papers in growing communities.
Well folks, I have some news. We are the growing communities.
In the United States alone, transcultural millennials consist of almost half of the millennial generation (42%) and represent local markets that drive 47% of the total U.S. gross domestic product. We have economical weight. Because of the internet, we see each other. The algorithms, by design, function to retain our attention by sending us down filter bubbles, and although that comes with major ramifications, it also came with a nice surprise : the global diaspora now knows it exists. Distance is no longer an indicator of difference.
Bringing business models of the past into markets of the future is not the highest possible value move. Campbell has fought and advocated for diversity too hard and too long to settle for that. In a 2017 interview to the Guardian, the star discussed her relationship with her adopted grandfather and mentor, Nelson Mandela. She acknowledged that she “never quite understood what Mr Mandela said to me when I was younger. I’m understanding a bit more now: ‘I will “speak up for those who are unable to speak for themselves” if I can.’”
Campbell, like many other cultural icons who stem from historically disenfranchised communities, is now in a position where she can not only help the next generation of transcultural millennials share their talents, but use her power to help them build the businesses and systems of tomorrow.
The future of the Brave New World is not Vogue Africa. It’s ownership.