Far more than a social media trend, the challenge is a demand for inclusion from those overlooked by the mainstream fashion industry
Since lockdown began back in March, a swathe of social media trends have infiltrated Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, with people fashioning couture looks out of pillowcases and recreating classic art using household objects. The latest to take the timeline by storm is the #VogueChallenge, which has seen aspiring models, photographers, and artistic directors worldwide post their own Vogue covers – with the vast majority being Black and Brown creatives.
In response to the widespread support of Black Lives Matter from the fashion world, the challenge was intended to confront and challenge publications like Vogue, and bolster support for under-represented demographics on their covers. Though plenty of magazines have posted black squares and statements promising to ‘do better’ when it comes to representation and inclusion, the reality is, in its 127 year-long history, US Vogue has only featured 21 solo Black models on its cover, and it took until 2018 for a Black photographer, Tyler Mitchell, to lens one.
Originally kicked off by Norway-based student Salma Noor in early June, the first post was captioned ‘Being Black is Not a Crime’. The creator explains: “Being a young Black Muslim woman, I don’t see anyone like me in those magazines. I wanted to create a talking point around the lack of representation while speaking on social injustice.” In the weeks since, the challenge has expanded far beyond just Vogue, with people putting their own spin on everything from 032c and Harper’s Bazaar, to African-American magazines such as Jet and Essence.
Since then, those posting their dream covers include Aweng Chuol, who appears in a black-and-white portrait, a button-up bodysuit, and totally nude save for three brightly coloured mini-bags balancing on her back in her own versions on IG. Joining her is fellow model Jazelle (aka @uglyworldwide), whose cover is accompanied by a caption demanding “PUT A FREAK BITCH ON THE COVER FOR ONCE”. “Patiently waiting”, they add to the post, in which @voguemagazine is also tagged.
One thing that unites a huge number of the posts – aside from the various takes on the Vogue font – is the message of ‘manifestation’ that often accompanies them. With Aweng captioning hers ‘Manifesting them all’, the idea for many is to ‘speak into existence’ opportunities like a real-life Vogue cover. The challenge itself has given way to conversations about spirituality and the extent to which the under-represented rely on social media to make their dreams come true. In fact, Noor points to self belief as a catalyst for achieving her goals.
“I’ve always been vocal about the things I believe and want out of life, and things have generally gone well,” she says. With Vogue now featuring some of the challenge’s participants on its own website and social channels, Noor believes the power of manifesting a Vogue cover into existence is evident. “In retrospect, one year ago, my friends and I took a couple of pictures and posted them on Twitter with the caption ‘I wanna see myself in Vogue next year’, and now it’s happened.”
With the lack of representation in mainstream magazines brought into even sharper focus through the Black Lives Matter uprising in recent weeks, young Black and Brown creatives are having to forge their own lane in an industry not doing enough to showcase their talent. As industry boards gather around conference tables to map out moving forward, with little idea as to where to actually begin, the upcoming generation is essentially placing a vision of the future right under their nose, with social media’s power in the fight for the space they deserve all the more pertinent. In an age when everyone seems to be online, you never know who’s watching, which is why manifestation is so important to some.
“Social media is such a powerful tool; even oppressors haven’t had enough time to make it completely exclusive. It only takes one person with a lot of contacts to react to one post of yours to open so many doors to creatives” – Zarita Zevallos
“I think social media is such a powerful tool; even oppressors haven’t had enough time to make it completely exclusive,” argues architect Zarita Zevallos, whose own post drew on her Haitian origins. “It only takes one person with a lot of contacts to react to one post of yours and it opens so many doors for creatives. It’s happened to me as my images were featured in Teen Vogue as a result of the challenge.”
As evidenced by Zevallos’ Teen Vogue feature, it’s clear that even for the wallflowers of social media, speaking things into existence can have a positive effect. “I don’t have a lot of contacts and I’m not a very social person but when I post my content, it has attracted endless opportunities in my career as a photographer I never thought I’d have,” she continues. “I encourage everyone to just post what you need to or send your work to people who might enjoy it.”
For the under-represented, particularly within sectors like fashion, sometimes their only true supporters are themselves, and thus, manifestation is imperative. “It's a good way to not lose sight of what you want and is a way to affirm yourself and what you deserve,” argues musician and model, BRYN. “I feel like sharing your ambition and optimism with the world is how you get people to support you. Social media makes that even easier.”
For some, the idea of manifestation can be said to stem from spirituality and religion within the African and Caribbean diaspora, with many participants in the challenge drawing influence from these cultures. It stems from some form of spirituality and being connected to a higher purpose and the idea of manifesting things brings you closer to a power greater than your circumstances and helps put your vision into reality. “A lot of us Black folks are spiritual in some form and a lot of times that outlet for spirituality is art: Singing, dancing, painting, playing an instrument, for example,” Zevallos points out. “I can see that we hope and pray through art forms. For me at least, spirituality and art are intertwined.”
Having to essentially rely on prayer as a way to be seen by gatekeepers of high fashion may point further to the sense of doubt that these creators will ever be portrayed in a positive light in magazines such as Vogue. This uncertainty has been quelled somewhat by the championing of the challenge by Vogue itself, particularly from UK Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful.
Though he seemed to claim he and Jamie Hawkesworth kicked the trend off when they put British key workers on the cover of the June issue, his support subsequently signalled that things could be heading in the right direction, and those with positions of power haven taken notice. The more cynical, however, were skeptical when the challenge was featured by US Vogue, in the midst of a week that saw Anna Wntour apologise for not doing enough for Black staff and calls for her resignation across social media.
For many, even more than being empowering, #VogueChallenge is a call for change and a demand that Black and Brown creators be the arbiters of their own narratives. “We want to feel it and experience it, all of us,” Zevallos concludes. “Not just a few that fit the white standard.”