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Fashion statement

In the publications world, nothing screams change like a bold front cover. Phil Parrish takes a haute couture stroll with Michaela Bercu.

The wind’s blowing gently as the young lady saunters down the street. Her eyes are closed in reverie, her face beams joyfully and she seems not to have a care in the world. Emblazoned around her torso is a $10,000 Christian Lacroix jacket, sitting atop an exposed midriff and a pair of cheap, stonewashed jeans. And when the printers came to push the button on the world’s most famous fashion magazine, they called the publishers to check there hadn’t been some horrible mistake.

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The lady in question was Israeli model Michaela Bercu, the photographer was Peter Lindbergh and the magazine was the November 1988 edition of Vogue (pictured right). Reassuring the printers that this image was indeed the one she wanted to grace her first front cover was Anna Wintour, Vogue’s bob-haired, diminutive new editor-in-chief, now legendary fashion queen and the inspiration behind Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, Wintour said she chose that picture because she sensed the ‘winds of change’ coming to fashion. And change is what this image captures so eloquently. Fashion is about constant reinvention, Vogue’s reputation is built on leading new trends and tastes, and Wintour was keen on making her mark after landing the plum job she’d craved for so long.

Maybe that’s why she chose such an unorthodox picture. The November 1988 edition broke all the house rules of a magazine that was nearly 100 years old. In fact, Michaela’s confident swagger was never originally intended as the cover image to begin with. Its carefree, in-the-moment styling seems reminiscent of a casual out-take – and a major departure from the tightly-controlled, studio-set elegance of previous Vogue covers.

And by snapping Michaela with her eyes shut, Peter Lindbergh breaks a cardinal rule of good portrait photography. In its brazen mix of haute couture and bargain basement denim, it was unlike anything Vogue had done before – and a quintessential example of creative inspiration.

Too many magazine covers are pedestrian and formulaic, conforming to a predetermined style that tells you exactly what you’re going to get inside. Such timidity is understandable. Publishers need to sell magazines, so jolting your readership from the familiar is a risky gambit, and injecting what-you-see-is-what-you-get pick-up value into the most important of all your images is practically obligatory.

That’s what makes the story behind the November 1988 edition of Vogue so exhilarating. Like the wind which sweeps Michaela’s hair to her right, Wintour’s iconoclastic decision was refreshing and unexpected. More importantly, it represented a triumph for intuition over tradition, open-mindedness over complacency and bold experimentation over trite editorial insecurity.

A great cover isn’t just visual shorthand for what’s inside. It’s a statement of change, a way to communicate a fresh attitude, tone and style, an opportunity to lead your readership in an entirely new direction and not give them more of the usual stuff.

So next time you’re choosing a cover image, resist the temptation to tread the same old beaten path. Instead, why not wander off somewhere else, and imagine you’re a young model meandering through a metropolitan street bedecked in the height of Parisian fashion.

Who knows? The winds of change may soon deliver a bracing gust of creative inspiration to your stride. And before long, you might even be able to do it with your eyes closed.

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