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Vogue Arabia looks to build bridges for ‘misunderstood’ Middle East

The first printed edition of Vogue Arabia hit newsstands on March 5. (Condé Nast/Nervora)

DUBAI: Forget the UN and endless rounds of Middle East peace talks — there is a new player on the global diplomatic scene: Vogue Arabia.
That was, at least, the somewhat outlandish suggestion made by Tommy Hilfiger as the long-awaited regional edition of the fashion glossy hit the shelves on March 5.
The inaugural print edition of Vogue Arabia featured supermodel Gigi Hadid on the front cover, wearing what appeared to be a veil. The appearance of the half-Palestinian model on the magazine’s cover, Hilfiger told TMZ, could “increase the love” between the US and Middle East, with Gigi as a “conduit” to better relations.
It is somewhat unlikely that a fashion photo shoot could help solve knotty diplomatic disputes over issues like, say, the Iran nuclear deal or Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Shashi Menon — founder of Nervora, which publishes Vogue Arabia in partnership with US media giant Condé Nast — is the first to admit this.
But the launch of the title does have a scope that is broader than the latest haute couture creations or fleeting fashions.
Speaking to Arab News in the swish Vogue Arabia offices in the Dubai Design District, Menon spelled out a wider aim of the title.
“The Middle East is very clearly one of the more, if not the most misunderstood regions in the world. Part of what we hope to do is build bridges through conversation and dialogue,” he said.
Menon acknowledged that Hilfiger’s statement was “grandiose” and a little “over-the-top” — but said that the sentiment he expressed was a genuine one.


                      Shashi Menon


“There is frankly no more important time for a publication like Vogue to launch in this region, and help to elevate authentic, original and positive stories about what’s happening here… and take it to a global level,” he said.
“That is a cultural cause and a mission that we feel that we want to participate in. We want to help create conversation and participate in that, which we think will be good for everyone.”
The launch of Vogue Arabia has been a long time coming.
Ten years ago Condé Nast had strongly ruled out licensing an edition of its flagship fashion title in this region.
Jonathan Newhouse, head of Condé Nast International, reportedly wrote in an email that the Middle East is too violent, claiming that it is incompatible with the Vogue brand given a “powerful fundamentalist, religious element, which rejects Western values.”
But such objections appear to have faded, with Condé Nast striking up a deal with Nervora to launch a Vogue Arabia website last year — through a rebrand of — followed by the print version this month. Saudi royal Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz is the editor-in-chief, with both the website and magazine being published in English and Arabic.
Menon said it was an “unprecedented” move to launch a Vogue title online first. But while digital will be important to the title — it has commissioned special online video shoots, for example — the media executive sees a firm future for the print title in the Internet age.
“We see a robust future for Vogue in print,” he said. “There is nothing that can really rival the premium, luxury, fully controlled reader experience that you get with print.”
The magazine is available in major cities of the Gulf, as well as further afield in Cairo and Beirut. It is available through private distribution and partners in Saudi Arabia, which Menon said was a key market for the publisher.
“For us Saudi Arabia is very important,” he said. “It is an ongoing goal of ours to be more and more present in Saudi Arabia, not just through the magazine but also from the website and possibly through events.”
Menon said it is possible to combine what Vogue stands for with the Middle Eastern outlook in a “tasteful and culturally appropriate” way.
“We don’t want to come in and feel like just a Western-only brand that is coming in here and trying to project a Western identity. We really want to participate in that conversation organically,” he said.
And this conversation will hopefully give a boost to how the rest of the world sees the Middle East — although that is not something that will happen overnight, Menon said.
“It is not about making giant political statements… We want to just help create more conversation and dialogue,” he said. “Ultimately the goal would be to promote more cultural understanding.”

‘Not just another regional magazine’

Vogue Arabia, the 22nd international edition of the fashion title, is edited by Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz; a fashion-forward mother of three and Saudi royal who describes herself as “ambitious.”
“I don’t want Vogue Arabia to just be another regional magazine. I definitely want it to be a global one as well, especially in this political climate. I think it’s very important,” she said.
Through its range of features and shoots, the magazine attempts to cater to a wide and diverse audience of Arab women, whose varying takes on personal style and modesty cannot be defined by one trope or fashion statement.
While not intentionally provocative, there are images of women in backless gowns and skirts that end above the knee. There are also artful shots of women in headscarves.