The December issue of Vogue Paris, editor-in-chief Carine Roitfeld's last hurrah, if you will, has got a lot of people very upset indeed. And with good reason. The issue is guest edited by designer, film director and agent provocateur Tom Ford, and nestled in between pages featuring Lara Stone, Daphne Guiness and Lauren Hutton, there is a photo shoot dedicated to vamped up six-year-olds. Entitled Cadeaux, they languish on furs, whilst donning stilettos, glossy pouts and couture. It is nauseating, stomach wrenching stuff.
The overdone bouffant hair and caked-on makeup imitate the aesthetic of child beauty queens, complete with fake tans and bright blue eye show. All very Pretty Baby. Unsurprisingly - least of all to Tom and Carine - outrage has ensued. They have been accused of wrongly sexualising preteen girls.
This is all perfectly true, but it misses the point. A potted history of Mr Ford's careers shows his flair for causing uproar. After all, this is the man behind the Gucci campaign that featured a woman with a G shaved into her pubic hair.
While other luxury brands are falling over themselves to live-blog, live stream and tweet their fashion shows, Ford's spring/summer return to the catwalk saw him go right back to the 1950s. Cameras were banned and he forced an increasingly fast-moving fashion industry to wait months before it could publish images of his clothes.
What Ford is really good at is turning the fashion industry's expectations on their head with a sharp jolt, causing it to question its assumptions.
And as easy as it is to simply see these preteen photos as distasteful, it is important to view them in context of the magazine issue: it shows an unflinching snapshot of the fashion industry's misdemeanours and taboos. Plastic surgery is scruntinised in a jewellery shoot, where "plus-sized" model Crystal Renn appears post-op, covered in bandages, with blood stains, swollen lips and marker pen all over her body. Elsewhere a man and woman in their seventies are shown in the throes of passion.
In this context, these disturbing child femme fatales make sense, because they offer a scathing critique of modern aesthetic values. If the photos of the little girls had been shown in an art gallery, they would raise eyebrows perhaps, but not outcry. The problem is that they appear in a fashion magazine, where we are so familiar with being told what to covet and crave.
Fashion does not have the lofty and grand associations of Art, but the fashion industry's desires, expectations and assumptions impress on just about every consumer - and a title like Vogue Paris is as good a place as any to discuss them. Ford has created a dialogue about the fashion industry's attitude to age; in an industry where teenage models are encouraged to have the physique of a small child in order to promote women's clothing, surely the next "logical" step is to use a small child to model grownup fashion. It's meant to be absurd and offensive.
And in a world where shopping, news and analysis are available at the click of a mouse, perhaps Tom and Carine are making a larger point about the role of the fashion magazine. It can't be the signifier of what's new and hip (some blogger in their bedroom will beat them to it) but it can be a forum for (controversial) debate and ideas about the fashion industry itself. Via these queasy, highly styled images, fashion titans like Carine and Tom make that happen. And if they cause us to question where our obsession with youth ends, that's no bad thing. I just hope that now Ms Roitfeld has stepped down as editor, Vogue Paris does not become just another glossy women's magazine.
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