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Inside Vogue 100: A Century Of Style

This year marks the centenary of British Vogue, a magazine and bastion of the global fashion industry. One step inside the celebratory exhibition, Vogue 100: A Century of Style, at the National Portrait Gallery, however, and it’s clear that British Vogue is more than just a magazine, it's been a force that has helped to shape the cultural landscape.

Mission accomplished, then, for the exhibition’s curator, Vogue Contributing Editor Robin Muir, and his team, who trawled the Condé Nast archive, as well as public and private collections, to prove just that. Bringing together over 280 original prints commissioned by the magazine since it was launched in 1916, the roll call of photographers includes everyone from Cecil Beaton and Irving Penn to Corinne Day, Nick Knight and Tim Walker. We caught up with Robin to find out more…

You started brainstorming the exhibition three years ago, what were the key messages you wanted to get across from the start?
Our guiding message has been to show Vogue as a working magazine, starting in September 1916 but still going strong today. It has a rich heritage certainly, but it also continues to be at the forefront of the depiction of fashion and portraiture now, whether that is by photography or by the more contemporary notion of fashion film online.

Alexandra Shulman has said of the exhibition that it is “a cultural record of our times”; do you agree with that sentiment?
Yes. The thing about Vogue is that it has always been more than just a fashion magazine. For 100 years it has had a commitment to the best in writing and journalism, and an enthusiasm for the arts. It’s as much about people — including those that wreathe clothes — as about the clothes themselves. In fact, I noticed that in many cases, especially the early work by Bruce Weber, the accent is on the characters in his fashion stories — the clothes are almost incidental to his narrative.

Vogue has an unerring eye for getting it right, and for showing the reader, whenever it can, all human life. No one could have conceived in 1939 that Vogue would cover, as Lee Miller did, the liberation of the death camps. Nor would anyone have expected it to have, in the person of its deputy editor, an eyewitness to the horror that unfolded in Manhattan on 11th September 2001. All this, as well as announcing Dior’s New Look and John Galliano’s student collection, things you might expect of a prescient fashion magazine.

The exhibition features every photographer from Cecil Beaton to Corinne Day – do you have any particular favourites?
Funnily enough, you’ve picked two photographers I admire greatly. Corinne I knew well and worked with a bit. I happened to be the person who opened the box of prints that arrived from her one day in 1993 to reveal the famous Kate Moss in her underwear story that caused such a sensation. I knew the minute I saw them that something was shifting.

Beaton’s career with Vogue was an extraordinary one, spanning from 1924 to 1979. It’s not overdoing it to say that it’s inconceivable to think how the magazine would have developed without him. He was entirely a photographer Vogue can call its own and so much more – caricaturist, writer, social commentator, style dictator, fashion editor. His contacts book was invaluable, too.

You’ve worked with Vogue for 30 years; do you have any favourite anecdotes from your time there?
So many. Mostly unrepeatable. I feel privileged to be allowed into the archives because it is a resource solely for the Condé Nast organisation and only in very special circumstances can you get through the doors. So gone, I suppose, are the days of Julie Christie coming into research costumes for a film, or Philip Treacy to find inspiration for a hat, or his friend, Isabella Blow, to try on the creations of the then fledgling couturier, Alexander McQueen, round the back by the volumes of American Vogue.

Terence Donovan used to wander in when there was nothing much happening at his studio across the road. In the days leading up to her resignation, the Editor Liz Tilberis found it a haven because no one could find her there. Liz's friend Grace Coddington used to heave dusty volumes off shelves without ever getting a speck of dirt on her white sailor trousers. Manolo Blahnik is always allowed in because he always has been allowed in and because he is quite possibly the nicest man in a world not best known for its nice people. And Tim Walker, now a brilliant and sought-after fashion photographer, was an intern in the archives. He was asked to compile a list of the library's holding of Cecil Beaton negatives. I like to think something rubbed off.

What would you like to see Vogue do in the next 100 years?
The same again. And it will still be there.

Vogue 100: A Century of Style, National Portrait Gallery, London, Thursday 11th February – Sunday 22nd May 2016, sponsored by Leon Max. 

To tie in with the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition, London Art Studies presents Fashion Photography: From Cecil Beaton to Mario Testino at Bulgari Hotel London, Knightsbridge on Tuesday 23rd February 2016, 10am-12pm. For more information and to buy tickets, visit the London Art Studies website.

Discover the Spring/Summer 2016 Trends and shop our edit of key pieces below.

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