In 'Vogue' - for 90 years

Many happy returns to the glossiest of glossies. To mark the occasion the magazine's creative director Robin Derrick explains what's made its pages dazzle
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British Vogue was launched in 1916, when importing the American edition became too hazardous during the First World War, and the 90-year trajectory of the magazine is the trajectory of fashion itself.

Fashion, like Vogue, was once the exclusive territory of a small elite, but over the past nine decades it has become an international culture that, in the developed world, touches most of our lives. The Vogue brand has similarly gone on to form part of that language across the globe.

During its lifetime, British Vogue has seen two world wars, and the rise of telephony, photography, air travel, space travel, nuclear energy... feminism, punk rock, Princess Diana, the supermodel, the celebrity, sexual liberation, Aids, New Labour - you name it, Vogue had a take on it.

By trapping the fleeting concerns and obsessions of each generation, Vogue imagery often captured a zeitgeist more accurately than other, more worthy, attempts to do so. In 1947, Clifford Coffin took a series of fashion pictures for Vogue in the still bomb-damaged ruins of Grosvenor Square.

In the photographs, a woman in a ballgown stands in the collapsed hall of a grand house. The war is over, the end of the Empire is at hand. Britain faces huge debts it will take decades to repay. Yet the way the aristocratic model is pictured in the new season's gowns - displaying a mixture of optimism, ignorance and anachronistic self-importance - says more about England at the end of the Second World War than any other picture I know.

For the 90th birthday issue of Vogue, I undertook the first complete survey of the magazine's covers - which, with the usual 12 a year, plus two issues a month in the Fifties, Vogue pattern books and supplements - comes to a total of over 1,500 covers.

The first covers were mostly rather quaint illustrations (photographic covers appeared in the Thirties), often with a cover line in French or a view though a window to a ship on the horizon (a reference to the troops in France). But by 1918 some harsher realities had entered the world of Vogue. The cover from May of that year showed a romanticised field-hospital nurse with soldiers fighting in the trenches behind her, and carried one cover line, "Les blessés" ("The wounded"). One of my favourite covers was the October 1945 "Peace and Reconstruction" issue, simply showing a clear blue sky.

Along with royal coronations, deaths and jubilees, which perhaps you would expect, come other recurring obsessions - from cars and telephones to tennis and skiing. The prism through which Vogue views the world is undoubtedly a very particular one.

The magazine publishes images of women for women to look at, a mechanism that, being a man and the creative director of Vogue, I have always found fascinating. Women like to look at attractive images of women. Sometimes romantic, sometimes erotic, even if the meaning of those words has changed over the years. There is a shared joy a woman gets from looking at an attractive other.

Depictions of women in Vogue have been held up to close scrutiny of late, blamed for the rise of many evils, and yet they have remained remarkably consistent. In the Twenties, the then-illustrated, elongated silhouettes of the models seem remarkably similar to the tall, slim Twiggy of the Sixties, and similar again to the models in a photographic portfolio for the 2000 Millennium issue.

So what has changed? One thing you didn't see in Vogue until the Nineties was the "celebrity cover". There is something very basic that happens when we look at a photograph of a famous person which I believe operates in the same way as when we see pictures of our family - we know something of these people and their lives, or think we do. We feel a certain affection for them.

The crossover point came with the "supermodel", the charmed faces who graced the cover of Vogue, month after month, so much so that they became household names: Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Helena Christensen et al. They were famous, the magazine-buying public knew who they were and they sold magazines. Best of all, you could book them on a shoot and they would turn up (usually). As time moved on, in an effort to find replacements for this lucrative set, the model agencies threw girl after girl on to the catwalk, each toppling the previous one before anyone had ever the chance to catch her name.

In order to maintain its visibility, Vogue has had to photograph the famous for its covers. Nicole Kidman, Liz Hurley, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, Keira Knightley, etc - how we wish the list was longer.

Then there is Kate Moss. Since 1993 she has graced a total of 23 Vogue covers. Her longevity adds to her iconic status. The English have always loved her, but not so the rest of the industry. I remember the editor of French Vogue asking me why we were still using her - only to ask her to edit a special issue of that magazine two years later. My favourite Kate cover is the gold issue (December 2001) where Kate appears only in silhouette on a gold background. In the 90th birthday issue of Vogue, Kate is photographed in "The clothes that changed our lives" - items such as "the bra", "denim" and "tights" - an icon in the iconic women's clothes that were invented during the lifetime of the magazine.