Vogue Italia’s “Rebranding Africa” disaster

Everybody’s trying to rebrand Africa, and it isn’t going so well. Vogue Italia’s latest issue — boosted by great billowing gusts of editorial hot air from both the New York Times and the Guardian — is called “Rebranding Africa”, and as you’d expect the whole thing is an embarrassing and insulting shambles. The images are okay, but otherwise it feels like something a middle-schooler cobbled together for a class project. And then got a “D” for it.

First: you’re re-branding the continent of Africa — as one does — so who do you pick as your cover star? Well, it was the obvious choice. What self-inflating fashion magazine wouldn’t lead their Africa edition with a picture of a South Korean diplomat sitting behind a desk in Manhattan? That’s right, people. The new face of Africa is none other than UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. There are so many way to read this choice. An obvious take is that Vogue Italia, despite their claims of “rebranding” Africa must have decided Africans can’t govern themselves and need UN intervention.

The interview with Ban is very curious reading indeed. Apparently, the man is just world class at regurgitating very precise development statistics. It reads like an annual report of a large multinational NGO. Either that, or what we’re reading is a mashed up press release or a stilted email exchange dressed up as a conversation that actually took place (the latter is most likely the case). He drones endlessly on about the Millennium Development Goals, which is exactly what you’d expect him to do, but is also precisely the opposite of the kind of thing which invites the readers of Vogue Italia to think of Africa in a new way. With Ban Ki-Moon as its new face, Africa is (a) boring and uncool, and (b) a stubborn problem to be managed by foreign technocrats. No change there.

So why is he on the cover? We have absolutely no idea. The man dresses like any other boring technocrat. The Guardian said the Vogue Italia coverage showed that the effort to rebrand the continent “wasn’t just a token effort” and that it made us (in the West, naturally) sit up and take notice. How? To us, all that this shows is that the addled people at Vogue Italia are incredibly unimaginative, and quite weird when it comes to its coverage of the unfamiliar — that is, the dark continent/country of Africa.

One guy they could have picked instead for the cover is Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, whose moribund interview with chief editor Franca Sozzani really ought to be somehow preserved in formaldehyde and wheeled out at journalism school graduations as a chilling example of just how bad journalism can get. Much of the copy is taken up with Sozzani’s worrying whether they can photograph Goodluck the Vogue way.

The “interview” is really long passages of Sozzani generously offering her explanation to Jonathan of exactly what is wrong with Nigeria:

All the richest Nigerians spend their money abroad because there a no shops here, no hotels with a chic African flair, no hip restaurants or clubs. Why not build an African Rodeo Drive in Lagos or Abuja, with boutiques carrying both imported and Nigerian goods?

Finally, there’s a single lonely quote from Jonathan in there, in which he agrees with the long speech Sozzani has made. It’s not often we feel sorry for Goodluck Jonathan, but seriously, poor chap. It’s also not sure when they did the interview. There’s no word of #OccupyNigeria, which showed Jonathan up to be insensitive and dithering.

You also get the sense that the next time Vogue Italia “do” Africa, Nigeria’s notoriously corrupt and terrifyingly incompetent oil minister will probably be the new cover star, as Sozzani drools mindlessly over one of Nigeria’s most detested politicians:

We are joined by the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Alison-Madueke, a gorgeous and elegant woman – who also happens to be a princess – dressed in traditional robes, with a Master’s from Cambridge and the distinction of being the first woman to run Nigeria’s most important ministry.

Actually they did already. In the same issue.

Sozzani’s representation of Nigeria’s complex social and political situation is as astute as you’d expect it to be, and thanks to the internet, she gets called out big-style by a Nigerian called “Rachel”, whose comment on the website is by far the best piece of writing in the entire magazine, print or online:

This is possibly this worst piece of journalism on Nigeria I have EVER read. I cannot tell you how angry people are reading this. It is a shallow piece of vanity which glosses over the complexities of the tensions in Nigeria. When you say ‘Muslim’s ultimatum to the Christians’ – do you mean that all the Muslims who make up half of the 158 million people living in Nigeria have a vendetta against Christians? WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT???? It was Boko Haram’s ultimatum – you can’t just say ‘Muslims’ throwing in millions of people into a sentence who have felt just as much violence and suffering as Christians in Nigeria. It isn’t just Christians who have died during the violence but many Muslims. Sweeping statements like this fuel tensions between Christians and Muslims but of course that is perfect for the American audience who probably believe every Muslim is part of Al Q’aeda.

Your dramatic entrance to Nigeria was completely unnecessary. There are thousands of expats who have lived here for years in complete safety. It is reports like this that do nothing for the country. Do not flatter yourself to believe that you would be of ANY value to a terrorist. You would probably annoy the hell out of them. WHY did the editors think it would be important for readers to hear what you think what should be done in Nigeria? You were talking to the President of the country who is dealing with increasing rates of poverty and a decline in security and you are telling him to build an African Rodeo Drive? Oh yes, please build it so the 5% of the super wealthy population that can actually afford to buy from these sort of shops will no longer travel. The rest of the population can look on with their begging bowls in envy.

And also – the Petroleum Minister is probably one of the most corrupt people in Nigeria who has only added to the poverty, and therefore the security problems in the country. Don’t you know ANYTHING about the fuel subsidy scandal here? Do you know how many people are calling for her resignation? I feel so disappointed. I dread to think what the issue is like. I agree with you on one thing, it is important that people see beyond the famine and death in Africa and see the potential it has to grow but the potential has to be found in communities who are doing what they can to get out of poverty whether it be telecommunications to do banking, solar energy to power their small businesses or community initiatives to support women. What use is a Banana fricking Republic?

Sozzani responded with this rather bitchy outburst:

@Rachel: It’s been a long timesince I last received such an idiot comment on my website. When I say Muslims, I never thought that the entire population of muslims is against Catholics as I live part of my life in Morocco and all my friends there are Muslims. I think that you took the negative side of the article and I’m sorry to say that is you who is against your own country, not me, as if we give work to women and we build up new shops and hotels, even for the 5% of the population, it can attract tourism and give job to local people. Is this nothing for you? Is it so unnecessary that I go to see them and try to help them?Iif so, I’m sorry for you, you don’t love your country and don’t want to help it. I don’t care and I go on my own way and certainly you won’t stop me. Just for yuor info, all the people – young designers, tailors and those producing fashion – are very happy and selling well thanks to me. This is the most important thing for me. [sic]

Blimey. It’s a close one, but I think overall we’re with Rachel on this.

Other than that there’s a short piece on El Anatsui which wrongly says he works in Ghana and then miraculously manages to rebrand (why not?) his transcendent genius as yet more developmental gobbledygook:

Forerunner of a big part of the continent’s contemporary art, with his artwork he has shown how a possible solution for his country is that of believing in the concept of recycling as a source of creativity and richness.

Some bearable features on African footballers in Italy and Didier Drogba, they discover Nollywood again (The New York Times has done so too recently), the formerly disgraced Kenyan TV journalist Jeff Koinange (whose style is something to behold), that country’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga, Swedish-Ethiopian chef Marcus Samuelson (there are other top African chefs Vogue Italia), a picture of the Rwandan Ambassador to Britain handing his credentials to Queen Elizabeth II who is dressed in what resembles a nightgown, more Presidents, and a few models.

And then there’s Tommy Hilfiger, who gets some great free advertising with an African alibi as the magazine reproduces yet another long, unreadable press release. An unattributed quote explains how the mostly boring fashion scenster Hilfiger is basically the new Jesus Christ:

When Tommy Hilfiger came to the village for the first time, no one knew who he was. But when locals realized how famous he was in the rest to the world, they were very impressed: they were satisfied that if someone so important, rich and privileged could be interested in them and spend time with them, they themselves counted more than what they had been led to believe. They began to have more faith in the possibility of change.

Well, Africa, consider yourself rebranded.



Elliot Ross

Elliot Ross is senior editor at Africa is a Country. He tweets at @africasacountry and @futbolsacountry

  1. Thanks, another great piece. I showed the earlier piece to my classes this week, a long with the original NY Times story (which I showed first). If you take the horse(s) to water, somethimes they will drink! They loved it. Now I have to show them this piece next week!

  2. Wow….didn’t realize Vogue could be that absurd! Nice to know that the “I have friends who are xyz” isn’t just an American thing (natch)! Africa REALLY is a country, huh? lol….

  3. I LOOOOOOOOOOVED THIS. Wonderful entry. I laughed. I cried. I laughed. Elliot Ross this was brilliantly written. Sozanni’s response to @Rachel, “I go on my own way and certainly you won’t stop me” is certainly a reflection of a pervasive mentality which voluntarily chooses not to inform itself about the multiple realities, challenges and contexts of those who are outside of the the “hotels with a chic African flair, [..] hip restaurants or clubs.” If they actually stopped and went out of their ways, they’d realized how idiotic, ignorant and narrow-minded, it sounds to suggest that the creativity and richness, and prosperity of a nation are synonymous to having access to superficial “art” and “culture” based on the expensive, “exotic-looking” clothes, jewelry, or “chic” stores.

    “African” Rodeo Drive? WTF? Because there are absolutely no differences among Nigeria and Cape Verde and Burundi. They’re all exactly the same. Cripes.

  4. I loved this post, but every time I read your posts it also upsets me that there is so much out there for you guys to criticize or mock. The Africa related idiocies never stop out there. And for the first time I posted a comment on vogue. The editor is just a rude arrogant b****ch. I feel like slapping her, really. This country of Africa is really just an opportunity for everyone to be an expert. Because in Africa people are silly, they only run around after chickens and dogs but always laughing of course(another super comment from a local TV star in my country after her visit to Ghana)

  5. Disgraceful, embarrassing, sordid…..you cant find the words for this debacle, however hard you try….

  6. Fashionable european society types enamoring themselves with the style and “class” of African kleptocrat elites isn’t exactly a new trend, no matter how trailblazing Vogue Italia thinks its being…

  7. I would think that the Editor would realize that Italy is in dire need of rebranding- what with their political and economic scandals! What’s that again about removing the speck from one’s eyes before the log in anothers’?

  8. Usually they say that even bad news is PR but you can hardly say this about this Vogue issue. The editor’s nasty answer is however not without a certain warped neo-capitalist fashionista logic. At my partner’s fashion college in CPT they teach about ‘vanishing cultures’, a pure exercise in exoticism and sentimentality, noble savage comes to mind. Way to go fashion world. In comparison, Arise Magazine, published by Nigeria’s daily ThisDay, is a more credible fashion publication. Oh, and I forgot this anecdote. A few years back on the plane from Jozi to Amsterdam I sat next to an ambitious young man who boasted that he was the designer for the SA label ‘Jenni Button’. He did not tire mentioning that he was a Capetonian and a descendant of the French author Theophile Gauthier. When asked about African fashion, he could not stop thrashing it.

  9. Nigeria’s misruling, criminal elite going to get the pristine waters of River Tiber to wash off their odoriferous local activities with the help of a maid called Sozzani! It stinks and will continue to stink with such characters as the president and the minister she chose to interview…sadly for Sozzani, she has caught the stink too, hopefully, she may find the heart to plead for forgiveness from the likes of Rachel and the majority of those whose opinion she did not seek before her attempt to whitewash their oppressors at the peak of the season of oppression!

  10. They should have interviewed me: a white guy drinking lattes in Cape Town, blogging about issues, and waiting for my parents to send me another cheque. African brethren: that’s how you do it.

  11. and to continue here is an article about “African” artist El Anatsui titled “Art installation requires creative eye — and tetanus shots”, which says it all really, not one picture of the magnificent sculptures, but some vague descriptions of the materials they are made of, because in “Africa, it is normal to work with recycled stuff, as there is nothing else, right?!”. Finally, the most telling is the end remark of the curator “This show doesn’t have anything normal. All our rules are out the window. We think a panel is one height, but when we lift it up, it shifts and extends itself, which is frustrating and exciting all at the same time.” Replace ‘show’ by ‘continent’ or ‘country’ as the West seems to see Africa and you get the whole vogue edition in one sentence.

  12. I’m sure this view will piss everyone off here but it’s gotta be said: Such a polarized, angry conversation as people look across cultures at each other. A sense of humor would help. Why not write a satire “Rebranding Italy”? Speak in the fashion world’s language to get through to them. I work with fashion people and can tell you they are on another planet when it comes to communication; many of them are as arrogant as the editor of Italian Vogue, it almost seems like a prerequisite to work in that industry. There is very little effort made at a constructive debate here – it’s just people yelling at each other. I totally agree with this column’s point – when i first saw the IV piece i actually thought it was a joke akin to Sasha Baron Cohen’s “The Dictator,” just very poorly pulled off. But the intellectualizing is tiring and, in my view, pointless. They cannot hear you. Find another way to talk about it. Use humor. You have to do a Borat. And even then you’ll not succeed – many Americans thought Borat made Kazakhstan look bad (as did many Kazakhs!). It actually made Americans look bad as they revealed homophobic, racist, elitist attitudes in scene after scene. So go to Italy and parody their attitudes. And then be a bit honest: there’s a lot of backward shit to laugh at in Nigeria just as there is in England, Japan, Peru, etc. etc. etc. Finally, one last comment: it’s Italian Vogue, not American. Isn’t Vogue a Hachette publication, i.e. French? So the comment slamming Americans about it is a sad error to make in the response Rachel wrote. There is no monopoly on racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. It’s everywhere.

    1. Vogue is actually a Conde Nast publication. But i do agree that her American-slamming is flawed as it is Italian not American Vogue that she is so angry with.

  13. “An obvious take is that Vogue Italia, despite their claims of “rebranding” Africa must have decided Africans can’t govern themselves and need UN intervention.”
    I think the cover is absolutly consistent with Vogue I contents: it reads “L’uomo Vogue rebranding Africa”, “The Vogue man rebranding Africa”. That’s why Ban Ki Moon is on the cover. They are telling us that he is doing the rebranding.

  14. Loved the blog entry, and Joe’s comment is spot on!!! We need a bit of humour (as much as the Vogue issue pisses me off) to make things a bit easier for the world to understand!

  15. I can appreciate your perceptions on the Rebranding Africa issue of Vogue Italia. Perhaps what this may teach them is to 1) conduct proper and thorough research on their subject–i.e. Africa; 2) stick to what they know best–i.e. fashion–; 3) stop making outlandish statements and acclamations about a group of people that are far removed from their own reality; and 4) stay away from generalisations (journalism 101). Such treatment of something like ‘Africa’ is detrimental to the progress the continent is making, both internally and internationally. We see this in the generalisation of Muslims in Nigeria, which–although she was referring to Boko Haram–“will” spark much uproar worldwide. For those who do not know about Diezani Alison-Madueke, this article does not highlight how she is perceived in Nigeria, what she has done, and how she could seriously set women back decades.

    However, I find it slightly unfair to lash out at the entire issue, which I have read cover-to-cover. I do find that slightly juvenile on the part of the writer, as the bit on fashion does highlight the industry, and promotes the championing of local African brands as opposed to the reliance on Western imported labels. Yes, there are more influential, interesting people she could have interviewed who are making a significant impact on the continent, but she has no real idea who they are, and she shot herself in the foot when she entitled the the L’Uomo issues “Rebranding Africa.” No longer do Italians or us non-Italian Vogue Italia readers accessing this publication, but also Africans, Asians, South Americans, West Indians, etc. now that this is online and in English. Now is the time for them to be even more accountable for what they say and how they say it. I only hope that she will be less defensive and more aware of the power the pen has on a world that is now even more connected.

  16. I have been living in Africa for over 20 years now, seems like Vogue got everything wrong did they try and do this or was it just a monumental cock-up, hope they fired whoever was responsible for authorizing this piece, unbelievable bad journalism, they should stick to fashion they just spoiling their name for no reason.

  17. The Queen of Buganda, Sylvia Nagginda, is featured. She is a good woman, doing great work, not living lavishly. And it is not easy being a queen in a context where the husband can have other partners and children by them in search of a male heir, as her husband, the King, just did. I have lived in Uganda since 1986.

    1. I’ve been compelled to comment. This is probably the most insightful article I’ve read about the Vogue Italia African project. The cover star was a very wrong idea. The outlandish comments on Muslims in Nigeria another blooper and her defensive comment on her website wrapped it up with a lining of shame. She is supposed to welcome criticism whether positive or negative. On the other hand she is right when she says many DESIGNERS on the continent benefited – yes they did. The articles weren’t well written though – The Nabagereka feature wasn’t satisfying and overly disappointing. There is a lot more to her than that.

  18. Thanks – this is a really inspiring review – a great example of how external commentators, despite good intentions, can often make a complete hash of things, especially when they don’t truly “listen” to all the relevant voices. I loved the sensible comment from “Rachel” about change needing to come from within communities themselves. The response from Vogue Italia’s editor-in-chief was shocking. I’ve blogged a bit more about this “broadcast paradigm” here: http://www.monkeyswithtypewriters.co.uk/luomo-vogue-the-broadcast-paradigm-and-why-we

  19. There is a much worse scenario: Vogue placing competent journalists on producing a good read and attractive ideas on “re-branding” Africa (I sense either Kagame and/or Obama on the cover). We would find a sad majority of those on the continent with access to the magazine/internet celebrating itsself re-branded by Vogue. I am happy it turned out so bad, and fear the day someone does the job more intelligently.

  20. I find the comments that only talk about the Vogue issue as a piece of journalism miss the point: when Vogue makes a particular choice about their cover, it reflects a larger issue about the industry, the money and people behind the magazine, the people Vogue represents, solicits, interpellates, appeals to, etc. From this perspective, their view of Africa, and what has to be done, really sucks. They have to do quite more than just improve their research: how about talking to Africans, hiring Africans and let Africans represent themselves and the continent?

  21. The response to Rachel is unfortunate. Vogue Italian is lead by people who only know something about fashion and nothing else about Africa..I wouldn’t want a discourse with an ‘intellectual milksop’ and a dandy who cares so much about magnificent shopping mauls in country where majority have low purchasing power parity.

  22. Africa certainly has it’s woes that we have never denied but when a magazine categorically focuses on it’s sales, distorts facts, concocts stories all in the name of re-branding, then i guess focusing on re-branding the magazine itself should take first priority.
    This is one poorly done piece of a magazine that shames the journmalism proffession as a whole but worsestill kills further the african image.
    Next time, instead of magazine writing, why not try write escapades of how manhattan coffee with a UN secretary general warms stomachs and give us the science behind it, forget about re-branding AFRICA we don’t need you!

  23. Ban ki Moon on the cover of the “re branding Africa” issue of vogue is a great predictor of what is to be expected on the inside. If these extracts are anything to go by, then vogue should stick to their vast knowledge of fashion and let the rest of Africa be. A greater focus on fashion, textiles and development in that field would have served their “re branding Africa” purpose better.
    Somebody up there was right, a sartorial piece would be great.

  24. Speaking about doing things for Africa, what have you and your entire website and blog team done for Africa? How are you helping in the uplifting of poverty within the Africa continent? If you feel that people that are trying to help Africans, as Vogue Italia is, to stimulate economic growth is wrong, then you need to be educated on how change can take place for Africa for the positive in the future.

    1. Dear Chanel,

      this blog and countless others are contribution to the discussion by critically making people aware of the degrading and lame stereotypes they use daily to report and speak about an entire continent. If you suggest we should applaud Vogue Italia to “help Africa”, boy, you got something really wrong in this post, this blog and probably the entire debate…

      1. Hearabout, Vogue Italia has a message which is a thread of a whole magazine – that the young African designers should have a possibility to express themselves, to have decent jobs and support national industries. Its editor Franca Sozzani not only has loads of ideas on how to do it, but she also… does something. Like going to the Nigerian president to speak about the textile industry in his country as an engine for growth and jobs. She has a narrow field (fashion) but she is a pro in it! Can’t you just forgive a few lame stereotypes to someone with a great mission and who is doing a great job for many young designers???

        1. yes, it’s the whole notion that europe needs to rebrand africa that upsets me … and especially some dumbo fashion editor .. no thanks.

      2. Dear Artyom, thanks for your reply. I find it very positive if people are passionate about their field and have ideas they act upon. If Franca wants to support young fashion designers allover the world – great! Taking the courage to speak out for the issue that drives you whether it is fashion, food or famine is always applaudable. But what was the need to regurgitating the same old stereotypes (Nigeria the dangerous country, Christians and Muslims at war etc). If a fashion journalist writes an article about Nigeria, then please do not start with a political observation or statement you have no idea about. Stick to your key message, deliver it well and people will respect you. I think the attacks on her come from her ignorance she takes by assuming she can give a president advice on how to run his country. Sadly a lot of people seem to act the same way when speaking about Africa and this assumed moral high ground of “the West” is what a lot of Africans are very angry about.

  25. Looks like the might have missed the fact that the Deputy Secretary General is an African woman, Ms Asha Rose Migiro, whose term just ended. What a lost opportunity. Then again, this is a reminder that we Africans should be doing our own rebranding

  26. I don’t really care what vogue is or who the tailor that runs it believes but I sure care about how my continent is potrayed by a person who has ‘partly’ lived in Morocco and has muslim friends! (really?) If this is your only authority on suggesting ways to ‘rebrand’ Africa, I suggest you take your expertise back to the workshop that is Vogue!

  27. Africa is a Country: So why is he on the cover? We have absolutely no idea.
    Steppes in Sync: Our ‘wild’ guess is that the magazine you are discussing in this article is not actually Vogue Italia — it’s L’Uomo Vogue | the Condè Nast magazine dedicated to Men. That is what the cover you featured at the top says. Read the cover, u know..

    Sorry to be this nasty in bashing the very premise of your argument. But we do agree with your point that Italian creatives need to improve on their development communication skills.

    In this light, it would be great to learn your opinion about another creative project by (largely) Italians aimed at Africa: http://www.fabrica.it/project/microcredit-africa-works Fabrica came up with various T-shirts that they retailed through the Benetton chain of stores. Youssou N’Dour was part of the project. Blah blah..

    Italians do vogliano bene (wish well) all’Africa. All Africa is a Country need to do is teach them how to do it in a wiser way.

    1. this approach won’t work either though. for reasons it would take too long to go into. first, it bears remarking that the interest rates charged by microcredit are ridiculous. just look into it. but more pointed: by constantly framing initiatives in Africa as a charity initiative you are just perpetuating the same old narrative and showing just how stuck your brains are in how they conceptualize Africa. sorry to be so nasty.

  28. Dearest Joe, can You be quoted on saying that Youssou N’Dour’s brains are stuck because he created Birima, a microcredit program for Senegal? Or are Steppes in Sync’s brains stuck tight-tight enough to interpret Your position inaccurately?

    For us at Steppes in Sync Your opinion is invaluable about the South-South cooperation. What do You think about un-perpetuating the old narrative by distributing African films in the Eastern European markets? Discussed here: http://www.africine.org/?menu=art&no=10971 or Southern Africans helping Mongolians dig for gold? http://www.dw.de/zimbabwean-helps-mongolians-dig-for-gold/a-16250179

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