This year, the closely-watched, much-anticipated September issue of Vogue is breaking precedent. Firstly, all 26 editions of the Condé Nast glossy are united by a singular focus: exploring the theme of hope. Then, instead of putting a photograph of a high-profile celebrity on the cover, Vogue U.S. revealed on Tuesday that it would feature two portraits by contemporary artists — one of Aurora James, the founder of Brother Vellies and the 15 Percent Pledge, by Jordan Casteel, and another of a fictional subject, wearing a dress by Off-White, by Kerry James Marshall.
It's not totally unfathomable for a painting to front the magazine, but it is rare: Vogue has done it only a handful of times in its history, including in September 2017, starring Jennifer Lawrence by John Currin. What's even more rare is for a designer to appear on the cover. In fact, it's only ever happened once — in January 2020, when Stella McCartney appeared alongside Greta Gerwig, Ashley Graham and Cardi B, as part of a four-part series on motherhood.
The decision to feature James on the cover was Casteel's: According to a press release, Vogue gave the painters "complete freedom to decide who would be on their cover... The only requirement was that they choose a dress by one of four Vogue-selected designers for their subject to wear." (James is wearing a Pyer Moss dress and Brother Vellies shoes in her portrait.)
"I believe that what Aurora is doing is hugely important in creating the long-term change that Black people deserve and this country owes us," Casteel told Dodie Kazanjian in the accompanying cover story. "I see her as a light in a lot of darkness, and a potential for hope, a representative of change across all creative industries."
"What’s most exciting to me is being given artistic integrity and being able to choose the person to be my sitter — someone who reflects a portion of my own identity — and then to do that truly in the medium of my choice," Casteel continued. "This is the way that I speak to the world. And this is the way I’ve been speaking to the world and talking about the humanity of our people, talking about humanity in general. It’s a really profound experience. I do think I’m participating and a change is happening."
James has a longstanding relationship with Vogue: She won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2015, with Jonathan Simkhai and Gypsy Sport, and appeared on the Amazon reality series that documented the program. Her CFDA Award-nominated work at Brother Vellies has developed a strong, devoted following. In recent months, she's gotten more attention for her non-profit organization, 15 Percent Pledge, through which she continues to advocate for economic equity for Black-owned businesses.
Historically, Vogue's September issue cover has been reserved for more traditional celebrities. (Taylor Swift got it in 2019, Beyoncé in 2018.) To have that space now dedicated to Black artists, fashion designers and industry thought-leaders sends a powerful message.
Marshall, meanwhile created his own subject for Vogue's September cover ("as he always does in his paintings," the magazine explains). "I'm trying to build into her expression that she's not dependent on the gaze of the spectator," he told Kazanjian. "'I'm here and you can see me, but I'm not here for you.' That’s a critical element. The great word, ultimately, is going to be 'self-possessed.' That's what I’m aiming for."
You can read more about the making of Vogue's September 2020 covers over at Vogue.com.