The Genteel
April 17, 2021


Source: (left), (right)
Joan Juliet Buck Vogue Asma Al Assad A Rose in the Desert
Joan Juliet Buck has come under much criticism
for her glowing portrayal of Asma Al-Assad in
Vogue's March 2011 issue. 

"A long life in journalism convinced me many Presidents ago that there should be a large airspace between a journalist and the head of a state," so opined famed political journalist and media critic Walter Lippmann - wisdom former Vogue contributing editor Joan Juliet Buck no doubt wishes she had encountered in the lead up to what has become a career-defining controversy for the long-serving fashion journalist. The ongoing saga of what the Washington Post contends may have been "the worst-timed, and most tin-eared, magazine article in decades" continues to offer revealing (and often unflattering) glimpses into the tightly corseted Vogue publishing kingdom that underpins the global fashion empire. 

Last week, Buck offered a definitive and somewhat overdue account of the events that led her to publish the onerous "A Rose in the Desert" article. The ill-timed piece eventually culminated in the end of her association with Vogue. Buck's delayed rationale titled, "Mrs. Assad Duped Me," printed in Newsweek Magazine and online at The Daily Beast, adds blame to various ostensibly manipulative parties involved in the Syrian coup de main.

In her follow-up article, the subjects of her Vogue profile, as well as the conspirators they enlisted (PR firm Brown Lloyd James and various shadowy characters of questionable intent) are a veritable dichotomy to the Syria of Buck's original narration. In place of the stylish, "wildly democratic" Assad household Buck first relayed in the pages of Vogue, she instead recalls a Syrian experience marked by palpable unease where "mustached men stood in our path, wearing shoes from the 1980s and curiously ill-fitting leather jackets over thick sweaters" - a portrayal of Syria seemingly too démodé to make it into the original draft of Vogue's embarrassingly complimentary profile. 

Buck's journalistic tribulations serve as a cautionary tale in the amphitheatre of fashion coverage.

Given her swift exit, Buck must feel maligned by the publication to which she devoted the majority of her professional life. However, the blame doesn't necessarily fall entirely at Buck's own door. Despite putting its global reputation on the line, Vogue was oddly slow to recognise the implications of publishing a profile of Asma al-Assad in early 2011, even with the knowledge that the Arab Spring was growing in momentum. According to Buck, she even attempted to "discuss" the risks of publishing such a contentious article with Vogue's managing editor, only to be rebuffed. Tellingly, Buck was instead told not to liaise with the media and seemingly "managed" into silence as the impending publication deadline loomed. As Buck reports, "In the worldview of fashion magazines, Syria was a forbidden kingdom, full of silks, essences, palaces, and ruins, run by a modern president and an attractive, young first lady... It was also a Pandora's box."

Whilst it is hard to feel complete sympathy for a journalist who so flippantly qualified her actions with the explanation, "Syria. The name itself sounded sinister, like syringe, or hiss," Buck's journalistic tribulations serve as a cautionary tale in the amphitheatre of fashion coverage. The Assad profile, now relegated to journalistic Siberia, was expedited for publication in March 2011 to qualify for Vogue's "Power Issue." Yet for a magazine so determined to wield power as a marker of style, influence and literary conversation, Vogue seems ironically hesitant to claim responsibility for its transgressions or defend its family of writers. This unseemly and incorrigible situation, which is yet to meet its grand conclusion, will no doubt grace many pages within Joan Juliet Buck's impending memoir.



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