Why this 102-year-old German Holocaust survivor is Vogue’s best ever cover star

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The theme for Vogue Germany's July/August issue is 'love', which Margot Friedländer has handwritten on collector's editions
Coat from Miu Miu, Federal Cross of Merit First Class (left), Order of Merit of the State of Berlin (right) - © Mark Peckmezian/VOGUE Germany

The days when a high fashion, glossy magazine could simply peddle headlines about diets and hemlines on its cover are long gone. In the past decade, fashion has, for better and worse, increasingly found itself, having sometimes deliberately positioned itself there, in the maelstrom of conversation around race, gender and class.

These forays into national debate have often found brands facing down a barrage of moral outrage. Gucci’s infamous “blackface” jumper and Balenciaga’s 2022 ad campaign featuring children carrying what looked like teddy bears in bondages are two of many notorious own goals.

Even so, you might assume that German Vogue’s decision to feature Holocaust survivor Margot Friedländer on the cover of its July/August issue would be uncontroversial. But there’s always a risk when any brand steps out of its lane.

Floral ensemble from Loro Piana, jumper from The Deck, silk scarf from Ringeends
Floral ensemble from Loro Piana, jumper from The Deck, silk scarf from Ringe (private) - © Mark Peckmezian/VOGUE Germany

Since October 7, the fashion world has been riven with division. Bella and Gigi Hadid, with more followers on social media than there are Jews in the world, have been particularly virulent in their opposition to Israel. Their father Mohamed Hadid has gone further, saying that Zionist Jews are anti-Semitic to the true Semitic people, the Palestinians. Many brands now refuse to get drawn in either way. Even seemingly unarguable positions – opposing anti-Semitism in the industry for instance – is seen by some as “taking sides”, which has alarmed many Jews working in the industry, especially given how quick the fashion and beauty industry normally are to stamp out racism.

“The notion that standing against anti-Semitism is a tricky position for anyone to take is very troubling,” says Deborah Lyons, who recently founded the campaign Fashion & Beauty Against Anti-Semitism to help foster understanding across religions and races. “The fashion industry has always relied on shared craftsmanship and collaboration – that cross-fertilisation is crucial to its success.”

Germany’s history makes it harder for it to ignore the ongoing rise in anti-Semitism across the world. “We have chosen love as the theme for this issue,” says Kerstin Weng, the head of editorial content at Vogue Germany. “It’s a reminder to focus on what unites us… Margot is the most positive person I know.”

Encouragingly, German Vogue’s cover has  been widely applauded on social media, where the magazine has posted a series of charming portraits of the 102-year-old.

Friedländer, née Bendheim, a German Jew, was born in Berlin in 1921. Her family was murdered at Auschwitz. She was deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp, where she would ultimately meet her husband, Adolf Friedländer. The couple emigrated to the USA and Friedländer only returned to Berlin after her husband’s death, aged 88.

Since then, she has been campaigning for the Holocaust to never be forgotten, launching the Margot Friedländer Prize with the Schwarzkopf Foundation: an annual award for young people fighting Jewish hatred.

The scarlet Miu Miu coat she wears on the cover of the magazine is decorated with the Federal Cross of Merit, First Class and the Order of Merit of the State of Berlin, both of which were awarded to her for her Holocaust education work.

Her resolve must have been sorely tested since October 7, which gave the green light to numerous Holocaust deniers to vent their shaky grasp of history on Instagram and TikTok.

In her interview with Vogue, however, she focuses on the wins in her life. “I am grateful,” she says. “Grateful that I made it. For being able to fulfil my mother’s wish. That I have made my life.” The issue, which is also available to buy online, comes in two editions, a regular and a collector’s one, with the word “love” handwritten on the cover by Friedländer.

The timing of this cover – when Germany is experiencing civic unrest, economic woes and its nationalist party AfD is enjoying a surge in popularity – is poignant. It’s also a reminder of how fashion magazines have had to reinvent themselves in a bid to remain relevant. Once upon a time, Vogue would only ever have considered a 20-something supermodel for the cover, but fashion is discovering it can have a broader remit that can help change perceptions about age, beauty and race.

The Museum of London meanwhile, has an exhibition that explores the contribution Jewish designers and clothing businesses made to fashion – and the barriers that sometimes confronted them.

Fashion City: How Jewish Londoners Shaped Global Style is a fascinating and at times moving insight into both the personal and public faces of an underexplored subject. Although my own great-grandmother was a Jewish dressmaker working in London in the early years of the last century, and I was aware that thousands of Jewish immigrants settled in London following the pogroms of the 1880s and onwards, it still came as a surprise to discover how many of them had become fashion-famous.

They were, and are: Moss Bros; Mr Fish, the label that dressed, inter alia, David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix; Sheila Cohen at Granny Takes a Trip, who dressed The Beatles, and Bellville Sassoon and Zandra Rhodes, who famously dressed Princess Diana. Ditto “celebrity” hairdressers such as Leonard Lewis, Daniel Hersheson and Vidal Sassoon (the latter left the UK briefly in 1948 to fight in the Arab-Israeli War. But that’s another story.)

I wonder how many of them had to confront posters in the 1930s telling them they were aliens and should go home?

David Bowie in a Mr Fish dress at his home in Kent, 1971
David Bowie in a Mr Fish dress at his home in Kent, 1971 - Getty
Princess Diana wearing a dress designed by Bellville Sassoon
Princess Diana wearing a dress designed by Bellville Sassoon - Getty

How Jewish Londoners Shaped Global Fashion is at The Museum of London until July 7. More information here.

The Collector’s issue of VOGUE Germany is available on newsstands from Saturday 22nd June.