Article: Calvin Klein’s Gonzo Porn Inspired Fashion Ads

enhanced-buzz-1025-1364427389-5

Fashion advertising is a funny thing. It should be easy – you show the product, you sell it. But fashion has always been about more than a mere aesthetic – it’s also about attitude, and that is a harder thing to convey. Fashionistas like to think that they are on the cutting edge – not just of new looks, but socially too. It’s no surprise then, that fashion advertising has sometimes pushed the limits of what was socially acceptable in order to seem edgy, dangerous and provocative. But not too provocative, or it might affect the bottom line – look at what happened to Benetton.

Calvin Klein had form in this: the ‘heroin chic’ look of his ad campaign in 1992 caused outrage as it channelled the grungy vibe of dead eyes, skinny bodies and wasted poses – it made a star of Kate Moss and sold a lot of product – cash from controversy.

In 1995, a Calvin Klein ad campaign went further into the taboo, and was (in some cases deliberately) misunderstood by critics, forcing it to finally be pulled.

The Fall/Winter 1995 campaign, shot by Steven Meisel, featured a series of photographs of models posing in a wood-panelled,  sparse studio. There was something unsettling about the images – models who looked like they’d come from the 1970s (that’s the grunge fashion influence again), in pseudo sexual poses – the boys notably more blatantly objectified than the girls. The TV commercials were even more provocative – choppily-edited, bleached out audition shoots with an anonymous, off-camera older male voice asking questions that seemed somewhat salacious – “can you rip that shirt off?… that’s a nice body…” – in what felt like a snippet of something seedy. The ads are designed to make you imagine what comes next in these ‘auditions’.

enhanced-buzz-700-1364423147-7

Of course, anyone who was familiar with the gonzo porn world recognised the influences immediately. Ed Powers’ Dirty Debutantes, the Buttman films and assorted imitators used that audition style, the mix of salaciousness and cheesy compliments used to ‘persuade’ a performer to disrobe and eventually have sex on camera (no matter that it was all staged). It was a style begun by Ugly George in the 1980s and became a mainstay of non-narrative porn by the time that these commercials were shot.

In the mid-90s, porn was as mainstream as it has ever been, and was having a pop culture influence on society. These ads knowingly reference those films because they know that we will recognise the sources.

Unfortunately, the campaign was met with hysteria from moral campaigners, who rather cynically claimed that the ads were ‘child pornography’ – this despite the fact that there was no nudity involved and some of the models actually identify themselves as being 20 or 21 years old. This was (and still is – look at recent complaints against American Apparel ads in the UK) the best way of killing of an ad campaign that makes you feel uncomfortable and challenges your moral world view, but it’s nonsense, and you have to assume that many who climbed onto that bandwagon knew that it was nonsense. The other possibility is to assume that these people actually looked at photographs of non-naked adults and mentally twisted those photographs into sexual images of children. What does that tell us about their sick desires, I wonder?

The hysteria went so far that the Department of Justice was forced to investigate (surprise, surprise, the models were all adults, as old as 29). On August 28th 1995, Calvin Klein Inc took out a full page ad in the New York Times to announce that they were pulling the “misunderstood” campaign.

The success – if it is a success, given what happened – of these ads is to channel  the inherent seediness of the gonzo audition porn film (which, after all, works on the rather dubious appeal of seeing someone talked into doing something) so well that the viewer feels unsettled, even though nothing sexual is actually taking place. Your own mind fills in the off-screen gaps, and does so because we are all familiar with that sort of  gonzo porn. No wonder Middle America freaked out.

Advertisements