The Italian tyre company has changed tack with ‘a tale of the aspirations of four women’. But is it relevant in a post-#MeToo era?
Edward Helmore– The Guardian
It has been called the Sexpot Rut. Companies that once strove to cement their reputation for being “sexy” – think Victoria’s Secret, the troubled US lingerie giant – feel outdated in the current social climate. Others, such as the Italian tyre company Pirelli, whose annual calendar has been the epitome of “sex sells” since it launched in 1964, are now seeking to reposition themselves as a celebration of photography itself.
Each year, Pirelli draft in a new photographer and a new angle. This year it is the turn of Scottish-born Vogue fashion photographer Albert Watson, who famously shot the portrait of Steve Jobs that featured on the cover of his biography, as well as Kate Moss, nude, on her 19th birthday. He photographed a portfolio of images the company describes as “a photographic tale of the aspirations of four women and their determination to achieve their goals”.
Eight years on from Terry Richardson’s 2010 nude blow-out, and a year into the #MeToo era, the 2019 edition of “the cal” features successful women Watson depicts as “pursuing her own dreams and passions” in a portfolio titled “dreaming”. The original idea was apparently to tell a story of four sisters living on a ranch in New Mexico and their different paths through life.
Thus, we have supermodel Gigi Hadid pictured living alone in a glass tower (wherefore art thou, Zayn?) and pondering her future, with New York scenester/designer Alexander Wang as her only friend and confidant.
Elsewhere, Julia Garner, star of Netflix series Ozark, plays the part of a young photographer who loves solitude and nature; Misty Copeland, the first African American woman to be promoted to principal dancer at the American Ballet theatre, is fantasising about making a name for herself as a pole dancer with real-life ABT co-star Calvin Royalle III; and 90s model and actor Laetitia Casta is living in a studio apartment with bad boy of dance, Sergei Polunin.
“If you like it, credit me. If you don’t, blame Pirelli,” says Watson at the company headquarters in Milan. The 76-year-old fashion veteran also pointed out that Pirelli has often taken risks, including signing off on photographer Arthur Elgort’s decision to base the 1990 calendar on German film director Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi celebration Triumph of the Will. As photographer Tim Walker showed last year with his adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, fantasy is often safe harbour.
“It seemed to me the wrong time to be getting a bunch of supermodels to a beach and have them take their tops off,” says Watson. “So I moved the nudity away from a Playboy pin-up. It was like that for many years, and done with good taste and by good photographers, and I have no problem with it …
“[My] idea was always that women were trying to do something with their life. I much preferred that to women taking their tops off.”
For the Misty Copeland series, Watson revealed that he looked to the Mikhail Baryshnikov film White Nights. But each of the narratives are incoherent to each other.
“This is more like switching channels at night. Hit the channel, it’s the news. Hit it again, it’s a movie. Hit it again, it’s a soccer game. I’m hoping that, graphically, the shots hold together.”
The perils of sending the wrong message have been evident for anyone following the fashion press in recent weeks. This year’s televised Victoria’s Secret show was watched by around one third of the viewers it received in the US five years ago.
Yet Garner shows no nerves walking the PR tightrope. “I don’t associate Pirelli with tyre tracks on women’s butts, and even if there are, it’s still beautiful in its own way,” she says. “The images are always tasteful.”
Polunin appears equally unconcerned by the prospect of a media backlash, using the opportunity in Milan to defend the Italian designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana who have been involved in a series of social media controversies. Most recently, they insulted Chinese consumers, prompting the cancellation of an imminent Dolce & Gabbana fashion show in Beijing.
“Actually, they are the coolest people. I like their clothes,” he said, after acknowledging that he was dressed head to toe in the label. “They have an element of danger there. I like to help people recover. When people are down you have to help them up …”
Watson explained that the Pirelli calendar as a venue for pin-ups had already been extensively explored. “The idea was to change Pirelli. That’s why I introduced men into their lives.”
The result, said Copeland, was an endorsement of women: “Women are taking a stand, and this calendar is an amazing representation of that.”