When we were kids, my sister and I bought my parents an anniversary card from the adult section of our local newsagent. Its cover featured a soft-focus photograph of an egg and a chicken in bed together. The egg, painted with eyes, nose, and moustache, was smoking a cigarette while the hen, made of coloured paper, looked at him, swooning with her long-lashed eyes half closed. The caption on the inside of the card read “So, who came first?” Of course, we had no idea what the card meant and took it simply as a witty portrayal of the eternal question. You might ask what we were doing in the adult section, but in 1984 we also rode around in the back of pick-up trucks and dad would crack a beer to see him through any drive longer than half an hour. Different times.
More so, what does this story have to do with a fashion blog? Well, the chicken and the egg constantly resurface in my mind whenever I think about marketing, social trends, and fashion photography. The zeitgeist, as Matharu explains, is the “spirit of the times”, which fashion professionals need to become, if they are to be successful. This entails “investigating, hunting, and gathering information to feed his or her imagination – capturing the spirit of the times”, and enables them to ride the crest of their cultural wave (2010, 79).
I was on the internet trying to figure out what’s current in fashion photography when I found a series of recent ads for Calvin Klein by photographer Mario Sorrenti. They portray two current social trends, Tinder and ‘sexting’ (Nudd 2015).
The ads combine narrative techniques with Calvin Klein’s trademark use of instigating public controversy over their use of sexually explicit concepts and story lines (see The History of Calvin Klein’s Provocative Ads by Evans, 2016). Each image features two or three young models embracing intimately, with a sidebar snippet of ‘sext’ that the viewer is invited to understand as the social precursor of the photograph. The ad claims that these images and text conversations are “inspired by actual events and people”.
This ad campaign by Calvin Klein suggests the company is dangling itself at exactly the juncture between leading and following, the zeitgeist sweet spot in which they balance pulling their target demographic to their product, with pushing what’s culturally relevant to that demographic. It’s relevant to consider, though, that Calvin Klein’s current approach to advertising is drawing on 40 years’ experience exploiting the youth-sex-narrative-discourse, perfectly encapsulated in their 1995 “amateur porn” campaign by Steven Meisel:
These photographs and their television counterparts brought allegations of child pornography against the company and caused huge controversy, which probably gained the organisation more exposure than the ads ever would have on their own (Galindo 2013).*
Given that my heyday was literally 1995, I can assure you that very few of us were actually being interviewed in dodgy 1970s wood-panelled basements for spots in amateur porn. So I have to wonder, how much has Calvin Klein’s past four decades of shock advertising tactics influenced our culture as it exists today, and how much of their ads actually reflect what’s really happening in youth culture? Of course, they are not the only corporate player in this cultural ouroboros, nor do they exist in a social vacuum.
And I’m back at that ridiculous anniversary card, wondering how two kids could spend their hard-earned pocket money on lewd greeting cards in a time that was sexually so much more conservative than 2016, yet nowadays when indiscriminate, instant sex hook-ups via the internet are portrayed by a major fashion house as what’s ‘in’, people are shocked at the prospect of kids casually perusing titty mugs and the latest issue of Hustler as potential anniversary gifts for their parents.
*(Calvin Klein showed these allegations to be false when they produced evidence that all featured models were adults at the time the photos were shot.)
Evans, Jonathan. 2016. Harpar’s Bazaar The History of Calvin Klein’s Provocative Ads. 7 July. Accessed August 21, 2016. http://www.harpersbazaar.com/fashion/photography/news/g7504/history-calvin-klein-advertising/
Galindo, Brian. 2013. Buzzfeed. 29 March. Accessed August 21, 2016. https://www.buzzfeed.com/briangalindo/the-1995-calvin-klein-ad-campaign-that-was-just-too-creepy?utm_term=.dk7Re8NnY#.gslYOyQXD.
Matharu, Gurmit. 2010. What is Fashion Design? Mies, Switzerland: RotoVision SA.
Nudd, Tim. 2015. Adweek. 30 July. Accessed August 21, 2016. http://www.adweek.com/adfreak/calvin-klein-embraces-sexting-and-tinder-racy-campaign-about-digital-dating-166186
Raup, Avo. 2016. Hustler USA. 29 April. Accessed August 21, 2016. http://www.afka.net/Mags/Hustler.htm