“Once you see it, you can’t stop thinking about it.” Alexander Wang
The world of fashion is no stranger to controversy, from animal rights issues to the size zero debate. But the actual fashion campaigns themselves often draw the biggest headlines. Many labels — looking at you, Tom Ford — opt to use sex, violence or social commentary to engage with their audience.
We're going to run through some of the most controversial fashion campaigns ever produced in the last few decades, from Calvin Klein Calvin Klein's ambiguous 'I __ in #myCalvins' fashion ads to Benetton's socially conscious advertising campaigns."
Modernist or misogynist: Terry Richardson & Tom Ford
A controversial figure in his own right, photographer Terry Richardson has been behind — and occasionally in front of — the lens for a not-insignificant number of NSFW fashion ads.
Richardson’s distinctive style caught the attention of Italian-based label Sisley and, in 2001, they found themselves in the middle of an uproar when Richardson shot model Josie Maran posing with a cow udder (and little else). In 2007, the partnership made headlines again with their 'Fashion Junkie' campaign, featuring models snorting the lines of a strappy vest top.
Tom Ford has praised Richardson’s approach to fashion photography on numerous occasions, hailing his ability to “[capture] a very real moment”. Master provocateur Ford is no stranger to the Advertising Standards Agency himself. His 'Public Enemy' ad was banned in 2003. Shot by Mario Testino, it featured a semi-clad Carmen Kass pulling down her underwear to reveal Gucci's signature 'G' shaved into her body hair.
Ford and Richardson teamed up for the Tom Ford For Men fragrance campaign in 2007, and used their fashion ads to push the maxim that sex sells to its extreme. With legs spread wide towards the camera, the nude model covers her modesty with a bottle of Ford’s fragrance, while a sister image shows the bottle wedged between her breasts. Unsurprisingly, this advert didn’t last long in circulation.
Calvin Klein has consistently faced pushback for its use of scantily clad young models in compromising positions. In 1980 the industry was left reeling from a campaign starring a 15 year old Brooke Shields asking: “Do you want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing”.
In early 2016, this all-American label's advertising campaign featured an up-skirt shot with the tagline “I flash in #myCalvins”. Although model Klara Kristin posed for this image, it's impossible to ignore the less than consensual implications – which online commenters have been quick to air their feelings about.
In late 2014, Alexander Wang teased his newest denim collection by channelling the provoking tactics of Calvin Klein's infamous ads with an equally tantalising visual by Steven Klein. Model Anna Ewers is shown with a well-oiled hand between her legs and jeans lowered around her thighs. Along with the caption “coming soon”, this image makes some of Calvin Klein’s risqué shots look downright prudish.
Dolce & Gabbana is another label that consistently uses sex to sell its fashion campaigns. In 2007 the luxury house caused a stir with its picture of model Alessandra Ambrosio being pinned down and surrounded by a group of male onlookers. Almost immediately banned in Spain, many accused the ad of evoking gang rape and endorsing violence against women.
The high street isn't immune to controversy, either. American Apparel is often subject to intense criticism for its sexualised advertising campaigns featuring young girls, while in 2006 there were calls to ban a Diesel ad featuring a male model simultaneously performing a sex act on three females.
Making a stand
The Italian Benetton Group is renowned for its striking, socially conscious fashion ads. Since the 80s, the label’s shock-advertising has been stimulating debates and increasing its reputation as a fashion power house. Early in the decade, famed photographer Oliviero Toscani was given carte blanche to create controversial campaigns that had little or nothing to do with the collections.
In 1991 Toscani shot his infamous ‘United Colours of Benetton’ shots. A blanket covers a group of two women and an infant, all from different races. The subtlety of this image as a family snapshot is a powerful rejection of negative stereotypes around homosexual and interracial relationships.
Benetton has continued to use its fashion campaigns to shock and inspire. On his deathbed, AIDS activist David Kirby starred in a series of hard-hitting ads designed to draw attention to the epidemic. Another image from this campaign featured a newborn baby with the umbilical cord still attached – this received one of the highest ever amount of complaints to Advertising Standards.
It’s clear that controversial images of sex, violence and social injustices spark debate and engagement, making them the perfect choice for memorable fashion marketing campaigns. Whether they're memorable for the right reasons, however, is a question we can only answer for ourselves.
As Luciano Benetton points out, “we did not create our advertisements in order to provoke, but to make people talk.”