An All-Asian Fashion Ad to Commend

August 4, 2011 § 2 Comments

Fei Fei Sun, Shu Pei, Lui Wen, Ming Xi, and Xiao Wen Ju for Lane Crawford F/W 11

Asians are definitely having a fashion moment. V Magazine released their “Asian Issue” this past May, Givenchy staged a couture presentation for S/S 11 using only Asian models, and American Vogue published an all-Asian model editorial this past December, declaring that they’re “redefining traditional concepts of beauty.” These happenings often fall under the label of “diversifying fashion,” but they carry an insincerity as Asians consistently fail to book non-Asian themed photoshoots and runway events. Where were the Asian models in Givenchy’s latest couture show, for example? Or on the cover of Vogue?

Yesterday Hong-Kong retailer Lane Crawford released their F/W 11 ad campaign featuring a cast of exclusively Chinese models, but unlike other all-Asian campaigns or editorials, this is a breath of fresh air. It applies the for-us, by-us concept to Chinese fashion, and shows a Chinese company supporting some of the best Chinese modeling talent working today: Fei Fei Sun, Shu Pei, Lui Wen, Ming Xi, and Xiao Wen Ju.

Ballerina Tan Yuan Yuan for Lane Crawford S/S 08 (via girlspic.blogbus.com)

Film producer Fu Jia for Lane Crawford S/S 08 (via girlspic.blogbus.com)

This isn’t Lane Crawford’s first ad to feature Asians or Asian Americans. For their S/S 08 campaign titled, “The Innovators,” they photographed a number of prominent Chinese and Chinese American faces in Chinese arts and culture: ballerina Tan Yuan Yuan, actress Maggie Cheung, film producer Fu Jia, artist Terrence Koh, and model Du Juan, amongst others.

Too often Asian fashion companies use Western models in their promotions, which, as we suggested in a previous post, results from the pressure placed on these companies to cater to privileged whiteness in the global fashion market. I initially discovered Lane Crawford’s latest ad in the news section of New York Magazine. I hope one day, an ad campaign for an Asian company featuring all-Asian models won’t be worthy as news, or even celebration. It will just seem right.

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Power Execs and Saggy-Boobed Hippies: Portraits of Everyday Women

August 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

After several seasons of flying under the fashion radar, Donna Karan released an ad campaign for F/W 11 that has people talking. Fashionista exclaims that they “love the story in this campaign” while Made in Brazil toots that it’s “the best Donna Karan ad campaign in a very long time.” What’s ironic about this campaign’s widespread praise is its somewhat banal narrative and down-to-earth imagery. It’s not edgy and eye-catching like Versace’s F/W 11 campaign, which depicts Saskia de Brauw posing in a disco-meets-Seventh Seal landscape. Rather, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin shot Brazilian model Isabeli Fontana conducting a series of mundane activities: meeting with executives at the office, testifying in court, lounging in the back of a car, attending what could be a chichi charity event, and looking after her children. All the while she wears quietly elegant Donna Karan dresses and suits constructed from fur, wool, and silk in shades of creme and grey.

The power of this campaign lies in its ability to speak to the everyday woman. Seeing Fontana in familiar roles like business partner, date, and mother, leads viewers to easily identify with her and the American dream she embodies of having it all. Unlike fashion campaigns set in highly conceptual or digitized spaces that bear little resemblance to mainstream American life, Donna Karan’s ad campaign allows consumers to see themselves in the fictional, yet seemingly accessible space where the ad takes place.

Feminist artist Cindy Sherman has explored the idea of the everyday woman in her photography-based work since she debut her series “Untitled Film Stills” in the early 80s. From then on, she has utilized a modest set of costumes, wigs, and makeup to photograph herself as a range of satirical characters – an entertainment mogul’s wife, a desperate hitchhiker, a mousy librarian, a still corpse, a supine catalog model, a rustic cowgirl, a Renaissance courtesan. At first glance, Sherman’s characters seem like mere satires of familiar, American female figures. But closer inspection reveals their reflection of the hopelessness and longing that women can feel in our image-obsessed world today.

For a show at the Gagogian Gallery in 2000, Sherman assembled 12 photographs of herself as a washed-out biker chick, an aging Upper East Side lady-who-lunches, a jogger pruned from the sun, and a dreadlock-donning hippie with boobs sagging to her knees, amongst others. There is an blatant humor in these images, seen in the conspicuously artificial costuming, the awkward poses, and emphasis on sagging breasts. But the women also convey a sense of  sadness and longing in their empty smiles and dated sense of beauty. In a profile of Sherman for the New Yorker in 2000, Calvin Tomkins comments that Sherman’s figures “projected a kind of desperation that went beyond parody. They weren’t losers, exactly, but you couldn’t help but see how hard they worked to hang on to things- youth, glamour, hope. Although the women might appear shallow, with their silicon implants and gaudy makeup, their stories ran deep.”

We initially laugh at Sherman’s characters’ attempts to fulfill an aspirational beauty ideal, but we soon empathize with them as we become aware of their seemingly pathetic inability to achieve it. We feel their powerlessness.

V Magazine‘s current “Transformation Issue” features an interview with Sherman. The introduction reads:

“What Sherman captures with her physicality, costuming, and performance posing is a rendering of what it means to be a woman. And that means being everything a woman can be – with the constant fear of collapsing into nothing. Sherman’s work recalls Berlin’s song ‘Sex (I’m A…),’ in which singer Terri Nunn’s refrain is an increasingly frantic plea declaring her uberwomanhood: ‘I’m a slut, I’m a geisha, I’m your babe, I’m a dream divine.’ The list goes on.”

While the Donna Karan ads created an aspirational ideal of the everyday woman, Cindy Sherman’s work constructs an image of the everyday woman that’s impressionable, aesthetically insecure, and closer to the reality of how many women (and men) live. Sherman’s range of characters, at once sad, joyous, and mysterious, show a diversity of identity with which women, and more extensively all people, can express themselves. But her work also elucidates our vulnerability to hegemonic beauty ideals and our constant temptation to be people we are not or can ever become. In exposing the bizarreness of straying from one’s true self, Sherman teaches us to acknowledge our shared human experiences and at some point, to laugh at our own attempts to be what Donna Karan would say is just “everyday.”

Karl Lagerfeld’s Heterosexual Fantasy

July 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

For Fendi’s latest ad campaign, Karl Lagerfeld shot Polish beauty Anja Rubik, American model Brad Kroenig, and his French pet, Baptiste Giabiconi, in what looks like a late 19th century artist’s studio. Kroenig positions himself behind an easel while the statuesque Rubik languidly poses on various scattered items of furniture: a mustard-colored chair, a burgundy love seat, a stack of frames leaning against the wall, a wooden side table. In the background sit glass jars filled with brushes and monumental paintings, which in their soft color palette and ethereality, vaguely resemble French Impressionist works.

The shoot draws a comparison between the Old World painter-model dynamic and the more contemporary designer-model relationship. In the ad, Kroenig utilizes Rubik’s body as the inspiration for transforming a blank canvas into a work of art. In a similar vein, Lagerfeld directs Rubik, Kroenig, and Giabiconi to carry out his artistic vision for the Fendi ads. Instead of paint, however, Lagerfeld uses luxe fabric, flattering lighting, and a camera to create his work.

The images have a strong heterosexual imperative, which starts with Rubik’s sultry poses toward Kroenig and culminates in Giabiconi and Rubik posing with their fictional children for a family portrait. The heterosexuality of the photos is bizarre in light of Lagerfeld’s conspicuous homosexuality. To my knowledge, Lagerfeld hasn’t had any public romantic relationships with men, but his continuing infatuation with Giabiconi alone is telling. For the past few years, Giabiconi has starred in virtually every ad campaign and walked in almost every runway show Lagerfeld has directed, most of which are for womenswear. He even starred in Lagerfeld’s video ads for Magnum ice cream, one of which casts him as a playboy photographer. If I didn’t know better, I would assume Giabiconi served as Lagerfeld’s pool boy on his off days, scooping up leaves in a g-string while Lagerfeld looked on.

The series of ads could collectively be read as Karl Lagerfeld’s heterosexual fantasy. He shoots Kroenig gazing at Rubik, then puts himself in Kroenig’s position, staring at Rubik as if he were Kroenig. In doing this, he grants himself a heterosexual gaze. In another image of the series, he creates a family portrait with Giabiconi and Rubik as the parents, creating an image of the nuclear family he can’t have. Rubik’s conspicuous wig, Giabiconi’s stiff pose, and the incongruity of expression among the family members create an artificial quality, suggesting Lagerfeld’s awareness of the scenario’s impossibility in his own life.

One wonders what led Lagerfeld to create this imagery that strays so far from his own experience as a presumably gay man. But perhaps the answer is obvious. Lagerfeld is just doing what he does best: creating a fantasy.

Do Only White Models Get to be Ugly?

July 18, 2011 § 2 Comments

Lara Stone for Calvin Klein F/W 10 (via Models.com)

Fashion is having a Lara Stone moment – again. She is the face for Tom Ford’s new beauty line, meaning her exclusive for Calvin Klein has come to an end . No matter – she is still the face of Calvin Klein’s Fall/Winter campaign and its new underwear line, Naked Glamour. Stone is a unique face in fashion. While she can look pretty and soft, she has granite cheekbones, a protruding brow and a gap between her front teeth that give her a harder, more masculine edge. She also has breasts (a no-no in high fashion) and a clumsy walk. Still, her uniqueness has catapulted her to the top of fashion. In 2009, W called her the “most-wanted face” in fashion. In Interview magazine, Marc Jacobs writes that she brims with “feral attitude and personality and sexuality.” Stone, on the cover of August’s French Vogue, is an editorial favorite. That marked her seventh cover; former French Vogue editor, Carine Roitfeld put Stone on six covers, and even dedicated an entire issue to her. It’s easy to see why. Stone epitomizes the Roitfeld woman: tough, sexy, and a little freaky.

Lara Stone is part of an increasingly visible portion of high fashion – odd, gawky, and sometimes, downright busted. In a post entitled, “What is Beauty?” Photographer Garance Doré was taken by Nina Porter, then the face of Burberry. Porter’s grey eyes, short hair, and scrunched features look more appropriate in Middle Earth than on a catwalk. Doré believes that Porter, and other models like her, are an indication of evolving fashion standards. Others include Daphne Groeneveld, Lindsey Wixson, and Saskia de Brauw. They have awesomely odd features that makes them look distinctive, interesting, and alluring.

Saskia for Versace F/W 11 (left) and Saskia on the cover of French Vogue (right)

Nevertheless, the “blank canvases” – like Anja Rubik and Angela Lindvall – still exist. It is also true that any skilled Photoshopper can turn any of these eccentric beauties into a blank canvas. Compare the two images above: de Brauw’s Versace ad with her March cover of French Vogue. Still, the band of weird, tattooed, sometimes androgynous, sometimes masculine models are pushing the boundaries of fashion. They are moving fashion more towards the idea of individual beauty, and often, designers and editors use them to give their images personality and edge.

From left to right: Joan Smalls, Jourdan Dunn, and Liu Wen

While fashion’s expanding idea of beauty is something to celebrate, it’s important to ask: why all of these “pretty-ugly” models white? The current top models of color are, by contrast, very beautiful. Flawless, really. Jourdan Dunn, Joan Smalls, Liu Wen, et. al. all have the features of a classically beautiful model: small face, high nose bridge, symmetrical proportions. They don’t have jutting facial bones or bug eyes. And while it may sound contrarian to lament their fresh and clean looks, it is to point out that standards of beauty for models of color have remained almost static since the days of Beverly Johnson.

How can beauty standards for models of color evolve when it is a struggle to simply put one on the cover of a magazine? Fashion has a schizophrenic relationship with race. Either there are few to no models on the runway (as is often the case at Calvin Klein, Versace, and Jil Sander) or fashion wants to make a dramatic point about using models of color, as when Lanvin sent black models down the runway en masse to close its Spring 2011 show, or Vogue Italia’s now infamous “black issue” or V magazine’s recent “Asian” issue. They want you to know that they are celebrating diversity. Simply put, being of color is enough to set a model apart. So while funky features can be a boon to a white model,  they become a hindrance for a model of color. Their ethnicity is enough personality. Why add gapped teeth?

Similar standards seem to apply to “plus size” models. Representative “plus-size” model, Crystal Renn has a conventionally beautiful face. She is also the only one who has really broken into the higher echelons of fashion – a rise that coincided with a noticeable weight loss. As for the other “plus size” models, they, too, are never allowed to forget that fashion deems them big. Fashion editorials enjoy undressing them to remind people of just how big they are while slapping a bad pun like “A Life in Full” (Kate Dillon in American Vogue) or “Curves Ahead” (V Magazine) over their photos. It’s important to note that most of these women, too, are generally white. For a model of color, having a busty figure, would be yet another hurdle to overcome.

The one exception to this standard was probably Alek Wek – the Sudanese-born model – who rose in the nineties with a shaved head and full cheeks. Wek has since moved on to charity work, but her look has created the “exotic, dark-skinned African with a shaved head” type. Two rising African models – Ajak Deng and Grace Bol – fit the look (so much so that the latter says people sometimes confuse her with Wek); they also just so happen to also be Sudanese in origin. Perhaps it is only through these problematic “categories” that models of color will begin to achieve the diversity that their white counterparts so enjoy.

Marc Jacobs Ads: Brilliant or Just Bizarre?

July 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

The newly released ads for Marc Jacobs’s F/W 11 collection are more outlandish than ever. 15 images feature the quirky, anti-glamour actress Helena Bonham Carter in a series of unflattering poses: begging like a dog, sticking out her tongue while holding her prosthetically enlarged belly, and contorting her lower body to resemble a form similar to a crustacean’s limbs. The images collectively create another glimpse into the cryptic, zany world of Marc Jacobs.

Marc Jacobs F/W 11 (via NYMag)

Unlike most fashion brands whose ads create an allure of unobtainable luxury and aesthetic perfection, Marc Jacobs ads project a wholly unintimidating, accessible public image. The backgrounds are plain (this season they resemble a barren hallway), and the subjects, though famous, lack the glamour and polish exuded by celebrities in most other portraits. Even the quality of the photography, shot by German photographer Juergen Teller, seems lackluster: the images are overexposed, the composition is off, and the flash sometimes wipes out parts of the scene with its intensity. I’ve read that Teller uses a Contax G2 camera with onboard flash – nothing too fancy – but one might think they were taken with an old Polaroid.

But the richness in Marc Jacobs ads doesn’t come from the technical quality of the photography; rather, it’s in their liberating spirit. Teller casts some of the entertainment world’s most treasured talents (Helena Bonham Carter, Elle Fanning, and Charlotte Rampling, to name a few) in a humanizing light by having them pose in seemingly mundane or wacky ways. In ad campaigns or magazine spreads for other brands, these figures are hired to create images of opulence or success. By contrast, in the Jacobs ads they’re free do look unglamorous or silly, and in doing so, they create and/or reinforce a multidimensional public persona that other media images of them disallow.

Paradis XVIII, 2009 (via fashionsnoops.com)

The practice of freeing photographic subjects is a standard theme in Teller’s photography even when it’s not for Marc Jacobs. For example, in a series commissioned by the French publication Paradis Magazine in 2009, Teller shot Brazilian model Raquel Zimmerman and French actress Charlotte Rampling posing nude at various sites in the Louvre. One image from this series exhibits Zimmerman and Rampling nonchalantly leaning against a guardrail protecting the Mona Lisa. Here, the subjects were free from clothing and from conventional modeling expectations. Furthermore, they had the freedom to behave in a manner outisde the guidelines normally imposed on museum patrons.

Although Juergen Teller’s ads for Marc Jacobs have a spirit of liberation, it is a limited one. The subjects, though free to lounge or misbehave on set, are still modeling for Teller who stands behind the camera. They are under his gaze, and more expansively under ours. Nevertheless, in the context of fashion photography and advertising today, we can celebrate Teller and Jacobs’ ability to create images that, in their raw and strange character, are some of the most human.

Hailee Steinfeld and Elle Fanning are Definitely Too Cool for School

July 6, 2011 § 1 Comment

Hailee Steinfeld for Miu Miu (via Fashionista)

Fashion’s darlings of the moment are very darling indeed. 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, Oscar nominee and Queen Bee of the child stars, is now the face of Miu Miu. Joining Steinfeld at the cool kids’ table is Elle Fanning the 13-year-old face of Marc by Marc Jacobs. Steinfeld and Fanning have been the envy of the fashion world recently. Fashion critics, including Vogue’s André Leon Talley cooed over Steinfeld’s black, pink, and tangerine striped Prada dress at the 2011 SAG awards, which she followed with a custom Marchesa at the Oscars. Elle has also become something of a fashion muse in her own right – wearing Marc Jacobs off the runway and starring in a video short for Rodarte.

Elle Fanning for Marc by Marc Jacobs (via Fashionista)

Both of their ad campaigns are fairly straightforward and demure. Critics and fashion bloggers are quick to approve of how “age appropriate” they are. In the Marc by Marc Jacobs ad, Fanning wears a mid-length red leopard print dress, oxblood librarian shoes, and a red bag. Her youth gives the slightly dowdy look the spritz it needs. Steinfeld’s Miu Miu photos are a more complicated play on a similar theme. There is an incongruity between her youth and the clothes –  skirts and dresses with long hem lines in a sedate color palate of navy, tan, and brown. The clothes and styling, a reference to the 40s, look as though Steinfeld pilfered her very fashionable grandmother’s closet. It is a play on child’s play.

Dakota Fanning for Oh, Lola! (via Tom & Lorenzo)

But when Hailee and Elle were merely non-famous elementary schoolchildren, there was the original child muse: Elle’s older sister, Dakota, who is currently fronting for Jacobs’ fragrance, Oh, Lola! Unlike Hailee and Elle’s ad campaigns, Dakota’s ad looks to provoke. Juergen Teller, a mainstay at Marc Jacobs, shot the ad (as well as the one of Elle). The flower-shaped bottle in between her legs, the seductive gaze, and the saturated red tones indicates a very heavy hand. She is Lolita! There is a fire in her loins!

Dakota Fanning for Marc Jacobs, Spring/Summer 2007 (via Styleregistry)

But Dakota’s first ad campaign for Marc Jacobs was even more provocative. Teller shot the ad when Dakota was 12-years old and still looking very much like a child. In the above photo, she wears sheer, white fabrics while standing bare foot in the corner of a bare room with a dirty concrete floor. The expression on her face is both fearful and creepy. All of the campaign images reflect a similar sensibility, dressing her in white lace and other virginal dresses as she poses, either mouth agape or with deeply vacant eyes. The photos are deeply unsettling.*

I think Dakota’s first ads for Marc Jacobs are interesting. They problematize our gaze. When I look at the photos, I get the sense that my presence is unwelcome, and more unnervingly, that I am a predator. She seems to ask, why are you here? In contrast, the ads with Elle Fanning and Hailee Steinfeld function on how chic and precocious they look. They have been lauded as style icons and as examples of how adult women should look.

I, for one, don’t want a 13-year-old fashion icon. I find the project of turning little girls into red carpet fodder or examples to emulate extremely pernicious, and frankly, kind of creepy.

*As a sidenote, I would like to point out that at 12 years of age, Dakota Fanning was an exceptionally mature child and no stranger to being a provocateur. In the controversial film, Hounddog (known pre-release as “Dakota Fanning’s rape movie”) she played a 12-year-old girl who is abandoned and raped. In response to accusations that the film amounted to child pornography, Dakota herself was characteristically thoughtful about it. She told the Times: “Because that has happened to her [her character, Lewellen], that doesn’t define her. Because of this thing that has happened — that she did not ask for — she is labeled that, and it’s her story to overcome that and to be a whole person again.” She then added, “There are so many children that this happens to, every second. That’s the sad part. If anyone’s talking about anything, that’s what they should be talking about.” Dakota is very self-aware, and her continuing work with Jacobs and Teller suggests that she has a good relationship with them.

Creating New Sexual Imagery: The Work of John Currin and Terry Richardson

July 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

A recent trend that has developed in both art and fashion is the use of classical technique to portray a modern sexuality. American painter John Currin cleverly draws from both contemporary pornography and classical art to create arresting and humorous work. In “The Women of Franklin Street” (2009), Currin uses classical painting techniques like “underpainting” – painting over a monochromatic base with pigmented glazes – and an Old World aesthetic to transport a common porn trope – a lesbian threesome – to the Renaissance. Instead of taking place in a freshman dorm, fire station, or other familiar backdrop, the women kiss and fondle each other in a plush, aristocratic salon. Similarly, in lieu of g-strings and nipple piercings, the women don elegant hosiery and flowing robes. The work makes clear references to canonical painters like Diego Velázquez (one of Currin’s favorites) with its rich colors, soft female shape, and dramatic background. Also, the arrangement of the women – a central figure, gazing outward, flanked by two attendants – is reminiscent of the Virgin Mary swaddled by buxom cherubs. But the act of three women hungrily having sex (one woman is eating another’s nipple and stroking her vagina at the same time!) lets viewers know that we are no longer in the 15th century.

Currin's "The Women of Franklin Street" (2009; via Artnet)

Like Currin, Terry Richardson uses classical artistic motifs to put a comical spin on modern-day sexuality. Take his Tom Ford Eyewear ad below. It depicts Spanish model Jon Kortajarena sprawled on the floor, only wearing glasses and a watch. The image works in two ways. On one end, the image bursts with a modern sexuality – the tanned body, the hardened gaze, the sleek accessories – but on the other, the nudity can be read as a return to innocence as in Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” (1485). In that work, nudity is a natural part of life, a state of being. In a way, Kortajarena’s pose treats nudity similarly – his flayed legs (as opposed to crossed or held tightly together) recalls an unknowing infant without bottoms.

Tom Ford Eyewear Ad (via republikcintamanagementstudio)

The humor in Currin and Richardson’s work, created by this contrast of the classical and the contemporary, allows them to subtly push sexual boundaries. Currin has mentioned in past interviews that the inspiration for his pornography-themed pieces arose in part as a reaction to an increase in media censorship. In light of this, it seems that his paintings are meant to antagonize the viewer and question the bounds of “acceptability.” To a large degree, however, the lightness in Currin’s work detracts from their vulgarity and his mission to provoke. Similarly, by incorporating a sense of humor into his photographs, Richardson disarms some of their sexual aggression. Is Kortajarena a horny playboy? Or is he just a grown man acting like a baby?

Despite the vast differences in aesthetic and medium between Currin and Richardson, they have both succeeded in changing society’s relationship with sexual imagery. They have created some of the most provocative visuals of our culture today, and the funny thing is that most of us haven’t even noticed.

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