One of the most relevant topics in fashion advertising: SEX. We all know by now that American Apparel and Abercrombie & Fitch rely almost exclusively on this tactic to sell clothes (in addition to making offensive comments and trying to be controversial all the time). But what about high fashion? It seems that we hear quite a bit less about high fashion sex than mainstream fashion sex but that does not mean high fashion advertising is not fully saturated with sex.
The most painfully obvious place to start an analysis of high fashion sex is at Gucci. Everyone who is remotely up on fashion knows about the epically sexy campaign that branding god Tom Ford did for Gucci’s S/S 2004 campaign. You know it. It’s the one starring Carmen Kass (even though we don’t see her face), who has the Gucci “G” shaved into her pubic hair. Shot by Mario Testino, the ad was featured in only four fashion magazines, including Vogue, but was banned worldwide almost instantly.
This is absolutely one of the most well known instances of sex selling, and sell Gucci did. In fact, Ford, the mastermind behind the controversial campaign, managed to take Gucci, which was actually a faltering luxury goods company on the brink of bankruptcy in 1994 (when he was promoted to creative director), and make it into an international success. Between 1995 and 1996, sales at Gucci increased by 90%, and when Ford left in 2004, the Gucci Group was valued at $10 billion. So, yeah, sex sells.
A lesser-known but equally noteworthy instance of sex selling actually predates the Gucci campaign. In 2000, Ford dreamt up the Sophie Dahl for YSL Opium campaign, which was shot by Steven Meisel. The ad featured a fully naked Dahl lounging on her back and was plastered on billboards. After its launch, the British ASA received almost 1,000 complaints. Not surprisingly, Opium is one of YSL’s best-selling scents.
Fast forward to 2007 and to Tom Ford’s namesake men’s fragrance campaign, shot by Terry Richardson, quite fittingly. The campaign features the bottle of Ford’s fragrance positioned between a model’s legs in one image (inspired by a 1970’s Guy Bourdin-shot Givenchy perfume campaign but a bit more graphic), and pressed between her breasts, in another. This campaign was followed by ones featuring models in the shower for his Neroli Portofino collection and a bunch of other sexually-charged fragrance ads.
But since nearly half of all fragrance campaigns are in some way sold by emphasizing sex, any further examination of them would be repetitious. So, what about using sex to sell clothes? Tom Ford does it, obviously. He brands his suits with a male model wearing one and rubbing down or painting the toenails of a totally naked girl. And while these ads do, in fact, focus a bit on the clothing, the naked models are usually front and center. But that’s the thing about Tom Ford; his suits, much like his fragrances, don’t need much promotion. They basically sell themselves. The Tom Ford suit is constructed from high quality materials. It is cut to near perfection, etc. etc. As far as design goes, his creations are legitimately unique in comparison to what else is out there (save for his most recent season, which also consisted of sneakers). In short, they don’t need much selling. They are amazing on their own. The same goes for Ford’s fragrances. For his Private Blend collection, for instance, Ford enlists the help of the world’s top fragrance specialists, who source the finest oils, and as a result, Ford has “the ability to create very special, original fragrances that are unconstrained by the conventions of mainstream scent-making.”
So, not only is Tom Ford the best starting point for the discussion on this type of sex sells advertising, as he is, without a doubt, the master, his technique sheds light on what is at the heart of advertising for most high fashion brands. These design houses (think: Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, etc.) are most frequently not primarily selling products in the ad campaigns that we’re talking about, with the key exceptions being accessories and fragrances. They are selling their brands. This essence of beauty, luxury, desirability, sex.
In some sense, these brands have the luxury of putting out hyper-sexual works of photo-journalism (aka ad campaigns) and hoping they will translate into sales, because much like Ford’s clothes, quality garments and accessories will largely sell themselves. Thus, all we can really be sure of from looking at sex sells advertising in the realm of high fashion is that sex coupled with amazing products (from a standpoint of quality and/or reputation) sells. If we paired mainstream clothing in these ad campaigns, we would have another inquiry on our hands to some extent - one that we will leave for another day.
* This article was initially published in January 2014.