Just as there are seasonal trends on the runway, collective tendencies dominate fashion advertising, as well. This is why there has been an influx of what have been deemed "desexualized" ad campaigns across much of the spectrum – from stalwart luxury brands to those that are rooted in mall retail. This trend towards the less overly sexual proves particularly interesting, in part, because the forces driving it are not singular in nature, and in fact, it seems to vary a bit per brand; thereby, allowing us to take a real look into this recently revived mode of selling fashion.
The motivation for brands, such as Abercrombie and American Apparel, to switch to more demure campaigns, which has been garnering headlines, seems obvious. Their financials woes and the ousting of their highly controversial CEOs has brought about change. Abercrombie ditched Michael Jeffries and is in the process of doing away with the shirtless models in its stores and advertisements. With the firing of Dov Charney at American Apparel comes an advertorial revamp of the brand known for its highly porn-y advertisements (think: lots of underage-looking girls, sheer materials, and downright sexual poses).
These cases are relatively easy to ascertain, as we can clearly correlate the shifts in executive-level employment (and certainly the brands' falling sales) and the difference in advertising tone, but what about high fashion?
If Tom Ford's revamp of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent in the 1990's taught us anything, it is that sex sells. Ford managed to take Gucci, which was 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 percent, and when Ford left in 2004, the Gucci Group was valued at $10 billion. During this time, some of the most obvious changes came by way of the branding.
Taking a page from Calvin Klein's boundary-pushing campaigns from the 1980's, Ford's ad campaigns during this time are some of the most iconic (and shocking) in fashion history. The one that comes to mind almost immediately when thinking of Gucci: the ad starring Carmen Kass (although we don’t see her face), who has the Gucci “G” shaved into her pubic hair.
At YSL, Ford took a similarly controversial route. In 2000, he 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 Advertising Standards Authority received over one thousand complaints - making it one of the most complained of ads in ASA history. Not surprisingly, Opium is one of YSL’s best-selling scents.
Not only were the 1990's and early 2000's a heyday for big houses and over-the-top branding, it was, in retrospect, a period of overly sexual ad campaigns. Because fashion is inherently trend-driven and cyclical, a shift is now underway. While up until very recently, Gucci continued on its path of selling sex, other houses have taken a more covered up approach. Céline, the Paris-based design house, which arguably leads much of the aesthetic of the industry and this generation of young shoppers, is notably reserved. Its most forward ad campaign image has to be model Daria Werbowy posing in a bathtub for Spring/Summer 2013. Even then, the house's aesthetic didn't feel overtly sexual.
Other houses appear to be changing their ways, as well - for now, at least. Dolce & Gabbana has come quite a ways since its very notorious "gang rape" ad from Spring/Summer 2007 (in which a female model is being held down by a male model as other men look idly on) and the like, choosing, instead, to focus on the depiction of the traditional Italian family. Saint Laurent under the direction of Hedi Slimane is even a bit covered up, save for those Pre-Fall 2014 shots of a topless Grace Hartzel and a stray nipple here and there in other campaigns. But even those don't scream sex. They are somehow a bit quieter than Tom Ford's sexiest campaigns for Gucci.
Louis Vuitton, a house not really known for its salacious ad campaigns, has even taken a turn for the more modest since its Autumn/Winter 2013 video, which was said to promote prostitution, and before that, when Madonna posed on a banquette with her legs spread for a 2009 campaign for the Paris-based design house. You may also recall LV's 2009 campaign starring Kanye West and a naked Amber Rose. (This is not to say all designers are following suit. Alexander Wang, for one, debuted his denim collection in December with a very Tom Ford-style ad campaign starring a nearly naked Anna Ewers).
Gucci's recent turn for the less blatantly sexual is likely an easy one to explain. This year brought the ousting of Gucci's long-time creative director, Frida Giannini, following consecutive periods of slow, if any, growth for the Italian design house. Giannini's ousting seems to have wiped the slate clean for Gucci. In place of Giannini's reincarnation of the sexy "glamazons" of Tom Ford-era Gucci, recently appointed Alessandro Michele is taking the Gucci aesthetic in a different direction. And the reason for the change is actually pretty simple. What the house was doing just wasn't working. Reflecting on Giannini's tenure, BoF's Imran Ahmed wrote: Gucci's "brand image and runway collections were well-executed, yet failed to inspire consumers and the industry."
So, in an effort to built his own aesthetic for the house (based on its iconic codes) and reconnect with consumers, Michele showed a strikingly different debut collection (think: a selection of youthful, gender-bending, studious looks for F/W 2015). Of the show, which took place this past February, Style.com wrote: "Nobody was quite prepared for what a sharp break [Michele's] Gucci womenswear was."
From there, Michele took on advertising. He ditched Mert & Marcus, the long-time lensmen of Gucci's glossy and sexualised ads of the past, in favor of Glen Luchford. Michele's first campaign for the house, Pre-Fall and Fall 2015, brings his vision for Gucci to life (think: a more mysterious sense of sexuality than what we would otherwise expect from Gucci). Sure, there is skin - most notably, model Jack Chambers' ripped torso, but to say that this campaign is forthcomingly sexy is not necessarily true. It is somehow more casual, more effortless.
And that's exactly what is important here. Because sex will always sell (at least according to the intel we have to date), it is not being removed from ad campaigns. In fact, ads are not becoming desexualized at all. Instead, our idea of what is sexy is just being reinvisioned by powerful creative like Michele and Céline's Phoebe Philo, the latter of whom has been vocal about her vision of the Céline women.
At the Vogue Festival in 2014, she stated, “I hope when women wear Céline they feel confident and strong. I guess there is a bit of a political statement behind Céline, which is that we should be teaching young girls to feel good ... I am not a big fan of women being sexualised through clothes, as you can probably tell from my work. I have no problem with a woman wearing anything as long as she has chosen to wear it for herself. But I do think there are too many images of women that are sexualized and too many examples of women dressing for other people and disempowering themselves in the process.”
This sense of less is more in terms of what we deem to be sexy - and who we look to in order to determine what is “sexy” - is, in some ways, specific to this generation (but is certainly not new).
According to Kit Yarrow, author of “Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy,” millennials do not really respond to over the top efforts to be sexy and thus, brands that put forth that image. Yarrow writes: “[Millennials] do sex in a much more casual way. This generation doesn’t want to look like they’re trying at all; they want to look like they were just caught being sexy.”
In an article for WWD, Catherine Sadler, a consultant at Sadler + Brand, spoke to this notion, as well, saying: “There are ways to absolutely have sex appeal and be sexy, but it ultimately goes back to authenticity and something that feels truer and less commercial and in-your-face."
With this in mind, it seems that over the top sexiness for which Ford made his name is just not in vogue at the moment. This fact, coupled with a difficult market for luxury brands, has called for a change. “The relationship of consumers toward luxury brands is changing. People are not just looking for status symbols,” says Claudia d’Arpizio, who specializes in luxury goods as a partner with Bain in Milan.
It is here where big brands, like Gucci, seem to struggle, an adapting to rapidly shifting tides in consumer tastes and shopping habits as a younger generation of luxury goods buyers have changed the state of the market, namely by changing what is desirable. One of those things: the way they define sexy and like it or not for big houses like Gucci, that is not the same way as it was viewed in the relatively recent past.