Unfortunately, it seems that outrage provoked by fashion advertisements is a finite resource that's all but vanished, leaving behind nothing but a Pinterest board filled with overexposed photographs of handbags and the dried-up husk of an Abercrombie catalog from 1998. How the world suffers now.
Thus laments Lisa Lockwood in an op-ed for Women's Wear Daily, entitled "Fashion Advertising: Controversy — Where Has It Gone?" Answer: it has gone away. But why? Although Lockwood and her interview subjects offer up several potential culprits throughout the rambling piece — including, inexplicably, 9/11 — she lays most of the blame on "corporate emphasis on having the right social campaign, Instagram, Twitter feed, videos, Web sites" as well as "global, cross-cultural sensitivities." The edge is gone. The Man dulled it with tweets and stuff. Damn.
Or maybe fashion advertisers are just out of ideas and keep recycling the same old uninspired trash? Maybe it's that? Just an alternative theory!
Seeming to prove the latter theory, Lockwood, et. al., mention Dov Charney a few times throughout the article. Here's his first textual appearance:
The recent ouster of Dov Charney, chief executive officer of American Apparel, over concerns about his personal and professional conduct, continues to make headlines. And his sexually charged advertising images, often depictions of young women in suggestive, sometimes vulgar poses, may end up being the least of his troubles. While one might debate whether Charney is a marketing visionary connecting to his customer's sexuality or a peddler of soft-core porn, his brand of advertising stands out in that it's controversial, intentionally or otherwise. In this particular case, that isn't helping Charney's cause to regain his standing in the company he founded.
If you have followed the Dov Charney case, even with the minute amount of interest, then you will know that Dov Charney's sexually-charged advertising images had nothing to do with his ouster; in fact, the company was happily using them right up til the end (and continues to use them now that he's been re-hired as a "strategic consultant"). The reason he was fired was that he allegedly made one of his employees act as his sex slave.
Disregarding the fact that Charney's firing had nothing to do with the sexually explicit images used in American Apparel ads, it is true that they're not controversial to anyone anymore, really. But that's not because the company is toning them down to pander to people — I mean, AmApp ran an ad featuring a topless woman in March of this year — but rather because no one bats an eye at this sort of insipid pseudo-provocative bullshit anymore. Like, oh, cool, American Apparel has a picture of someone's entire vulva on their website, that's neat. No one's going to be outraged over such antics because this has been going on for about a decade.
It's the same with pretty much everything Lockwood brings up. She longingly looks back to the '90s, when Calvin Klein had those controversial ads that featured a 15-year-old Brooke Shields. "Remember images of teenage models, some of whom were reportedly as young as 15, in overtly sexual poses in a dingy basement, shot by Steven Meisel?" she asks. Yeah, we do. That aesthetic is no longer shocking: the "overtly sexual teenagers in a dingy basement" thing is ubiquitous. Again: not unshocking because of censorship, unshocking because it's been recirculated and re-appropriated into blandness.
As for fashion's "political" messages, they really only end up being controversial when they're amazing or when they're wildly ignorant. In the latter case, shocking people by offending large swaths of the population isn't a great business practice, nor is it groundbreaking in any way. One ad that Lockwood praises, for instance, was shot by Nicola Formichetti for Diesel; it features a woman looking sexy in a denim niqab, which Lockwood mistakenly terms a "burka". First of all: uh, Lady Gaga has already done the whole "exoticizing otherness via wearing a niqab thing," which means that it's already faux-controversial to the point of meaninglessness. Secondly, the fashion industry's obsession with tone-deaf cultural appropriation is getting more and more tired every day. "Controversial" doesn't always mean "provocative and thought-provoking." Sometimes it's just offensive.
The way that several of the ~ad visionaries~ interviewed here discuss controversy is fairly cynical, indicating that they're not entirely concerned with this distinction. In perhaps the most blatant example of this, Neil Kraft, CEO of Kraftworks, talks about the Barneys spring campaign, which featured 17 transgender models. Lockwood notes that it "would have stirred strident reaction" a decade ago, and Kraft agrees: "It was an interesting way to get attention, but I didn't feel a groundswell of business." Ugh, it sucks that that ad campaign thoughtfully represented the inner lives of 17 transgender models in a way that was widely acclaimed by LGBT rights organizations. If only the public had been more vociferously transphobic or ignorant in their reactions! Then we would have had a real controversy, all right. Too bad we just had to be accepting.
It seems to me that the problem here isn't that fashion's becoming tame: it's that people like Lockwood and Kraft mistake shallow provocation for artistic merit. A lot of fashion ads still court controversy; however, since none of them are really advancing any new ideas or aesthetics, then they're not doing it very successfully. There are only so many times we can see Madonna in bondage gear as shot by Steven Klein before we yawn as we gaze upon it.
But insiders aren't abandoning all hope! Take David Lipman, who used to own an ad agency and says he's committed to keeping his work provocative:
"What I'm trying to do more than ever is push the envelope as far as I can. I just created a commercial for Seven For All Mankind [with Miranda Kerr], which will push the envelope," said Lipman. "It's provocative. She's talking about how much she's in love with something and it turns out to be her pants. She just delivers a line that it's not meant for all mankind. It's provocative. It's really out there."
Miranda Kerr talking to pants will save the industry from its tame slump. Thank God someone still cares about keeping fashion fresh.
Images via American Apparel, Diesel and Tom Ford.