Friday, January 30, 2009

Grandmaster flesh and the furious hive mind: The art of Calvin Klein

steven meisel/calvin klein via wwd

And so to the new Calvin Klein Jeans video which has been picked up very quickly since its launch on WWD overnight. Normally I try not to touch the same material that bigger blogs are discussing, because well, I assume that many of frockwriter’s readers have already seen the story there and I try to do new material. But the CK video is interesting for several reasons. Not the least of which is the fact that a big deal seems to be being made out of the video being “banned” from even late night cable tv in the US - and now, it seems, even restricted by the YouTube community. (UPDATE 31/1: VIDEO SINCE DISABLED BY CK. PLEASE GO TO CALVINKLEIN.COM OR CLICK THIS WWD LINK TO SEE THE VIDEO).

The grainy video, shot by Steven Meisel, depicts a group of women and men, half-naked save for their Calvin Klein Jeans, writhing on a couch as if engaging in foreplay for a ménage-à-six.

The scene is dark, the video quality grainy, as if it shot on a home movie camera.

The multi-girl/boy campaign, which also embraces print, reportedly stars models Anna Maria Jagodzinska, Anna Selezneva, Edita Vilkeviciute, Natasha Poly and Naty Chabanenko. According to, the campaign also includes Danny Schwarz, Vladimir Ivanov, Carson Parker and Mikus Lasmanis.

All appear to be over the age of 18. Over 20 in several cases.

To be sure, fashion editorial is vastly different to the medium of television. Women routinely appear topless in mainstream fashion imagery. More so, certainly, of late.

But even last year’s Secret Obsession commercial, shot by Fabien Baron and in which Eva Mendes is seen to writhe topless on a bed, managed to make the 9pm timeslot on US cable tv.

Calvin Klein runs the “uncensored” version of the Secret Obsession ad on its own website - which is where the new Calvin Klein Jeans tvc is due to bow today.

According to WWD the video will screen in Europe uncensored and Calvin Klein is working on an edited version to screen on cable in the US.

This campaign is tame compared with Meisel’s recent "dogging" editorial in V Magazine, in which a number of models - including Selezneva and Chabanenko - simulated sexually explicit acts in semi-public places.

The latter editorial was reportedly originally turned down by Vogue Italia.

But the Calvin Klein Jeans campaign does look like an audition for a porn movie - an industry in which Selezneva, Chabanenko, Jagodzinska and co might ostensibly have found themselves ensnared, were it not for the fact they were plucked from east European obscurity by international model scouts on the lookout for new talent.

Calvin Klein is by no means the only fashion or beauty company to use sex and soft porn to sell its products. From Tom Ford to American Apparel and Estee Lauder, the list seems endless.

Estee Lauder's tvcs for two separate Sean Combs fragrances in 2006 and 2007, which co-starred Australian models Lisa Seiffert and Jessica Gomez, were similarly restricted on US television.

But at least Calvin Klein can claim the soft porn genre is part of the company's brand DNA.

Launching his company in 1968 with startup capital of US$10,000, Calvin Klein sold the business to Phillips-Van-Heusen for US$700million in 2002 - excluding the jeans, underwear and swimwear businesses, which were at that time owned by Warnaco.

By late 2008, the Calvin Klein Inc business had surpassed US$6billion in global retail sales.

Klein originally made his name with his minimalist sportswear collections, which earned him the nickname of "Calvin Clean".

But he essentially made his fortune as Calvin Dirty, growing the business via the far more lucrative high volume categories of denim, underwear and fragrance which were promoted via "hot", sexually-charged imagery. The bigger the controversy, the greater the publicity.

Klein's most controversial campaigns involved minors.

In 1980, 15 year-old Brooke Shields appeared in a series of Calvin Klein Jeans advertisements, famously proclaiming that “nothing” comes between her and her Calvins. In one tvc Shields is sitting in jeans with her legs splayed before the camera.

It is difficult to imagine these ads even getting to air today. But then it is also difficult to imagine Louis Malle’s 1978 film Pretty Baby being made today without considerable fuss. In the film, the then 12 year old Shields plays a child prostitute, including some nude scenes.

The Brooke Shields ads were reportedly pulled by all three of the tv networks on which they aired.

Here are three of the videos:

WWD reports that the new Steven Meisel campaign is the first Calvin Klein Jeans commercial produced for television since the 1980s.

However Meisel was the author of the so-called 1995 “kiddie porn” campaign for Calvin Klein Jeans, which reportedly included tvcs (as opposed to cinema spots).

Originally inspired by an editorial shot earlier that year by Meisel for Italy's L'Uomo Vogue, teenagers as young as 15 were interviewed by an anonymous sleazy videographer, as if participating in an adult film audition.

Said to be inspired by "picture set" pornography of the '60s and staged with a wood-panelled 'basement' backdrop, the models cavort, and in some cases, squirm, before the camera.

In the print version, some models were pictured with their legs spread and their underwear showing.

In the video, a voiceover interjects with comments such as:

“You got a real nice look. How old are you? Are you strong? You think you could rip that shirt off of you? That's a real nice body. You work out? I can tell."

That year Klein told Advertising Age, that the ads had been intended to:

"express the spirit, independence and inner worth of today's young people."

Glancing back at the clips now however via YouTube (see below), it's not youthful independence and inner worth which seem to be being celebrated here, as much as human merchandise and the power trip of a sexual predator.

After sparking an outcry from conservative groups, criticism from President Clinton and even an FBI child pornography probe, the campaign was eventually withdrawn.

Just three months later Klein was obliged to withdraw a second campaign, after coming under fire over a new Calvin Klein Underwear image.

Shot by Tiziano Magni, the campaign included a provocative image of 20 year-old American model Joel West sitting with his legs spread wide open before the camera. Some suggested that West looked aroused.

calvin klein via

In February 1999, apparently oblivious to the perimeters of his soft porn franchise, Klein did not blink when enlisting the services of Mario Testino to photograph a series of small children clad in only their CK knickers to promote his new childrens line.

In a statement to The New York Times, Klein said that the campaign had been:

"intended to show children smiling, laughing and just being themselves. We wanted to capture the same warmth and spontaneity that you find in a family snapshot".

However the images (^), which were published in fullpage spreads in both The New York Times and Martha Stewart Living and were due to appear on a giant Times Square billboard, prompted yet more controversy. Morality in Media president Robert Peters said at the time, "At Calvin Klein, nothing is innocent."

The campaign was withdrawn within 24 hours.

Noted Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in The New York Times, prior to the announcement of the decision to withdraw the campaign:

"I think they're in very bad taste. But I can't stop them. I mean, there's the First Amendment."


Ash said...

Great post Patty but I must say - first the Kill Bill post, you profess your love of Entourage and now an amazing hip hop reference in this post's title, you've got pop culture outside fashion wrapped up!

Patty Huntington said...

Anonymous said...

Yeees... Calvin Clein and his sexy controversies.. Brooke Shields... Kate Moss and marky this... mmm all i can say I feel about it is um...I feel sort of bored by it.. i mean its quite squeamishly fake, but not iconic... try something new.. i prefer (the still sensual, but very beautiful ads starring Natalia Vodianova...

Anonymous said...

Hey none of the video's are available. What's up with that?

I can't help but think that photographer Meisel is a sleaze. Reminds me of a certain photographer on this side of the world who was regularly on the news for going to far photographing very young children.

Patty Huntington said...

hi last anon - only the new CK video link has been restricted. thanks for the headsup. i gather calvin klein clamped down overnight on the youtuber who re-uploaded it.

the video was always available for view via the wwd link in the first paragraph (and now it's on the website). but wwd failed to provide an embed code so that people could make a player visible in their posts. i don't know they didn't do that. they would have had the hits regardless of where the video was posted.

i have checked all the other older CK videos and they are still OK. the 1995 campaign has had over 1million views since it first went online two years ago. no idea how they obtained it. possibly via old tv footage. let's hope CK doesn't restrict that, because it's an important historical document.

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