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The Ultimate Status Symbol : The much-coveted Pirelli calendar raises pin-up art to a new stratosphere. But you can't buy it. And we doubt Jay Leno or one of 14 princes will let you borrow his.

March 16, 1995|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richard Avedon took the photographs in a New York studio. Jean Paul Gaultier provided a silvery corset for Christy Turlington, while this year's model, Nadja Auermann, wrapped herself in cobwebs and half-light.

If only the guys at Foogert's garage could get their hands on those pictures.

They know about the fashion shoot because it was paid for, oddly enough, by a tire company. And the resulting girlie calendar looks nothing like traditional car kitsch. No blondes drape themselves over fenders. No brunettes clutch wrenches to their chests.

"This is drooling at a higher level," an auto industry executive explained. "Not so gynecological."

The Pirelli Tires calendar has earned a cult celebrity over the past three decades by featuring top fashion photographers and super-models. American Photo magazine describes Avedon's work in this year's edition as "delicate" and "ethereally sensual rather than conventionally sexy." That amounts to rare praise for a pop art most often associated with ripped T-shirts.

But what truly brings Pirelli fame is its exclusivity. The Italian tire company prints only enough copies to tantalize its public, with about 500 reaching the United States each year. They cannot be bought and very few, if any, find their way onto the walls of auto shops.

"We send them to 14 different princes, three kings and various heads of state," said Robert Newman, a company spokesman. "Oh, and Jay Leno always gets one."

Which leaves the guys at Foogert's, a West Los Angeles tire shop, to wonder what they are missing.

*

The calendar was conceived in 1962 when Derek Forsyth, a former assistant editor at Esquire magazine, went to work as the advertising manager for Pirelli's London office. He searched for new ways to promote the company.

"There were things like glass ashtrays with rubber tires around them and awful key rings," said Newman, who joined the project early on. "The calendars we saw had strippers caked with makeup. There was no romance to them."

Forsyth envisioned high fashion in exotic locales. Company executives, however, wanted their product to dominate each frame. He produced just such a prototype. It looked, simply, like pictures of tires.

Having proved his point, Forsyth received permission to arrange a shoot in Majorca with Robert Freeman, famous for photographing the Beatles.

The first calendar featured women in bikinis and shorts, tame images distinguished by their warm colors and use of shadow. With money to print only 20,000 copies, Forsyth and Newman depended on word of mouth to publicize this and subsequent editions. In 1966, they received unexpected help.

One of the shots that year--taken from behind a woman clad in a bra and panties--reportedly dismayed the Vatican. Pirelli's home office suspended printing even though the London Daily Mail had dubbed the calendar "the world's greatest office status symbol."

A year passed before Pirelli relented. The calendar's absence served only to boost its image.

The return was announced at a London art gallery. Hoping to appease critics, Forsyth and Newman printed poetry in the corner of each photo. They also released a 45-r.p.m. album of a woman reciting these poems. The record quickly rose up the British charts.

"It was really classy," recalled John Rettie, a university student in England at the time.

Rettie sent a letter to Newman pleading for a calendar. He cannot recall what he wrote, but figures it must have been impressive because, shortly after, one arrived in the mail. Now, as an editor at a major automobile research firm in Southern California, he continues to receive one each year.

"It's totally a status symbol," he said. "Very elitist."

The tenor of the calendars has changed with each new photographer. Nudes first appeared in Francis Giacobetti's 1971 edition. Sarah Moon shot Degas-style scenes in a deserted Paris mansion the following year. After that, Allen Jones dressed his models in bright, campy outfits.

But in 1974, during the oil crisis, Pirelli balked again.

"They stopped it," Rettie said. "I think they were nervous that the calendar was becoming more famous than their tires."

The Daily Mirror mourned: "In garages and workshops the country over, the masterpiece that stood out among the saucy seaside posters will be missing."

That year, a set of the first 10 editions sold beside Pollock and Warhol at a Christie's auction. The first of three coffee-table books featuring past photographs hit the stores soon after.

By 1995, they would sell half a million copies.

*

For Pirelli, the calendar's success was always somewhat troubling. There was constant criticism from those who deemed the pictures inappropriate. Racing photos were used to fill the breach, and nearly a decade passed before the company realized it had forsaken an invaluable promotion.

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