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Fashion Too Forward?

Some of today's high-fashion advertisements have turned so erotic that their messages are lost in the staged, sexed-up imagery.

September 06, 2000|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

The new fall magazines are thudding onto newsstands and mailboxes, offering in some of their ads a view of life that takes fashion's sexual imagery into the cheesy world of soft porn.

Each turn of the magazines' pages seems to bring images that are increasingly explicit. The Gucci campaign is the latest hot dinner party topic. One ad features a semi-erect man in very tight pants standing over a flashily dressed woman crawling on her hands and knees.

The talk around the table centers on the man. "That looks like gay porn!" said one man. "That's weird," said another. "He's merely tumescent," said the lawyer, sending a dinner guest to the dictionary. Who knew ads could be so educational?

Where some see "naked," fashion sees a nude as it attempts to invoke, and indeed become, art. Fashion and the art world have traded photographers over the decades, including the work of Richard Avedon and, recently, Philip-Lorca di Corcia. Always quick to jump on the latest trend, fashion photography's many style imitators sometimes miss the mark.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday September 18, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 4 View Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong citizenship--In a story about fashion advertising ("Fashion Too Forward," Sept. 6), photographer Helmut Newton's citizenship was misstated. Newton was born in Germany and is an Australian citizen.

In trying so desperately to be erotic and avant-garde, a few ads teeter on the brink of parody. Today's cut-to-the chase sexuality is so lacking romance, or even foreplay, that the result is often cartoon-like, said Charlotte Cotton, curator of "Imperfect Beauty: The Making of Contemporary Fashion Photographs" now at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Many of today's sexually explicit ads are "devoid of a sense of real emotion because they are so stagy," Cotton said. "It's a performance of sex."

The advertisers need arresting images--ads account for about 80% of September fashion magazine pages--but some in their audience of women readers aren't intrigued. "Everybody is reaching, and I no longer know what they are reaching for," said Edie Locke, former editor in chief of Mademoiselle who lives in Los Angeles. "If every image now is centered around sex, or almost-rape or lesbian chic, the difference between the ads is no longer perceptible."

Fashion's plunge into soft porn didn't happen overnight. In the 1960s, the late French photographer Guy Bourdin brought sex and violence to French fashion magazines, while his American counterpart, photographer Helmut Newton, added a fetishistic element beginning in the 1970s. Now lesbian sex and sadomasochism have been added to the lineup.

Tongues wagged over this year's taboo-touting campaigns for French designers Emanuel Ungaro and Christian Dior. For Ungaro's spring ads, a model offered suggestive interpretations of "petting" as she caressed her male pooch, dressed in S&M-style accessories. This fall, Ungaro paired the same model, who intimately embraced a nude classical statue. For Dior's spring 2000 and new fall ads, two women tumbled in designer togs like lovers experimenting in a clothes dryer.

Martha Kramer, the president of Emanuel Ungaro America, said the real intention of the ads, by photographer Mario Sorrenti, was to show the clothes in crystal-clear detail. As for the theme? "It's surrealistic," said Kramer, who added, "I think it's a bit like contemporary art. You look at it and see what you want." Evidently, Ungaro is seeing dollars. Said Kramer: "Our sales have gone through the roof this season and last."

The surprise isn't only that fashion advertising has such explicit imagery, but also that it has so fiercely reappeared. Only two years ago, the rise of reality and lifestyle ads had some advertising experts all but issuing death certificates for hyper-libido advertising.

Now even mainstream companies such as Lane Bryant, Reebok and maternity store A Pea in the Pod are showing nudes and skin-baring clothes, mimicking their upscale colleagues. And though the blouse is a major fashion trend this season, a high number of models are topless, whether they're wearing ordinary tennis shoes or designer suits. Ditto for the bare-chested men who seem to populate every-other ad, as if they're the latest fashion accessory.

Sexy men may be appealing, but other sophisticated observers wonder how women are to be captivated by the images of violence, female nudity and vulgarity. "It can be quite offensive because it's not something a real woman can relate to," said curator Cotton. "Wouldn't you like us to desire the scenario?"

Even in some of the season's most riveting ads, such as the Versace, Missoni and Valentino campaigns, the elaborate sets, extravagantly dressed women and their hustler escorts spoof grotesque wealth and its decadent trappings. In Versace's ads, models Amber Valletta and Georgina Grenville are so overdone with teased hair, chunky jewels and flashy clothes that they look completely at home in their Palm Beach gilded living rooms. The models' expressions are so vacant and their decorated rooms so extravagant, it seems they misunderstood the real meaning of "rich interior life."

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