Modest Change

Take a look through the September issue of W, which at 434 advertising pages is the magazine’s biggest fashion issue ever, and you will notice something unusual: The models in the ads are actually wearing clothes. OK, there’s one bare behind shown against a silky, high-thread count sheet in an ad for the Soho Grand Hotel, but that’s a far cry from the days not so long ago when designers advertised their clothing lines by making you guess what the clothing looked like, but left little else to the imagination.

The sexy ad trend hit an apex last February when Gucci, a leader when it comes to ads with sexual shock value, ran an ad in international issues of Vogue so blatantly sexual it was banned in the United States. Unofficially dubbed “Pubic Enemy,” the ad showed a leggy beauty, her underwear pulled down, with the Gucci logo shaved into a strategic area as an admiring young man knelt before her. The ad, created by Doug Lloyd, president and creative director of Lloyd + (co), New York, and former Gucci head Tom Ford, set off a spate of complaints to the magazine and Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority.

Contrast that with Gucci’s fall/winter campaign, again via Lloyd, which shows a model in a slim-fitting white dress leaning wantonly on a young, fur-coated man. There is plenty of chest and leg in the four-page spread, but this campaign is about the clothing, the shoes, the accesories, instead of any hanky panky between the models.

Where has all the sex gone—the bare breasts, the bulging crotches, the swollen lips and mascara-smudged eyes that appeared in ads three years ago? The September 2001 issue of W, for example, carried an ad for Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium perfume brand (a unit of the Gucci Group) that showed model Sophie Dahl naked except for gold strappy sandals and a gold necklace and bracelet, fondling her breasts on a blue velvet rug. Again, Lloyd and Ford collaborated on the image, which also ignited a fury when it appeared as an outdoor billboard in the United Kingdom.

“We’ve subtly shifted away from sexuality,” says Lloyd, whose agency also handles Cole Haan and other upscale brands besides Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent. “We’ve done it for a couple of reasons. One, we feel there is a general trend within fashion to be more ladylike, a bit more dressed and grown-up. In the case of Gucci, we got to a point where it had been pushed so far. We’ve made it less where you hit people over the head with it.”

Cindy Gallop, president of BBH, New York, attributes the shift away from sexual ads to the constantly changing cycles of fashion, a business that relies on reinventing itself every two to three years. “In the past year to 18 months, there has been a move to a more ladylike, genteel, Miss Manners approach,” she says, pointing to recent campaigns by Prada and Louis Vuitton.

Prada, which creates its ads in-house in Italy, has replaced its previous naturalistic campaign for a more glammed-up look in which wide-eyed, mannequin-like models stare blankly into space. Louis Vuitton features a fur-clad Scarlett Johansson, her manicured hand holding a handbag in one romantic, luxurious shot; Christina Ricci wears a black dress and holds huge red Louis Vuitton shoes in another.

Which points to another trend in luxury fashion advertising: The rise of the celebrity model. Last year, Jennifer Lopez appeared in Louis Vuitton ads; Cate Blanchett in Donna Karan; Adrien Brody in Ermenegildo Zegna; Winona Ryder in Marc Jacobs. This season CK Lingerie ads feature Hilary Swank.

“There is a glamour and gloss in the way we focus on celebrities and the red-carpet parade that is being shown in these luxury, fashion-brand communications,” Gallop says. “It’s gone through the phase of overly sexual, moved through the more old-fashioned prim and proper, into an almost old-fashioned glamour. It’s definitely elegance, it’s definitely ladylike, but much more glossy, much more Hollywood, much more movie star.”

Even when the model isn’t a celebrity, many high-end brands have a Hollywood luster. “Armani always has been very sleek and elegant, but the fall/winter campaign has a ’40s film star look in the way the models are posed,” Gallop says. “There’s something very retro Hollywood about it.”

While Gallop and others consider the changes to be cyclical, Raul Martinez, CEO and executive creative director at New York-based ad agency AR, says he feels the shift reflects something more fundamental.

“It speaks more to the times we’re in than anything else, the state of the world, from the war to the economy and the elections,” Martinez says. “Fashion is not obsolete from the universe. It is part of the world and reflects that completely. There is an aspirational component to luxury, an escapism, that is away from sex and a return to that ’50s moment after World War II when America went into that other place, a place of innocence and comfort.”

AR’s campaign for Versace is a testament to the difference. Its spring/summer ’02 campaign showed a lone clothed female standing above a beachscape littered with nude bodies in various positions. Contrast that with the current fall/winter campaign, peopled by a quartet of beauties clad in red and white tweed suits and sweater sets, accessorized with diamond brooches. “I have done quite sexy advertising, and it was fine for that period and spoke to that time. It would not speak right now,” Martinez says. “The ads we have right now are almost a celebration of glamour and beauty. It’s beauty that a woman now could aspire to or connect with.”

AR also created the current campaign for Dolce & Gabbana, which Martinez describes as full-on luxury glamour: “It’s really very much about the woman completely indulging herself within the luxury aspect of the brand. Whereas other times there has been more sex connected with it, this time it’s really much more about luxe.”

If that’s the case, his timing seems right. Greg Furman, president and founder of the Luxury Marketing Council, New York, a consortium that includes Cartier, Montblanc and Bergdorf Goodman, feels such couture brands are about to enjoy a resurgence of “aspirational and symbolic” purchasing by more common folk.

“Merchants of lavish goods and services during the last economic downturn fared better than the motley pack,” says Furman. “Maybach cars at $320,000, Brioni suits, Harry Winston custom jewelry of $20,000 or more, all of those saw relatively little disruption.”

Michael Silverstein, president of Boston Consulting Group, sees a pattern of balance emerging in luxury purchases. “Consumers trade up and trade down each month,” he says. “They’ll spend an ungodly amount on their home, but they don’t see it as consumption, they see it as savings. They consider luxury cars safer and worth the investment. They are cautious in apparel purchases, but not in buying shoes, watches and jewelry. There’s a great sense of confidence at higher income levels. And if consumers do feel fear about the uncertainties of the future, that justifies their consumption.”

Ori Zemer, president of jewlery and watch brand Charriol, echoes the sentiment. “In the watch world, bigger is better,” he says. Zemer says that after Sept. 11 he did see a temporary drop-off in demand for Charriol watches and jewelry, but that’s no longer the case. “People are living for today and are more apt to treat themselves well,” he says. His business rose 40 percent last year and Zemer is projecting another 30 percent increase this year. Ditto for the international fur trade, which has seen increased sales five years in a row. Last year, worldwide sales of fur achieved $11.3 billion. The International Fur Trade Federation this fall targeted fur-loving fashionistas with a six-page advertorial running in 10 national editions of Vogue and the China edition of Cosmopolitan. The campaign includes diverse styles from 10 internationally recognized design houses, including the likes of Dolce & Gabbana, Jean Paul Gaultier, Carolina Herrera and Michael Kors.

Glamour publisher Bill Wackerman attributes the growth in the luxury market to a phenomenon called “mass-tige,” a play off the word “prestige,” that connotes a democratization of style. He points to Isaac Mizrahi selling his designs at Bergdorf Goodman as well as Target, and Karl Lagerfeld’s apparel at Chanel and low-priced retailer H&M, as evidence that the trend is taking place in a “big way.”

Marian Salzman, chief strategic officer at Euro RSCG, New York, confirms the trend. “Luxury is becoming more accessible, more attainable, a great deal more fun,” she says. “We’re seeing more people focus on the instant gratification of pleasure rather than the promiscuous expenditure of money and conspicuous consumption. The garish stuff is over. People are really just learning to enjoy life by doing things that feel good.”

That trend is playing out in luxury ads that are dynamic, dramatic, holistic and soothing, she says. “They need to be more sensual versus sexual.”

Which is exactly the tone of ads for Rosewood Hotels & Resorts created by AgencySacks, New York. Images and copy portray the personal pleasures of vacationing at one of these high-end resorts. Copy reads, “There are some places you just have to see. And feel. And breathe. Sure you can describe the scents and the colors. But how do you describe the way they move you?” above an image of a woman peering out from under the brim of a huge sunhat.

“Marketers are getting back to the story instead of the hype,” says agency president Andrew Sacks. “They’re not as frivolous.”

On the other hand, W publisher Alyce Alston sees no difference between luxury fashion advertising now and five years ago. “There’s no more or less modesty, nudity, sexiness, moodiness or conservatism,” she says. “What we would intuitively think, that it would be warmer, less overtly sexual, more modest and feminine, just isn’t playing out in ad campaigns.”

According to Alston, the real changes are taking place at the business level, with more focus on product and detail because these things need to sell. “There’s a richness in the amount of product and information on the page,” she says. “The branding and the message and consistency of the brand is still there from five years ago to today. Whereas maybe they used to show a shoe, now the model is done so the shoe is more close up and you can see the texture of the shoe. And there are a lot more accessories.”

Kim Vernon, executive vp-global advertising at Calvin Klein, agrees. “I don’t think there’s a shift to things prim or conservative,” she says. “In the designer collection category, the companies that have been sexy are still sexy and the ones who haven’t made that part of their advertising brand character aren’t. There is still tons and tons of advertising that’s weak, that looks the same, that isn’t really very fresh, but I don’t see a dramatic shift in the luxury category. I think we’re all being true to who we are right now.”

In the case of Calvin, that means sexy, starting with the Brooke Shields ads of the early ’80s. “That ad was groundbreaking,” Vernon says. “It told marketers at fashion companies that they can do things that really make people stop and ask questions like, ‘What does that mean to me?’ You have to find a way to say something or play into a personality or an ethos that the consumer just clicks with. That’s the trick.”

This season, the opening spread in an eight-page campaign for Calvin Klein Collection features a smokey-eyed model draped over a tree trunk, her shiny, chestnut hair spread over the bark and a braceleted arm dangling toward the ground. Pretty tame stuff until you get to the third spread, where she’s lying suggestively against the stump, her legs akimbo and her silky, button-front dress undone to the crotch. Even so, it’s a far cry from 1993’s Obsession perfume ad, which featured a bare-breasted Kate Moss.

Explains Vernon, “With Calvin Klein Collection, we want to be sexy, but overt sexuality is not the goal.”

At least not this year. Sandra O’Loughlin covers retail/apparel for Brandweek.