Controversial advertising

We’ve all seen our fair share of controversial fashion ads. There’s Tom Ford’s 2007 men’s fragrance ads, Gucci’s 2004 ‘Public Enemy’ campaign and American Apparel’s racy campaigns (vale). But look closer and you’ll notice the majority of these campaigns happened post-1995. It was Calvin Klein that did it first. In 1982, CK had a 16-year-old Brooke Shields ask the world: ‘You know what gets between me and my Calvins? Nothing.’

A 16-year-old suggesting to the world she wasn’t wearing underwear? It was shocking to say the least. A decade later and Calvin Klein was making headlines once again. This time the label was accused of promoting child pornography in its 1995 campaign, shot by Steven Meisel. The American Justice Department opened an investigation which was later dropped, after the company provided proof that all the models featured were adults. So with all the uproar surrounding these campaigns, why continue the controversy?

Selling more than just a product

Prior to 1980, fashion advertising was all about selling product. Calvin Klein’s ads stood out because they were about selling something bigger: a lifestyle. Take the 1982 launch of Calvin Klein Underwear, for example. Shot by Bruce Weber, the campaign depicted Olympian, Tomás Hintnaus, lying on a roof in only his briefs. It depicted underwear as sexy, rather than functional. And, as the old saying goes, sex sells.

That campaign revitalised a market that was previously focused on comfort and practicality. Instead of buying underwear, you were buying into a sexy new lifestyle. As the Guardian explains: “[Calvin Klein Underwear] was designed to be seen, conferred status and wealth, and was totemic of its wearer’s tribe.” Marky Mark joined the CK lineup soon after, further cementing the idea of underwear as a marker of status. ‘Calvins’ quickly became a fashion must-have.