I write this on International Women’s Day, straight after doing the school run, unloading the dishwasher, hanging up the washing and noticing that the kettle needs descaling again. By the time I sit down at my desk, I’m feeling pretty empowered. “Go, me,” I say, hastily calculating how much time I have left before the kids get home from school. If I write this column reeeeeeeally quickly, I figure there will be just enough time to indulge in my favourite pastime: writhing around on the floor in fishnets, a fur coat and a pair of roller skates.
What, you don’t do that too? Then you probably won’t identify with the current Saint Laurent ad, which features 18 year-old Brazilian model Fernanda Oliveira doing the same. Although it turns out a lot of people don’t identify with it: France’s advertising watchdog has just asked Saint Laurent to modify the images, along with another from its Spring 2017 campaign (featuring a model in a leotard and roller skates again, this time bending over a stool) after receiving 50 complains that both were “degrading” to women. According to the French watchdog, the ads are a serious breach of rules set by the advertising industry to maintain “dignity and respect in representation of the person”. It was also noted that the models were very thin, and may have a detrimental effect on teenage girls.
When it comes to banned ads, Saint Laurent has form. You could say they’ve elevated it into an art form. Two years ago, an image from its spring 2015 campaign was banned by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for its depiction of a thin teenaged model splayed out on the floor that was deemed to promote “a dangerous body image”. In 2011, a TV ad for the perfume Belle d’Opium was banned on the grounds that the model appeared to be simulating drug use. And in 2000, an ad for Opium perfume, featuring a naked Sophie Dahl, was banned for being “offensive to women”. It went on to become the eighth most complained-about ad of the past 50 years. Which is weird, because at least Sophie Dahl wasn’t emaciated. Or bending over a stool. Or looked smacked out of her mind.
Crotch shots, bare breasts and smacked-out models aren’t modern. They’re hoary old cliches, way past their sell-by dates. Women have moved on, and fashion needs to move on, too.
But that’s the thing with deliberately controversial fashion ads: however hard they try, they won’t offend all of the people, all of the time. Like beauty, moral outrage is firmly in the eye of the beholder. A cursory scroll through social media reveals plenty of people who think the Saint Laurent ads are cool, sexy and chic. The models who appeared in them seem happy enough: the one photographed bent over a stool with her fishnet butt in the air proudly posted the shot on her Instagram account. Of course she did: Saint Laurent is one of the most famous fashion brands in the world, and to be cast in its ads (or shows) is a career-defining thing.
I’m sure a big fat “meh” is the last reaction the house of Saint Laurent hoped to solicit, yet that’s what it solicited from me. Like, is that the best you can do? Fishnets and a crotch shot? Really? They may show a lack of morality and good judgement, but they also show a lack of something else: imagination. While other industries have made progress in stepping away from the cliched sexism that may once have characterised their ads (witness Budweiser’s recent Superbowl ad, which celebrated immigration, diversity and the American Dream), the fashion industry seems stuck in a dead-eyed rut of its own making. With a few notable exceptions (not least last year’s brilliant Kenzo ad, directed by Spike Jonze), the same tired formulae are trotted out season after season: model clutching a handbag, many models clutching many handbags, overly airbrushed actress of the moment clutching a handbag, retired supermodel clutching a handbag, spurious celebrity #squad or #gang clutching each other. It’s almost laughable.
I don’t object to the models being thinner or ten million years younger than me (sorry, but seeing a woman like me clutching a handbag isn’t going to make me want to buy it either), but I do object to these ads’ lame predictability. Fashion is supposed to be modern. Crotch shots, bare breasts and smacked-out models aren’t modern. They’re hoary old cliches, way past their sell-by dates. Women have moved on, and fashion needs to move on, too.