Calvin Klein as a brand is notorious for toeing the line of acceptability with its often suggestive ad campaigns. A young Brooke Shields gazing into the camera to tell her audience in a velvety tone, “You know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing” is a classic example. The more recent “Push Positive” campaign featuring the ever curvy Lara Stone dancing to Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It” in a Calvin Klein push-up bra also comes to mind. However, none have stirred as much public controversy as the 1995 campaign for Calvin Klein Jeans shot by Steven Meisel.
Both the print ad and TV commercials featured portraits shot in an intentionally amateur style of several male and female models in a wood paneled basement. All of them are wearing Calvin Klein jeans (some of them nothing else) and whether any of them were of the age of consent is questionable. The TV commercials see each of the models being briefly interviewed by an unseen man behind the camera whose somewhat creepy tone of voice is vaguely predatory. Public reactions to the campaign ranged from discomfort to downright disgust––many people likened the ads to child pornography. The claims of pedophilia weighed so heavily that an investigation was conducted by the Justice Department as to the precise ages of the models, all of whom were found to be of age at the time of the photo shoot. Due to the heavy dose of negative backlash, Calvin Klein pulled the campaign in August of that year.
Like Calvin Klein, Steven Meisel is no stranger to suggestive image making as the photographer of Madonna’s notorious 1992 Sex book and many other provocative fashion images. Whether or not you agree with the photos or even like them, there is a very prophetic quality to this campaign. With the ubiquity of American Apparel’s semi- pornographic print ads and billboards and the ceaseless contention surrounding photographer Terry Richardson, it is interesting to see the shift in public tolerance and acceptance of this breed of fashion photography within less than a decade. Klein and Meisel with this campaign seem to have broken down the barrier of what is acceptable image making for photos intended for public circulation. While the public reaction to it in 1995 was strongly negative, the campaign’s impact opened up this style of voyeuristic photography into the accepted mainstream. Is fashion photography better for it? The jury is still out on that.
All photos by Steven Meisel for Calvin Klein, 1995.