From the Archives: When Artists did the Advertising

How Mappelthorpe, Leibovitz, Bourdin and Goude proved BG was Cool

2 27 2012

Photos courtesy of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Photos courtesy of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Are corporations people? We’ll leave that argument to the politicians. But we’re sure corporations have personalities. Personality is how fashion companies attract customers, and advertising is one way to express that personality clearly. Bergdorf Goodman’s personality comes through in its personnel and its fashion viewpoint. But the ads tell the story too, and they tell it first. In fashion you can’t rest on your laurels. It’s all about change. Your buyers had better be right, and your ads had better tell the story with style. 

In the 1980s New York City was alive with change. Radical art, music and fashion were emerging Downtown, and new magazines arrived to keep pace with a kooky cultural revolution. There was New Wave Downtown, disco Uptown and new ideas all over. Bergdorf Goodman’s fashion team was deeply involved with new talent and what seemed like a Downtown moment. If you wanted the young designers, Bergdorf’s was the perfect destination. But, of course, the store was on the corner of 58th and Fifth and not on the Lower East Side. So, advertising seemed like the perfect way to communicate this ironic fact.

Two strategies emerged almost simultaneously. At a time when fashion advertising consisted almost entirely of photography, Bergdorf Goodman went for extensive storytelling copy. Many ads were in fact illustrated columns by real writers, covering in depth what the store was doing. It started in 1985 with CEO Ira Neimark hiring John Duka, a dapper young man who was writing a smart fashion column weekly in The New York Times. Neimark convinced Duka to keep his column in the Times, but in space purchased by Bergdorf’s. The Times was sad to see Duka move from edit to ad space, but all they could do was ask that the typeface
be changed. The readers didn’t mind at all.

At around the same time, a young independent art director, Benita Cassar Torreggiani, presented the idea of using a variety of non-fashion photographers to show the surprisingly broad range of the store. The resulting campaign featured the first fashion photographs ever taken by Robert Mapplethorpe and Annie Leibovitz, as well as work from Jean-Paul Goude, Lord Snowdon, Guy Bourdin, and the artists Dean Chamberlain and Dianne Blell. Mapplethorpe was an art and portrait photographer. Bourdin and Snowdon were of course fashion photographers, but of a rarified sort whose work was mostly seen in European magazines.

Annie Leibovitz was a young photo-journalist who had risen to fame making portraits for Rolling Stone magazine. Jean-Paul Goude was a brilliant French trickster who had stunningly combined painting and photography (in a manner prophetic of Photoshop twenty years later) in the pages of Esquire magazine, remaking reality to his liking, and who had most recently remade his muse Grace Jones, turning her into a global superstar. Dean Chamberlain was a young fine arts graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology, and he was doing photographs with a then unique technique he called “light painting,” involving colored lights.

Dianne Blell was an artist who showed with Leo Castelli Gallery, whose stable included Warhol, Rauschenberg, Johns and Lichtenstein. Her photographs were made on hand-painted sets of her own design. Blell was an interesting choice because she was a feminist artist interested in the history of representation of the female form and one of the first fine artists to use fashion in her work, portraying herself in fashion photography mode, complete with fashion credits on the gallery wall. Blell had attracted quite a bit of attention with a work entitled Oasis for a Gallery, which she called “an analogy between the occurrence of a single image within the austere gallery context and the small fertile area of vegetation or oasis that interrupts the arid expanse of desert.” The photo showed her nude astride a camel in the Moroccan desert, attended by a traditionally attired male camel driver.

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Photo courtesy of Jean-Paul Goude

Torreggiani recalls, “The point of the campaign was to see how artists and non-fashion photographers would approach shooting fashion. I went in with the idea that they could pretty much do what they wanted within reason. It just has to be appropriate for The New York Times and Vogue and, of course, Bergdorf Goodman, but we pushed it quite far. I did have a bit of a problem with Dean Chamberlain because he took it pretty far in his use of language, but we did use his photographs, and they were really new. Robert Mapplethorpe was actually very easy to work with. I went over to meet him at his studio on 23rd Street, and I really liked him. He was so nice. He was the first photographer to ever ask me about me. He was a little nervous because he had never shot fashion before, and he was really open to input. At one point he said, ‘Would you like to see some of my work?’ and I said I would. He had beautiful filing cabinets where he kept his prints, and we started going through them. We were about to start shooting the next morning for Bergdorf Goodman, and he started showing me these pictures . . . well, you can imagine what I saw. I was literally gulping. But he was really great to work with. He shot a beautiful men’s Armani ad that ran in Vogue and a fabulous picture of a man and woman together in Jean Paul Gaultier. We ran the artists’ names on the ads, and that was very unusual for the time.”

Annie Leibovitz had never shot fashion. “She was very excited to work with fashion models,” Torreggiani remembers. “She was shooting everything from above at that point, and she had the models lying on a bed. In one Vicky Tiel ad, she cut the head off one of the models, and I remember showing it to Mr. Neimark, who was then the CEO, and he freaked out. It was a very voluptuous picture. We ended up running the shot with the model’s head. But he was very supportive of the whole project. There was one moment, however, with Guy Bourdin. Mr. Neimark and Dawn Mello were very clear that nobody was to be seen smoking, and when we worked with Guy Bourdin I didn’t go on the shoot in Paris. Bourdin was very busy, and he had to shoot our picture at the end of another shoot, so he was unsupervised. I told him after the shoot that there couldn’t be any smoking, and when he sent us the picture, her fingers are in a position just like she was holding a cigarette.”

Once again Bergdorf Goodman was in the lead, banishing cigarettes from advertisements years before the U.S. Postal Service removed cigarettes from the mouths of Jackson Pollock and blues legend Robert Johnson on stamps. A British museum removed Churchill’s cigar from a Yousuf Karsh photograph, and the Bibliothèque national de France airbrushed an image of Jean-Paul Sartre into a nonsmoker. And Bergdorf Goodman introduced some pretty good fashion photographers too. BG

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