A fun take on rehab chic’ – brave or sick?

Our correspondent wonders at what point ‘boundary-pushing’ fashion shoots cross into questionable taste



First, the story of one particularly unhappy day in the life of a British fashion magazine editor who was sacked not that long ago over some supposedly controversial images. The images in question featured a nudist camp in America, the setting for an “accessories story” in which a handful of tanned yet nevertheless buck-naked nudists posed with Louis Vuitton handbags and Gucci watches.

On the day of publication, Karl Lagerfeld called the editor and congratulated her on her vision and daring. The magazine’s readers fired off enthusiastic letters – why weren’t more fashion magazines using real people in their publications? But for the publishers, the nudist camp shoot was a step too far into forbidden and dangerous territory. It was outrageous, they said, to publish pictures of naked men and women in a fashion magazine.

The editor was sacked and half the staff left with her, indignantly mindful of what was and continues to be published in every other fashion magazine without comment: photographs of perfectly formed naked women. What had really offended the publishers, perhaps even only on a subconscious level, had not so much to do with nudity. Rather, it was the flabby torsos and lumpy bottoms of the impromptu Californian models.

These are the kinds of tugs of war that go on behind the glossy veneer of Planet Fashion. On one side there are photographers and art designers who harangue their editors to “push back the boundaries” of conventionality. On the other are nervous publishers, the literal-minded main-stream press and, increasingly, politicians who in the UK have decided that the fashion industry is responsible for the psychological development and self-esteem of impressionable young women.

Not so in France and Italy. This summer Italian Vogueventured into controversial territory. A 50-page shoot by the American photographer Stephen Meisel takes “Rehab” as its theme and depicts some models writhing mock-tortuously in baths and shaving their heads in front of mirrors. It is what Italian Vogue’seditor, Franka Sozzani, calls “a fun take on rehab chic”.

In Britain it is questionable whether “supermodels go to rehab”, which dramatises the rocky drug-and alcohol-prone lives of celebrities, would ever have seen the light of day. Ten of the world’s best-known modelsrehab3_198639a.jpg do a passable imitation of what Vogue imagines might go on inside a drug rehabilitation unit. They feign cold turkey on asylum beds; they are dragged down hospital corridors by pretend, fabulously good-looking hospital staff; they suck on a soothing cigarette in what one assumes are cold baths and they do yoga naked.

It is slightly silly amateur dramatics but one doubts that British opinion-makers would be able to fathom the funny side – inevitably this would be interpreted as yet another case of the fashion industry glamorising drug addiction.

The outcry over another Italian Vogue shoot, inspired by the “war on terror”, upset the English press – though not the Italian – so much that academics such as Joanna Bourke, professor of history at Birkbeck College, London, were wheeled out to write angry analytical reproaches. “The terrorist threat [in the photographs] is an unreal woman,” Bourke wrote. “In contrast to the security personnel depicted, she is placed beyond the realm of the human. Her skin is as plastic as a mannequin’s, her body is too perfect, even when grimacing in pain.” All true, most of us would agree. But to paraphrase the private thoughts of any regular magazine reader, what did Bourke expect? It is what magazines do.

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Franka Sozzani was perplexed at the reaction and argues that the current rehab shoot is not offensive. “It’s more of an opinion,” she says, and one is forced to think back 30 years ago when magazines such as Oz and Nova published images that were far more provocative than anything in Vogue today.

Has fear of causing offence squashed creativity and debate? “Nobody in Italy complained to me about any of the shoots we’ve done. We did have a woman writing to us from France after we ran a similar fashion shoot based on cosmetic surgery but I don’t see how these photographs would be encouraging people to go into rehab. I always think it’s astonishing that you can be rich and famous and have everything and then need to destroy your life. We are not advocating anything here.”

Anyway, Sozzani detects a note of inconsistency in the British attitude. “I’ve seen English magazines and they are much more vulgar than what we publish in Italy.” Of the men’s market in the UK, she says: “There are pictures of naked people in sexual poses that we just wouldn’t run in Italy. People are really unshockable these days. These images are really demeaning and nobody says anything.” Robin Derrick, creative director of British Vogue, defends British magazines and tells the story of one sexually explicit photographic shoot, commissioned and starring a very famous model. “It was her idea but we pulled it because there was a taste issue. It’s complicated.

“We are an aspirational magazine and quite powerful, and with that power comes responsibility. On the other hand, we’re not policed by the tabloids and it’s a debate that I’m slightly tired of. We have people saying to us ‘why don’t you photograph any normal people in normal clothes that everybody can afford?’ And I say, would anybody read it? The answer is no.” There are, of course, instances in which fashion editors or photographers are led astray by lack of talent or boundary-smashing agendas. Plenty of revolting images are published every month – David Beckham smeared in baby oil for GQ, for instance – and some truly inappropriate ones.

In 2004, a Tel Aviv fashion house, Comme il Faut, shot its summer catalogue based on the theme of “women cross boundaries”. A fortnight after two Palestinians were killed in violent demonstrations, the firm’s editor was defending her decision to contrast beauty, femininity and fashion with a “concrete wall of insult, ugliness and humiliation” on the grounds that the resulting photographs would “create a dialogue around the borders”.

When a reporter subsequently questioned this statement, she replied: “You’re a man, you wouldn’t understand.”

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