Welcome to Pop Culture Week! While you can always find us waxing poetic about the hefty overlap between fashion and pop culture, we're dedicating the next five days to the subject of our favorite music, movies, TV, celebrities, books and theater, and how that all intersects with the fashion industry.
Calvin Klein had an incredible knack for pushing the envelope (and people's buttons) with his ads. The brand has also been very good at coming up with campaigns that actually manage to stick in people's heads. In 1980, there were the suggestive "Nothing comes between me and my Calvins" denim ad with a teenaged Brooke Shields. They received backlash, but were ultimately effective at branding the company as provocative. A few years later, a Bruce Weber-lensed image — in which model Tom Hintnaus appeared in his underwear with his crotch as the focal point of the photo — became wildly popular, to the point that in New York people were actually stealing the ads from bus shelters.
For all of Clavin Klein's boundary-pushing advertising, the campaign that seems to stick with us the most is Mario Sorrenti's Obsession ads, starring a young Kate Moss. Over two decades later, the images still feel as fresh, and impactful, as ever — to the point where unused images from the original campaign were run again last year. They're haunting, chic and infused with a heavy dose of '90s nostalgia. But what should really grab people's attention is how the Obsession ads were created by two kids in love, who had no idea that their careers were about to explode.
Boy Meets Girl
Moss and Sorrenti met when he was still a model, and had traveled to London for work. They quickly fell in love while navigating burgeoning careers. Moss helped Sorrenti navigate London while he was staying there, and he returned the favor when she moved to New York — the two even moved in together, despite the fact that she was only 18, and he was not much older at 20 years-old. Soon, Sorrenti became interested in the art of photography, and he explored his growing enthusiasm for the medium with Moss by his side.
"We went places and did things and I'd take pictures. Sometimes she'd say, 'no I don't want to do that' and sometimes she'd say 'okay cool,'" he told Harper’s Bazaar. "Of course there were disagreements between us, she'd go 'you're always taking pictures, fuck off.' I was always in the dark room printing. I was obsessed with taking pictures and following my passion. She was a part of that. She helped me.”
Enter: Calvin Klein
In the early '90s, Calvin Klein wanted an alternative to the Supermodel, and he was initially drawn to the androgynous, waif-like figure of Vanessa Paradis. But because Paradis was working on a film, she was unavailable, which pushed Klein to seek an alternative. Thanks to a suggestion from Patrick Demarchelier, he was introduced to Moss. The model brought some of Sorrenti's pictures of her to the meeting, which wound up inspiring the designer, who was also looking to revamp his Obsession ads.
"I said, 'I'd like to meet your boyfriend who took these pictures,' because to me they said 'obsession.' [Sorrenti] was obsessed, in a very good way, with her," Klein recalled. Though when they met Sorrenti was still very much an amateur, Klein was so sure of his chemistry with Moss that the designer offered as many resources as he could. "I said, 'We will show you what you need to know. I want you to go to an island with her and just photograph her and then film her. We will show you how to do a commercial for TV and print.'"
Sorrenti remembers things a bit differently. According to him, it was Fabien Baron that introduced him to Klein. That being said, in both versions of the story Klein loved the images, and was eager to send Moss and Sorrenti on their way. "He didn't even think about it twice," Sorrenti told W. "He goes, 'Do it, just go and do it. We'll organize it all for you.'"
The duo spent 10 days in the British Virgin Islands by themselves. They had been given a bag of clothes to use, but the stylist remained behind. Moss didn't even wear makeup in the ads. But the gamble paid off — those crazy kids knocked it out of the park.
"[Klein] took a big risk by just sending Kate and I to this place on our own and especially when the pictures came back and the majority of the pictures were all nude and she was naked on the couch," Sorrenti said. "That was a big, a big chance and he decided to put that big billboard of Kate naked on the couch in Times Square."
"I laid like that for 10 days," Moss later recalled of the couch shot. "He would not stop taking pictures of that."
We're All Still Obsessed
Sorrenti and Moss' Obsession campaign wasn't the first. In fact, the fragrance had an entirely different set of ads in the '80s (including one directed by David Lynch) that were so cryptic they became emblematic of nonsensical perfume commercials; "Saturday Night Live" parodied them, as did "Family Guy."
They succeeded because they didn't set out to make a great campaign, they set out to make beautiful pictures, period — something that ultimately resonated with the audience. "I sensed something in him, and in the two of them," Klein said of the results. "It was really hot. It was sexy. It was really kind of great, and the sales went through the roof after that."
The ads caused the careers of both Sorrenti and Moss to skyrocket. They remain an in-demand photographer and model, respectively, today. It is no wonder that when Raf Simons arrived to helm the brand in 2016, he went through the company's archive and, upon discovering all the unused imagery from the original shoot, used them in a campaign for a sister fragrance. Naturally the re-issued images got people pretty excited. Sorrenti and Moss did countless interviews recalling their relationship and the original shoot. Yet somehow, it doesn't seem like enough. In a way, the Obsession ads worked because they got us to be obsessed with them.