Pirelli Disrupts the Pin-Up
Pirelli, the Italian tyre company, have annually published a calendar since 1964, historically it has been a showcase for scantily dressed supermodels to display themselves and their assets. The past decade saw the company garnering criticism for its regressive depiction of femininity and for its lack of diversity. For the most part, the women displayed were; white, thin and beautiful.
In 2016, Pirelli responded to their critics and began to reformulate their visual codes of femininity. Annie Leibovitz was employed to celebrate women’s accomplishments, rather than purely their physical attributes, featuring figures such as writer Fran Lebowitz, the investment manager Mellody Hobson and tennis champion Serena Williams. For the 2017 version, Peter Lindbergh photographed Hollywood’s most-celebrated actresses, fully clothed and without make-up. The pure and unadulterated images of stars such as Helen Mirren, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore appear more honest and accessible than we’re used to, the photographer argued the pared-down photographs depict a “different beauty, more real and truthful- one not manipulated by commercial interests.” I’m somewhat sceptical of this, seeing as the calender itself is a collector’s item, distributed only to those with enough status and influence to grab the company’s attention- “a group of establishment opinion makers, celebrities, media professionals, politicians and chief executives, as well as Pirelli’s most valuable customers” (aka those with power and $$$). be
I’d argue that Pirelli, aware of its current existence in our millennial world, heard the knelling bells of male-gaze sexism, felt the winds of change, and realised that whilst sex still has selling power, appearing socially aware may have even more value.
This year’s calendar is set to be its most subversive yet. Pirelli have employed the legendary British fashion photographer Tim Walker and newly appointed editor of British Vogue, Edward Enninful, to reformulate the western fairytale, Alice in Wonderland -with an entirely black cast. And what a cast it is: a staggeringly talented and eclectic group of celebrity heavyweights. Alice is played by the South Sudanese-Australian model, Duckie Thot, Lupita Nyong’o plays the dormouse, Whoopi Goldberg is cast as the Royal Duchess, Drag icon Ru Paul makes an appearance as the Queen of Hearts, Naomi Campbell and P Diddy play the Royal Beheaders, feminist activist and model Adwoa Aboah has been shot as Tweedledee….
South African, albino model and it-girl of the moment Thando Hopa plays the Princess of Hearts, a role devised for her specifically by Walker. Hopa is a law graduate who worked as a prosecutor specialising in sexual offence cases, who got into modelling simply because she “wanted to have a greater level of representation for someone who looks so different.” For Hopa, her involvement in the project gave her the opportunity, “to expand other people’s imaginations by not letting them be restricted to specific stories or narratives. Any girl, whether she is black, white, Asian or Indian, should be able to have a sense that they, too, can be a heroine in their own fairytale. If Alice looks differently here, then Alice can be anybody. Your value comes from far more than the narrative that someone else gives you.”
Diddy says the calendar comes at a time when there needs to be what he called “an unapologetic expression of black pride.” And that being part of the project gave him “a chance to push social consciousness and break down barriers.” Enninful, the Ghana-born, London-bred stylist is the perfect figure to spearhead the artistic endeavour, having won an OBE for his work to diversify the fashion industry in 2016. Enninful said, “given the state of the world we live in, sometimes I think we all feel as if we have fallen down the rabbit hole. For me, a retelling of ‘Alice’ for the modern world was a perfect project, particularly once the cast fell into place.” Tim Walker is the perfect visionary-partner to execute Enninful’s retelling; renowned for his fantastical, fairytale-like editorials, who said he was fixated on the project due to its true originality, “there has never been a black Alice, so I wanted to push how fictional fantasy figures can be represented and explore evolving ideas of beauty.”
The starting references for the calendar were Carroll’s original illustrations for the story, drawn for him by John Tenniel, which are full of the exaggerated sizing and dramatic flourishes typical of 19th – century British caricature. These illustrations certainly have an aesthetic affinity to Walker’s whimsical photographic style. The behind-the-scenes images suggest that voluminous layers are aplenty, and gone is the super-sexualized styling that characterized Pirelli’s earlier editions. Perhaps the creative union of Walker and Enninful will replace the male-gaze with an innocent-eye- joyful and childlike, which is a powerfully progressive change for pin-up photography.
Adwoah Aboah argues this change in pace is entirely necessary, “To me, the Pirelli change in direction suggests they are observing what 2017 needs, where the youth are going and what kind of imagery should be out there. We don’t need any more pinup imagery, and this cast really does depict new ideas of what beauty is. And it certainly doesn’t mean not wearing any clothes.”
Originally commisioned for ThandieKay
A Model Life: The Pat Cleveland Interview
Imagine waking up to an email asking you whether you’d like to interview one of your idols… it’s every writer's wet dream. That’s what happened to me recently on a gloomy and otherwise non-remarkable December day, “ThandieKay would probably love an interview with Pat Cleveland?” read the subject line, followed by a brief description of Pat’s achievements and accolades, which let me tell you are hard to compress. “Yes, ThandieKay would love to interview Pat Cleveland” I hastily responded without consulting either Thandie or Kay, because I mean, Pat’s the perfect fit- widely recognised as the worlds first ‘African-American’ supermodel.
Pat made a name for herself in the late 60s and 70s as one of the first models to achieve prominence as both a runway and print model. Close friends with the Studio 54 set; Cleveland was a muse to Warhol, Dali, Saint Laurent, Lagerfeld and Halston (to name but a few). Modelling allowed Pat to travel the world, mix with and inspire countless artists and celebrities. Now in her late 60s, age hasn’t withered her beauty, spirit or energy; remaining a regular fixture on the catwalk and in advertising campaigns- as her daughter Anna continues the Cleveland modelling legacy- she has returned her focus to an early passion; that of painting.
Pat and I spoke over facetime one evening, in the midst of a current show in London and preparing for others in the States, she tenderly guided me around her studio and home, showing me her diverse art collection and some of her own work.
Pat is bubbly, endearing and possesses a unique childlike combination of naiveté and excitability. Despite being reduced to a screen of grainy pixels teleported across oceans- Pat’s iconic bone structure still shines brightly. Her melodic and drawling voice possesses faint traces of her Harlem upbringing and draws one in; captivating and transporting you back with her to whichever glamorous and prodigious reminiscence she chooses to meditate upon.
They say you should never meet your idols as they’re just bound to disappoint. But it was honestly an honour to speak to Pat- an experience I’ll never forget- I feel changed by her advice and wisdom. We bonded over our heritage and our revelations from using Ancestry DNA, we were a scarily similar percentage of African and Scandinavian- she found 6 siblings through using the website! Her musings on modelling gave me a much-needed sense of artistic perspective on an industry I sometimes find too shallow and consumerist to bear.
Notice how she slips between the use of the personal pronoun ‘I’ and the objective ‘you;’ when she speaks of her experiences she formulates them as though she is relating advice. Pat’s lived a fascinating and unbelievable life and therefore we should all be able to learn something from her. Pat’s gregarious guide to living:
How did you first get into modelling?
I started out as a fashion designer when I was around 14/15, I was always obsessed with fashion and made my own clothes. I always participated in what I thought was nice looking, or beautiful, I loved the idea of going out and looking good; dressing up and feeling good. That’s what fashion is supposed to be- embodying living art. One day when I was wearing one of my own designs, a woman on the subway told me to come to the Vogue office to show them some of my clothes, an editor saw them and said: “I’m taking these to Paris, to Givenchy!” Following that they gave my clothes a 2-page spread. It was stocked in Bendel’s for a while, but it was so exhausting- I was a one-man show. One day when I was at Vogue, they didn’t have a model and pointed at me and said- “you’ll do!” I was enamoured and thought why am I slaving away all night sewing? I thought this was fun, partly cause you get to be around people- all I wanted to do was see the clothes anyway…
What was the industry like at the time?
There was a division between photo girls and show girls at the time, there weren’t many show girls then, maybe 10 in the whole of NY. It was kind of like an elite fashion club. If you were black it was hard, and I was kind of in the middle, so no one knew what to do with me. It didn’t really take off for me till I met a designer called Steven Burrows and the illustrator Antonio, they were so important to me, so hot and so fabulous and they sort of just included me in everything they did. That’s how I met Andy… we’d go out to the Village, to Sheraton square, people could see me and appreciate me more because of who I was with. We were all coming up at the same time, these people made a real difference in my life; Karl Lagerfeld, Yves, Valentino, and Halston…definitely Halston.
How did it feel to be labelled as “African-American” when you’re mixed race and predominantly Swedish?
The press referred to me as a ‘black’ model and I’d look at my skin and be like where’s the black? But I live in America where they separate you into black and white. Recently it’s become ok to be mixed-race, but before it was like if you had one drop of black in you- you were black and it was meant with negative connotations. Whereas, I’ve always honoured it. Africa is a big beautiful country, that’s inspired so many people; YSL, Picasso… everyone take their inspiration from Africa. And everyone has a ticket to ride- America’s a melting pot- everyone’s coming together to make a nice Mother colour.
I was out there in the beginning because they allowed me to be there, perhaps because I was lighter skinned- more palatable- but also because I’m just innately a fashion person.
Yes, I can tell you’re a fashion person, with your iconic fashion walk! How did you think the fashion industry has changed today? And do you think it’s for the better?
Time is precious; people don’t have time for romance anymore. That's what my walk was- romantic. Romance is slow and moving- business is fast and competitive. The catwalk is more like a conveyer belt sometimes- you’ve got to get those groceries on the conveyer belt and out the other side! Fashion now, has so many more people involved- more people, more cameras. It used to be quieter; an isolated art that had nothing to do with everybody from anywhere. It had more to do with ‘ladies’ and ‘gentleman’ from a certain part of society. I guess it’s a natural occurrence, things that were small and exclusive become large and accessible.
At the end of the day, it must be a good thing, as there are more opportunities for people to work at different levels of the industry. Fashion is a huge and powerful global industry. It’s opened up; it’s kinda like- do you sell to the people taking limos? Or the people taking buses and trains?
How long have you been painting for?
That’s what I started out doing, I went to art school, but then modelling took over. Even then I was always scribbling in notebooks when on set. When Dali, Warhol and I hung out we’d always be scribbling on tablecloths together- have drawing wars. All the artists in my life took an active interest in my work, encouraging me to grow. They’d peek over my shoulder and say, “that’s a good drawing!” “that’s really nice- let me have it!” It really was that creative, bohemian lifestyle where we just thrived off each other's energies.
What encouraged you to start focusing more of your energy on art and formally presenting your work?
My mom was a successful fine artist, she passed away two years ago, so I kinda figured as she wasn’t looking over my shoulder… telling me that’s not how you do it. I thought well she’s gone now- I’ll do what I want! When I paint I can feel how happy it made her. She painted until the very last minute, so I take that as a sign- a way to be happy. In a way, through art, her spirit still entertains me.
Does your mother’s artwork inspire you? How would you describe your work and your practice?
My mom was a fine portrait artist, whereas my work is more decorative and abstract. Partly because I live in the middle of nowhere and I don’t have many people around me when I paint. I’ve done portraits of my daughter (Anna Cleveland) and son. Of course, I love Sargeant! And really all the artists I used to mix with continue to influence my work.
I try and paint 2-3 works a day; I love colours so my palette tends to be bright and bold. When making art, you go through stuff, you look at all the masters, you go through it and absorb everything that everyone’s done, and you don’t try and do your own thing because you know it’s been done before! It’s all been done before, everything; portraiture, fine art- everything- pyramids, architecture… So what you have to do is not worry it’s all been done, and just do it anyway. Sometimes when I get up and get dressed for parties now, I think I’d love to get back to my paintings!
Clearly, you’re innately a creative, but spending so much time as a muse to other artists gave you awareness of both sides. Did being a model and therefore the object of another’s creative’s gaze feel problematic at the time? I sometimes find it tough being a passive participant in someone else’s vision.
You’re the important part, without you there is no image! You should feel grateful that they want you to be a part of their art. Identity isn’t a flat surface, there’s also the soul and the way you feel which is hard to capture in fashion photography. A model is there to invoke the spirit of the times. Your body is a work of art! A woman’s body, when you’re young… is the most beautiful thing in the world. These days there are disabled women modelling, transgender women, plus-size women- they’re all forms of beauty. Hieronymus Bosch/Sergeant- it’s just different forms of beauty. Whenever I model, I just feel honoured- like they really picked me?!- I better do a good job! I better work hard to make this image they see happen, as a team.
Originally commisioned for ThandieKay
In Conversation: Johnny Blue Eyes
This Friday, on the opening night of LFW, the House of Blue Eyes will be celebrating 10 years of design with a refreshingly unconventional fashion show followed by a wild, drag filled party to raise money for the Gully Queens of Jamaica.
“The show is fundamentally about raising the vibration of people who are underestimated and undervalued in our society, particularly women and the LGBTQ community.”
If you haven’t heard of the House of Blue Eyes, or it’s pioneer Johnny Blue Eyes, you’ll definitely recognise his work; having styled and dressed some of the best-known and most respected musicians of our era- Lana Del Ray, Lady Gaga and Beth Ditto- to name but a few. I sat down and spoke (laughed & dressed-up) with Johnny last week over a bottle of Moet; effortlessly fabulous and unfiltered- he explained to me how he became such a formidable force within the industry.
Johnny started his career in fashion by running a stall on Portobello Road in the late 1990s. He soon became well known for his keen eye and strong sense of stylistic vision and was often asked to source specific pieces for fashion houses and designers such as Gaultier, Burberry, Gucci and Stella McCartney. Johnny began to collaborate with stylist Fee Doran on shoots for Kylie Minogue and the Scissor Sisters, and the rest manifested rather organically “I’ve been very blessed but I believe we end up connecting with people in the way we’re meant to connect with people… it just happens naturally.”
Johnny’s love of costume design and music has its roots in the period of punk, specifically the year 1977 when the Sex Pistols released God Save the Queen with an iconic artwork designed by Jamie Reid, “It was the first 7” record I ever bought, at the age of 10, it wasn’t until later on that I understand and connected with the political ideology, I just loved the aesthetic and was fascinated with the correlation between what the music sounds like and what the people listening to it looked like.” The manifestation of a sound informing the formation and appearance of subcultures continues to be an engaging force in Johnny’s creative world, as is the renegade energy that he encapsulates.
Johnny’s work is also heavily informed by his time in New York in the early 1990s, “the level of costume and performance in those underground clubs was absolutely fierce.” He spent many years working as a go-go dancer and drag queen where “dressing is used as the most powerful form of self-expression.” Working with musicians was a natural progression due to the level of creativity and performativity that his clients were attaining too. “I was the one that designed and made all the skin tight suits for Beth, we met over a phonecall and instantly connected over our love of Divine!” Johnny, most notably, helped formulate the Lana del Ray effect and aesthetic: “It really was one of the most magical connections and journeys, she’s absolutely extraordinary and we created some incredible costumes together.”
Whilst nowadays radiating a powerful positive energy, Johnny opened up to me about some dark and traumatic episodes that clouded his youth. Being groomed by an Irish Catholic Priest as a young teenager, after divulging to him that he believed he was gay. It was during the peak of the AIDs crisis; Johnny not only feared divine retribution, but also death. Later, at the age of 26, he was attacked and nearly killed for dressing in drag in Covent Garden, “with the loving and healing energy of making art, and the support of my friends and family, good therapists, doctors and getting clean from drugs, I’ve found happiness again.”
Johnny’s show this Friday, is yet another contribution from him to his community, in trying to make the world a happier place. His unveiling of the ‘unfuck the world’ collection comes at an important moment “we’re on the cusp of change, I believe. 40 years after punk we need to cultivate that same energy, and force change- we’ve got to this very desperate ‘me, me, me’ place, so the change has to come from thinking of others, rather than oneself.” The event will be an opportunity to “get people back in the room together, to connect, look each other in the eyes and feel happy.”
Come celebrate 10 year of the House of Blue Eyes and buy tickets here
Learn more about the Gully Queens of Jamaica here