Fashion brands think they know exactly what you’ve been craving this past year: Human touch. Or more specifically, a lover’s caress.
From Suit Supply’s “new normal” advertisements featuring men and women twisting tongues and interlocking fingers in various states of undress, to Jacquemus’s Spring 2021 “L’Amour” collection campaign, similarly featuring lip locks and a lack of clothing, to Diesel’s “When Together” campaign, featuring real couples straddling each other atop washing machines and in car backseats, fashion marketing has suddenly gotten sexy again.
If not quite a 180-degree turn, it’s at least a course correction after a stretch where many brands steered clear of high-octane sexiness in both marketing and their collections. But after a year-plus of life under lockdown, and with vaccination campaigns set to unleash a wave of “revenge shopping” geared toward parties, bar hopping and other previously verboten activity, brands are betting that tapping into customers’ base urges will lead to a sales bump.
“Having been in a year of restriction and safety and doing what we should and avoiding what we really want, there’s this moment of real relief — and here come these brands with advertising that sparks that spirit of freedom, of liberation,” said Ruth Bernstein, chief executive of creative firm Yard NYC, which counts brands like 7 For All Mankind and Athleta as clients.
This imagery couldn’t be more different than a Terry Richardson picture.
The industry has taken pains to show it’s modernised its views on sexuality, after driving the explicit imagery and creative use of human anatomy of Tom Ford-era Gucci into the ground sometime in the mid-aughts. The post-pandemic campaigns are far more likely to feature queer and gender-nonconforming models. And in the post-#MeToo era, many images are shot by photographers who say their goal is to portray sex independent of the straight, male gaze.
“This imagery couldn’t be more different than a Terry Richardson picture,” said documentary filmmaker and photographer Cheryl Dunn of her work for Diesel’s Spring 2021 campaign. (Diesel declined to comment to BoF.) Richardson’s style of photography, where celebrities often pose suggestively against a stark white backdrop with bright flash, was emblematic of the last wave of sex-driven marketing. Richardson has been accused of sexual misconduct by several of his subjects over the last two decades, and many brands stopped working with him after new allegations surfaced in 2017.
Before the Diesel shoot, Dunn said she interviewed each couple so they would feel more comfortable on set, especially when she was directing them to be physically intimate. She said the focus was on capturing intimate, candid moments.
“Something that is relatable is sexy, it’s joyful to think about … it’s not about this person or that person, it’s about a universal feeling,” Dunn said.
When Sex Stopped Selling
About five years ago, some of the fashion brands that defined the mainstream vision of sex — something that took place, in advertisements at least, mostly between straight, white, thin, young people — sanitised their image.
Gone were the washboard abs and half-naked men outside Abercrombie stores. In 2017, the New York Post wondered whether sex still sold at all, citing academic research. Victoria’s Secret cancelled its annual fashion show after years of declining ratings.
Accusations of sexual misconduct and harassment against Richardson and other photographers known for their sexually charged images further deflated fashion’s libido.
Just before the pandemic, the design and strategy consultancy Nemesis Global, which has worked with Louis Vuitton and Rimowa among other luxury brands, wrote an essay claiming consumers no longer want sex, “they want umami,” or experiences that could be easily disseminated through social media. Sexy images were but a tiny component of this expansive view of the good life.
Then, suddenly, a global pandemic made interacting with strangers and physical touch itself a scary and dangerous thing.
But with the end of the pandemic in sight for some, consumers appear ready to embrace sex and fashion again.
WGSN, the trend forecasting agency, found that “subversive sexy” clothing — that which “channels a more contemporary, sophisticated and edgier approach [with] a minimal aesthetic, reminiscent of the 90s” — are trending upward with consumers. Gen-Z in particular is interested in more “outright sexy” looks. The fact that people have spent the last year living their lives online has only fuelled this desire.
“Many [in Gen-Z] feel they can be a lot bolder and daring, wearing something that perhaps wouldn’t do IRL or to go out,” said Sara Maggioni, head of womenswear at WGSN.
Bringing Sexy Back
Retailers are responding in kind. Edited, a retail marketing intelligence firm, found that new products described as “sexy” increased 30 percent in the past three months compared to the prior three months. Much of the influence in the wider market came from both the Fall 2021 and Spring 2021 runways, where designers began to prescribe their view on post-pandemic dressing, Edited said.
Edited tracked a 240 percent rise in retailers’ offerings of exposed thong pants over the last three months, while less explicit choices like dresses and tops with cut out details are also becoming more prevalent. Bodycon dresses — the bandage style popularised by Hervé Léger and preferred by Kim Kardashian in the mid-aughts — are also making a comeback, Edited found.
Christelle Kocher, founder of the brand Koché, said “body-conscious” dresses are her best-selling category.
Koché's pre-Spring 2021 advertising campaign, shot by French duo Suzie Q and Leo Siboni, features naked models — their nipples and nether regions strategically covered by the brand’s logo — in the designer’s studio surrounded by the brand’s garment workers. Kocher described the campaign as more sensual than sexy.
“The idea was really to take the body as a centrepiece and as a true reference, almost like the muse,” Kocher said.
But brands interested in tapping into consumers’ desire to reenter society, full throttle, should do so carefully. On Instagram, some consumers were turned off by Suit Supply’s campaign, calling it “disgusting” and “way beyond tasteful art” (though there will always be a subset of consumers, and politicians, ready to criticise explicit sexuality in popular culture). Suit Supply did not respond to BoF’s request for comment.
“It is a very fine line and it can be quite a risky move that doesn’t always pay off,” Maggioni said. “If you are going to go into that territory, as a brand, it needs to be meaningful, educating, inclusive. It needs to have that empowerment edge as otherwise we risk turning back the clock.”