In the age of #BlackLivesMatter, #BlackisBeautiful and #BlackGirlMagic, leading brands and publications have realized that the image they project to millennial and Gen Z audiences needs to resonate with major social movements and calls for representation.
Now even the Pirelli calendar, a legendary sexy institution since the 1960s heyday of Playboy magazine and soft porn advertisements, has joined the push for diversity. Its 2018 edition features an all-black model cast directed by Edward Enninful, who recently became British Vogue's first black editor-in-chief
The mood marks a departure from the institution's previous all-black calendar, which saw photographer Terence Donovan capture the era's top models in Savannah-like settings, topless and styled in tribal fashion. The 1987 shoot was "dedicated to the beauty of African women, featuring jewelry marked with tire tracks," according to Pirelli's website
The new calendar, shot by fashion photographer Tim Walker, reimagines the tale of Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" with a #BlackExcellence twist: Alice is model Duckie Thot, an eerie figure in a white mini dress and punky black platform heels.
Photographer Tim Walker has brought together an all-black cast for the 2018 Pirelli calendar. Model Slick Woods poses as the Mad Hatter. Credit: Alessandro Scotti
Her jubilant entourage is composed of Adwoa Aboah (who also starred on Enninful's first cover for British Vogue) as Tweedledee; Naomi Campbell and Sean "Diddy" Combs as the executioners; Slick Woods as the Mad Hatter; Lupita Nyong'o as the Dormouse; Whoopi Goldberg as the Duchess; Djimon Hounsou as the King of Hearts; Ru Paul as the Queen of Hearts and Lil Yachty as the queen's guard.
An evolving institution
A shot from the first Pirelli calendar, issued in 1964. Credit: Courtesy Pirelli
Historically, the Italian brand's yearly calendar has infused glamour and a dash of titillation, presenting a series of top models shot by leading photographers. The calendar isn't distributed for sale or showcased at events but rather gifted to a select group of sports car moguls, A-listers and journalists.
Now costing about $2 million to produce, it creates a buzz for a tire brand in need of rejuvenation. And, as former Pirelli executive Gioacchino del Balzo told the Financial Times in 2008, it may offer between $300 million and $500 million of value in free advertising.
Cindy Crawford poses for Pirelli's 1994 calendar. Credit: Pirelli
While publication was paused following the 1973 oil crisis, it was resurrected a decade later. Models featured have included Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Milla Jojovitch and Heidi Klum, while photography legends like Sarah Moon, Norman Parkinson, Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz and Inez and Vinoodh have all been found behind the camera. Terry Richardson (who has recently been banned from the pages of Condé Nast publications after accusations of sexual misconduct) photographed the 2010 edition.
Pirelli's 2016 calendar, shot by Annie Leibovitz, featured Serena Williams and other strong female personalities. Credit: Pirelli
In recent years however, "The Cal" (as Pirelli styles it) has been criticized for perpetuating antiquated images of women, and has begun to shift its focus towards cultural figures and social movements. In 2016, Annie Leibovitz's
classic black-and-white shoot featured not pinups but culturally relevant women of all ages, including Yoko Ono, Shirin Neshat and Serena Williams. The next edition, shot by Peter Lindbergh
, presented Hollywood stars without any retouching of the images.
Actress Uma Thurman is one of a dozen actresses photographed by Peter Lindbergh for the 2017 Pirelli calendar. Next year's calendar will be the tire company's 44th annual showcase of female beauty. Credit: Alessandro Scotti
"Pirelli has tried to reinvent the imagery in the car world where the woman was literally the trademark of the road," said Neville Wakefield, a freelance creative director who regularly collaborates with Playboy and on sports car events, in a phone interview.
"The cliche was that the landscape that was driven over (is) where she becomes an active figure. The analogy has been about nature and landscape, and men overcoming nature through the dominance of machinery -- acculturating nature by creating pathways through it. But now we've got tired of that analogy ... (and) we're also targeting a changing demographic."
A 'conversation we should have'
In this latest edition of the calendar, the photographs burst with color. Shot in Tim Walker's signature fantastical style, they feature couture fashions and theatrical compositions. The lighting is otherworldly, as if part of a surreal dream. The 28-page calendar is an oversized objet d'art encased inside a black box and printed on heavy, glossy paper. Beneath the magical decor is a message of empowerment -- culminating in the axes brandished by Campbell and Combs -- and a celebration of inclusiveness in the "woke" digital age.
Behind the scenes of the 2018 Pirelli calendar shot where Duckie Thot is Alice. Credit: Alessandro Scotti
"I wanted to tell 'Alice' in a way that hasn't been told before," said Walker, who once worked as an assistant to Richard Avedon, himself the photographer of two Pirelli calendars. "It's important for photographers to move things on.
"I don't see myself as a spokesperson for black beauty -- I find it beautiful and I do think it's a conversation we should have in some way. Why is the authorship predominantly white? Maybe by perpetuating this conversation, that will change."
Tim Walker and Edward Enninful on set of 2018 Pirelli calendar shoot. Credit: Alessandro Scotti
Pirelli's CEO has described the all-black cast as a voluntary contrast with the Victorian tale that many children grow up with. For one of its stars, Naomi Campbell
, the project can also make people question their assumptions.
"We think Alice in Wonderland has to be white, but that's just in our imaginations," said Campbell, a vocal campaigner for models of color who has featured in three other editions, including Terence Donovan's all-black 1987 issue. "Quincy Jones made 'The Wiz' black. It's just a matter of our minds and what we allow and what we limit.
Pirelli's 1987 calendar also featured an all-black cast, shot by photographer Terence Donovan. Credit: Pirelli
"You have to give hope. If I don't use my voice to do that what am I going to do? I want new generations to grow up in a diverse, free world where people get opportunity because they're great at what they do, not because of the color of their skin."
While the full public reaction to the new calendar remains to be seen, diversity activists in the media have expressed enthusiasm for the initiative.
"Pirelli understands that you have to show diversity to make an impact," explained trend forecaster and strategist Rita Nakouzi in a phone interview. "If brands don't cater to the activism in society, then customers won't engage with them. The world is moving forward and people realize that it's moving without them, so they need to adapt.
"Even the fact that, this week, the first transgender person was elected in Virginia shows that people want more diversity. Millennials are disrupters of culture and one of the most diverse generations."
Amy Andrieux, who was the first African-American editorial director at MTV and is now launching a new music platform called United Masters, is reticent about what she perceives as the tokenization of blackness as a fantasy. But, she said in a phone interview: "The collective statement to celebrate black excellence is powerful. Now let's see if that leads to positive changes in the future."