New Pirelli calendar celebrates women's achievements

NEW YORK • When art collector Agnes Gund, 77, got the call, she thought: "That's odd. What's that got to do with someone like me?"

When author Fran Lebowitz, 65, got the call, she said: "I thought it was a joke." And when investment banker Mellody Hobson, 46, got the call, she mentioned it to her husband, film-maker George Lucas, who raised an eyebrow and said: "Do you know what that is?"

You can understand the quandaries, given that the call came from the office of photographer Annie Leibovitz and involved a request that each woman participate in the 2016 Pirelli calendar. The arty softcore ode to pin-ups is produced by the Italian tyre manufacturer, shot by renowned photographers, stars supermodels and is never sold, but given to an exclusive group of 20,000 "VIPs, musicians, politicians and royalty", according to a company spokesman.

On Monday, a new kind of Pirelli calendar was unveiled, showcasing 12 months of fully clad women mostly chosen for their achievements. Although the calendar has, on rare occasions, featured women in clothes (most notably in 2013, when it was shot in Brazil by Steve McCurry), this is the first time there is no provocation in the posing and the first time the attraction of the subjects is in their resumes and not their measurements.

Along with Playboy's decision in October to end nudity in its pages, the Pirelli pivot seems to give real substance to the theory that this is a flexion point in the public objectification of female sexuality.

Especially because the calendar - which is introduced every year with a giant party attended not only by the fashion flock but, in 2012, also by former president of Brazil Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and, last year, by President of Lombardy Roberto Maroni - has become something of a collector's item.

It has been immortalised in two Rizzoli books. It is, to a certain extent, a historical record.

What it is recording this time is "a very macro trend", said global chief strategy officer Jennifer Zimmerman for advertising agency McGarryBowen. "We call it the rise of the shero" - that is, the female hero. With the switch in subject matter, she said, "the greatest offender had become the greatest bandwagoneer".

Aside from Ms Gund, who was photographed with her granddaughter, Ms Hobson and Lebowitz, the calendar stars artist Yoko Ono, Selma director Ava DuVernay, Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, singer Patti Smith, blogger Tavi Gevinson and Chinese actress Yao Chen.

The exceptions to the fully dressed rule are tennis player Serena Williams, who is pictured topless, back to the camera, muscles gleaming; comedian Amy Schumer, in lingerie with her tummy rolls on display; and model Natalia Vodianova, in a voluptuous satin robe with one leg exposed and her youngest child clutched in her arms.

"We are in the midst of a perfect storm of cultural icons and politics and Hollywood," Ms Zimmerman said. "Between the first credible woman presidential candidate, all the powerful female characters on television from Supergirl to Madam Secretary to Scandal, the pressure for parity in pay, it is impossible to ignore the empowerment of women. Besides, who uses a calendar anymore? It has to stand for something else."

There is little doubt that the Pirelli pivot will be widely perceived as a political statement, not least because Leibovitz had shot a Pirelli calendar in 2000 that featured more traditional and unclad models such as Laetitia Casta posed as classic Greek nudes.

However, is it simply an example of calculated exploitation of a social trend, a clever attempt to profit from the spirit of the age or a more permanent commitment to change?

"I feel it helps put a new perspective on women of achievement," Ms Hobson said. "You have to give them credit for being bold at this moment. We have a long way to go, but this is part of that journey."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2015, with the headline 'New Pirelli calendar celebrates women's achievements'. Subscribe