LONDON (NYTIMES) - On a muggy afternoon in May, in a heavily guarded studio hidden along a nondescript industrial North London back road, RuPaul, the actor, drag queen and television personality, was holding court inside a padded box, wearing a resplendent scarlet red ball gown from which oversize playing cards tumbled from the voluminous skirt.
Nearby, actor Djimon Hounsou stood staring, shirtless, sporting a gold crown and pinstripe trousers.
Hours earlier, actress Whoopi Goldberg had mugged for the cameras on that same set in rounded glasses, an oversize tunic the shape and colour of a tangerine, and a kaleidoscopic-patterned surcoat with a matching fur-lined hat.
Later, rapper Sean Combs, in red velvet, and supermodel Naomi Campbell, in black latex, marched in together, wielding large axes. “We are the royal beheaders,” Combs said, by way of explanation. “When we get the nod, it’s all, ‘Off with their heads.’ That’s how it will feel when people see these pictures too. In a positive way, obviously.”
As to why – well, welcome to the 2018 Pirelli calendar, aka Stage 4 in the publication’s transformation from upmarket nudie collectible to cultural barometer.
This time around, the calendar has taken the form of a reimagining of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, with an all-black celebrity cast photographed by Tim Walker and styled by Edward Enninful, the new editor of British Vogue.
What are they beheading? Old stereotypes and assumptions.
“Inclusivity is more part of the conversation than it has ever been before, but it goes far beyond black and white,” Enninful said. “It is about all creeds, all colours, all sizes and people just living their truths. A lot of this is about digital giving people voices, and a new generation who refuse to compromise and want answers to the questions that matter to them.
"Given the state of the world we live in, sometimes I think we all feel like we’ve 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.”
For Combs, who made headlines in 2001 when he posed with Campbell for a cover of British Vogue, the calendar comes at a time when there needs to be what he called “an unapologetic expression of black pride”.
“I moved mountains to be a part of this,” said Combs, as he sat in his dressing room after the shoot. “It is a chance to push social consciousness and break down barriers. For so many years, something like this would not have happened in the fashion world, so it feels like being part of history and playing an active role. I want to lead by example.”
New direction for calendar
For decades, the Pirelli calendar, first published by the Italian tyre company of the same name in 1964, was a soft-core ode to beautiful women. Shot by A-list photographers and usually starring scantily clad supermodels, it is a collector’s item and has never been sold on the open market.
Instead, it is given to insiders – a group of establishment opinion-makers including celebrities, media professionals, politicians and chief executives, as well as to Pirelli’s most valuable clients and distributors.
A year and a half ago, however, for the 2016 edition, photographed by Annie Leibovitz, the calendar’s raison d’etre took a sharp turn from prurience to pride. Rather than celebrating women purely for their physical attributes, it started applauding their accomplishments, featuring figures such as writer Fran Lebowitz, investment manager Mellody Hobson and tennis champion Serena Williams.
Then, for the 2017 version, a cast of fully clothed and make-up-free actresses including Helen Mirren, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore were shot in black and white, unairbrushed, by Peter Lindbergh, the better to explore what the photographer described as a “different beauty, more real and truthful – one not manipulated by commercial interests”.
Coming at a time when female objectification and overt sexism had begun to be a more frequent topic of public discussion, the change suggested that while Pirelli knew sex still sold, a corporation that successfully appeared socially aware could – and would – generate more global attention for its brand (not to mention lift its bottom line).
Still, eyebrows were raised when it first emerged that Pirelli was allowing Walker, whose reputation has been forged largely on his depictions of eerie romanticism and surrealist fairy-tale worlds in magazines such as W, Vogue and Love, to tackle black identity for the calendar.
Would the unveiling of the calendar on Wednesday be seen as a commitment to diversity and positive social change? Or could the campaign spur accusations of corporate exploitation – as Pepsi discovered in April after widespread backlash to its protest-themed advertisement featuring the model Kendall Jenner, pulled after only a day, amid claims that it trivialised the Black Lives Matter movement?
Walker, holding a mug of tea after the shoot in May, was at pains to stress the artistic motivations behind his photographs, rather than underscore specific social messaging. “As a photographer, you don’t ever want to do what has been done before, so it was important for me to feel I was doing something completely different here,” he said, adding that the decision to cast only black models had been “entirely my own. There were zero creative or commercial demands from Pirelli for this project. That is pretty rare in this business”.
“The story of Alice has been told so many times and in so many ways, but always with a white cast,” Walker continued. “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.”
He said that he had devised the concept for this year’s calendar long before the furor around the Pepsi advertisement, the 2016 movie Moonlight winning Best Picture at the Oscars this year or the heightened debate within the fashion industry about a lack of diversity on the catwalks.
It is hard to believe, however, that Walker was ignorant of the diversity debate, an issue that has been discussed regularly for the last decade.
“This is not about trends, this is about the zeitgeist today,” he said. “I think we are living in a fantastically exciting time, particularly when a story like that of Alice, that has held such resonance with so many people and been told in a certain way for so long, can now be told compellingly in another.”
Enninful, the Ghana-born, London-bred stylist who was awarded an OBE, or Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, for his work to diversify the fashion industry in 2016, said that he felt a responsibility to ensure that the shoot was received in the way that it was intended: as a theatrical high-fashion celebration with equality and empowerment at its core.
Carroll’s original illustrations for the story, drawn for him by John Tenniel and full of the exaggerated sizing and dramatic flourishes typical of 19th-century British caricature, were the starting point for the creative team.
Enninful saw associations with the contemporary sculptural creations of Japanese designers such as Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto in the work.
Shona Heath, the project’s set designer, and her team created an overflowing wardrobe of new silhouettes for the calendar. The cast was chosen by Piergiorgio Del Moro, including Alice herself: the South Sudanese-Australian model Duckie Thot, a newcomer, in towering platforms and cerulean blue thigh-high socks, with a starched silk minidress and a white lace pinafore.
“The outfit was made on me – we started with two costumes and eventually pinned them into a single look,” said Thot, 21, who started modeling internationally less than a year ago.
Asked how she felt about her starring role, she said: “I feel like I am living in my own fairy tale and am proud to be part of something with such an important message about pride and self-expression.”
That sentiment was emphasised by Adwoa Aboah, a Ghanaian-British model popular right now and a feminist activist who played Tweedledee. “Tim launched my career, so anytime he asks me to do something, it is always a yes; I trust him,” she said. “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 pin-up imagery, and this cast really does depict new ideas of what beauty is. And it certainly doesn’t mean not wearing any clothes.”
Being role models
Amid the boldface names, which include RuPaul as the Queen of Hearts, Goldberg (the Royal Duchess) and actress Lupita Nyong’o (the Dormouse), particularly striking is Thando Hopa. She is an albino lawyer and model, who plays the Princess of Hearts (a role specifically devised for her by Walker), and she is on a sabbatical after four years as a prosecutor specialising in sexual abuse cases in her native South Africa.
“When I was young, I didn’t have a single role model who looked like me, who could have been a source of inspiration or motivation,” Hopa said. “I wanted 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 fairy tale.
"If Alice looks differently here, then Alice can be anybody. Your value comes from far more than the narrative that someone else gives you. I hope that when the calendar goes live, they are able to see the intention behind this, which is that it was a unifying effort.”