Empowerment to Exploitation: How Saint Laurent Ads Portray Sexuality

The latest advertising campaign from French fashion house Saint Laurent has caused uproar for its degrading approach to women. The brand is notorious for scandalous adverts. We look at how Saint Laurent has gone from empowering to exploiting its models.

Saint Laurent’s New Ad

Lying back, she splays her fish-netted legs wide open, the centre of her crotch in the dead centre of the image. She stares at you, one eye hidden by her hair, with a look that is a mixture of provocation and accusation. There is no denying that this is a hypersexualised photograph. But it isn’t pornography – it’s the new Saint Laurent campaign.

Posters recently released around Paris show models in similarly sexual poses. One model is thrust over a stool, her face pressed down against the seat and her rear propped high. There is no mistaking the purpose behind this pose. In another, a model straddles a seat, legs wide over the arm rests, her arm hanging down to cover her crotch. Just to reiterate: these images aren’t part of a porno image set – they’re a fashion advertising campaign from a leading French luxury brand.

The posters for Saint Laurent’s new campaign have been seen all over Paris

The Autorite de Regulation Professionelle de la Publicite, France’s authority on advertising, have demanded that the posters be changed, as the imagery is a “serious breach of rules set by the advertising industry to maintain dignity and respect in the representation of the person”. This was following numerous complaints, accusing the adverts of being “degrading to women” and “incitement to rape”.

The campaign was made by the brand’s in-house creative team, under the artistic direction of new designer Anthony Vaccarello. Vaccarello just debuted a collection at Paris Fashion Week including one-shoulder dresses that expose the breasts, and is known for his amped-up sex factor. A previous campaign, under the tenure of former designer Hedi Slimane, was banned in the UK two years ago. It featured an “unhealthily underweight” model, again lying back submissively with her legs knocked open.

The 2015 ad that caused outrage, when Hedi Slimane was in charge.

What is interesting is when these new advertisements are compared with equally scandalous adverts from the same brand from the past.

In 2000, Saint Laurent released the now infamous Opium perfume ad, which featured a naked Sophie Dahl on her back, legs apart, seemingly caught in the throes of ecstasy. Perhaps those scented notes of jasmine, clove and plum inspired an orgasmic reaction, or perhaps, then as now, the French fashion house was using the ‘sex sells’ mantra to shift everything from its fragrances to its fur coats. The advert was banned for being “sexually suggestive and unsuitable to be seen by children” and perhaps that is the key point: Sophie Dahl is portrayed in a moment of hypersexuality, but it is her autonomous sexuality. With many allusions to masturbation (even if it is over a perfume), Dahl is sexually liberated and empowered. Though inappropriate for children, the advert remained appropriate for an adult audience, because Dahl was asserting her right as a sexual woman. In the newer advertising campaigns, the models are subjected to sexual intent through objectification and submission, and this sexual aggression is inappropriate for all audiences.

Sophie Dahl for Saint Laurent’s Opium Perfume ad, 2000

In 1971, namesake designer Yves starred in the ad campaign for the Pour Homme fragrance. Wearing nothing but his iconic spectacles, he looks brazenly into the camera, his body on offer to the viewer. His crossed legs prevent the image from becoming explicit. Again, there is a definite sexuality about the image, but it is an owned sexuality – Yves allows himself to be viewed in all his nakedness. Again, there is a sense of empowerment and when compared to the “degrading” images of the brand’s latest campaign, we see the stark difference in portrayal and intent. In his nudity, Yves offers himself; dressed in the clothes from the latest collection, the models of the new campaign are having sexual intent forced upon them.

Yves Saint Laurent for the Pour Homme ad, 1971

Saint Laurent’s campaigns have always been scandalous, but the brand seems to have moved from empowering the subjects of its ads to exploiting them. Its imagery has gone from promoting sexual autonomy to promoting sexual abuse. This glamorisation of rape culture, of which Saint Laurent is not the sole proprietor in the fashion industry by any stretch of the imagination, is a worrying indicator of how far we still have to go in the fight against misogyny and changing social attitudes towards gender and sexuality. That, more than a change in clothes and collections or a change in designers, is the change we really need to see.

Follow Darcy Rive on Twitter @DarcyRive
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