Fashion Archive: Pirelli Calendar

Marking fifty years of seduction on set with Lindbergh and Demarchelier in New York

Fashion Feature
10 Fashion archive: Pirelli Calendar
Taken from the Pirelli archives: January 1995 Photo by Brian Duffy in London

Taken from the September issue of Dazed & Confused

It’s a sun-soaked breezy day in Atlantic Beach, New York, and the pastel-painted benches, pool with diving board and lifeguards in red shorts could be taken from a 1960s postcard. Everyone on the beach is enchanted by the perfect weather (could Manhattan really be only 40 minutes away?) except for Peter Lindbergh, who was banking on the day’s forecast for grey rain and wind. A frame is set up in front of the ocean with black curtains, and Lindbergh accepts that he won’t get storm clouds and raging seas today. That’s not a bummer for the models – Alessandra Ambrosio, Helena Christensen, Miranda Kerr, Alek Wek, Karolina Kurkova and Isabeli Fontana – who stride on to the beach in classic black swimsuits, ready to create a group portrait that has all the makings of an iconic fashion photograph.

The look recalls the collective portraits of the 1990s, which absorb you with their dimension and composition. Then again, that spirit may be exclusive to that era. “Those girls were friends, they did everything together. They were constantly together,” Kurkova says, sitting in the penthouse of the Gramercy Park Hotel the night before the shoot. “Now it’s different: we travel, and we’re all kind of all over the place. It’s not like we do shoots like this all the time. And it takes time to get comfortable with someone. It might be a different type of picture. But we all want the same thing: to strive for it to be beautiful.”

This shoot is being held to mark the 50th anniversary of the Pirelli calendar. Everyone on-set is a Pirelli veteran: for models, booking the calendar is like winning an Oscar, while for photographers it’s a chance to exercise unbridled creative freedom. The Pirelli calendar holds cult status in the industry because it’s distributed in complete secrecy. In an era when it’s rare for a fashion image to be released into the world just in print, the idea that this editorial marvel is distributed quietly to cultural powerhouses, for the sake of creating photographs unlike any other, is pretty gobsmacking. 

Fashion archive: Pirelli Calendar
Taken from the Pirelli archives: April 1994 Photo by Herb Ritts in the Bahamas

Oh wait, I forgot to mention – historically, the models are naked. It sets the calendar apart. But so does the fact that the women featured are called “protagonists”. “They truly do show how much they celebrate women,” Wek says. “Coming from a family of five girls, my mother would always stress celebrating who you are, but also my other sisters and their differences. That spirit in fashion doesn’t come around too much.”

Whether you call it celebrating feminine power or capturing the beauty of light on flawless human skin, the Pirelli calendar is a pin-up. But the magic of these secret images shot by the likes of Herb Ritts, Richard Avedon, Arthur Elgort, Bruce Weber and Mert and Marcus warrants appreciation far more sophisticated than the male gaze. 

The sexiest, most erotic thing in the world is talent
– Peter Lindbergh

Even so, a trio of local beach dudes wander up to the edge of the set while Lindbergh is shouting, “Beautiful! Beautiful!” To them, the world’s most beautiful supermodels gathered together at once must feel like a mirage. Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing” is drifting out of a stereo and a tray of iced coffees sweat in their sleeves. The models look fresh and cool under the curtain, arms around each other, stepping into pose and then shaking it out for a split second between shots. They move in close, then sway out. Hug in, dance out. They pulse together like a gorgeous supermodel jellyfish. One of the male observers sings along under his breath: “I believe in miracles...”

“The sexiest, most erotic thing in the world is talent,” Lindbergh says later. Whether he’s created an iconic group portrait for modern times he can’t yet say. “After a long time you go back and figure out, ‘This was a good picture that represents everything I stand for.’” Today he stands for Pirelli, and laughs at the number of imitators who have approached him to shoot calendars. But there’s only one, so he always replies with a kindly, “Why don’t you fuck off?”

Kurkova leans in to say goodbye to Lindbergh before heading into the city, where Patrick Demarchelier will shoot the same women tomorrow. “Tell Patrick to make an effort!” Lindbergh calls after her, laughing. The following afternoon, in a studio in Chelsea, Demarchelier’s team is setting up, the models dressed in white button-down shirts and high heels. “Sexy” distilled into two pieces of clothing. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be on-set with a master like Demarchelier, here is the pure experience.

Turn your head to the right for a moment, then turn back to the screen. That’s how long it takes for him to get the shot. We blink and the heels are off. 

Outside after the shoot, the Pirelli team is mined for information about where the 2014 calendar will be set, or if the shoot will even take place. No one knows.

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