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David LaChapelle: fashion can’t pretend this isn’t happening

Are brands chasing profits by jumping on the anti-Trump bandwagon? The photographer argues that the industry has a duty to use its power for good

In 1995, only a few years after they’d first started creating advertising, Italian denim brand Diesel ran a campaign which was, without question, historic. Looking like something torn from a school history textbook or a copy of Life magazine, the black and white image appeared to depict D-Day celebrations of a US Naval ship, its sailors marking the end of WW2 triumphantly. While their shipmates raised their arms, in the foreground of the image two of them stood embracing, their mouths locked together in a kiss which recalled AIDS activists Gran Fury’s famous ‘read my lips’ poster. At the height of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell – the controversial policy instated by the Clinton administration which banned openly LGBTQ people from serving in the US Military – the ad was published around the world.

Part of the brand’s For Successful Living campaign, conceptualised by Jocke Jonason, the shot was taken by David LaChapelle. The photographer, then lesser known, has since become one of the most highly regarded photographic portrait artists working today – his surreal, hypersaturated style making high, often religious art of pop, trash and kitsch culture, and creating images in which the subject becomes a character in a meticulously orchestrated landscape. For LaChapelle, that kissing campaign created a response he couldn’t anticipate. “Neither of us knew the impact of what we were doing,” he remembers, referring to himself and Diesel founder Renzo Rosso. “The impact was huge because it was seen in 72 countries. At the time, in 95, two men kissing –  that had never been seen before like that, internationally. People thought I'd taken an old photograph and added them digitally, like I was blaspheming a photo of D-Day by superimposing two ‘fags’ kissing on it. I just took that to mean that the art direction was really good.”

In fact, out of his immense body of work (think Michael Jackson as an angel, Madonna flanked by a couple of giant swans, or Naomi Campbell in a wrestling ring or nude with an astronaut) he says its one image which has had a lasting, human significance. “I had a friend who was in the closet at the time, in college. He went to West Point, which is a military academy, and he was on a sports team there. He told me years later that he saw the advert in a magazine while they were all on a bus going to an event. He just looked at these guys kissing – he had to hide the page – he'd never seen it before.” Once, LaChapelle was driving out in the desert in California, and stopped at a small gay and lesbian bar. “There it was behind the bar, taped up, all yellow,” he remembers. “That was like it being in the best gallery or the best museum in the world. It meant something to people.”

Although over two decades (and a lucrative and highly respected career) have passed since LaChapelle created that image, this month has seen him return to work with the brand, teaming up with Diesel creative director Nicola Formichetti to shoot their latest campaign, #makelovenotwalls. In it, a joyful group smash down the barrier which divides them, carrying in a giant, inflatable, rainbow tank (now on a global tour) and celebrating together. With a cast of nonconforming individuals from all over the world (including activists, artists, an Olympic medalist, a Ru Paul’s Drag Race contestant and ballet dancer Sergei Polunin) it’s an obvious response Donald Trump’s message of division. A nod to that first campaign, the new promo features two men kissing as they are married by a black trans woman under the remnants of the wall.

For LaChapelle, who for the last decade or so has spent his time focussing on art exhibitions around the world rather than fashion campaigns, it marks something of a return to a more commercial type of work. He told Formichetti his absence from advertising was a result of the lack of creative freedom; it’s pretty difficult to make an image with a prominently displayed handbag feel truly artistic. But the driving force of this project, they say, isn’t product placement. “If the clothes are in it – great. But, for me, it was really not about showing off the bag or the jeans, or something else,” assets Formichetti. “When I spoke to David, I told him that it’s not about that, I wanted it to be a collaboration between us.”

“Someone said to me, ‘hopefully it doesn’t turn into cliché’. Except hopefully, it really fucking does. Hopefully everyone fucking gets on board and is like, ‘No, this is it. We’re not gonna sit by’” – David LaChapelle

Likewise, LaChapelle is insistent that what they’ve created goes beyond just a desire to push products. “Nicola doesn’t want us to do an ad that’s just, ‘Yeah, we’re selling jeans’, he asserts. “It’s not a ploy – of course we want to sell jeans, it’s a given. But at the same time, you can’t just sit by thinking this” – Trump, Brexit, you name it – “is not fucking happening. If the government is what’s threatening us, then private sector companies like Diesel are what we've got, and otherwise we protest on the streets. If the government is corrupt, it can only come from the private sector.” Formichetti concurs, addressing those who have Diesel down as opportunists keen to profit from the world's recent swing to the right. “We have to advertise anyway, right? I have a responsibility as a brand, as a person, to use my voice to put out a positive message. So ours is about diversity and promoting equality and issues are happening in the world. We’re a big company, so it’s our responsibility to show the world the most diversity possible. That’s the minimum we have to do, you know?”

From debates over dressing Melania to the inclusion of Trump-related brands in stores, the new President has forced the fashion industry to confront its place in the world at large. Those who have come out against him have enjoyed positive responses, both in terms of public perception and financially – Nordstrom’s stock actually went up when Trump went after them on Twitter for dropping his daughter’s clothing line (although that may have been coincidental). It’s easy, therefore, to see campaigns like #makelovenotwalls as geared towards cash rather than change, but like that image of the kissing sailors, that ignores the fact that fashion imagery has the power to have a real cultural and social impact. Would we prefer an industry that closed its eyes and looked the other way? Surely not. “Someone said to me, ‘hopefully it doesn’t turn into cliché,’” effused LaChapelle, referring to socially-conscious ads like this one. “Except hopefully, it really fucking does. Hopefully everyone fucking gets on board and is like, ‘No, this is it. We’re not gonna sit by.’”