Last week, British Vogue’s new editor-in-chief, Edward Enninful, launched his first issue, ushering in a new era of diversity for the fashion bible. By the weekend, Enninful had struck again, this time with the 2018 Pirelli calendar, which he styled, and cast with an all-black group of models, activists and actors.
Shot by fashion photographer Tim Walker, the calendar features Naomi Campbell, British Vogue cover star Adwoa Aboah, Sudanese-Australian model Duckie Thot, South African lawyer Thando Hopa, Whoopi Goldberg, Lupita Nyong’o and RuPaul, who were transformed by Enninful into characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Enninful took the job of styling the calendar before he was appointed editor, and though the timing of the two launches is coincidence, it does address a palpable shift in mood.
The Pirelli calendar was created by the Italian tyre company in the 1960s as a trade gift, with a focus on somewhat salacious imagery of women. In 1987, it hired the fashion photographer Terence Donovan to photograph a 17-year-old Naomi Campbell. In an approach that would feel deeply problematic today, she was presented as a scantily clad tribal princess.
For Campbell, who stars in this year’s edition 30 years on, this week marks a seismic change in the industry. “The message is so big, and the timing could not be more perfect,” Campbell said. In her 31 years as a model, she added, this is a unique moment in the industry’s acceptance of diversity. “The last two seasons have been better,” Campbell told the Guardian in New York. “It’s great to see these beautiful girls get this opportunity. I just don’t want it to be a trend, and I think we all feel that way.”
Despite its questionable beginnings, the calendar has been latterly praised as a greenhouse for photographic talent. In a jarring note, that included hiring the disgraced photographer Terry Richardson, who shot the calendar in 2010.
It has since branched out into a broader, and more artistic, project. Peter Lindbergh’s 2017 “More naked than a nude” shoot of Hollywood actors was a key moment, while a year earlier, the hiring of photographer Annie Leibowitz, who shot an older female cast, shifted attention towards the female gaze. This year, however, it has turned its attention towards diversity.
Pirelli hopes the styling will give the shoot a playful tone. “Over the past two years we had something more serious, so this year we wanted something more creative or magical,” Pirelli’s CEO, Marco Tronchetti, told the Guardian.
Tim Walker, a frequent Enninful collaborator in his previous position as W fashion editor, explained that his choice to photograph an all-black cast was part of larger conversation. “It’s difficult to be entirely clear, but fashion reflects the spirit of the times. The fashion industry is a wonderland, and it’s an immensely positive thing to see a black Alice … Alice is universal.”
Camilla Lowther, Walker’s agent, who is also the mother of Vogue cover star Adwoa Abdoh, said she believed the photographer and stylist had simply tuned in to the need for change that accompanied the political shocks of the past year.
“Everyone had had enough” when it came to the stark lack of cultural diversity in fashion, Lowther says. “The first thing clients used to say was, ‘no black models’. They actually used to say that. But nobody would say that now. It’s time.”
Duckie Thot, the upcoming South Sudanese-Australian model, said she felt fortunate: “There’s never been a better time to be a black woman. We’re at a place where we’re being heard and we have the opportunity to do more. And Alice in Wonderland should be every woman’s story.”
Walker added that he felt there were “no more white stories to tell”.
“As a photographer, you’re standing there, focusing your camera, and looking at a certain white body shape yet again. It does become relentlessly uninspiring when there are so many other forms of beauty in the world,” he said.
There are still plenty of issues with the projection of black beauty in fashion. Last week, Lupita Nyong’o, who plays the Dormouse in Walker’s production, accused Grazia magazine of removing part of her hair for the front cover of its November edition. She said she was disappointed it changed her hairstyle to “fit their notion of what beautiful hair looks like”.
Oscar-nominated actor and model Djimon Hounsou (who plays Walker’s King of Hearts) said early in his career it had been suggested that he’d benefit from lightening his skin and straightening his nose. Being invited to star in the Pirelli campaign, he said, was a chance for people like himself to “finally be integrated in this fantasy world”.
Hounsou’s experience of working as a model was characterised by discrimination. “Of all places, fashion was the most brutal. Casting directors would say, ‘OK. Thank you for coming in. You might want to think about rearranging your nose.’ Comments like that for a young man coming up were extremely shocking. It certainly makes you self-conscious. Do I need to straighten my nose like all white people?
South African model and lawyer Thando Hopa, who is albino, said she hoped her image as the Queen of Hearts would become a “vessel to carry a message of dreams and possibilities to women, people of colour, people who are considered different.”
“Look at Alice. She goes into a strange world. She gets small, she gets big. She’s trying to figure herself out. She says, who in the world am I? Other people are saying she’s a flower, she’s a serpent. They see her through their own eyes. She’s going through her own identity politics.”
Others in the calendar include Jaha Dukureh, the Gambian-born anti-FGM campaigner. “The calendar for me is about representation and how different we are, despite being black. It about our walks of life, where we come form and the stories we had to tell.”
This could be read as a manifesto for Enninful as he lays out his vision for Vogue’s approach to diversity. The title, he told WWD last week, has to represent “real women, and to be reflective of the society we live in. Diversity is very important for me. I want Vogue to feel like a shop that you’re not scared to walk into, one that’s quite welcoming.”
Campbell, who talked to the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, for Enninful’s debut issue, said she anticipated that fashion would be entering a time of fantasy again. “That’s how I always loved fashion to be. It’s so fun to put on an outfit and transform. With all that’s happened in the world, people are really wanting to dream again. I think we’re going to see fantasy.”