This is an ad at my train station in Connecticut. It 's for Liz Claiborne and it features Issac Mizrahi. (Yes, that's my finger in the way. Amateurs! Anthropologists!)
Notice the man in a green scarf sitting on the bench. On closer scrutiny, this proves to be Monsieur Mizrahi himself, lost in thought, putting in this carefully managed appearance, a little in the manner of the master Alfred Hitchcock in his early days.
It's a wonderful piece of advertising. It has a certain emotional tonality that distinguishes it from most of the fashion advertising I've ever seen. It has a narrative verve, doesn't it?
But of course the semantics of the narrative have been withheld from us. So the fun of the ad is figuring out what's up. There are three dyads. The two women to the left are having a great conversation. About what? The two women in the middle: are they together? Probably not. The two women to the right: mother and child? Surely. That leaves the model who as a contemporary model is looking not quite of this world. And Mizrahi himself. Reading. What? Why? What is he doing here? It's a little like a celebrity appearance, a cameo. The ad is equal parts naturalism and evident artifice. Perhaps Mizrahi should be understood as a kind of muse: the designer who attends every public showing of his art.
Notice that on this instance of the ad there is graffiti that (probably) reads, "Paper Monster." It is so placed as to seem to refer to the designer. Wonderful.
Monster? Designers are monstrous in a way. They deform the world with their creative powers. They have no respect for conventions or some of the things we love. They pretty much do what they want. And to this extent the designer is a little like the trickster of North American aboriginal lore.
And paper. Why paper? Is this like "paper tiger?" Designers look monstrous but they are really not so dangerous after all. We mustn't take them too seriously.
In this case, graffiti makes an interesting, worthy ad still more interesting. And perhaps we could argue that good work attracts good work. This brand and this graffiti artist are collaborating. Perhaps this may be another way of saying: Ads get the graffiti artists they deserve. We can imagine the graffiti artist's moment. He can draw a mustache on that ridiculous ad that shows a pilot for American Air. Put if he is going to intervene in this Liz Claiborne ad, well, something more interesting is called for. Not just called for, but actually mandated. The graffiti artist must speak to the fashion artist, and he is obliged to bring his best game. (Actually, the conversation is with the creatives at the advertising firm, and through them the brand, and through them Mizrahi.) In this case, good drives in good.
Surely, this is a new article of faith in the marketing world. Now that we have more sophisticated consumers out there, we want to engage them by engaging their intelligence. In a newly subtle way, the brand is reaching out and leveraging the intelligence of the consumer. Here "work with this!" And the graffiti artists leverages with yet another order of indeterminacy, and this adds a layer of difficulty, and those who stop to wonder are tested to get smarter and more observant, and perhaps a virtuous cycle is set in train. Thus does the muse now participate in contemporary culture.
Great insight as always. I actually wrote about fashion ads last August from a similar perspective (forgive the self-promotional indulgence):
Most high fashion ads have a superficiliaty that destroys the fantasy for me. The NYC kerfuffle over the Calvin Klein wall ad is a great example. The three guys don’t look like they have any interest in the girl to me. But this Liz Clairborne ad has a different type of fictionality (that’s a word, right?) It’s a fictionality that is somehow existing in a real world. Mothers and daughters we get. Friends chatting we get. A guy with a bandana we get.
Regarding the grafitti, my interpretation is that it was there before the ad was shot, and the ad agency, rather than photoshopping it out in post-production, left it in to add a level of authenticity. But certainly we are meant to ponder the meanings as you have.
I particularly love the character with the yellow umbrella. She looks like she just stepped out of a photo from the Sartorialist. I think she perfectly counter-balances Mizrahi: two undecidedly non-traditional model bodies in a model world (look at the rest of the cast). And yet, those two are the most interesting. I think there is another ad or two in this campaign, and they’re equally interesting. Thanks again Grant for highlighting this.
So I just ran into this site and I realized that you actually wrote about one of my tags!! I am PaperMonster (http://papermonster.wordpress.com) I was wondering if you could do me an amazing favor and send over these images as high resolution images to me so that can write about this as well as your site. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw this and my heart is racing right now. Thank you for all of the help and incredible writing on this ad. Very well done. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks so much once again.
Very cool. I do believe you meant to address your comment to Grant though.
Practically every person in the image is a designer/critic: Much depends on the definition of the term.
There used to be 7 million stories in The Naked City. Naked/Fashion — ironic.
There might be that many crops of this photograph, and stories intersecting in it, at grantstome.com.
(That’s just my attempt at a cooler name for this blog.)
I was going to say that is the tag of PaperMonster, a stencil artist who does his own brand of storytelling through imagery of women. But it appears he already made himself know above. Still there is an even deeper conversation going on here, Grant. Read this interview to get a full sense of how PM’s tag on the Mizrahi ad creates an wonderful mashup for those who see the context.
The “stories” on the lizclaiborne site almost undermine the visuals. Really, what possessed them to features profiles that sound so much like background info on a creative brief? It’s strange. Like someone at lizclaiborne couldn’t quite embrace this “new article of faith” — couldn’t quite leave it to the consumer’s imagination and intelligence. It may be a minor thing but still.
There’s a meta-story here, as well. In his post, Grant highlighted the Paper Monster graffiti detail, riffed a few hypotheses on what it might mean, and then the actual PaperMonster wrote in clarifying that the graffito was one of his/her tags.
So the Mizrahi ad has now become, at least for the several people involved in this interaction, a platform for dialogue and a “place where people are meeting.” As with the best viral marketing, the distinctions between the realms of media and “life” have dissolved, and we are left with a multiplicity of forces exerting influence on each other. Advertising in the age of the critically literate consumer and the internet has the opportunity to create this mechanism and the chance to exploit it.