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  • Bruce Weber: Sex, Lies and Nightmares

    Sometime around the year 2000, when I was still in elementary school, I remember walking through my older cousin’s bedroom which was, as is the case with many teenagers, adorned with posters. There was one fixed with pseudo discretion right next to the entryway so that it became partially obscured when the door swung open. It had a vertical orientation with the ephemeral, grainy resolution of film that made its date difficult to pinpoint. In it, a young naked woman with flaxen hair, made luminous by the sun, strolled through a field of wild vegetation in relaxed bliss, a smile spreading across her face. It was Abercrombie & Fitch’s heyday, and I’d grown accustomed to this kind of imagery streaked across shopping bags toted around the mall. I recognized instantly this photograph was related though by what means I didn’t know. It was only later that I learned what connected them was Bruce Weber.

     Weber, 71, is one of the world’s leading photographers who has garnered particular acclaim for his work in glossy publications. He has lensed so many iconic ad campaigns, editorials and personal book projects I doubt even he keeps track. Weber has long been the subject of rumors about what has or has not happened on his exclusive sets, but being the power player that he is, nothing has seemed to stick with any serious consequences. Until now.  A bevy of current and former models, numbering no fewer than 15, who at one time worked with Weber have come forward—first in individual Instagram posts, and now in a damning New York Times exposé that accuses both Weber and fellow fashion titan Mario Testino of gross abuses of authority. I could most definitely make this piece an examination of them both, but, for now, my focus lies squarely on Weber. Though the accusations that have come to light are truly horrific, Weber has always been a problematic figure and whatever the outcome may be, it is long past time for fashion to move on without him. 

    A couple of months ago, the men’s fashion magazine VMan promoted a 2018 calendar on social media which featured a different male model for each respective month, all with the chiseled bone structure and sinewy abdominal wall found throughout Weber’s portfolio. The images were indeed beautiful and I instantly messaged one to a good friend who also happens to be a photographer. I mentioned to her how incredible all the men looked, but qualified that I was conflicted having never decided definitively if I thought Weber was exploitative. “I think he is creepy, but talented,” she replied. “Creepy only because he seems like a dirty old man.” She also mentioned apprehension at his glass closet image. I couldn’t help but agree with both points. Despite being married to his agent and studio manager Nan Bush, his homoerotic imagery and apparent intimate detachment from Bush have always led most observers to conclude that their union was one strictly of business. The stories now trickling forth seem to bear that out.

    Among other things, Weber is accused of forcibly touching male models using his infamous ‘breathing technique’ whereby he leads a subject through exercises in a supposed attempt to relax them enough to take an astonishing picture. However, from what has been reported in the Times and confirmed by several models independently, this procedure often involved Weber guiding a model’s hands to their genitals as he stood uncomfortably close, sometimes with his fingers in their mouths, and even resulted in forced masturbation in some instances. Those who didn’t comply or were visibly uncomfortable were never contacted for work again, usually killing their career just as it began.

    To learn that Weber had a ‘casting couch’ process of sorts didn’t surprise me as the public has become only too aware of these sinister methods as employed by the likes of Harvey Weinstein. These disturbing accounts of Weber using his position to force nudity and unwanted sex acts on those who posed for him both angered me as a human and as a person in the same field. I’ve spent time on sets as a stylist’s assistant helping dress models for shoots, but I always made doubly sure to keep my gaze where it belonged, worked as quickly as possible, touched only when and where absolutely necessary to do the work and maintained conversation to gauge their level of comfort. From what was reported by numerous men, Weber often asked his subjects to strip for ‘test shoots’ in small quarters and made advances while no one else was present. The truth is, that kind of excessive nudity is totally unnecessary even for assignments that require someone to disrobe. As model Jason Fedele astutely said in the Times article, “...If you do get the job, the majority of the time you’re not naked and you’re not in a swimsuit. So what’s really happening is that these guys are gauging whether you’re open or shy or close-minded or, quite frankly, whether you’re gay or hetero and willing either to flirt with them or to submit to an advance.” The youth and inexperience of his alleged victims only made them more susceptible to this manipulative behavior.

    For generations of people, Weber’s work has come to embody sex. He took the carefree lightness of 20th century Health Photography, which depicted active people relishing the outdoors and imbued it with an eroticism that shaped how people engaged with everything from Calvin Klein to Ralph Lauren to Banana Republic. As a gay man, I always had an appreciation for these kinds of photographs. They were unabashed in their sexuality and dared you to look with unblinking eyes. I found the featured men adonis-like, and Weber’s eye captured intangible details specific to the gay point of view that appealed to the voyeur lurking in everyone. But even before I heard the rumors, they gave me pause. There was something too invasive and undue about much of what he produced. He wasn’t like George Platt Lynes exploring his own sexuality and giving a face to gay men or even Picasso distorting women in an attempt to physicalize his tumultuous romances with lovers while eradicating traditional form. No matter how wonderfully composed his nude photographs were, elements were amiss and the patterns of predation described with striking similarity by so many buttress my worst assumptions. 

    That same VMan calendar that kicked off my renewed processing of Weber’s oeuvre highlighted another issue the fashion industry has seemed content to ignore. It caused more than a little internet chatter when viewers quickly recognized that of the 12 models featured, all were white or, at the very least, so fairly complected that no one who didn’t know them personally would be able to tell otherwise. One Instagram commenter quipped, “Even the dogs are white,” in reference to the Golden Retriever puppies that populated a group shot.  This project—like the poster I remember from years ago, nearly all of his fashion editorials, monographs and advertising—featured people sharply limited in demographics. Yes, Weber has included people of varying backgrounds in the past, but often only when the subject matter or location absolutely demanded it. His vision has become synonymous with the fantasy of America and Americana yet the danger lies in his unwillingness to showcase the people of color who contribute to its social fabric. Other legendary photographers of the past with sexually charged styles, such as Herb Ritts and Robert Mapplethorpe, regularly used models of color and appreciated their beauty along with the different compositions those models allowed them to craft. When fashion claims a need to diversify its ranks, why continue working with someone who so stubbornly refuses to be a part of the solution? 

    Many have come to Weber’s defense in recent days citing phenomenal experiences and trusting relationships. I’m sure those people have nothing but good memories. But those statements of support do not and cannot invalidate the stories already amassed, the count of which I’m positive will grow in the coming weeks. Bruce Weber may appear like everyone’s imagined hippy grandfather swathed in billowing scarves and gauzy bandanas that cover his Santa-like white hair, but that doesn’t mean he’s incapable of being the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. I believe the men who have come forward and it’s time for a business that casually doles out abuse with a wink and a that’s-just-the-way-we-do-things attitude to do the same.

    Written by: Martin Lerma

  • When Fashion Sells Feminism

    A funny thing has happened in fashion over the past several years. Where once the industry proved itself as a leader willing to embrace new ideas while tackling weathered barriers, it now seems to be a consistent grasper of straws. Slumping sales, changing markets, shifting demographics and digital innovation have all played a part in fashion’s consistent fumbling. In the hope that it will strike a financial motherload, the fashion industry often looks to movements outside its own walls that it can appropriate in the most superficial way possible in order to gain positive coverage and join the media fray as it struggles to maintain relevancy. Sadly, the renewed interest in feminist ideals is the latest target of luxury’s vampiric feeding. As a man, I would never claim to fully comprehend the countless nuances surrounding womanhood, but the glaring inconsistencies promoted by the fashion machine are simply too disturbing not to notice.

    Though there are many brands churning out what they can to feign interest in a genuinely important cultural conversation, the most egregious example of jumping on the feminist bandwagon is undoubtedly Maria Grazia Chiuri’s Dior. Chiuri has a long history of making questionable choices when it comes to representation in her work. Remember that Africa-inspired Spring/Summer 2016 Valentino collection shown in 2015 that had nearly 90 looks yet only a handful of black models? True, it was designed with Pierpaolo Piccioli, who remains Valentino’s creative director, but that brand has become noticeably more international in look and feel since Chiuri’s departure while Dior’s catwalk lineup will include, at best, a light spattering of models of color. It also doesn’t help that her casting skews incredibly young and frighteningly thin, even by fashion standards. Yes, these criticisms could be leveled at countless labels, and while they should most definitely be held to account by the public, those brands don’t claim feminism as a banner cause as Chiuri has.

    In a move that I’m sure both Chiuri and her publicity team hoped would be an Instagrammable moment, her debut runway show for the house of Dior in September of 2016 featured a t-shirt emblazoned with the statement, “We Should All Be Feminists,” in black type against a simple white background. With the U.S. presidential campaign reaching a boiling point and issues specific to women at the fore, Chiuri’s appointment seemed like a much-needed antidote as the start of her tenure marked the first time any woman has ever headed the venerable French couture house of Christian Dior. She made feminist themes a pillar of her debut, drawing much of her inspiration from official fencing attire, one of, if not the only, sport where men and women don identical uniforms. Many of the same problems that emerged at Valentino were still evident: people of color were reduced to tokenism, the age cutoff couldn’t have been far past typical high school graduation, and there were practically no variations in body type whatsoever.

    But let’s set those issues aside for a moment to consider the clothes alone. That first collection, with its heavily worked fencing inspiration, resulted in a host of heavily padded, awkwardly fitted jackets and vests that skewed a bit more asylum than Olympic arena. Add to those sheer silk blouses and equally transparent skirts layered over shorts that ended just past the gluteal fold and you have a collection filled with deeply impractical, unflattering clothes that are particularly unkind to anyone over 30--something that makes even less sense when considering the age of the average, moneyed Dior shopper.

    Chiuri was clearly aware of the weight of her new role as one of the few women in a leadership position in the industry, but has not done anything since to make her clothes friendly to the wearer. It goes to show that the old platitude insisting female designers create clothes while male designers create costumes is an untrue and lazy criticism. As Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion journalist Robin Givhan noted in her review of Dior’s Spring/Summer 2018 collection (which was partially inspired by art historian Linda Nochlin’s scholarship), “Perhaps a more ambitious or daring designer would have found a way [to address important feminist issues]. Fashion, after all, has been used to express a range of emotions from sorrow and anger to giddy delight. Instead, Chiuri uses feminism as an overlay or a gloss. That isn’t to say that she doesn’t believe deeply in the issues...But she has reduced them to slogans and backdrop. Their meaning is not carried through in the garments themselves.”

    Greats of the past have shown an enormous aptitude for physicalizing a specific response to their times. There’s good reason that someone like Coco Chanel is so revered. The legendary French fashion designer definitely did her best to canonize herself in life, but it is the poetic practicality of her clothes that has survived her in death. Discussion of any kind of diversity when speaking of her era is almost moot as there was practically none in fashion, but the philosophy behind her garments continues to resonate despite her more than problematic (and opportunistic) affiliations, like those with officers of the Third Reich.

    Chanel wanted women to have the female equivalent of a man’s suit—something that could take you from a social function to church to work to dinner, and everywhere in between. The Chanel suit is something that can be thrown on without thought and still result in a polished ensemble. A jacket, a skirt, maybe a silk blouse and the right accessory. Done. It was chic by numbers and it worked because sometimes there’s nothing more liberating than a uniform. There was an athleticism, a briskness to the composition that let any onlooker know the Chanel women was on the move. It was a rare ideology during couture’s golden age and remains shockingly absent in the present day, but there are most definitely other creatives in recent memory who did not rely on catchphrases to connote their intentions. 

    Martin Margiela is recognized as a Belgian radical whose oeuvre continues to find new life as people inspired by his work, such as Raf Simons, become ever larger, more important cultural figures. His signature aesthetic is resolutely avant-garde, but not only in the sense that might first spring to mind. Margiela’s work can seem whacky on the surface—dresses made from flea market-sourced wedding gowns, tops crafted from a patchwork of vintage leather gloves—and much of it certainly can be, however, his work for Hermès revealed his deeper, and ingenious, sensitivities.

    In a recent exhibition held in his native country which was documented in a book entitled Margiela, The Hermès Years, it was disclosed that he often asked the women working in his atelier and close friends to try on works in progress and hear their feedback.  He would conduct six fittings for each ready-to-wear piece, an extensive amount, and often built in specific features he knew his customers would appreciate.  One of Margiela’s signatures while designing for the house was a cozy tunic that could be layered in a host of different ways—giving the wearer agency over her look—and be easily pulled down off the shoulders and stepped out of so as not to disturb hair or makeup. From the start of Margiela’s time there, it wasn’t at all unusual to witness Asian women, shorter women, 50+ women walk his runway. It seemed so natural, so authentic because it was. It was an exercise in making women, many women, visible and comfortable above all else. It doesn’t get more modern than that.

    One got a similar feeling watching presentations held by the late, great Azzedine Alaïa. There were the midriff-baring, short-skirted dresses for the young, hot yoga devotees; longer dresses with skirts that floated just below the knee and slender sleeves for those approaching or beyond middle age who no longer wished to show their upper arms; the razor-sharp tailoring, crisp shirting and immaculate trousers for the women who didn’t prefer the traditional trappings of femininity at all.  For a couture-themed photo shoot and accompanying behind-the-scenes video for W magazine in 2011, Carine Roitfeld had ensembles made for her at just about every significant couture house showing in Paris, Alaïa included. Alaïa painstakingly conducted the entire fitting from start to finish. Roitfeld noted how much extra work he was taking on by attending to his clients so closely and he responded, “Listen, when you look after clients, that’s how you learn. Because if you don’t see how a design is worn or what women want or how they want to wear it, you’re just designing in a void and that isn’t good.”

    And that is just one of many reasons why the Tunisian-born couturier is so missed.  Alaïa's garments were so remarkable because he respected women so deeply and honored their opinions. Lauded fashion journalist Cathy Horyn may have put it better than anyone else, “I didn’t know that he had designed garments for the girls at the Crazy Horse,” she said referencing the famed Parisian cabaret (known for its largely nude stage spectacles) during an interview in a short film on Alaïa directed by stylist Joe McKenna. “And I thought, God if you have to get in there and really measure those women, you’re really not worried about women. You’re not intimidated by them. You don’t have any fantasies about them. And that, we all know, is a problem with many designers, male or female. They have a fantasy about women that doesn’t jive with reality.”

    Fashion, as a business, collectively asks for women’s money yet makes sure they are not involved in formulating the strategies or making the decisions that affect what gets produced for their consumption.  Women make up a large portion of the garment trade, both at the luxury and mass levels, making them particularly subject to its injustices whether it is workplace harassment, lack of upward career mobility, unsafe--even deadly--working conditions or low pay. If fashion wants to address inequality, it needs to make robust, actionable plans that start from within where the problems it proclaims to be against are taking place in plain view.

    Written by: Martin Lerma