American brands like Calvin Klein, Tom Ford, and American Apparel and Italian brands like Gucci, Miu Miu, and Sisley have a knack for creating controversy with their boundary pushing or, to put it less generously, crass advertising campaigns. But Parisian fashion houses, often thought the arbiters of good taste, have also displayed their fair share of poor judgment when it comes to publicity. Here are seven times they ruffled the feathers of standards agencies in all the wrong ways.
Marithé and François Girbaud’s Last Supper
In February 2005, Marithé and François Girbaud scandalised Milan (mainly its advertising watchdog) by depicting a female version of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. The 12 women in the brand’s signature casual-chic attire and one topless, faceless man barely raised an eyebrow in New York and Paris but the Istituto di Autodisciplina Pubblicitaria declared that ‘[t]his kind of image, with a high concentration of theological symbols [the dove, the chalice and the position of the fingers of the female Christ], cannot be recreated and parodied for commercial ends without offending the religious sensitivities of at least part of the population.’
Julia Roberts’ Skin
When it comes to crossing advertising standards agencies, L’Oréal is a repeat offender. In July 2011, campaigns featuring Julia Roberts and Christy Turlington for Lancôme and Maybelline foundations were banned in the UK because of their misleading use of digital enhancement. The complaint against them was brought by Jo Swinson, a former British MP and long-time campaigner against overly airbrushed imagery, and upheld by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA), even though it wasn’t allowed to see pre-production pictures because of contractual obligations with the movie star and supermodel. Campaigns featuring Penelope Cruz in 2007 and Rachel Weisz in 2012 were also banned for similar reasons.
Natalie Portman’s Eyelashes
L’Oréal has struggled to learn from its own mistakes in the digital exaggeration department but it has enthusiastically gone after competitors who have been up to the same tricks. In October 2012, the cosmetics giant lodged a complaint with the ASA against a magazine advertising campaign in which Natalie Portman sported Dior mascara that was said to deliver a ‘spectacular volume-multiplying effect, lash by lash.’ In fact, the Oscar-winning actress’ voluminous lashes were a result of post-production Photoshop, which the fashion house claimed its customers expected in minimal amounts. Nevertheless, the ASA ruled that the campaign ‘misleadingly exaggerated the likely effects of the product.’
Keira Knightley’s Kinky Boots
As perfume adverts go, Keira Knightley’s turn for Coco Mademoiselle in February 2013 was tame. But when the ASA received a complaint after it appeared during the commercial break of a screening of Ice Age 2, it was banned due to its ‘sexually suggestive’ nature. Chanel argued that Knightley was ‘playful and sensual’ rather than ‘overtly sexual’ and cited the fact that ‘[t]he photographer helped the actress remove her boots, rather than her clothes, as part of a wardrobe change’ as a mitigating factor. However, the ASA condemned the ‘clear sexual tension’ between the pair: kudos to Keira, hard luck for Chanel.
Louis Vuitton’s Prostitution Chic
Louis Vuitton became embroiled in controversy in March 2013 when a promotional video for its autumn/winter collection, produced by Love magazine, showed models including Cara Delevingne and Georgia May Jagger soliciting passersby in dark Parisian alleyways in nothing but lingerie and fur coats. The obvious glamorisation of prostitution was roundly decried in France. A line in Libération best summarised the national reaction: ‘What indecency, ignorance and indifference to play with the fantasy of porn chic: the social condition of the vast majority of prostitutes has nothing enviable, nothing fancy, nothing happy about it.’ The brand pointedly distanced itself from the externally created clip.
Saint Laurent’s Ultra-Skinny Models
In June 2015, the ASA deemed a campaign by (Yves) Saint Laurent in Elle magazine ‘irresponsible’ for featuring a model who appeared to be ‘unhealthily underweight.’ The agency stated that ‘the model’s pose [lying prone on the floor] and the particular lighting effect in the ad drew particular focus to the model’s chest, where her rib cage was visible and appeared prominent, and to her legs, where her thighs and knees appeared a similar width, and which looked very thin, particularly in light of her positioning and the contrast between the narrowness of her legs and her platform shoes.’ The brand, previously the subject of a petition signed by nearly 50,000 people urging it not to use excessively thin models, chose not to provide a detailed defence.
Saint Laurent’s Neo-Porno Chic
In March 2017, Saint Laurent’s latest venture in publicity via controversy (a strategy which dates back to the eponymous designer’s nude fragrance campaign in 1971) precipitated a citywide ban on advertisements that include ‘any form of discrimination on grounds of ethnic origin, national origin, religion, sex or age that undermines human dignity.’ The campaign was previously deemed to have ‘uncontestably breached’ the standards of France’s advertising authority, the ARPP, and was said by Raphaëlle Rémy-Leleu, the spokesperson for France’s leading women’s rights group, Osez le féminisme! (Dare to be Feminist!), to ‘tick all the sexist boxes. The women are objectified, hypersexualized, and put in submissive positions.’