Fashion & Beauty / Fashion

Oliviero Toscani on the Art of Controversy

The legendary fashion photographer associated with the shockvertising aesthetic speaks to Emma Firth in a HUNGER exclusive.

Playing it safe is so passé in fashion now. In post-Trumpian times, there’s less shock-value in F is for Feminist-style catwalks or huge campaigns starring street cast models instead of a Kardashian. Of course, this was a very different story in the 80s. 

On one level the fashions of the day were unabashedly maximalist, Madonna appeared humping on stage like a virgin and Nancy Reagan’s lavish style was influencing women’s wardrobes across America. Look a little deeper and this was an era of deep despair, racism and prejudice at the height of the HIV crisis. While art director at Benetton between 1982 to 2000, Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani took it upon himself to document these dark realities untouched by fashion houses.

“I try to be a witness of time,” Toscani tells HUNGER. “We tried to make things interesting – to make a point that is reality in everyday.” Some of his most controversial campaigns include AIDS activist David Kirby on his deathbed and a newborn baby with the umbilical cord still attached.

The provocateur-loving visionary is now back at Benetton after 18 years. What’s the biggest difference now – is the political mission still the same? “There’s a different sensitivity,” he says. “I’m not nostalgic at all, I don’t even think about the past – that’s [the] past. We’ve had different experiences, it’s going to be very interesting.” The SS18 campaign depicts a class of 28 children and representing 13 different nationalities from four continents (featured in our gallery below). “We won’t do it with top models,” he enthuses. “Everyone’s doing top models – the same models, the same attitudes.”

Bandwagon-jumping or not, it’s evident that fashion’s footprint is imbuing an obligation to re-establish its identity and build communities around the world for the next generation. Are directors being brave enough today? I put the question to Toscani. “I don’t know what brands should do,” he treads carefully at first. But offers that booking Jenner’s and Hadid’s to front ads isn’t necessarily a benchmark of a successful business.

“They [all] conform to the fashion system – they call it Top Model” according to Toscani. “It’s old; it’s bullshit. Benetton doesn’t want that – we proceed in a different way – we don’t do marketing research and all those things. We go for real people.”


Check out some of HUNGER’s favourite Benetton campaign images below. 

18 February 2019