Since 1964, Italian tire manufacturer Pirelli has released its annual calendar as a trade gift, created in limited numbers, meant just for family, friends, and celebrities. But the iconic imagery, captured by renowned photographers including Annie Leibovitz and Patrick Demarchelier has become famous in its own right rendering the trademarked The Cal as a collector’s item showcasing the biggest models of the moment. Since 2015, it has also notably shifted away from the sexualized, often naked aesthetic it was best known for in the ’80s and ’90s, focusing instead on a more socially conscious and narrative-focused approach.
This year’s calendar theme, “Love Letters to the Muse,” was dreamed up by photographer Emma Summerton. Although, the Australian creative admits it was a journey to arrive at her vision. “I struggle with the word muse,” she says. “The word had been bandied around and the muse was seen as not in control, more objectified so I balked at [it].” But while spending time in Hydra, Greece over the last two summers, Summerton had a change of heart. Upon delving into Greek mythology, she encountered an ancient definition of the muse as the artist instead of the person who inspired the art and thus her concept was born.
The latest edition stars some of the fashion industry’s most recognizable names: Karlie Kloss, Precious Lee, Bella Hadid, and Ashley Graham among them. But, it's the work of each woman when she’s not in front of the camera that spurred Summerton’s inspiration.
“The first was Guinevere [Van Seenus]. I knew she had started a photography practice and it intrigued me how becoming a photographer changed how she wanted to be photographed,” explains Summerton. “Some came easily and were really obvious. Karlie’s tech work [through her company Kode With Klossy] and her ginormous brain became this sort of tech, psychedelic muse.” Lee became ‘The Storyteller,’ Hadid ‘The Sprite,’ and Graham ‘The Activist.’ Each was shot in a surreal, dreamy interpretation of their passions and personalities.
“It’s a marker in a model’s career and a complete honor, so I said yes before I was even told the concept,” says Graham, who posed for her first time this year. “Then, when when I saw the concept I was blown away because historically [the calendar] was oozing sex, which was great, and I was game for that too. However, when I saw it was Emma [shooting], I got really excited because when there’s thought put into a project like this, the execution is going to exceed any idea of what fashion can be.” For Graham, it meant donning a piece of wearable art created by set director Amanda Harlech.
“I was both very humbled and appreciative of her asking me to be a part of this, and also to bring all aspects of who I am,” says Kloss. “But also curious what that meant in actuality in her mind, like how was it going to come together? Was I going to be in a ball gown sitting at a keyboard?” Instead, Summerton took a less literal approach, dressing Kloss in a light-up outfit, posing in front of a sci-fi-inspired mirror dome.
Summerton is only the fifth woman to shoot the calendar in its 58-year history. In her images, the models don’t skirt sexuality, but are given the power to embody it on their own terms. When it comes to the calendar’s long history, “I didn’t think about it too much,” Summerton quips. Instead, she saw it as an opportunity to bring her own vision to a scale of project that is rare in the era of quick turnarounds and tight budgets. “It was about sinking myself into each shot without thinking about what was coming after or before, but just being in the moment.”
Given the chance to celebrate their own talents, this year’s models found the energy on set to be both empowering and comforting. “There’s this underlying feeling of you’re going to be taken care of,” explains Graham.
“I always talk about how important it is to have women in leadership positions,” says Kloss. “[There’s a] difference in the end product when you have a woman like Emma driving the creative and strategy. Look at the end result, it is a very powerful and modern interpretation of femininity and strength and power within that and in an authentic way for each individual.”
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