Though Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta have come to be known for their inventive casting since founding their label Eckhaus Latta, the designers gave themselves their most ambitious assignment yet recently: They were looking for people willing to not only be photographed in their spring 2017 collection, but to have sex—as in really have sex—in front of the camera. “It had to be authentic,” Eckhaus said in New York last night. “I don’t think the idea of simulation ever even crossed our mind.”
Still, though they’ve become mainstream names, Eckhaus and Latta’s semi-desperate Craigslist postings went largely unanswered for one of their biggest commercial forays with the brand yet.
“When the Craigslist line was kind of like crickets, there were some jokes, like, [should it just be] Mike and Zoe?” Latta recalled with a laugh from Los Angeles, where she’s based (along with the brand’s new first-ever brick-and-mortar store), of finding models for their first-ever major campaign.
Their inspiration came from the Korean-German photographer Heji Shin, who a few years ago took a break from shooting editorials for magazines like 032c to photograph a sex education textbook for teenagers. “They had these ideas of following a couple for several months—eating ice cream, going to the cinema, stuff like that. But I thought, Oh god, I don’t want to do that,” Shin, who’s fond of “crossing a boundary” with her work, said from Berlin.
So, instead, she set about taking “very clean, beautiful, and emotionally photographed” scenes of the teens showcasing different sex practices—a non-pornographic approach that Shin, whom Eckhaus and Latta had been trying to work with for so long they actually scrapped another fully conceptualized spring 2017 campaign to make this one, then reinterpreted in a fashion context.
“We were thinking of how we were using sexuality, the relationship between fashion advertising and sexuality—and in very direct terms saying sex sells,” Shin explained. That led to a “sex-positive, body-positive, sexuality-positive” message, as Eckhaus put it, that also commented on voyeurism and consumerism.
“For us, it was really important to think of sex as something really natural and not something fabricated, hyper-sexualized, or taboo,” Eckhaus said.
“We weren’t covering people in oil—that’s actually their sweat, you know?” Latta added. “We’ve really wanted to play with the principles around advertising, but it had to be authentic and it had to be real people. If it was simulated, it would have really lost the whole intention behind the shoot.”
Still, it took another six months for the campaign to come together, due to the difficulties of finding models willing to take part. Eckhaus and Latta’s friend Sam Muglia, for one, proved an ideal casting director thanks to the variety of people he knows from “alternative cultural experiences.”
“It’s not specifically because he goes to Burning Man every year,” Latta said. “He’s just one of my closest friends that I know goes to orgies and would be happy to say that, you know?”
With Muglia’s help (Shin also enlisted a couple she’d worked with back in Berlin), the team assembled a cast of mostly thirty-somethings, all of whom Shin shot by herself in their bedrooms. “They had to be comfortable and intimate—they’re not professionals,” she said. “But they were all excited about it, and wanted to do it—and to do it in the context of the Eckhaus Latta ad campaigns. It was actually pretty real. Of course, sometimes you have to stage small things, like putting hair on another side. But, other things are very hard to stage—with guys, for example, you have to be quick.”
In the end, it all came together: After Eckhaus and Latta uploaded the campaign—pixelated, and tagging only the models who requested they did so—on Monday, their site quickly crashed. “The idea that we made people hungry for an image is fascinating to us,” Latta said. When the site went back online, the response was largely “super-positive,” which pleasantly surprised the designers. It seemed to confirm their intent—to normalize, not sensationalize.
Next, for the first time ever, Eckhaus Latta’s ads are headed for the pages of magazines, though it remains to be seen if the old adage holds true. “I don’t know if sex sells,” Latta said with a laugh. “But it definitely creates some rubbernecking.”
A Brief History of Fashion’s Most NSFW, Controversial Ad Campaigns
For their first large-scale campaign, the designers behind Eckhaus Latta enlisted a diverse group of 30-something couples to not only wear their spring 2017 collection, but have real sex in front of the camera for the photographer Heji Shin, who had produced a similar series of images for a German sex education book for teenagers.
In 1971, a nude (and largely hairless) Yves Saint Laurent posed nude for Jeanloup Sieff to debut his first-ever perfume for his namesake label, Pour Homme.
Other than her controversially “heroin chic” ads for Calvin Klein, a topless, 17-year-old Kate Moss also starred in this 1992 campaign for the brand with Mark Wahlberg—one that made her so uncomfortable, she later said it prompted a nervous breakdown.
Rumor has it that Wonderbra’s billboards of Eva Herzigova caused traffic build-ups and car crashes when they went up in 1994.
It didn’t take long for controversy to erupt after Steven Meisel and Calvin Klein cast a crew of apparently underage models, including Kate Moss, for a 1995 Calvin Klein campaign; eventually, CK responded to the outcry over the ad with another ad, a full page in the New York Times announcing it was pulling the original advertisement.
This infamous 2000 campaign from Yves Saint Laurent, featuring a nude Sophie Dahl, drew 948 complaints to the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority, making it the eighth most complained about advertisement in recorded history.
Yves Saint Laurent again pared things down for one of his perfume ads in 2002, this time swapping out the designer’s likeness for a chiseled model to go full frontal.
Tom Ford and Carine Roitfeld both solidified their reputations as provocateurs when the designer and stylist drove down the fact that they were working for Gucci by shaving a “G” into a model’s pubic hair for this 2003 campaign shot by Mario Testino.
American Apparel, whose founder Dov Charney has faced a litany of sexual harassment lawsuits, began its run of controversial ads depicting highly sexualized and barely clothed women—an approach that was highly successful in creating conversation, but hardly saved the brand from bankruptcy—with this 2006 campaign.
The concept of “sex sells” barely gets more explicit than in Terry Richardson’s 2007 campaign for Tom Ford’s men’s fragrance, an ad that was banned in Italy.
“Stupid is as stupid done” is how some critics responded to Diesel’s 2010 “Be Stupid” campaign, which featured images of models flashing security cameras, among other suggestive poses. Some felt the images were needlessly sensationalistic while others described them as youthful and rebellious.
Dakota Fanning’s 2011 campaign for Marc Jacobs’ Lola campaign was banned in England after the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority deemed it too “sexually provocative” for the then 17-year-old actress, who was photographed by Juergen Teller.
Thanks to a little Photoshop, Barack Obama and Hugo Chavez were just several of the world leaders found making out in a 2011 campaign by United Colors of Benneton, which has a long history of provoking with their ads.
The model Anna Ewers has long been one of Alexander Wang’s muses, but the pair ended up in hot water with this 2014 campaign, in which Ewers is only just barely wearing Wang’s clothes.
This 2007 campaign by Dolce & Gabbana’s came to be known as the “gang rape advert” not only then, when several magazines refused to run it, but when it resurfaced online in 2015.
The U.K.’s Advertising Standards Agency also banned this 2015 Miu Miu campaign, shot by Steven Meisel, for being “irresponsible” in sexualizing an apparently underage (but actually 22-year-old) Mia Goth.
Calvin Klein courted controversy again last year with a campaign that featured a model photographed from under her dress, but the acclaimed British female photographer Harley Weir, whose work has long been interested in youth culture and sexuality, defended the campaign.
Kate Moss on How Photographers “Always Ask” Her to Take Her Clothes Off: