The annual Pirelli calendar evokes many images: a young Kate Moss with a shell necklace draped over her breasts; Gigi Hadid in a black latex corset pierced at the nipple; top models straddling palm trees, marching with elephants, and cuddling with sloths in various states of undress...and so on.
Fran Lebowitz, the sneering cultural critic, doesn’t quite fit in among Pirelli’s brazenly tantalizing pin-ups. Likewise Patti Smith, who—bless her—looks more like Willie Nelson with every passing year.
Yet both will appear in the 2016 edition of the Pirelli calendar, shot by Annie Leibovitz in New York. Yoko Ono, Tavi Gevinson, Ava DuVernay, Serena Williams, and Amy Schumer will also have spreads in “The Cal,” a phrase that has been trademarked by its Italian tire-maker namesake.
Leibovitz, who was also the visionary behind Pirelli’s 2000 calendar, has said this year’s edition is “so completely different” from anything the company has done before.
“I started to think about the roles that women play, women who have achieved something,” Leibovitz said in a press release. “It is a departure. The idea was not to have any pretense in these pictures and be very straightforward.”
Straightforward and sans pretense is indeed a departure for Pirelli, which is known for blending high fashion and tasteful nudity.
Since 1964, when the tire company executives launched a calendar showcasing an age-old pairing—chicks and cars—The Cal has been unapologetically provocative, artful, titillating, subversive, and always ahead of its time.
It’s always been a tease, too: the actual calendar was available only to VIPs and a select few clientele. The rest of us plebs and voyeurs pored over magazines that clipped Pirelli’s sensual and sexy images—Cindy, Christy, Naomi shot by Avedon, Weber, Ritts—and later ogled them on the Internet.
This isn’t to say Pirelli has never before departed from its artful twist on the traditional pin-up.
In 1972, Sarah Moon became the first woman to photograph the calendar, ditching the overtly sexy for the soft, romantic, and decidedly feminine.
In 2000, Leibovitz took inspiration from Ingres’ “The Bather” and other classic images of women. As a woman photographing Pirelli, Leibovitz said she felt “a lot of pressure to not let women down and to look at women in a way that has a kind of integrity to it.”
Photographer Steve McCurry also opted for less exploitative images (all models were clothed) in 2013.
Last year, Steven Meisel returned to sexy, latex-clad pin-ups perched on a bicycle in a thong or topless in a wrestling ring. Progressive as ever, the 2015 calendar featured its first ever plus-size model, Candice Huffine.
As far as we can tell, Pirelli 2016 will be more desexualized than any previous issue, with very little (if any) nudity and more emphasis on the cultural influence of women like Ono, Lebowitz, Smith, and Schumer. Pirelli’s marketing geniuses have chosen a direction that is very of-its-time: celebrating, strong powerful women without exploiting them.
It’s a calculated move that will surely generate more buzz around the annual calendar than usual—and leave many lamenting the lack of NSFW images.
With or without the T&A, Pirelli is still “the most prestigious [calendar] in the world,” as fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier put it. “Every girl we pick says yes.”
And Pirelli never disappoints.