Fashion publications have made much of David Bowie’s contribution to fashion and his inimitable personal style in the days since his death, and rightly so. But I’d like to talk about his unique role in fashion advertising.
Throughout the course of his decades-long career, he appeared in a handful of ads for companies ranging from Pepsi to Louis Vuitton, unlike any of his iconic contemporaries in music, who never fronted major consumer campaigns (the one exception being Keith Richards’ 2008 Louis Vuitton campaign). Why was Bowie coveted for campaigns more than any of the other rock stars?
It’s because of the duality of what he codes for in the culture. He’s simultaneously perceived as a cool, weirdo genius, and then as a complete cypher, making it easy for advertising to project whatever they want onto him while benefiting from his cool cultural cache. Additionally he, more than any other rock stars or any other cultural icons, exudes an almost otherworldly self-possession and comfort in his own skin, which is what every consumer company is trying to sell. He’s so untouchable, so icy, so alien, so intellectually weighty, and, despite his rolodex of zany characters, he always plays himself in ads, which makes them some of the most effective campaigns I’ve ever seen. Exhibit A:
Louis Vuitton, “L’Invitation Au Voyage,” 2013
In this short film and corresponding print campaign, Arizona Muse arrives (via hot air balloon) to a mysterious Venetian masquerade party straight out of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Bowie plays “I’d Rather Be High” on the harpsichord as revelers revel and Muse orients herself among the partygoers, uncertainly at first, then, after sitting on the bench with Bowie, excitedly. She opens her eyes to realize it was a dream — but then finds a note on the harpsichord, apparently an invitation. The film ends with Muse sailing solo through a Venetian canal into the sunrise. The world the film creates is sumptuous without being decadent, and Bowie is mysterious, sophisticated, and intriguing: everything the brand hopes to convey.
The print ad could be a subdued moment from the film, where Bowie is no longer at the center of the action, but in a corner, facing three masked women, which we see in a mirror behind him in a Folies-Berger trick. Both parties seem to be attracted and repulsed by one another, creating an interesting tension with the dangerous but ultimately romantic and innocuous narrative presented in the film.
Bowie is perfect in these ads, and Louis Vuitton expertly plays on his coding duality, employing the rock star coding more heavily in the film, and the cypher coding more heavily in the print ad. In the film, he is extremely commanding as the center of the party and the apparent ringleader of partygoers, while being electrically compelling in his silent communication with Muse. The print ad is mysterious and muted, and conveys his alienation from us, and ours from him, which is echoed by the sharp key in which the music in the film is played. It’s an extremely intriguing set of media that play well off of each other in creating a narrative, and in smartly framing Bowie’s intensely attractive yet frightening physicality and mood.
Exhibit B: Tommy Hilfiger, 2004
In this black-and-white print campaign, Bowie and wife Iman are photographed glamorously doing everyday things, both at home and out and about. These are beautifully shot, but what’s striking is how much genuine fun they seem to be having — I don’t think I’ve seen such easy chemistry and palpable joy in any other photoshoot, advertising or editorial, ever. This campaign relies on pure rock-star coding, and includes shots with a guitar and a photo in the car that looks like a paparazzi snap, to great effect. It’s glamorous, sexy, fun, and kinetic, and impossible to take your eyes off of, and truly one of the best campaigns I’ve ever seen. This was Hilfiger at his peak — in touch with what is classic and cool, and thoughtful about the kinds of images and aspirations to which his audience responds. He needs to get back to a Bowie-Iman level with his brand, and present content like this with real cultural icons, and stop trying to shill Gigi Hadid in a rastafarian colored woven bikini top.
Starman is the ultimate ad-man, since he stands for both an iconic rock & roll star and a complete chameleonic enigma. Louis Vuitton and Tommy Hilfiger were so smart to spot this and play up one or both of these qualities in their advertising. I wish we could have had one more — Thierry Mugler’s Alien would have been too easy, and a Jurgen Teller Céline ad would have been wonderful. I’m also glad that Bowie didn’t take himself too seriously to not want to appear in ads — that speaks volumes about his cool, down-to-earth nature, even if he did fall to earth from somewhere else.