No Holds Barred: Fearless fashion and high humor

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My supermarket magazine rack — untouched AND irrelevant.

It’s bad enough that I haven’t really read a fashion magazine in over ten years, but now we are in the throes of the Big September Issue month and the push for fashion moments, social reflection and huge ad revenues is in the fullest throttle ever. 

Very hard to do considering most magazines have dumped their print editions and are still figuring out their digital platforms. But tougher still is the relevant urgency to be politically and socially on the mark.  It is a tricky balancing act between advertisers and “activist” readership.

Remember when glossy celebrity covers, and edgy clothes was all you needed for a great escapist read?  Who wants a message? Just give me a double page spread of bazaar models in exotic locations.  Now diversity is the rule, and world issues are the backup. Ironically Oprah was always her own cover girl for her Oprah mag, which just announced it is folding after 20 years of self-helping her enormous following.

Disconnected — Cardi B ↑ and Kendall →

It might not even be enough to put Cardi B or Kendall Jenner on the covers anymore. Even they might appear too disconnected from today’s radical readership. Now publishers have to be attuned to who and what brands are being “accountable” to all the racial and sexual issues. Which might sound great but actually appears challenging.  

After all, a lot of fashion magazine readers never cared about being politically or socially aligned.  Personally, I used to read fashion magazines for the sheer escape of taking me visually someplace I had never been before. Fantasy and Fashion used to go hand in hand.  Goodbye layouts in distant lands — hello lay-ups to social agendas.

The most intriguing fashion cover of late was In Style’s August issue of Dr. Anthony Fauci sitting by his pool (no mask) with wrap around sunglasses.  Admittedly that spoke to me — Fauci is a style icon of the moment?  Maybe.

Last Sunday I tried to read the New York Times Fall Women’s issue of their T Magazine. The cover title “The Time is Now; Nothing is Certain. Change is Here. Fearless Fashion for a New Reality.” Very ambitious and I had no idea what any of that meant except “New Reality.”

The “Fearless Fashion” spread was lost on me since it was shot in such dark lighting with black model Anok Yai in strange poses dressed in black and red leather by Valentino, Celine and Missoni.  There was a full page of what appeared to be Yai vomiting Gucci rhinestone chains — not exactly eye-catching.  But remember this is “Now” and “Nothing is Certain.”  That’s for sure!

Fearless Fashion!

Then we had pages of “Tough get Going.” Unappealing giant oversized Chanel and Fendi jumpsuits, Zoot suits, and Hefty bag cargo pants by Balenciega.  Everything was $2500 – $6000 and none of it mattered since who will really wear any of this “Now” or ever and none of it was really “Tough” or “Going.” It was just tough to get through.

Maybe the editorial articles were meaningful; one was on ethnic artists imagining statues or monuments they would design – entitled “Whose History?  Whose Memory?  Whose Land? Who Matters?” Another was on disabled actors who had been marginalized and are now back on stage and on screen. Sadly, I was too exhausted and weighted down by the visual spreads to read any of the heavily messaged articles.  I was looking for soul release from the ever-present “superconciousness” loop of today.

The Going Gets Tough!

But then I read the T Magazine Editor Hanya Yanagihara’s comment: “We all have credits we have to fulfill — and there’s a lot of competing interests, but I do think there has been — and I understand this completely — a kind of timidity that’s overtaken a lot of books and it’s a real concern.  All of us can always benefit from experimenting and continuing to kind of throw your hands up in the air.” I definitely threw my hands up in the air with exasperation scanning that T.

Which leads me to a great inspired antidote to all of today’s fashion confusion. I decided to watch the latest documentary – “Helmut Newton; the Bad and the Beautiful” (available at  He was called “The King of Kink” and the “Marquis de Sex” but nobody photographed it better (1960 – 2000) than Helmut Newton.

He would be 100 years old this year, and this movie is a tribute to a fashion magazine super star. As reviewers have noted, this is not so much a movie about the man, as about the women he photographed.  They all gave glowing and deeply personal interviews throughout.  

Helmut Newton, Monte Carlo, 1987. Photo by Alice Springs.

“Newton’s camera often held up a mirror to our misogynist society and reflected it back to us in garish uncompromising ways” as Isabella Rossellini described it. “He would look at his models in that machismo way as if he was saying ‘I like you. Damn it’ – he was in awe of his appreciation of the beauty and strength of womanhood (“I like you”) with a contrasting desire to see it torn down (‘Damn it’).”

Grace Jones and Dolph Lundgren, Los Angeles, 1985. Photo by Helmut Newton, courtesy Helmut Newton Foundation.

Even Grace Jones, who Newton photographed nude many times, admitted “Sexism and racism, I never felt any of that.  He was a little bit of a pervert — but so am I so it was okay.” He wasn’t a womanizer.  He was never vulgar — he had exquisite taste and was all about “the story.”  

Indeed, to see a Helmut Newton photo was never about the clothes, it was about the provocative situation.  Unlike Richard Avedon or Irving Penn, he wasn’t cool and distant. Newton was dangerous and yes, there was always a hint of thought-provoking S&M (even in his photos of Claus Von Bulow in his leather jacket).

His narratives were always suggestive and open ended like a picture of an actual raw chicken with a pair of high heels on its up-in-the-air legs. Newton had high humor with a shade of black thrown in.

German filmmaker Gero von Boehm lets the women tell the story with Helmut (so charming, handsome and great hair) himself filling in on his actual history and honest off the cuff life observations.  He had a “type” of woman — usually blonde, Amazonian, dark eyes, blood red mouth and fingernails. He looked at men as accessories. Halfway through the movie you learn of his growing up as a Jew in Nazi Germany and his escape to Singapore and finally Australia where he meets his wife June who becomes his muse and his “mother.”  Their relationship is clearly long, enduring and complicated.

Though Newton made every magazine he worked for visual showstoppers (Vogue mostly), and though he would photograph women in luxury clothes, his message with his nudes was “women didn’t need designer trappings to be beautiful; they already are in their own skin.” Remember he wasn’t just a fashion photographer; he was a master storyteller. Every picture indeed told a story!

My favorite film segments were with now matronly but lovely singer Marianne Faithful, who said of her Newton experience: “Look, he made me show my tits – I trusted him implicitly.  I never did that before. He caught my soul in my boyfriend’s leather jacket. He actually saw me the best of anyone.”  Meanwhile Newton insists “I’m a professional voyeur.  I only see what’s before me — the legs, the breasts, the face.  I’m not interested in their inner lives.  I don’t do souls, but I love women.”

Marianne Faithful, above, and Charlotte Rampling, below, in a scene from the film, courtesy Kino Lorber.

Actress Charlotte Rampling at a mature 73 (no facework) also did a great testimonial saying, “No doubt he did the most beautiful pictures of me ever. I was in my 20s in ‘Night Porter’ and he had just started to shoot nudes and so it took off for both of us.” That picture was for Vogue, done at a hotel in Arles in 1973.  No question that series became iconic for both of them.

He called himself “a naughty boy” and Anna Wintour, Vogue Editor-in-Chief, described his work as “synonymous with Vogue at its most glamorous and mythic.” He lived a glamorous life himself in Monte Carlo and at the Chateau Marmont which he loved and even shot sexy nudes in their laundry room.  He ended up having a heart attack in 2004 while driving out of the hotel driveway.  There is a plaque outside on the wall in his memory.  And the hotel has just been sold as a private residence.

Helmut Newton was a photographic game changer. But I wonder, had he lived, if he would have been swept up in all the #MeToo mania.  He could have photographed it and in fact, he already did photograph it!  He loved controversy and used to say, “More enemies, more honor” (a quote from Kaiser Wilhelm II).

But now in the days of Cardi B and her WAP tsunami – I would have to say Helmut Newton is definitely the grandaddy of “Wet Ass Pussy.” He would have loved it all.

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