PRINT November 2000


Steven Meisel

ASKED TO COMMENT on the recent ad campaign he shot for Versace, Steven Meisel tells me it was all about “extravagance. Over-the-top LA excessiveness—is that a word?” Not that fashion hasn’t often trafficked in opulence. But Meisel, perhaps best known for his infamous Calvin Klein jeans basement shoot and his queues of artificially gritty, Avedon-inflected model-zombies for cK One perfume—both styles of ripe adolescence—now gives us with his Versace excessiveness (yes, it is a word) an opulent fantasy structure about the power of the adult.

Given the cultural staple of the ersatz sexy, cutesy teen—from boy bands to Britney Spears to Teen Vogue—adulthood suddenly looks like nothing short of a luxury good. An unconscious (?) desire for the adult helps explain how Meisel, with the unerring aid of stylist Lori Goldstein, manages to present everything in a way that includes is somehow beyond parody—both of the superrich and of Versace’s usual gaudy style, which up till now hasalways had more to do with louche rock ‘n’ rollers, lucky whores (of both sexes), and arrivistes than with Taste. Big fafa diamonds, huge sunglasses, fully dressed blonde hair, blue-green eye shadow, ladies (models Amber Valletta and Georgina Grenville—as young Donatellas?) tranquilized with poodles, a decorator mix of baroque, moderne, and classic furniture, and various tchotchkes (pink rhinestone cigarette lighters, coral fragments, chinoiserie) of a provenance indefinable other than that of luxury.

How easily this could have been merely a send-up of sturdy society horticulturist C.Z. Guest or LA doyenne Candy Spelling, who in a recent interview justifies the 56,000-square-foot vastness of the Spelling mansion by way of her husband’s unwillingness to get on a plane. (“There are a lot of well-to-do people who have many homes everywhere in the world. We don’t. And we don’t have a plane or a boat. So we use every room in this house. This is all we have.”) Little match girl–like, Candy’s “this is all we have” is as disconcerting as witnessing abject poverty. Perhaps because Meisel recently took up residence in LA, it seems he wants to understand what’s mesmerizing and hysterical about being so disconcerted, and what the city has to do with it: This certainly isn’t East Coast blueblood, but it’s not simply LA glamour run amok either. As different as La Côte Basque was from Ma Maison, or Midnight Cowboy from American Gigolo, the destabilizing LA aesthetic of Meisel’s pics—developed in part from “Series 1 L.A.,” his editorial spread for the March 2000 issue of Italian Vogue—allegorizes a conceptual, continental shift, from tasteful colonial reserve to the swell Hollywood of Chasen’s and the Polo Lounge at the old Beverly Hills Hotel (an art-world plus is Cindy Sherman’s Brentwood mavens; a minus, Delia Brown).

Poised, the women prevail. On intimate terms with any cocktail or pharmaceutical that might offer a buffering ease, they’re never seen with the sharp dressed trophy stud (Lucas Babin) who reclines on the master bed or works it in front of the mansion bar as if it were some bygone corner on Santa Monica Boulevard. He’s the newest fashion trend: Boys aren’t just purchased, like a bauble from Gump’s, they’re endowed—by older women. (Cf. Philip Lorca diCorcia’s spread in the September issue of W.) Meisel knows what many desire: Forgoing adult responsibility (a California stereotype), most people want to be told what to do. These women know how to tell everyone what to do—they’ve been doing it all their lives—while the guy waits to be told.

Meisel disavows thinking about Shampoo (currently celebrating a twenty-fifth-anniversary rerelease) for the Versace ads, but given the election year, the two blonds and the boy brunet, and the icy air de Bel Air of it all, it’s tempting to read the entire campaign, not unlike that film, as a political commentary manqué. Wealth signifies, unapologetically; power never goes away. It’s the guys (Warren Beatty, Lucas Babin) who desperately need something “real”—authority—and it’s the women who are adult enough to know how to give it to them.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.