Derek Blasberg is a writer, editor, and New York Times best-selling author. In addition to being the Executive Editor of Gagosian Quarterly, he is the Head of Fashion and Beauty for YouTube. He has been with Gagosian since 2014.
“I can remember that shoot like it was yesterday,” pronounces Naomi Campbell, about the Spring/Summer 1993 Versace campaign, which was lensed by the groundbreaking Richard Avedon, and was photographed in November of 1992, in New York City. “I know it was a long time ago, but even in that moment you knew you were creating something special.” In the history of fashion photography, special may be an understatement. The campaign, which imagines the 1990s supermodels as glamorous female warriors trudging through a graying desert adorned only in their decadent Versace, remains one of the most memorable—and most emulated—series of fashion images. “It’s an absolute surrender to glamour,” Glenda Bailey, editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar, says of the campaign. “It is both powerful and sensual. It perfectly summed up the spirit of that moment, of the sort of powerful and sexy person that women still want to be.
Gagosian is honored to show, as part of Paris Photo 2014, the thirty-two images by Avedon that record this collection. All prints are unique, and they are signed by the photographer. This particular grouping is special as it was one of the few times that Avedon printed his photographs in color, although many of his images were reproduced in vivid hues within the many magazines with which he worked during his lifetime. This series is one of the best examples of the sheer ambition and scale of Avedon’s legendary campaigns with Gianni Versace. (In addition to Campbell, other 1990s supermodels featured in the campaign include Linda Evangelista, Shalom Harlow, Kristen McMenamy, Kate Moss, Nick Moss, Stephanie Seymour, Aya Thorgren, Christy Turlington, and Yvette.)
Avedon, the lifelong New Yorker with an exacting eye, and Versace, the flamboyant Italian fashion designer known for his baroque flair, may not have seemed likely collaborators. But, says Bailey, when they came together lightning struck. “They both had this tremendous energy. They were unbounded in the passion for all things beautiful. They were indulgent in the passion and the freedom to enjoy the moment.” She recalls Versace at the dinners he would throw in his Milan mansion after his fashion shows, picking up a guitar and leading a sing-along. “And Avedon created the party too. He had a fabulous sense of humor, and both of them had the energy to create a special world. These pictures represent the perfect experience of absolute joy and beauty.”
It appears that everyone on set that day felt like they had experienced a creative epiphany. Seymour says it’s one of her most memorable photo shoots, and she still recalls how Avedon would incorporate a special narrative into each shot. “Before each picture, Dick would get us all together and describe the ‘story’ and what parts he wanted us each to play. That’s why all the pictures turned out so dramatic.” Campbell remembers what it was like on that set too, “That was a major production. We would be dressed, we would be positioned one by one, and then they’d have to set up the sand and the set, then he’d adjust that beautiful Avedon lighting that he was so famous for,” she says. Further, Campbell jokes that only Avedon could get her off the telephone, “You won’t believe this, but for him I would turn my phones off. He would come into the dressing room and sit down next to you, he wanted to know what was going on. He would tell you funny stories from the past and make you feel comfortable.”
Warmth, and the ability to make a woman feel confident, were qualities that Versace and Avedon had in common. After all, a remarkable aspect about this series is how the pictures can evoke the spirit of a fashion brand, beyond the clothes themselves. According to Bailey, “It was about taking the clothes off. He could sell the spirit of the lifestyle without even showing the clothes, and that says as much about the brand as keeping the clothes on. Only Avedon could get that.”
Artwork © 2014 The Richard Avedon Foundation