The way in which a fashion label presents itself to the world can be just as important as the garments it makes. Before a customer gets anywhere near the clothes, chances are they’ll have some impression of the brand’s broader image, and that means a designer’s work must be backed up with a strong and distinctive advertising campaign to generate a dedicated audience.
Creating a unique and original image that projects wide appeal and an underlying aura of exclusivity, is far from an easy task.. And this is when the world’s top-tier fashion photographers rise above the rest. By capturing the spirit of a brand along with the designer’s vision, they present the clothing in a way that’s both inspiring, enticing, and recognisable over a prolonged period of time.
Let’s look at some of fashion’s most successful collaborations between design houses and the world’s high end photographer’s; exploring how the “magic touch” of the top tier fashion photographers can turn a little-known atelier into an instantly recognisable icon. Examining the influential brands and their photographers that became synonymous with them, the following is a breakdown of how creative execution can develop into a world-famous signature brand image over time.
Today we will take an in-depth look at the collaborative partnership between luxury fashion designer, Ralph Lauren, and the famous photographer, Bruce Weber.
Once described by Interview magazine as presenting “an idealised version of America, one that’s both tantalising close and impossibly romantic,” Weber has created a new standard for high end fashion photography. His diverse body of work spans five decades, starting with his all-American campaigns for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Abercrombie and Fitch in the 80s and 90s, which made him a household name. As prolific as he is diverse, Weber has graced the cover of high-end magazines world-wide, shooting everything from travel photography to fashion campaigns for luxury fashion brands such as Versace and Louis Vuitton. He is also passionate about portraiture and documentary photography photographing personalities from David Bowie, Kate Moss, and Jane Goodall.
Bruce Weber was born and raised just outside Pittsburgh, in the farming and coal-mining town of Greensburg, PA. His love affair with the camera started early—Bruce would often spend Sunday afternoons doing art projects and making 8mm films in the backyard.
In 1966, after a couple of years studying art at Denison College in Ohio, Weber transferred to New York University to study acting. His first apartment was a fifth-floor walkup between Little Italy and Chinatown—freezing in the winter, blazing in the summer. It was there that Bruce built his first small darkroom and started taking headshot portraits for actors and actresses and models like Bethann Hardison who were just starting out.
In many ways, this proved to be great training for his future as a fashion and portrait photographer. Bruce talked endlessly with each person about what they wanted their headshot to express, and how to communicate that feeling through the clothes they would wear and the lighting he would use.
John Pearson: When I worked with him, he was he was magnificent to work with, because I think he was a model at the early days, and he made you feel special you know? He knew how to do that and without ever you know, crossing the line.
THE EARLY DAYS
Citing his early mentors to be artistic greats such as Diane Arbus, and Bea Feitler, the renowned art director of Harper’s Bazaar, Weber was soon mixing in the right circles to launch his photography career.
Arbus instructed Bruce to enrol in classes with her old teacher, Lisette Model. Model was one of several people who encouraged him early in his career to express his emotions through his photos. In an interview with the UK Telegraph, he said, “I think that most photographers are basically pretty shy… Model’s classes gave me a lot of courage to go out and speak the truth about my feelings, about what I saw and what I wanted to see.”
At one time, Weber showed Bea Feitler some portraits, and she asked if he liked what he’d shot. Not really, he had to admit. She said, “Do your pictures. I don’t want to you to do what you thought I’d like. I want you to do what you have in your head and your heart.”
In the late 1970’s, Weber shot Jeff Aquilon, lounging seductively on a rumpled, unmade bed, wearing figure hugging trackpants for an article in GQ magazine. Until that time, male models had been mainly used as props for the females. Seldom had they been portrayed as the sensual focus of an intmate clothing spread.
Weber’s lens captured a different kind of male ideal; for the first time we were shown an intimate portrayal of a young athletic man, who was alone and vulnerable. Until this time, the male form as a sexualised object was historically the focus of gay porn, not mass media.
What Bruce had done, was legitimise the notion for the mainstream, and his water polo captain Aquilon, made a stunning poster boy. His photoshoot caused a media sensation, which was followed up by a groundbreaking campaign for Calvin Klein in 1982, featuring Olympic pole-vaulter, Tom Hintnaus wearing just a pair of white CK briefs. Weber’s vision was widely cited as fashion advertising that changed America, and his star power started to soar. His work was soon regularly featured in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and GQ.
As Bruce’s editorial work became a regular feature in leading magazines, it caught the attention of fashion houses seeking to establish their brand identities. In 1976, Nan’s friend Sandy Carlson, who was then an art director at Young and Rubicam, first showed Bruce’s portfolio to Ralph Lauren.
The pair connected instantly, and Ralph hired Bruce to shoot for his men’s collection on Shelter Island. Ralph ran the photos as a 12-page campaign spread. It was the start of a decades long professional relationship between the two icons of fashion. Bruce was able to bring Ralph’s vision to life by taking an active role in all aspects of the campaign’s imagery—casting, props, locations, and styling.
BRUCE WEBER AND RALPH LAUREN
Fashion designer, Ralph Lauren has created a brand that is undoubtedly, one of the most successful luxury fashion houses of all time. Both his name and his clothes are synonymous with a dream-like exclusivity; conjuring images of the “all-American ideal. Undeniably, the partnership between Ralph Lauren and photographer Bruce Weber was at the core of this success; a collaboration that created the ‘American ideal,’ painting the picture of unattainable elite, just beyond the grasp of the average person.
Writing for the New Yorker, Judith Thurman, dubbed Ralph Lauren’s vision as “an idealization of the Waspy American dream.”
And this was a dream, that over subsequent decades, Weber continuously brought to life.
“When people hire me, I think about the person I’m working for, not the company. When I started working for Ralph, I got to know his family. We had a lot of common interests — in cars, old clothes — so I began by photographing his world.” – Bruce Weber.
The kinship between Ralph Lauren, and Bruce Weber was instant.“From the very beginning Bruce understood what I was about, and I understood what he was about. We shared a love for rusticity and earthiness.” The legendary designer told ELLE Magazine. “We had the same sensibility about realness and family-ness, and a sensitivity about fashion that is in a way non-fashion. We started working together on ads that shared those feelings. And, as the years go by, I’m always constantly looking at those pictures. And, they are me.”
A Ralph Lauren advertising campaign, which was photographed by Bruce Weber quickly became as distinctive as it was ordinary, as familiar as it was mysterious, as nostalgic as it is modern, and the underlying message was abundantly clear, “If you dress this way, you can be a part of our world.”
Ralph Lauren knew that dressing wasn’t just about the clothes you wore: it was about what they represented; how you felt when you put them on; what they said about who you were. “I am promoting a level of taste, a total feeling,” is what he told the Daily News Record. “It is important to show the customer how to wear these ties, the idea behind them.”
What Lauren was selling, people were buying, because – like the polo shirts and camel coats that were soon to come – no one else was doing anything like it. Ken Burns writes that when Ralph Lauren designs, he engages with timelessness. “We all get too identified with the material, the thing,” he writes. “But it’s not that, it’s that elusive ‘something’ that emanates from it.”
It was Weber that spearheaded the rise of the image of “all-American” beauty with his campaigns for Ralph Lauren. Ralph may have had the vision, but Weber brought Ralph’s dreams to life. Whether it was the Kennedy-esque Camelot of New England, Santa Fe Ranch Style, Out of Africa, or Scottish Highland Dreams, Weber took us there, and Ralph sold us the clothes.
Capturing the zeitgeist of a moment is no easy feat and with his deceptively simple photography, Weber transformed the allure of the Ralph Lauren brand but also tapped into a collective consciousness that demanded or longed for a new standard of beauty and romance.
The collaboration between Ralph Lauren and Bruce Weber was a match made in heaven. Over the following decades, this dynamic duo worked together to launch a series of successful fashion campaigns that permanently cemented Ralph Lauren as a household name synonymous with effortless style and sophistication.
‘CLOTHILDE ON SAFARI’
Undoubtedly one of the most loved and memorable Ralph Lauren advertising campaigns, romanticising the spirit of an African safari, was shot by Bruce Weber in Hawaii in 1984. Clotilde Holby, the beautiful heroine of this campaign and many others, epitomised the timeless beauty of the women Ralph Lauren was inspired by and designed for. Lauren himself only recently travelled to Africa, but this is a dream he has returned to many times over the decades.
RALPH LAUREN POLO SPORT
Another legendary campaign, envisioned by Lauren and executed by Weber was Polo Sport, taking luxury wear into the sports department for the first time, while simultaneously launching the career of male supermodel, Tyson Beckford.
The media at the time wrote: “A success from the start, Polo Sport swept both the fashion landscape and the broader world of world culture, spurred on by the meteoric rise of 23-year-old model Tyson Beckford, who would star in a series of Polo Sport campaigns—often alongside supermodel Naomi Campbell—embodying the ethos of the brand while biking, boxing, running, and jet skiing.
Ralph had pre-dated today’s mega trend of ‘Ath-leisure’ by almost 3 decades.”
TYSON Beckford: When I walked into Bruce’s office, I felt like I had known him for a long time and you know, he said thank you, and have a nice day. And we talked about my manager back then, and his love for her, he was just such a humble man, and I didn’t think anything of it. He said something like “I think my friend Ralph would love these” and I didn’t think anything of it, and I went on my way.”
NICOLA: It took the marketing genius of the mercurial Ralph Lauren, together with arguably the most influential photographer of the male gender ever, Bruce Weber, to team up and launch Polo Sport.
It was 1991. Ralph Lauren and his team were at work on their next collection, which would debut the following spring. Polo had always been inspired by the sporting life, but this collection would put athleticism front and centre, in a nod to the upcoming 1992 Olympic Summer Games in Barcelona.
According to Jerry Lauren, Ralph’s brother, Polo Sport was as much a part of Ralph’s American dream as anything else he’d done in the prior quarter-century.
“It was very much Polo,” he said, “but it gave another dimension to Polo—it was the idea of the Olympics, on the street, wherever you go.”
TYSON: I had a casting at Ralph Lauren. I met this woman by the name of Carter and a woman by the name of Pat Crisman. So I took a picture, I took polaroids with them, and they said, “Do you mind running up to Ralph’s office and showing these” And I didn’t think anything of it, it was a guy named Ralph I didn’t think it was the Ralph Lauren.
So they go upstairs and they come back all giddy like schoolgirls and I’m just like okay, and they said, “thank you for your time, have a great day” and that was it, i didn’t think anything of it, so I said thank you on my way, polite, and I went window shopping, like two blocks away.
And I remember where I was standing when my phone rang, and they were like “you just booked Ralph Lauren … Fall Winter campaign for Polo Sport” which was like, that was like one of the biggest jobs I’d ever booked.
“Yes, that’s right, the same Polo Sport campaign that kick-started my career all the way to global stardom back in 1994. The holy trinity at that point was Ralph, Bruce, and Tyson.”
THE ROMANCE COLLECTION
Another advertising campaign that captured the hearts and imaginations of doe-eyed girls the world over was the Romance Collection, one of Ralph Lauren’s most beloved fragrances for women. With both filming and photography directed by Weber, the series celebrated authentic romantic moments, using imagery of real-life famous couples since its launch in 1998.
The most well-known chapter in the Romance story starred husband and wife, Nacho Figueras and Delfina “Delfi” Blaquier, in the 2011 Ralph Lauren Romance video with a continuation of the series several years later in 2014.
The campaign was shot by Bruce Weber, capturing stunning scenery illustrating the fairytale lives of the couple and exemplifies the world of Mr. Ralph Lauren, renowned for his devotion to family traditions, authentic equestrian heritage and the sport of polo.
POLO SPORT FOR WOMEN
A major campaign shot later in the duo’s collaborative career took place in 2014, when Ralph Lauren, in conjunction with Bruce Weber, made three short films for the launch of its new line Polo for Women.
Weber had worked with Ralph Lauren for more than 30 years, when he made the three short movies for the new Ralph Lauren campaign, set in Santa Barbara. “We tried to make something like a suit,” said the photographer and videographer, “a little bit of classic mixed with a lot of street smart and what’s relevant now to us in our lives.”
DREAMING OF AN ARABIAN DESERT
JIM MOORE: Bruce really knew how to take that he had been with Ralph for many many years how to take that kind of class photograph of the American kind of ideal idealism.
For Ralph Lauren’s Spring/Summer 2015 campaign, Bruce captured the American luxury brand’s trademark jet-setting style through an Arabian desert theme, with a blue and white decorated tent and a team of camels in colourful harnesses. New face, Sanne Vloet appeared in a sweeping desert sand-coloured gown from the season’s collection.
PAUL CAVACO: The image of Ralph Lauren is based on what Bruce’s interpretation of their aesthetic, is it really is. He understood Ralph’s aesthetic, and he understood how to sort of give it a context photographically, how to give it a place, how to give it, the right person, the right people, how to populate it with the right models, how to pop, make the homes, make the surroundings work, and he did it for a lot a lot.
BRUCE WEBER FACES ALLEGATIONS OF SEXUAL MISCONDUCT
Despite the spectacular success of his professional career, Weber’s personal life has not always remained as pristine.
In 2017, model Jason Boyce alleged that Weber had groped him and kissed him without his consent. After initially filing a complaint in 2019 in the U.S. Southern District of New York against Weber with pseudonyms, five models had to amend their complaint to include their full legal names per a judge’s order.
The joint lawsuit was brought forward by Josh Ardolf, Anthony Baldwin, Jacob Madden, Jnana Van Oijen and Buddy Krueger. In September 2020, Krueger’s claims of sexual misconduct against Weber were reportedly dropped. The Boyce lawsuit was settled and the joint complaint has recently been settled, according to a spokesman for Weber and a representative from The Bloom Firm.
Weber denied the allegations, telling the outlet, “I have used common breathing exercises and professionally photographed thousands of nude models over my career, but never touched anyone inappropriately.”
When the news broke that models had come out alleging Weber of abuse, Condé Nast global chief content officer and Vogue editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, suspended working with Weber.
CARRE OTIS: I had wonderful experiences with Bruce. For me, Bruce was there to listen to my story and it invited me to tell a story through movement and through imagery. And it was always incredibly collaborative with guidelines, with like this is where we are and what we’re doing, so show me who you are within this context. So my experiences with Bruce you know from everything from the Harley Davidson, the epic Harley-Davidson, you know was just this like constant invitation for me to be what I was, definitely at that point which was this rebel, which was a runaway.
It was during this time that the decades-long partnership between Bruce Weber, and his long-time client Ralph Lauren, also came to an end. The high-profile luxury brand, not wishing to be caught up in the allegations, suspended any future projects with Weber.
Bruce Weber has continuously denied the allegations.
“I have spent my career capturing the human spirit through photographs and am confident that, in due time, the truth will prevail,” he said, according to Page Six.
Mr. Weber, he said, thanks “his studio, his family, his friends and the people who love his work for their support.”
These supporters say they are frustrated that a mild-mannered guy who devotes enormous amounts of time and money to charity is benched. They point out that the fashion world is filled with characters who treat subordinates badly, though the abuse inflicted is nonsexual.
“Bruce has chosen to put this matter behind him and move forward with his life,” a source close to the photographer said.
PAUL CAVACO: I think Bruce Weber changed how we feel about photographing men, how we feel about male beauty, and I think before it was considered very vain to think about your body, it was very vain to even talk about your body, to say you went to the gym, you were not supposed to really have that conversation.
BETHANN: So you know the idea of what he’s done is iconic and will live to the end of time. If you have any memory about what was when, you think back to of the all the Ralph Lauren shoots and things like that, or any other editorials that you know that he’s done, and Calvin Klein for marketing.
LIFESTYLE BRANDING AND REINVENTION
Throughout the past 50 years, Ralph Lauren, utilising his indispensable collaboration with Bruce Weber, singlehandedly reinvented the idea of the fashion business, he did it via the power of marketing, and by doing he created the world’s first global ‘lifestyle brand’.
Back when Ralph started, global advertising campaigns for fashion brands were unheard of. Now they are an essential factor if you want to be on top.
TYSON: “It’s hard to downplay the impact photographer Bruce Weber had on our popular culture and male beauty ideals, be it through his brand campaigns, his magazine editorials, artbooks and films.”
Subscribe to FIB’s Weekly Breaking News Report for your weekly dose of music, fashion and pop culture news!