Selling shoes with style

The visual virtuosity of the great Guy Bourdin results in an extraordinary fashion advertisment from 1978

Most advertising isn’t actually Advertising. Nowhere is this better illustrated than the world of fashion.

What tends to be lacking in most of these ‘ads’ (and what makes them way less effective than they should be) is that no attempt is made to come up with any kind of differentiating strategy or to introduce any kind of idea.

The technique is simply to show a boring, big picture of the product next to a boring, big logo. Yawn. So from the consumer’s point of view, all the ads merge into one. Okay, the viewer may look at the ad and either like the frock or not. But it’s nowhere near as powerful as advertising done well.

This type of work is everywhere. It always has been and always will be. It’s what bad clients insist on.

The advertisement shown here also follows that convention. But it’s an exception. It’s good. That’s because it has ideas in the picture. Not conventional advertising ideas of course, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

It’s what happens when you bypass an ad agency and give your advertising account to one of the greatest photographers that ever walked the earth. That’s exactly what shoe designer Charles Jourdan and his sons Roland and Rene did in 1967.

And for the next 15 years, the Jourdans and photographer Guy Bourdin were responsible for some of the greatest fashion ads ever created. So great in fact that I genuinely think that the line between advertising and art was well and truly blurred. Is this really a lesser work than one of Cindy Sherman’s ‘film stills?’ Or a Warhol pop art canvas?

But this campaign ran for 15 years, remember? That would not have happened if it didn’t work commercially. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that there’s a correlation here. Of course, it pays to have work that is visually stunning. It’s one of the ways to really stand out from your competitors.

So what makes this image so good? The first thing to consider is context. The context here being the March 1978 issue of American Vogue. Imagine this photograph leaping out amongst the sea of mediocre, boring ‘straight’ glossy fashion shots.

An image of a model posing in the window of a closed-down discount carpet store would most definitely not be what the viewer was expecting. And remember we’re advertising shoes here. Shoes… floor… carpet… is the photographer playing a game here… who knows? But at least he has my attention and I’m thinking about it.

But there’s much more visual virtuosity to enjoy. The colour palette is wonderful. The deep, dark shadow merging with the model’s clothes and obscuring her face – we should be looking at her feet remember? The red, green and orange tones work perfectly together.

Even the model’s pose helps the overall composition. Left arm parallel to lower left leg. Right leg parallel to the vertical window frame. Right arm parallel to the ‘Samples’ type in the window. It all subliminally adds something.

Even the way in which the red lettering in the shop sign is cropped creates a wonderful pattern in contrast with the strip of green wall along the base of the image. And the ‘so ugly it’s beautiful’ vernacular typography is of course the last thing we expect to see in the pages of a high-end fashion magazine. It’s another game the photographer is playing. Expensive shoes in the context of a discount warehouse.

And when the image is this good the golden rule is to get everything else out of the way. The logo size and position doesn’t distract. Even the list of 15 retail outlets is well handled.

A stunning spread. Something that’s worryingly unfashionable these days.

Paul Belford is the founder of agency Paul Belford Ltd. See and his Twitter feed @belford_paul

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