How to be an avant-garde, luxury retailer

Bruce Weber "Better than Ever" campaign. Courtesy of Barneys

When doctors would ask Andy Warhol his age, he would respond that he could not possibly face telling his age. He would then leave the room so that the doctor could ask Warhol’s assistant about the artist’s age. America is as youth obsessed today as it was in the 1980s when Warhol recounted this anecdote in his diaries.

Considering that millenials hardly ever lift their head off their phones to look at anything else other than their own selfies, Barney’s new campaign by Bruce Weber could not be any more daring. Moreover, it is deceiving, which is what makes it really smart. Irony, the very religion of contemporary hipsters, is what sets Barney’s apart as the most avant-garde retailer.

A Western-Pennsylvania native, Bruce Weber, known first as a fashion and then a fine arts photographer (although the distinction eludes me), remembers his first Bolex camera as the beginning of his lifelong relationship with the cinematic narrative. He has explored several controversial issues, from male nudity to homosexuality, from transgender models to diversity of race, color, and ethnicity just to name a few. His “camera lets [him] flirt with life,” Weber informed the New York Times Magazine (November 17, 2013). It also allows him to shape our standards for male beauty as in the stunningly provocative Calvin Klein ads that changed the aesthetics of selling underwear. It empowers him to articulate the undercurrents of contemporary culture and express them visually. Weber takes what is veiled in society and uncovers it. He does so while also remaining true to his own ideals of beauty, a godlike substitute for everyday man.

In Barney’s campaign “Better than Ever”, Weber turns his lens to the aged but ageless cast of super powerful, remarkably beautiful women, all of whom have had renowned careers in modeling and acting. While they are all young in clinical terms (Christie Brinkley, Brooke Shields, Stephanie Seymour Brant, Pat Cleveland, Veronica Webb, Kirsten Owen, Elaine Irwin, Kiara Kabukuru, Bethann Hardison, and Susanne Bartsch), they encountered glory for the first time at least some 20 or 30 years ago. In choosing these women as the main characters of the campaign, Weber is popularizing an idea that started a few years ago with Ari Seth Cohen’s niche blog Advanced Style, which also developed into a namesake documentary by Cohen and Lyna Plioplyte (http://www.advancedstylethemovie.com released in September 2014).

Where Advanced Style projects the aged as “the other,” and reveals each heroine as an exotic bird of paradise, and admittedly an inspiring one, “Better than Ever” achieves the impossible. Weber uses beauty as a tool that draws the viewer in a happy, slightly kitschy world that overflows with nostalgia. In “Better than Ever,” gender roles have been reversed. The middle-age women look powerful, successful, and sexually confident. I bet they have a lot of money, too. The clothes (which is what Barney’s sells after all) complete an image that has been stereotypical of men both on film and real life. These beautiful women are as powerful as they are rich while the young, overly sexed men around them have turned into “arm candy.” What a refreshing, albeit subtle, role reversal.

Installed at Barney’s on Madison and 61st Street, “Better than Ever,” a collection of oversize stills that actually block the retailer’s windows, which have traditionally been used as small performance stages, change the public’s perception of depth. The flat monumentality of Weber’s photography makes one turn and look. The windows are punctured by flat screens projecting Weber’s film in a happy, ageless, and liberating loop that whispers to the passerby: “Put age and other stereotypes aside and come in to shop!”

Thomaï Serdari for .

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