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Pirelli Calendar 2015: Steven Meisel's 12 iconic poster girls

With a cast list of 12 models, including Gigi Hadid and Karen Elson, photographer Steven Meisel set out to create a bold and unique portrait for each month of the year – with the help of some glossy latex

Home Life Pirelli Calendar calendar archives Pirelli Calendar 2015: Steven Meisel's 12 iconic poster girls

The 42nd Pirelli Calendar was entitled simply Calendar Girls 2015. Shot by Steven Meisel, one of the world's leading fashion photographers, it had no external locations but was instead created in a studio in New York in five days. Here Meisel's cast of 12 top and emerging models were transformed by a star team, with styling by the former editor of French Vogue Carine Roitfeld, make-up by Pat McGrath and hair by Guido.

American model and magazine founder Cameron Russell was the ukulele-strumming beach girl from July in the 2015 Pirelli Calendar shot by Steven Meisel. She joined a series of pin-up “stereotypes” including a military cadet (played by Carolyn Murphy), a boxing ring girl (Joan Smalls) and a screen siren (Karen Elson).

A modern-day pin-up calendar

With a minimum of clothes and accessories the focus was on the women and Meisel played with modern notions of beauty – enhanced by the use of latex, which gave a glossy, sensual feel to the pictures. Having picked “the key aesthetic models of today's world,” he said he wanted them to represent “the stereotypes that the fashion and star system impose upon us right now.” His aim: “to create 12 posters in which women, in all their sensuality, are the absolute protagonists of 12 very different images.” 

Among the pin-up girl images Meisel created were Anna Ewers as a Brigitte Bardot-inspired bombshell; Sasha Luss as a sailor girl; Candice Huffine holding a whip and wearing a leather bodice as a dominatrix; and Natalia Vodianova in a bubble bath, looking like the ultimate baby doll. Other models featured were Gigi Hadid, Carolyn Murphy, Isabeli Fontana, Adriana Lima, Cameron Russell, Raquel Zimmermann, Karen Elson and Joan Small. The pictures are undeniably sexy, but they are also knowing – fantasies realised to the highest artistic standards featuring women who took relish in playing those roles. For all of its throwback references, the end result was a slick and seductive modern-day pin-up calendar.

For the June page of the 2015 Pirelli Calendar shot by Steven Meisel, German model Anne Ewers channelled a Brigitte Bardot-inspired bombshell, with “Oui” and “Non” written on either side of her white T-shirt.

Meisel was well placed to produce a Calendar that pushed so many buttons, but was never vulgar. A master of edgy glamour, he was trusted and adored by the women he photographed. “Steven's way [of shooting] is very unique,” said Karen Elson after the Pirelli shoot. “You just feel divine. You feel the most beautiful you've ever felt. You feel respected.”

A prolific image maker

Meisel was born in Manhattan and raised on Long Island. After attending Parsons School of Design, he began working as a fashion illustrator for Women's Wear Daily. In the early 1980s, sensing that fashion illustration was on its way out, he started taking snaps of his girlfriends. This led to him being asked to do test shoots for the newly-signed teenage girls at Elite model agency.

Soon he was shooting for magazines and by the end of the decade being commissioned to shoot hundreds of editorials for Vogue and other publications. (He has the distinction of having shot every Vogue Italia cover from 1988 to 2015.) Alongside campaigns for Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Louis Vuitton and Calvin Klein, as well as every Prada campaign since 2004, he is also responsible for album covers including Madonna's 1984 release Like a Virgin and Mariah Carey's Daydream in 1995.

When Candice Huffine was cast in the 2015 Pirelli Calendar shot by Steven Meisel, she was not the Cal's first plus-size model (Sophie Dahl had already appeared in the 1999 Cal shot by Herb Ritts), but her presence did signal a turning point.

A sense of precision is perhaps the clearest unifying quality of Meisel's work. “The thing that looks like Steven is an obsessiveness with an almost chilly perfection,” said Harold Koda, then curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, in a 2009 profile of Meisel in American Vogue . “Even if the models are meant to look tousled, they are perfectly tousled. There's never a moment where there isn't this intrusion of the photographer into a very controlled image.” Koda also identified Meisel as a postmodernist for the way he samples and recycles references (a tendency that is clearly apparent in the 2015 Pirelli Calendar).

Others have called him a chameleon for the restlessness of his work. Madonna, another notorious shapeshifter, credits Meisel with introducing her to the idea of reinvention. “He treated each photo shoot like it was a small film,” she told American Vogue in 2009, “and insisted that we create a character each time we worked, but then would make fun of the archetypes we created.”

Russian model Natalia Vodianova has starred in five Pirelli Calendars over the years, including this one from 2015 – shot by photographer Steven Meisel – where she played the ultimate bubble-bath baby doll.

Open to challenge

Like Madonna, Meisel is no stranger to controversy. His shoots have been inspired by an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, war, plastic surgery, rehab and even domestic abuse, and whether his work glamorises or simply raises awareness of such issues continues to be a matter of contention.

Meisel isn't afraid to tackle thorny issues in the fashion industry either, such as racism and body image, which were the subject of the July 2008 “Black Issue” and June 2011 “Curvy Issue” of Vogue Italia. The latter put three plus-size models on the cover: Tara Lynn, Robyn Lawley and Candice Huffine – who reunited with Meisel on the set of the 2015 Pirelli Calendar. Including a plus-size model in the Calendar was a breakthrough moment and its importance was not lost on Huffine. “I'm a curvy woman and I just stay true to myself and my size,” she said. “What Pirelli is doing with the Calendar and my inclusion is amazing and I think seeing a different body, size, shape, is going to be the norm.”

As a cowgirl in the 2015 Pirelli Calendar, Brazilian model Isabeli Fontana (who'd already appeared in six other Calendars) noted how photographer Steven Meisel “always makes you look gorgeous no matter what”.

It was a sentiment echoed by Karen Elson, who said: “This Calendar is about women being women. We're all very different women here. I'm 35, almost 36, two children... It's a celebration of women.”  That sense of inclusion and diversity would become increasingly important in the years that followed as the Pirelli Calendars looked ahead to a new era.

Newcomer Gigi Hadid admitted to being shocked, excited and honoured to be cast in the 2015 Pirelli Calendar (shot by Steven Meisel) alongside icons such as Carolyn Murphy and Natalia Vodianova. She described her costume for November as “like Catwoman hanging out in her lair”.