Calvin Klein is banking on the hope that fat people in fashion ads are even more shocking than intimations of child pornography.
Or so it would appear.
In a new national ad campaign, now showing nationwide in magazines and on the sides of buses, the clothing company, which previously gained notoriety by using sullen models who looked like runaway teen-age junkies, features "real people," a couple of whom probably wouldn't fit into most of Klein's clothes.
In one picture, a large girl, wearing heavy eyeliner and black lipstick, slouches and grimaces. In another, a fat man with pomaded hair and a Western-style denim shirt is pictured in a ridiculous pose, arms swinging as if he's in the middle of a dance move. Neither is particularly flattering.
The size acceptance and anti-diet movements are forever criticizing the fashion industry for its anorexic-looking models. But many see the latest campaign as a cheap trick, designed to turn cellulite into scandal.
Idrea Lippman, owner of the plus-size Los Angeles boutique Great Changes, says she's glad to see larger models, but isn't so sure about the motives at play: "I never know if it's intentional or supposed to be for shock value."
"I'm real sure that it's not because he likes us," says Lynn McAfee, director of the medical project of the Council on Size & Weight Discrimination in Philadelphia, referring to Calvin Klein. "He's a little too greedy to let his aesthetics interfere with his ability to make money."
Ms. McAfee was a member of one of the country's first size acceptance groups, the 1974 Fat Underground (F.U. for short), which was known to disrupt Weight Watchers meetings with pro-fat guerrilla theater.
Ms. Lippman, who attends the mainstream fashion shows every year to make larger versions for her store, says the ads seem to mock big people. If the ad's creators wanted to send a message that large people are beautiful, too, she says, he would "make them look acceptable."
"What he's doing is showing the contrast. Like, would you rather have Kate Moss, who is clean-looking, or would you rather have this slovenly fat woman?" said Maryanne Bodolay of the National Association to Advance Size Acceptance. In the picture, the woman is pictured with heavy eye makeup, dyed black hair, black lipstick and black eye shadow.
Laura Fraser, whose book "Losing It: America's Obsession With Weight and the Industry that Feeds on It" comes out in January, notes that the ad with the large, black-clad girl is loaded with Satanic imagery.
In the ad, the girl stands in front of a blue background while what look like white flames rise behind her. The layout's other models are pictured before solid backdrops.
"She's sort of a devil figure, which is interesting. We associate weight with sinfulness. It's interesting that in the first ad to use a heavy model she's portrayed as a devil," says Ms. Fraser.
"She's reading too much into it," replies Robert Triefus, senior vice president of communications at Calvin Klein. "She needs to stop overanalyzing an ad.
"We're just reflecting real people, being honest, being independent, being real. We chose them for being themselves. They represent a generation," he says.
Ms. Fraser responds: "Anyone who has taken a class in semiotics can tell you what's going on in that ad. It's no accident that they put her in flames while the thin women are in blue-sky heaven. Ads work on such a subconscious level." Ms. Fraser noted that the model would have difficulty finding a pair of Calvin Klein jeans that fit her.
"I can never find Calvin Klein jeans that fit, although I don't buy Calvin Klein jeans because he's been the forerunner of glorifying emaciation. Maybe if he had more heavy models I would," says Ms. Fraser, who wears a size 12.
Triefus said he didn't know what size Calvin Klein jeans run up to, but a saleswoman at the Calvin Klein store in Manhattan said the largest size is a 16, which might be too small for the model. "I don't know if those are men's jeans or what," she says.
Klein has been under fire for promoting eating disorders since he made an icon of Kate Moss. When posters of Moss first appeared in bus shelters in Manhattan, many were defaced with graffiti reading, "Feed me."
A group called the Media Foundation produced a parody of one of Klein's commercials. In it, a naked woman heaves and groans. The camera pans around to reveal her vomiting into a toilet. A caption reads, "The beauty industry is the beast." The spot ran on a "Hard Copy" segment about eating disorders.
Triefus says Calvin Klein had no intention of promoting anorexia or bulimia.
Regardless of Klein's motivations for using big models, other fashion industry players may be ready to play the "real" card. A spokeswoman for Glamour said the magazine is scrapping models for its November issue. Instead, she said, it's using "real people."